Volume 23, Number 1, Spring 2006

Inkshed: History as Context

Miriam Horne

McGill University


Thank you, Stan, for the introduction, but more especially for this generous time allotment and opportunity to go first so that I can enjoy the rest of the conference. Because I am talking about history as context, I want to be a little self-indulgent and give a little of my own historical context for what has brought me here to discuss the historical context of inkshedding.

About five years ago two significant things happened in my life. First, I returned to full-time teaching ESL after my third maternity leave. I found that I was bored with the rigid pedagogy of the institution I was teaching in, and I was frustrated with the lack of engagement I was seeing in student writing. Let me digress for a moment and mention that when I first began teaching it was in a writing course that met for four hours once a week. I was using inkshedding in the course but was told that it was an inappropriate use of time for a writing course. New and easily intimidated, I quickly gave it up. Fast forward to five years ago and my state of boredom and frustration. Well, all I can say is once you have survived giving birth to three children and survived your husband walking out on you, who cares what the administration might say! I was desperate and determined to inkshed.

I have, of course, no way of quantifying the success of the inkshedding activity in the classroom that session, but from my perspective it worked -- students were engaged with writing; writing became more than a linguistic activity; and it seemed to help the class bond.

The second experience happened at about the same time. I ran into an acquaintance I hadn't seen for some time who said, "I'm so glad to see you, I've been thinking about you. Have you considered doing a Ph.D.?" Apparently being a single mother of three small children and working full time wasn't keeping me busy enough, so that conversation opened the door to several conversations with a variety of people. The result was starting a Ph.D. program at McGill under the supervision of Anthony Paré, studying inkshedding.

This brings me back to the present and this conference this morning in which I have promised to share some of my preliminary findings that look at the historical context for the inkshedding community and activity.

My findings come from data using non-positivist qualitative methods (ethnomethodology and narrative inquiry among others). I have drawn from as many sources as I could in order to get a rich breadth and depth of material. I have used old Inkshed newsletters, inkshedding texts, interviews (electronic and otherwise), "The Wall" (the collaborative retrospective pulled together by Nan Johnson and Sharron Wall a few years ago), field notes, journals, interim writings, and anything I could get my hands on. I have been collecting this data throughout my coursework. So last summer when I officially finished my comprehensive exams, I was suddenly free to go and "research." I sat down with my mounds of data and was stuck at, "What do I do next?" My problem was that although qualitative methodologies resonate with me, they neglect to give me a convenient "how to" manual so I'm left to my own devices. When I discussed my frustration with the methodologist on my committee, he told me again and again, "listen to the voices, really listen to the voices."

You have a lot to say!

In my proposal for this presentation I promised to talk about the historical contexts for inkshedding. For my presentation today I would like to give you the opportunity to hear some of the voices that I have been hearing talking about the past in inkshedding, and how we have ended up where we are as a community of writers. I am uncomfortable trying to summarize or restate what you have already said, so I will be using your words -- but this carries an uncomfortable weight of responsibility, so my apologies in advance if I have used your voice inappropriately. I've recruited most of you to represent the voices that I've been hearing. For the sake of the ethics of privacy, but also in the interests of creating a new discussion, the majority of the names have been changed -- although I suspect you will recognize each other easily enough -- but I'm hoping that changing the names will help you focus on what is being said rather than who is saying it.

I will, of course, prompt you as we go along if I need to, but when I practiced this on my own, everything went smoothly, so I am sure it will now as well. I have tried to pull some of the voices that reflect the themes that I've seen emerging together into a kind of narrative collage. In other words, I have tried to create a new conversation between voices coming from different places times and contexts. My hope is to open the door to a new dialogic interaction.

Miriam: So I start today with a voice that has been central in informing this study and that has come to be constantly in my head because he always has something to say . . . I start you where I started in my research process, by trying to understand why we engage in this social writing process called inkshedding. As you'll see, this is just a starting point, and many other themes emerge. The first voice I hear is Russ's and his explanation of inkshedding.

Russ: "Inkshedding" began as a practice in the early eighties, when Jim Reither and I began trying to make "freewriting" (which we had learned about from writers like Peter Elbow) into something dialogically transactional. Actually, we didn't articulate what we wanted in quite that way, at the time. The way we said it was that what we wanted was to give writing a social role in a classroom, and thus to create a situation in which the writing was read by real readers, in order to understand and respond to what was said rather than to evaluate and "help" with the writing.

Miriam: Russ's voice, as always, sounds authoritative and clear. It explains where the inkshedding activity came from and how we use it . . . oops, except it doesn't because (I found surprisingly in an informal survey at last years conference) most of us don't actually use inkshedding as a classroom activity. So why do we do it here? Interestingly, most of us only inkshed once a year -- here at this conference, but it's so powerful an activity that we actually identify ourselves by the name of the activity. We call ourselves inkshedders. So I hear more voices trying to explain this phenomenon to me -- to explain why we inkshed -- to explain how important it is.

Naomi: Inkshedding, by its very nature, implies community.

Claude: It seems to me that we have agreed in many ways that we're all equal here. I mean that we all have an equal contribution to make. I mean, I think one thing that's nice about inkshedding, . . . is that it gives people voice. And so we can kind of democratize activity because everybody has a chance to speak. Whereas in table or even large group sessions, people, I mean those of us who are, you know, vocal, and the most aggressive, have tendency to take over those conversations.

Miriam: I've actually been hearing a lot about how inkshedding democratizes. I find myself wondering, how important is this democratization? How important is it that everyone has a voice? Some of the older voices in the community reflect on the past and speak to these questions.

Gerry: When [inkshedding] came to the conference, its purpose was to use writing as a tool to capture and to shape, to discover and clarify (for oneself), with the drive being the immediacy of the stimulus (the talks), the time pressure to write and the need to make sense of the developing argument that was emerging in light of the conference theme.

Terry: I am just so glad . . . that we have a chance to respond to ideas not orally because I find that's sometimes more difficult to do than doing it on a blank page. Standing up or speaking up or getting my words in -- some people have no trouble, that's to me, why inkshedding is so valuable.

Miriam: Wonderful! Isn't this great? We all have something to say, and we all have equal opportunity to say it . . . Or maybe not . . . I hear dissension on this.

Claude: You know, I've resisted inkshedding from the very beginning. And usually, my first inkshed at every conference is a diatribe about why we shouldn't do inkshedding.

Voice a: I don't like it -- I feel pressure to say something intelligent. I also feel pressure to write, whether or not I have the urge to.

Voice b: Sometimes I feel the need to respond to an Inkshed out of politeness.

Voice c: I comply with this experience that is forced on me, but it is certainly uncomfortable.

Voice d: I don't find the act of inkshedding especially powerful either way. I recognize its value and do it dutifully, and have never been intimidated by sharing my writing. But the published inksheds seem stale by the time I see them and I find the whole exercise takes away time that I personally would rather use for discussion.

Miriam: You can perhaps begin to understand some of my confusion and my challenge in making sense of my data. Every new voice raises new questions. In this case, why do we all come? Why are we all here? Why do we participate? What is it besides the inkshedding activity that brings us here and compels us to inkshed even when we don't like it? If it really is about community (as some voices tell me it is), then it seems to me then it's about a community that has been twenty plus years in the making. So, maybe I need to go back not to the beginning of the activity, but to the beginning of the community. The voices tell me:

Voice a: Inkshed started with the assumption that there is a Canadian context for writing instruction.

Gerry: Inkshed was clearly going to be the instrument through which new developments would enter the thinking of people who taught Composition/Writing in Canada, and help shed some of the notions that were counter-productive in helping students develop as writers.

Miriam: What some voices have explained to me was that there was an excitement about writing and reading that really fueled the birth of this community.

Gerry: I see the excitement you refer to as having arisen from the first ever international conference that focused entirely on writing, held in Canada at Carleton University in May (I think) 1979. But to go back a few years earlier, we must note developments coming out of Britain largely directed by the interest of James Britton. There were other exciting studies [also] going on in England at that time. At the same time, of course, there was an exciting shift in the study of literature with our growing awareness of the work of Louise Rosenblatt on response to literature. Thus, when the learning to write conference got together in 1979, we were all familiar with some of the central developments in writing theory and research. There was a refreshingly growing interest in writing as a process.

Jim: It was clear in 1982 that there were people in Canadian schools, colleges, and universities who were deeply interested in writing and reading theory and practice. Nearly all of us felt isolated, however, and we envied the lively, generative communities of scholars and teachers which nurtured our colleagues in the States and England. We wanted and needed a more hospitable, supportive context in which to work. To have such a community required that we know who we were and what we were studying, what we were teaching, what issues concerned us; but no effective way of finding these things out was available to us. What we needed was, at a minimum, a print forum -- a newsletter -- in which to exchange such information, through which to come together.

Miriam: So what came from this interest and enthusiasm in reading and writing was the need for a Canadian discussion. According to Jim Reither, this interest is what motivated a discussion in July of 1982 in Wyoming between Chris Bullock, Anne Greenwood, Russ Hunt, David Reiter, Susan Stevenson and Kay Stewart -- a discussion from which Inkshed, the newsletter was born.

Jim: Inkshed was created (in 1982 as the W &R/T &P Newsletter; the title change came in December 1983) not only to serve the community of academics in Canada interested in writing and reading theory and practice, but also to help develop and promote such a community. Its founding was motivated by a widely-felt sense that academics in Canada studying and teaching writing and reading were muted by the lack of a rigourous scholarly forum for addressing the questions, problems, and issues of concern to us.

Miriam: The voice of Jim Reither continues to explain his vision for the newsletter that brought the community together. (He has a lot to say about this, but bear with me because I think he provides some important historical context.)

Jim: One function of a newsletter would simply be to exchange information . . .. Obviously, however, exchanging information would not be enough. Not only would we announce meetings and publications; we would also review and criticize them. Moreover, we would try to define, illustrate, clarify, analyze, interpret, and criticize events, movements, ideas, problems, issues -- and the uses thereof. We would teach each other how to do things; motivate each other to do things; recognize and honour each other for doing things. We would describe and demonstrate methods, processes, and strategies for intelligent inquiry and application.

. . . Our goal, always, would be to help each other learn, grow, change, develop, adjust (as individuals and as a community) as our disciplines and the profession grew, changed, and developed. We would do these things by communicating with one another; and that communication would create and constitute our community of researchers, scholars, and teachers of writing and reading [from Inkshed 4.1 (1985), p. 3].

Miriam: So the purpose of the newsletter, its reason for being was to create a community in which to discuss, or facilitate dialogic interaction -- the same purpose, it seems, as the inkshedding writing activity. So lets take a critical look -- does the community do what it originally set out to do? Do we, all these years later form a community of learning and support in which dialogic interaction is the rubric?

Voice b: I taught writing for 10 years in total isolation and blundered along on my own. Inkshed gave me my community.

Voice c: I feel the support of a national community.

Russ: The way this community has become a community, has really been based on the notion that this is not about competing and savaging each other, but about responding to each other in dialogic ways.

Miriam: From what I have seen and from the things that I hear some voices saying, in keeping with the vision of the original newsletters, I think it's fair to say that a strong sense of community has evolved. The feeling of commitment I get from people today in 2006 is passionate and devoted. That's not to say that everyone feels so positively about the organization. I would guess that those who don't feel the passion for the community have self selected out after all these years. But I can't help but wonder if it has always been this great supportive community in which everyone has equal opportunities. It seems almost to good to be true.

Russ: It's not [and never has been] an ideal community

Terry: Anytime you say it's a community and people are equal, that sounds like an ideal to me because one of the things that I think happens in that community is that what people have in common is caring strongly about what they do. Strongly enough to be vulnerable in this kind of interchange. And when they're vulnerable, that's when the trashing comes in.

Miriam: The trashing? What trashing?

Naomi: I can remember people being totally trashed with these anonymous inksheds.

Terry: Oh, they were horrible!

Brian: There was a really big problem with that, wasn't it the first Inkshed?

Claude: I'm sorry, the first 6 or 7 Inksheds there was somebody trashed. There was somebody in their room crying.

Naomi: And it continued! People trashing people. And they were nasty.

Brian: Mr. Anonymous trashbag himself.

Miriam: Whoa. This isn't the conference I know. What happened to dialogic interaction? To learning from each other?

Naomi: It's the very nature of the upside that allows for the downside.

Gerry: Trashing came when an idea that questioned some solid assumptions was advanced.

Russ: It has to do with the nature of inkshedding. My view now is that it was a proto-example of "flaming" via email. Inkshedding was email before there was email. People who inkshedded after sessions sometimes didn't actually understand (a la email) that this was dialogic discourse -- and people who read negative comments about presentations sometimes over reacted to the negativity. There was no slot in anybody's rhetorical world for writing in that functional social situation. The genre was undergoing invention.

Terry: My sense is that it took some time for people to adjust to the new kind of community. Inkshed was from the prevailing model of competition and point scoring. The shift provoked anxiety in some people and the trashing was a manifestation of that anxiety.

Miriam: Well how rampant was this trashing?

Gerry: Not much from my perspective. My feeling is that you feel confident about your own position, you read confrontation as misunderstanding, questioning as interest, and welcome it as a means of clarifying your own position. Spectators may see it as trashing and express a proper degree of shock and dismay.

Terry: Another aspect that comes into play a little bit has to do with the various tensions of sexual attraction in a community. Inkshed has not been exempt from various currents of such attraction. These currents were tricky to manage not only at Inkshed, but in many academic environments.

Russ: I think that in the discussions someone suggested that there were sexism issues, but I'm not at all sure that wasn't quite a lot later. Whether there actually were, well, I didn't think so. The respect transcended gender.

Paul: I don't know if it was a gender issue, but of course, an event is gendered in part by one's own gender.

Gerry: Trashing for me comes largely from the eye of the beholder.

Miriam: So there was trashing. Given the fact that I'm still hearing about it 20 years later, there's clearly some rawness still there. Interestingly, some of the voices that I hoped to join into this discussion were not comfortable joining in -- although they had a lot to say on the subject when it was just me they were talking to. But I certainly don't see any kind of trashing now -- I especially don't see an environment where it would be considered appropriate. Maybe I'm just naïve, but since it's no longer so public, it obviously changed. I wonder how that happened.

Russ: There have been discussions about the proper place and role of inkshedding at pretty nearly every conference, and various ways of configuring it. Most alternatives have had something to do with trying to avoid ill feelings.

Gerry: I guess you'll see that as the Inkshed meeting got more formalized and the presentations became more scholarly -- presentations to justify funding [and so forth] -- and as increasingly the presenters were students or budding writing teachers, the conventions that took over were those from academic conferences. The trashers, whoever they were, were subdued by changed contexts.

Miriam: That's all fine and warm and fuzzy -- and apparently successful, but it doesn't account for the inherent vulnerability -- the writing activity and to some extent the conference itself engenders a sensitivity -- a vulnerability. Talk about vulnerability! The nontraditional format of this presentation is scaring me to death! And the writing . . . I was horrified the first time I Inkshed and realized someone would read what I wrote. I know that not all of you feel this way, but a significant number of you have felt strongly about this. Listen to these voices speaking up because they were able to do so anonymously and because I specifically asked for their feelings after sharing my own.

Voice a: I remember being nervous about having others read my work.

Voice b: The presence of my identity -- value, perhaps -- was key in my [inkshedding] process . . . ethos was out there ... this was triage writing -- I was out there, vulnerable, naked . . .

Voice c: There is something intimidating about the first time being asked to Inkshed, not because we don't have responses to share, but because of our feelings of inadequacy when it comes to our own writing. That seems ludicrous to be coming from a teacher of writing, but writing for peers differs with regard to social context -- are we "good enough" to be involved in this inkshedding community? Will people think we have nothing to contribute? Will our credibility stand up to scrutiny? All of these questions reflect our (my?) sense of inadequacy when it comes to my own writing.

Miriam: The change of rubric may have gotten rid of public trashing, but the activity itself is still inherently vulnerable to anyone other than perhaps Russ, a few confident writers, a few old timers, and (ahem!) men. Brock came up with a metaphor that really resonated with me and speaks to the balance between individuals and collectives as new comers try to fit in.

Brock: Writing my responses on the spot and sharing them made me feel naked, essentially defenseless, vulnerable. The metaphor of nakedness is actually important here -- on, say, Wreck beach in Vancouver, one quickly finds that same sense of liberation. Everybody's naked -- big deal. Everyone's writing -- big deal.

Miriam: So in some sense, the vulnerability inherent in inkshedding helps to develop the community. In order to become part of the community, you have to take risks, to be vulnerable. Maybe it's in the inkshedding activity -- but maybe it's in some other way -- the talent show perhaps, an evening swimming, or in a hot tub . . .. But a shared risk seems to form a bond. And participation in the community comes once the trust is there. As one of you explained,

Claude: You've got to have the face to face to build the trust, to build the personality of the person.

Miriam: As we've continued to meet and write together over the years it seems like that trust and those personalities have developed. Doing so has created (in my opinion) the kind of dialogic atmosphere that was the motivation for the community and activity.

So the focus for who we are and what we do seems to be this desire for dialogic interactions -- a desire to connect with other people and explore ideas. There's not always a lot of opportunity for this kind of connection. Maybe that's for me, why when I find a setting like this where I can connect in so many different ways that I become passionate about the kinds of things this community is trying to do. But maybe, what it really comes down to is that this is a community that cares. Because in your own words . . .

Russ: We care about language

Naomi: We care about teaching

Terry: We care about students.

And, as I was reminded quite vehemently after this presentation, we care about each other.

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