Reflections on Inkshed 18

Doug Brent

This May, Canmore Alberta was the site for the 18th Annual Working Conference of the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning, better known as Inkshed 18. For three days, we wrestled with the theme "Reading Contexts," a theme designed to encompass questions such as

How much progress did we make on these momentous questions? Well, for me it's a bit hard to say. As usual for a member of the organizing committee, my memories of Inkshed 18 are something of a blur. In my mind, the scholarly interchange of Inkshed 18 is so inseparably mixed with memories of the more mundane matters of conference engineering (Will the bus arrive on time? Will there be enough doughnuts?) that in many ways I'm one of the worst people to reflect on what it all really meant.

But if pressed for a comment, I would say that one of the most outstanding aspects of this particular Inkshed was its reflexivity. Inkshed has always tried to avoid the default mode of academic conferences - three papers, a couple of questions, move on to the next session - by foregrounding a more workshop-oriented program as reflected in the official title, "The 18th Working Conference" Every Inkshed has adopted a different spin on this theme, always anchored by the activity of inkshedding as a means of providing a small shared space for reflection, writing, reading, more writing, and sharing of ideas in print as well as orally.

This year, however, the opportunity to share this activity with Peter Elbow gave us an unusual opportunity to step back a few paces and re-evaluate this activity that we have made a particular hallmark of our conferences. Though officially billed as a "Keynote Speaker," Peter majestically subverted the usual definition of keynote speaker as "big-shot-flown-in-for-headline-appeal." From his opening address to the last day of the conference, Peter joined in the activities of the group, talking, writing, inkshedding, and most important, reflecting with us on what this activity really means.

As one of the first champions of freewriting when it appeared on the composition scene in the seventies, and as a continuing and tireless investigator into the meaning of various kinds of writing activities, Peter was well positioned to help us think about what inkshedding means and how it differs from freewriting in its original conception. Inkshedding, he pointed out, differs from freewriting not only in its form but in its purpose. Freewriting is primarily designed as a preliminary activity. The student who may have little confidence in her writing ability is freed by freewriting precisely in its lack of a formal audience. By being able to write without worrying about the product, the freewriter can be encouraged to write gradually more and more text, gradually unfolding the ability latent in us all to fill page after page with copia - text that seeks its meaning simply by existing. The more familiar types of transactional text can be built on this base as the writer, now more able to trust in text, learns to mould it for others.

Inkshedding is more transactional at its core. Although similar in form to freewriting, to the extent that it is produced quickly with little regard for the niceties of scholarly prose, inkshedding is different in that its reason for being is already audience. To publish freewriting in any form would be to undermine its essence - it works largely because the writer knows that it is unlikely to be seen by others, much less judged or interpreted. Inkshedding is designed to be shared, first among the others sitting at the table who exchange the tattered bits of paper, mark them up, annotate them, write exclamation marks and "me too's" in the margin, and later among the entire conference or classroom, whether by being edited and photocopied or merely by being stapled to the wall.

It is this on-the-wallness that marks a fundamental difference between inkshedding and freewriting. The purpose of inkshedding is to make sure that all voices are heard, in ways that are not possible in a group in which only one can speak at a time and the strongest and most confident voices are generally the ones that get to speak. Inkshedding takes advantage of the asynchronicity of text - the fact that all can write simultaneously, and next morning when the inksheds appear at breakfast, all can simultaneously read.

Participating in this activity with Peter gave us the opportunity to reflect on the tradeoffs that are inevitably made when audience walks in. However spontaneous the hurried production of inksheds may appear, they are always composed in the knowledge that they may appear beside the muffins and coffee the next morning. This gives us, as people used to valuing vicarious contact with others through text, an added incentive to say something insightful, meaningful, worthy of being read by others before being packed in a suitcase with three days' worth of dirty socks. For us this is liberating, a chance to pursue in yet another way the dialogic imperative that brings people together in conferences in the first place.

For the beginning writer, however, the dialogic imperative may be less pressing than the need to avoid being humiliated, yet again, for the lack of ideas worthy of appearing beside the morning muffins, let alone being handed to a teacher or even, unthinkably, published in "real" print. The result is often the crabbed, pseudo-scholarly prose produced by the writer trying desperately to fit into a genre box that he has not yet figured out, marked by superficial and often failing attempts to produce that strange thing called an "essay." Or worse, the production of nothing at all. This is where the strange, copious magic of freewriting, the threatless wonder of being told to write more and more and more without worrying about a reader for an instant, can give a freedom that the inkshedder, always (even if usually subconsciously) writing for an editor and a set of readers, cannot enjoy. Of course these forms are not mutually exclusive, and the ongoing discussion of the weekend helped clarify what purposes each serves, and when each might be appropriate with various types of student.

It was a privilege to be able to reflect on the merits of this particular adaptation of freewriting with one of the masters of the art of teaching literacy - the man who pointed out many years ago how writers working together need less to be "taught" in a formal sense, and more to be freed to unfold the magic of text in the company of other writers.

Many thanks to Peter, a thoroughly kind and passionate teacher of writing who was sufficiently intrigued by the concept of inkshedding that he agreed to come and participate with us. Thanks also to Betsy Sargent, for getting him intrigued and helping to get him to Alberta, and to the rest of the organizing committee - Jo-Anne Andre, Barbara Schneider, Geoff Cragg, and our unfathomably valuable administrative assistant, Jo-Anne Kabeary. Thanks to Angela Barclay, Jen Medlock and Jan Henderson, graduate students in the Communications Studies program at the University of Calgary, for editing and typing those inksheds so that they could appear beside the muffins. And of course, thanks to everyone, new folks and grizzled veterans, who came to speak, listen, read, writing, and contemplate the mysteries of teaching and learning literacy.

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