(full length text; for the conference presentation version, click here)
by Tania Smith
Imagine it is May of 1998. You are at the 15th meeting of the CASLL, the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning, otherwise named "Inkshed." Approximately 50 scholars and professionals are watching a person give a presentation using an overhead projector. The phone on the wall behind the presenter starts to ring. It rings again. A woman gets up from the audience and walks over to the phone while its ring cuts the silent air again. She answers the phone and quietly whispers into the mouthpiece, putting her hand over her other ear. The presentation awkwardly resumes while she has a conversation that must have sounded something like this:
"Hello?"This question was later reported by the woman who answered the phone, and is remembered in different ways by many who were present. This anecdote even has a space on the Inkshed website, as it is told by Russ Hunt, one of the founders of Inkshed. Stories, jokes and musings among Inkshedders about the identity and function of the Inkshed group are fairly common; perhaps this is a sign that the group's identity is continually in question. After this session people wrote inksheds, and the collection of writing revealed this comment on the interrupted presentation
"Hello. Is this someone from the Ink Shed group?"
"Yes. I am the bus driver who is supposed to take your group from the hotel to your evening activity. What time would you like me to come? . . . [the conversation continues] . . . Oh, and I have another question."
"Ah . . . Inkshed . . . exactly what kind of shed are you?"
"Totally sidetracked by that bus driver's question: What kind of shed are we? Watershed? Toolshed? Coal shed? Cats shed? You have to love how an innocent outside query can utterly derail your train of thought."This nagging question is also a seed of this ethnography. What kind of shed, what kind of group, is Inkshed?
At the end of yet another yearly conference, in the landmark year 2000, it seems an appopriate time to ask, "what kind of shed are we?" New presenters and guests may well be asking "Do I belong to this group?" or "Do I want to belong to this group?" Those of you who are time-tested inkshedders, or who have had some connection with the group over many years, may well be wondering, "what will Tania Smith say about our group?" Or, "On what basis does Tania Smith have authority to declare to us what Inkshed is?" Yes, I know that if I give a static and concrete definition of Inkshed there will be those who will resist it. Especially since the conference theme is "resisting teaching," people will have their critical radar working overtime, looking for ways in which my exploration of Inkshed-identity actually contains Inkshed or limits it instead of leaves room for difference and expansion. What's my agenda? Who am I who selects and presents the information? I know that this audience in this postmodern age demands self-reflexivity. It's an ethical imperative. But don't let it fool you that I am but a single speaker and seem to have a limited view. I have been constructed by Inkshed in many ways, as much as my personal view itself constructs my represtentation of Inkshed. I am "a" mirror of Inkshed, however bent, however scratched, however foggy, and you might indeed be able to see Inkshed in me as well as through me, or at least, in spite of me.
Doubtless, Inkshed looks different to long-time members than it does to newer attenders and outsiders, and it must have changed a lot over the years. Three years ago I gave my very first scholarly presentation, and I am grateful that it happened at Inkshed. I was warmly welcomed into this group, and I wanted and needed to belong, for social reasons as well as scholarly reasons, and so I am an Inkshedder. But I still wonder what that means-- to be an Inkshedder. It depends so much on what kind of group Inkshed might be. To a young scholar like myself, still in graduate school, it matters to me what Inkshed is. What do other people, insiders and outsiders, think it is? What about its functional definition: What does Inkshed DO for its members, for its members' students, for its members' workplaces? What are the possibilities of the things the group can do, and what will it be doing in 2, 5, or 10 years? What has Inkshed done for all of its members until today? What visions do members have of its future? You may think these are rather large questions for a group that only meets once a year. But it does make a difference for many like me, in terms of professional identity, and it makes a difference for the scholarly landscape of language studies and pedagogy in Canada. For example, for me, as a Canadian studying her PhD in rhetoric in the US, Inkshed is a tie to scholars in my home country where I hope to establish a career. Perhaps the question of Inkshed's identity also matters more to members than a place to meet friendly folks once a year & be intellectually challenged and inspired. I believe that many members find that in their institutional surroundings, whether academic or professional, they are rarely around people who look at language and learning in the ways that Inkshedders do. There must be needs out there, reasons for Inkshed to exist, or else, frankly, it wouldn't exist.
This micro-ethnography was done in the next academic quarter of study, in the spring of 1999 as I was enrolled in a graduate course on Ethnography as a research method in Composition studies. The course was taught by professor Beverly Moss, who is known for her insightful ethnographic study of the literacy practices of several African American preachers. At first Professor Moss was hesitant to let me do an ethnography on Inkshed because it didn't seem to be a community. But I overcame her resistance to the proposal. The course also required that I write an ethics statement about my proposed ethnography, and my role as an insider of the group complicated the issue of ethics. I found ways to write myself out of various quandaries in the ethics statement. But writing and doing are quite different things.
Those who were at the Inkshed conference in 1999 can remember what it was like to have me as an ethnographer among you. Talk of resistance. Reluctance. Skepticism. Mistrust. During the business meeting people shouting out, "tania, don't write that down!" During dinnertime, people being afraid to sit at the same table with me. The conference organizers expressed a legitimate concern that my writing tablet would stifle free conversation, and curtailed my use of that weapon. I sometimes learned what people's limits were by naively stepping over those limits and taking the consequences. It definitely was not comfortable for me or for others. The first year I came, I was welcomed and befriended. The second year, as an ethnographer, I had a painfully different reception. I really wanted to quit during the conference, but quitting was not an option. I still really wanted to learn about the group, and learn about the practice of ethnography, it's just that learning these things in real life had a higher price than I had dreamed. In response to this resistance, I decided to put my ethnograpic field notes on the reading table as soon as they were written, as a gesture of good will, so that anyone curious about what I was writing down about them could peruse the notes, or write in the margins. They could even steal or destroy the notes if they wanted to-- but to my great relief that didn't happen. Whether or not this gesture of opening my notebook had any effect on how people saw me as an ethnographer, it made me feel like less of an enemy and outsider. The experience wasn't all that bad; there were many people who sympathized with my difficult situation, or who were interested in the project itself, who were willing to cooperate and play the game of being studied, and I'm thankful for that.
Overview of Methods and Research Questions
In this essay I would like to explain my methods, and describe the history and characteriestics of the group through my observations, as well as anecdotes and quotations of participants. To conclude I will briefly attempt a definition of the Inkshed community and make some observations about its future.
I must acknowledge that this micro-ethnography is limited in several ways. I do not attempt to write in a wholly academic voice, and I do not situate my study within ethnographic theory or other theories. My data collection and data analysis processes are those of an amateur who has not studied statistics, and I have only studied ethnography as a qualitative research method for one academic quarter. Nevertheless I have handled the data with as much care as I could, respecting certain informants' desire for anonymity. I hope you will overlook my errors and weaknesses as a researcher and find much of value in the information and perspective I provide.
My data collection process involved taking field notes on participants' e-mail letters and interviewing twelve informants by e-mail, and one in person. I also took field notes and interviewed groups of people and individuals during the four days at the conference, as I participated in all organized activities and meals (I did not give a presentation). As I write this ethnography I draw from the data gained during these 10 weeks as well as materials that document earlier Inkshed activities.
My investigation of this group was guided by the following lines of inquiry regarding the Inkshed conference and listserv:
Like many other scholarly associations, Inkshed holds a yearly conference in Canada, has an e-mail listserv, an Internet website, and newsletters. The CASLL listserv currently has 135 subscribers (May 25, 1999), but there are far fewer, 35-45, who regularly send e-mail to the listserv. Some members also meet at "the Canadian Roundtable" during the American CCCC (College Composition and Communication Conference) and plan collaboratively for the roundtable using the listserv. The call for proposals for the 1998 Inkshed conference represented the group thus:
CASLL's aim is to provide a forum and common context for discussion, collaboration, and reflective inquiry in discourse and pedagogy in the areas of writing, reading (including the reading of literature), rhetoric, and language. Our members include teachers and researchers in schools, colleges, universities, and corporations.It has members in the fields of rhetoric and composition, English studies, communication studies, technical and business communication, post-secondary and secondary education, Education departments, and professional writing (such as writing in engineering). The majority of participants are Canadian residents, but a small percentage reside and work abroad (for example, one at the University of Michigan, two at Ohio State University, one at DePaul university, one in Austrailia). The name "Inkshed" came from the practice of "Inkshedding" during conferences. Its origin is described by one of its innovators, Russ Hunt:
"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. . . . what we said we wanted was to give writing a social role in a classroom, and thus authentic readers.The freewriting would be passed around just after it was written, and peers would make marks in the margins where they found interesting or striking passages, and those passages would be selected to be quoted orally or in writing in front of the whole class. The first "Inkshed Working Conference" at which this method was used for discussion, was held in Fredericton, in 1984. As Russ Hunt narrates in his history of inkshedding,
within a few years there was a regular newsletter . . . , and an annual national conference dedicated not only to exploring literacy and learning, but extending and testing the limits of the ways in which conferences can be organized, and attracting writing teachers, English and education professors, public school teachers, graduate students, and others.Inkshed is a group that discourses about discourse in a variety of settings. It has as its aim to facilitate such meta-communication in as many ways as possible, in order to explore discourse in a variety of settings and through a variety of approaches. It welcomes risk-taking and diversity-- and also social intimacy. It satisfies the social as well as professional interests of many of its members. Anyone who has had the Inkshed experience at an Inkshed conference knows that it's sometimes more like a spring camp for language scholars than it is a scholarly conference. Yes, a camp. As Russ Hunt writes, it is a group dedicated to "extending and testing the limits of the ways in which conferences can be organized." For example: One of my clearest memories of Inkshed XV near Halifax was the experience of riding in a yellow school bus to a crab dinner with fellow conferees. We sang a song together, led by our very own musical bard, Sam Baardman, that went "hey-oh, chicken on a raft!" On the bus ride back I was improvising harmonies to the songs. Our conference of scholars has a magic that dissolves the stiffness and stuffy egocentric kinds of institutional selves into people with open minds and open hearts. The magic may be partly created by the small size of the group. All participants at the conference are able to attend all sessions; there are no concurrent sessions, so they truly share the experience, a factor that aids in bringing together people of diverse fields of study. There are traditional presentations, given from behind a podium or at a table, with speakers delivering a 20-minute talk, as at other conferences. But at Inkshed, non-traditional and interactive presentation formats are encouraged.
Here is one example of a nontraditional presentation that was very successful. During Inkshed XVI, two co-presenters led the audience into the carpeted hall, asked them to remove their shoes, and instructed them to perform a kind of dance in which triads of people were asked to take on the symbolic roles of heart, head, and body. The person representing the body was to dance freely to music played on a portable stereo. The person who represented the heart held his/her hands out to guard the body from bumping into other dancers, and the representative of the head wrote down impressions of the dance he/she was observing. After people overcame their initial embarrassment and discomfort during the warm-up, everyone participated in this unique mode of composition. Five or six people joined the presenters afterwards for more dancing in one of the hotel rooms. I'm sure that those of you who were there have not forgotten that presentation; it is inscribed on my memory as one of the wilder and freer varieties of Inkshed experience.
During and between presentations at dinners and times for social mixing, participants perform a less controversial social dance of conversation. Conversing together around the food in the hotel's dining hall, people often get to know each other much more intimately than they do at many larger conferences that hold concurrent sessions. On the first day of conference, the core members of the group serve to establish an atmosphere of intimacy as they welcome people at the registration desk, coming out behind the tables laden with name-tags and schedules, hugging and laughing with old friends, and shaking hands with newcomers.
Inkshed communication on the listserv is often a distant reflection
of this mixture of scholarly and personal communication. Of course, on
the listserv it is not as able to be warm and friendly to its unseen lurkers,
but it welcomes them by its friendly debates and confessions of professional
struggles. Later in this essay I will illustrate Inkshed listserv communication
in more detail.
The "Shed" Metaphor as a Tool to Characterize Inkshed
What kind of group is this who, besides being a scholarly organization, inspires people to sing on buses, do modern dance, hug each other in welcome, and chat on a listserv? "What kind of shed" are we? Perhaps this 'shed' and 'shedding' metaphor is particularly appropriate and characteristic. A shed, as a building, is a location and purposeful structure: the image evokes a spatial location, one of the characteristics that most often defines "community." But the Inkshed group is dispersed across a large geographic area. At the Inkshed conference there is an extreme compensation for this distance in the close quarters and shared experiences at the hotels where the event takes place. Participants stay in the "shed" or hotel, for four days, meeting, eating, and greeting one another repeatedly, in speech, writing, and over meals, alcohol, and music. "Shed" also has metaphorical meaning as a verb, the act of shedding. At the conference, members "shed" their institutional selves at times. Therefore people are reluctant to associate the shed with currently institutionalized sites of formalized inkshedding, like the refereed journal. For example, after Inkshed 16, in response to a discussion about whether Inkshed should start publishing a refereed journal, one (anonymous) participant of many years wrote to the listserv,
For my own part, I think of Inkshed as an "evaluation-free zone" a place where I come to learn from and be silly with people who I respect in the fields of language and literacy. I think a large part of its value, for me, lies in the fact that it is a sort of pedagogical playground; I can risk making a fool of myself (either on Talent Nite or in a session or on an inkshed) without worrying that I am ruining my career, or something. I don't think I'd play nearly so well if I felt like I wasn't -- for this weekend at least -- peers with everyone at the conference. I know that the people at the conference might referee my work in other contexts, and that's fine -- they won't in this one, though, and that's fine, too. (5/11/99)
A playground has no walls and roof. This is an image far from an enclosed "shed," which one imagines as a small, humble structure used to house gardening tools and such. Playing on structures, "on Talent Nite, or in a session, or on an inkshed," where there is both "risk" and "respect" among participants-- this is an image of freedom and childlike abandon. For newer members who expect formality and seriousness, it may take some time to adjust to and accept this informality, especially if they came prepared to perform a traditional presentation. But for established members, coming into this "shed" together takes them out of their institutional communities and institutional relationships, and helps them "shed" their performance anxiety.
As Inkshedders' conversations reveal, one of the ways the group consciously holds itself as distinct from other scholarly associations is through the high degree of diversity and risk-taking it affords. As an example of risk, during Inkshed 15, several Inkshedders actually dared one another to swim in the spring-chilly ocean that nestles the Nova Scotian inn where the conference took place in 1998. Inkshed demonstrates its diversity by being able to accommodate not only spontaneous fun, but profoundly theoretical presentations, such as one titled "Exploring Risk as Cultural Practice: Pedagogical implications of post-phenomena" and another titled "Electronic Discourse and Academic Inquiry" (May 1998). Inkshed, welcoming a degree of diversity of communication formats among its speakers, and welcoming scholars from diverse fields, nevertheless holds itself together against the centrifugal force of diversity. Risk-taking takes place among people who have a degree of trust in one another. In fact, it is an evidence of my sense of trust that I consciously took a risk in doing this ethnographic study, for I put myself on the borders of the group by defining myself as both an observer and a group member.
The content of inksheds and the method of editing them is a process by which Inkshed's institutional and cultural expectations are enforced even while freedom and collaboration are encouraged. Though the writing process of inkshedding is akin to freewriting, the way that inksheds are read, marked and subsequently edited ensures that certain kinds of ideas and expressions are deemed meaningful while others are not. However, it does have elements of a collaborative process that could potentially include new participants' voices. On Inksheds, people may "shed" their identity by not signing them. But only the shedding that is group-authorized and editor-authorized is "saved." The inksheds that are saved are often, in content and manner of speech, very academic, theoretical, cerebral, and serious, in stark contrast with the informality of many presentations, dining room chat, and the play of "talent nite." There can be a considerable culture-shock for new presenters in terms of the variety of presentation styles and the singular ritual of inkshedding.
The kinds of inkshedding that goes on at the conference is a little like the process of publication. After handwriting inksheds are collected, a group of four volunteers sits down at two computers and compiles the marked inksheds. I participated in this activity after two of the sessions in Inkshed XVI. In one case, I read aloud while a more established member typed and made final editorial decisions about what was worth quoting. In another case, I was left alone at a computer to make editorial decisions. Of course, inksheds should have lines and comments in the margins to guide editors about where readers of the inksheds found something especially meaningful. But if there were two inksheds that said basically the same idea, we often elected not to include the second version in the final edited collection. Sometimes there were marks in the margin next to something that could not be quoted without writing out the whole inkshed from the beginning, and in those cases we agreed that it was too awkward to quote. In cases where the volume of marked inksheds was too large to be copied on the average 1-page-per-session, editors at the computers made their own quick decisions about which ones were to be excluded. All of the inkshed comments that were marked and then copied onto the final version were comments related to pedagogical theory or rhetorical theory, and a few included personal feelings and anecdotes. Most quoted inksheds were about three lines long. Many of them made implied references to the presentation that had just happened or to previous presentations, making it hard for non-participants to understand, since the inksheds were written to an audience of the people in the room. For example, one Inkshedder wrote,
There are also cultural problems involved in 'baring the soul,' for example, a student / friend of mine from Indonesia was profoundly disturbed by this sort of process. Doesn't dialogue involve dialogue with other writers as well as with one another? Doesn't respect for students also involve respect for their privacy?Less than half of the inksheds have been signed by their writers. Perusing the 10 pages of inksheds produced at the conference, I only see names of those I consider Inkshed members.
The content of inksheds and the method of editing them is a process by which institutional and cultural expectations are enforced even while freedom and collaboration are encouraged. Though the writing process of inkshedding is akin to freewriting, the way that inksheds are read, marked and subsequently edited ensures that certain kinds of ideas and expressions are deemed meaningful while others are not. However, it does have elements of a collaborative process that could potentially include new participants' voices. On Inksheds, people may "shed" their identity by not signing them. But only the shedding that is group-authorized and editor-authorized is "saved." The inksheds that are saved are often, in content and manner of speech, very academic, theoretical, cerebral, and serious, in stark contrast with the informality of many presentations, dining room chat, and the play of "talent nite."
A Comparison of Presentations at the 1999 Inkshed Conference
Their apparent lack of performance anxiety and informality while giving presentations are some ways in which members behave quite differently from new presenters. Studying the differences between new and returning participants can be a way of determining the group's distinctive ways of relating as a community. At Inkshed conferences there are usually more returning members than there are new presenters, and the behavior of members asserts the values of informality and interactivity. At the conference in 1998 there were at least 20 regular members present out of the 37 attendees, but in 1999, there were at least 30 members with the same number of new participants (17). All new participants were presenters. I define new members of Inkshed as those who announce themselves as new to the listserv, and those who come to the conference for the first time; experienced Inkshedders are those who identify themselves with the group, and those who have been to a previous conference or have been involved in the Inkshed group for more than a year. Many of the new people are graduate students or colleagues invited by more established members to participate in their panels, but some come to present by themselves or in panels of two.
The manner of members' presentation is often like that among peers in a tavern at times: one presenter during Inkshed 16 spoke with one foot placed on the seat of a chair beside the presenters' table, half-sitting on the back of the chair, holding papers in his hand but not speaking from them. When he made a transition to his co-presenter, he said he had given us the "bar version." In another presentation, the two member co-presenters chose to present from their location sitting down at one of the round tables for the audience. When one of them asked if it was "okay" to do so, several in the audience replied "no," but he explained that he would present from that location anyway since the presentation was partly about resistance. Apparently it takes some time to dissolve the sense of formality for members as well as new presenters, for the first two presentations of the XVIth conference were given by long-time members, but all five member presenters sat behind the table while speaking. After half of the presentations had gone by, one of the new presenters was bold enough to explain, in a joke at the beginning of her presentation, that she didn't feel she needed the protection of the table in Canada, and therefore she was standing in front of it.
In figure 1 below, I show how members and new presenters positioned themselves in relation to the presentation table during their speech, as a signal of the level of informality and interactivity (the more formal and less interactive positions being those of sitting or standing behind the presenter's table). Eight of the new presenters included in the figure were co-presenting with members. Five of these eight positioned themselves beside their member co-presenters, while three of the new people presenting with sat down behind the table anyway while their member co-presenter stood.
As the figure illustrates, the most favored position was the traditional one of sitting behind the table, whether one was a member or new presenter. "Other" included the dance presentation in the hallway by a member and new presenter, one sitting on the presentation table, two who sat in the audience, and one with his foot on a chair beside the table. In general, the instances in which presenters sat at the table or stood behind it were earlier during the conference, or (as in the case of three new presenters) by those who had recently arrived at the conference and had not observed many presentations, nor had time to get to know people.
But position in relation to the table was not the most striking difference between new presenters and established members. Audience reaction and interaction also differed between presentations given by new people and by members. During data analysis, for each presentation, I noted whether I had recorded 1) silent attention during the whole presentation 2) an ovation afterwards, 3) quiet laughter, 4) free laughter, 5) a planned audience activity during the presentation, and 6) instances in which the audience talked to the presenter by saying things such as "please speak louder" or "please move up the transparency." It is common for listeners to break out in giggles or loud laughter several times during the presentation of an established member, especially when what the presenters say touches a nerve of professional anxiety (such as mentioning difficult administrators' and students' demands), or when presenters make jokes. But for newer presenters, who usually had a serious and earnest demeanor, there is a more respectful silence among the listeners and often clapping at the end. Figure 2 below also shows that members were more likely to incorporate activities for the audience during their speaking time, and received more informal audience participation. During data analysis, I did not include data for presentations which had a mix of member presenters and new presenters. Appendix A illustrates in more detail my observations of presenters' informality, their diverse presentation methods, and the types of listeners' participation during Inkshed 16 sessions.
Figure 3: Six of the Inkshed XVI presentations: their topic and manner
|New Presenter||Member Presenter|
|Subject matter||mode||Subject matter||mode|
|Ontario Immersion Programs||Speech is read aloud, clearly articulated.||Students expectations of web-text||Showed projection of computer screen, spoke while pointing things out on screen|
|Oral society and writing in Sub-Saharan Africa||During speech from text, used overhead to show what African poetry and language look like. Read aloud in African.||Colliding values||4 presenters narrated stories in students and teachers voices. Gave handouts with scenarios and questions.|
|Children s invented language||Spoke from text. Quoted examples of child language. Showed video clip.||Expertise, rhetoric, and ethics||Began with transition from previous speaker. Put on a clerical collar. Jokes spiced throughout reading of speech, also heavy in rhetorical theory and ethical challenges.|
|Teaching Engineering Communication||Used a projection of computer screen showing bar graphs and charts, spoke freely about them||Children as initiators of language||Spoke from a rough outline, frequent eye contact. Many jokes.|
|Freewriting in Engineering Communication||Opened with audio tape of Louis Armstrong music, read speech.||Training Inuit Social workers||2 presenters took turns narrating anecdotes of teaching this group|
|Teaching English in Beirut||Read dramatically from text, including many anecdotes, feminist theory, talk about violence and racism||Using E-mail with ESL||Used questions and anecdotes to raise controversial issue about authority of tutors/readers to tell students that grammar is wrong|
|Teaching through case study of Armenian genocide||Introduced a video made by students. Video had poor audio/video quality, but had powerful effect on audience, causing 15 minutes of silence after.||Under-graduate Engineering writers||Read from Lewis Carroll, gave handouts and did audience exercise. 2 presenters took frequent turns speaking.|
Age and presentation experience could also be factors involved in the interactivity of presentations, for the new presenters seemed to me to be at least ten years younger than the average age of member presenters.
The call for proposals explicitly requested avoidance of reading aloud strategies for this conference. Notice the wording "as usual" and "venerable . . . tradition":
As usual, the conference will avoid the talking-head-reading-paper format by continuing the venerable Inkshed tradition of active participant involvement and unconventional approaches. [bold print in original]However, as my data shows, this statement seemed to have little effect on the mode of new presenters' presentations. When I read a similar statement in the previous year's call for proposals, not knowing anything about Inkshed nor about just how "unconventional" and interactive Inkshed presentations could be, I assumed that theirs would be a very mild departure from the formal paper norm, and planned my presentation as a paper-reading with overheads to supplement. I didn't know how to do anything else. Having attended only formal academic events, I had never seen an "unconventional" approach until I attended Inkshed. When I had experienced half the conference in 1998, I found myself apologizing to people in advance that my presentation would be of the conventional style. It seems that another newcomer to Inkshed in 1999 had a similar experience:
my presentation was too formal and did not "fit" the culture per se... but I did not know how to otherwise present it as I did not have enough information or idea on how to go about it.Given the fact that new presenters are generally more conservative than established members, it is ironic that in its call for papers Inkshed actively encourages new presenters to contribute to "growth and renewal":
Please encourage participation from long-standing members who have not been able to come recently, as well as new graduates and colleagues who contribute so much to the growth and renewal of this working conference.The "growth and renewal" is certainly a realistic possibility and a kind welcome to new members and presenters. Indeed, new presenters made a significant contribution to the conference, making up almost half the total number of presenters. But there can be a considerable culture-shock for new presenters when they come to this conference expecting it to be of the traditional academic style. It takes some time to adjust. The same respondent quoted above also made the following observations about the "culture"/"community":
My overall impression of the Inkshed conference is that it is indeed a small community... and/or a form of culture. As for myself, I felt I was for the most part an outsider ... but a few "insiders" did make a genuineAnother new presenter had both positive and negative feelings about the informality / interactivity of presentations. He said that since he came to Inkshed with his two young children, he was somewhat distracted, but he felt "very welcomed and was impressed by the group's acceptance of the presence of my children." I noticed the children playing with the plants in the dining room during meals, and I heard nobody complain about his sons' active curiosity. His field is Engineering, and he says it was only his second conference with "writing types," so as a result, "I feel quite Martian with respect to what I hear at Inkshed." He saw some "confusion in attendees / presenters," and was surprised that they "often had personal political messages and used the meeting as a forum to express them." Yet he adds that "I guess I was doing the same thing, on reflection." He had expected the conference to be about writing, not the subject matter of the writing being taught or done. "So I was a bit disappointed," he says, "and dismayed by what I perceived to be a lack of self-awareness which is something that I would have expected in writers." Like some of the more established members, he had his reservations about the practice of inkshedding:
and much appreciated effort to include me etc. I did not feel it was the case with the majority since I was not clear about the expectations nor the climate of the INKSHED forum (it was my first experience etc.).
Overall, the process seems quite interesting but not all VOICES or INKSHEDS are heard... there is a certain problem with that... for example, my INKSHEDS were never selected and often, they were not read on
the table I where I was sitting. Quite often, more experienced INKSHEDDERS read the writings of their peers and not of newcomers like myself. Also, my comments probably did not correspond to the majority's cultural viewpoint so I did not benefit from feedback such as "I think the same way" or "similar to the point I made" . . . rather, my comments were for the most part never read or commented on by my peers...I think the process of INKSHEDDING is quite interesting but perhaps the issue of EQUITY needs to be addressed to ensure that more VOICES are heard and picked up and that newcomers are also read and commented etc.
In addition, it would be a good initiative to provide some of the inkshed samples and perhaps some of the presentations on the Website (and include the website address on the Call for papers) to provide new people
who are not "in the community" a better idea of what this is all about.
The inkshedding was fun - but in the end seemed contrived - people wanting to be profound in an instant - but perhaps only resulting in some snappy sound bites. . . . the whole exercise seemed pretty much entertainment of a very cerebral kind - something that I enjoy." In general, he reports, "my feeling is that the activity/meeting was fun, slightly enlightening, but not particularly academically productive."A similar report about a past Inkshed conference came up in one of my e-mail interviews: He wrote, "I went to the Inkshed conference for the first time in 1996 in Barrie, and frankly found the group lacking in real rigour." To explain this further, he added that "at Barrie many of the "old guard" were quick to curtail discussion in favour of 'Inkshedding', yet the inkshedding tended to be vapid whereas the discussion had been lively." However, when I mentioned to this informant that I felt Inkshed "brought a real human dimension into scholarly work," he agreed, responding that
I think this is what the Inkshed crew is really good at, and I hope I am a part of that now too. I think the academy has far too little compassion anyway, even less for those of us who are in marginal positions like writing instruction. . . . Moreover, I wish more conferences held talent nights."So while the practice of inkshedding and the informal atmosphere at presentations are aspects that newer participants sometimes dislike, newer participants really appreciate the social and professional bonds that form among people at the conference.
The CASLL Inkshed Listserv
Since email is quite a different medium and different context from that of conference presentations, it is difficult to engage in a parallel analysis of Inkshed listserv communication. On the listserv there are unseen lurkers who may not be members, and there are no spatial referents to signify the formality of the message, so formality/informality must be signified in other ways. On the listserv there is no geographic location that redefines relationships and breaks down institutional barriers among members. But cyber-space and e-mail software screens themselves provide walls, ceiling, terms of relationships, all through the means of carrying data. "Shedding" as an action does happen on the listserv as people "shed" their thoughts across the distance, sending them into the electronic parlor. The listserv facilitates the Inkshed group's communication outside the "shed"/hotel, from the very distant institutional offices and home study desks used by its participants.
There is a strong link between Inkshed conference participation and listserv subscription and attendance, as shown in figure 5. It is a very active listserv. Only half of the listserv subscribers are lurkers, not having sent a message to the list at all in the past year. Of those lurkers, only 19 have attended a conference in the past three years. Thirty of the 48 contributors to the list have attended a conference recently, and 49 of the 130 people subscribed have had experience at a recent Inkshed conference. Since there have been seventeen Inkshed conferences, it is probable that a higher number of listserv subscribers have had the Inkshed conference experience at one time or another.
Figure 4: Subscribers' listserv contributions over the past year, and whether they have attended any of the three most recent Inkshed conferences:
Some of my categories in figure 5 require deeper explanation: namely, the categories that arise from my theoretical views on the functions of the group. "Personal" messages were those which referred to events in one's life and feelings in such a way as to invoke the reader as a friend, not just a professional peer; that is, they invited emotional intimacy. For example, a writer might speak of his or her family responsibilities, the pain of a medical problem, or apologize for offending someone on the listserv. (Sample passages for each term are given in the chart below.) Of course, these messages may also coexist with professional messages. However, I counted personal messages separately from passages that narrated "professional work / struggles / events," because the latter were passages whose content could be expected to be of interest to fellow professionals whom one has never conversed with--for example, narratives of setting up distance learning courses, essay grading, conference planning, dealing with course loads or pressures to publish. Of course, a passage could be labelled "personal" as well as "professional" narrative if it contained both a degree of emotional/private content as well as content related to professional work. The "Collaboration" code was given to passages that invited collaboration on a project such as an essay or a conference proposal, discussed the terms of such a collaboration, reported on collaborative activities among CASLL scholars, or that directly contributed to a collaborative project. Thus, some "professional" narratives might be included in the "collaboration" category. I distinguished collaboration from giving information, advice, or talking about theory, for collaboration involved a deep commitment to and investment in the actual product of the work and the process of discussing it, while information, advice, and theory could be given from a safe distance and the speaker could step back from that role at any time without loss of face. "Talk about listserv" referred to any time a member referred to the listserv, such as the act of posting a message, the timing of messages, or any other direct referral to the fact of the listserv's existence or function. I considered this an important category because it revealed heightened consciousness of the ways that the media of information affected the messages being communicated, and could also give me insight into others' perceptions of the listserv.
Figure 5: Between April 1 and May 23, 116 messages (average of
2.25 per day)
|# of messages||Type of communication||sample passage|
|52||personal||"you all know I'm old enough to remember TV with only 12 channels" (5/12/99)|
|49||collaboration for events, texts.||"How about including ordering info for Sandy's Cds [on the Inkshed website]?" (5/13/99)|
|47||conference information (past or future)||"giving thanks to Ann & Jane, and to all the presenters and entertainers who clearly demonstrated at Inkshed '99 that intellectual inquiry and fun needn't be mutually exclusive" (5/11/99)|
|41||professional work described or narrated||"I'm writing a dissertation on hypertext theory at McGill." (5/11)|
|30||talking about listserv itself.||"Please send a personal message, not to the CASLL list." (5/3)|
|28||request for information exchange||"Could someone provide the e-address for the director of the writing centre at the University of Saskatchewan?" (5/7)|
|22||theory talk / teacher lore / intellectual discussion||"Again, it's very low tech. The idea is that students can produce easily editable drafts faster and more legibly than with pen and ink technology." (5/13)|
|20||News of interest||"I have also just heard of a new product that might facilitate the development of on-line products--Web Weaver." (5/13) o|
|18||research assistance: information that was requested is now offered.||"You were wondering about how to deter no shows. During my time at the Ohio State Writing Center (now the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing) students were entitled to X number of appointments per quarter so if they missed an appointment it came off their total allowed." (4/14)|
|11||Links provided||"There are lots of US conferences, as listed in the Writing Lab newsletter and website <http://owl.english.purdue.edu/Files/newsletter.html>" (4/9)|
|5||joke(s)||"I thought that [message] was going only to Doug. I'm really not a pirate, really. Not even the kind that doesn't do anything." (5/13)|
|5||forwarded information||"Rhetoric Folks -- The Computers and Writing Conference has started its online portion -- it runs till June 7th. . . ." (4/22)|
As one can see from this categorization in figure 5, the listserv is a forum equally for personal content as for professional content, for 52 of these messages had personal content and 41 narrated professional work, struggles and activities. It is also a highly collaborative forum, with nearly half (49) of the messages welcoming or engaging in assistance toward writing drafts and planning conference events (many of the collaborative messages were also those which were used to plan the CCCC roundtable). Many messages in this time period referred to the CCCC conference and the Inkshed conference, either looking forward to these events or telling stories about them afterwards.
The content and style of e-mails on the listserv differ greatly from that of the inksheds collected and distributed at the Inkshed conference. On the listserv members do not frequently engage in theory talk. I can think of two occasions when theory talk occurred on the listserv. In the summer of 1998, someone requested that we try to define "professional writing" because he was starting a course with that title and wanted to know what we thought it was. The discussion on line included at least ten responses, and was subsequently edited and made into a readable document now available on the Inkshed website. On another occasion, in January of 1999, I asked people about new trends in Canadian composition teaching, since I was writing on that topic in a graduate course. This spurred a lot of reports of departmental and professional activity, and some theorizing about "rhetoric in Canada" and the reasons why writing was taught in certain ways. But in contrast to the edited inksheds at conferences, e-mail communication is much more varied, more narrative and personal, and more collaborative.
Figure 6: Messages sent between April 1 and May 23, 1999
Another point of comparison between the listserv and the conference is to consider the differences in communication patterns between established and new contributors. However, as one might expect, it is a forum that mainly distributes the voices of confident members of the Inkshed group. There are many lurkers, since as of May 14th there were 130 subscribers to the listserv. Figure 6 is based on the messages during the time period covered in figure 5. Only 9 messages were from 6 people whose names I had not seen on the listserv during the past year. But there were a total of 107 messages from 29 member contributors. 17 of these member contributors were present at Inkshed XVI. A smaller group, 12 of these member contributors, sent more than 3 messages in this sample. Excepting the list manager, who sent 16 of the messages, the mean number was 7 messages among the 11 most frequent contributors. The small number of new contributors is not due to a filtering process such as the editing of inksheds. The list manager has told me that it is an open list.
In fact, having 6 new people contribute within only a month and a half seems a remarkably high number based on my memories of how often new people send messages. New listserv contributors' messages vary from a short polite request for information to a more elaborate message that describes the sender's institutional affiliation and present activities. One new message, for example, requested an e-mail address for a writing program and was only 4 lines long, but another message May 20 titled "new and need help" began thus:
I subscribed to this list about 4 months ago and while I haven't yet participated, I've enjoyed many of your discussions from the periphery. I'm now joining in as a neophyte to ask for some advice and assistance . . .--and the message continued for about 70 lines, describing the background and the problem. No replies were sent to the listserv for this new person, but when I asked this new contributor by e-mail if she had gotten off-list responses, the answer was yes,
I have had a bunch of private responses which have been useful, encouraging, thoughtful, insightful, and generally great. I too am a particular novice at this, so I hope that my message requesting help did not seem too amateurish . . . I am in the process of getting the posting finalized and will post it on Inkshed as soon as I get the go ahead from Admin. It's all very exciting, I must say!It is hard to tell, without extensive research, how frequently replies are sent off-list. New contributors' messages do seem to demonstrate some anxiety about the worthiness and relevance of the posting and its author, usually signified by mentioning that the sender has been lurking. I recall that a few months ago a professor introduced herself for the first time on the listserv with a rather long message listing all her scholarly accomplishments that were related to the field of writing. One reply was sent to the listserv by an established member who was acquainted with her personally, welcoming her to the listserv community in return. In an e-mail interview, one participant explained her role as lurker on the listserv:
I keep in touch with the CASLL network to hear how issues are being debated. Mostly I am a listener; I do not generally have new readings to recommend or insights to add for this audience, but I have found the discussions [on several issues] very informative. What tends to happen is that I save statements I want to look at again, sometimes forward them to a colleague who is not in the loop, sometimes discuss them with her. But I tend not to respond.
Those of us who belong to listservs which we do not contribute to often know that lurking can be educational, and is a passive and safe way of participating in the group.
When I asked frequent listserv contributors what they thought about the CASLL listserv, I received a variety of replies. Some listserv participants feel that the purpose of the listserv is more academic and professional than personal. One person writes, "I'd say I enjoy many of the ideas that get batted around, but I get irked by the regular hobby horses or the overly personal stuff that creeps in. I'm also on the Engineering Communication list, and it is quite quiet but always fruitful when it erupts." The same person, however, wrote "If this community can provide human faces (or at least supportive e-mail) to help us all wrestle with our particular dragons . . . then so much the better." This simultaneous annoyance with and appreciation of the personal being mixed with the academic was also a feature of newcomers' responses to conferences, as mentioned earlier. Just as the previous informant called the "supportive e-mail" a "community," this respondent does so too, with a qualifier --
I always refer to lists as communities. In fact, I have more in common with some of the people on the list than some in my own department. I'm sure if you posted such a query [about whether it is a community] on a big list such as ACW-L, you'd get a chorus of people proclaiming that they considered it a community. CASLL is less so-- we mostly use it for business, and when the odd personal comment sneaks in, we get all apologetic.Again there is in this quote the sense that personal communication is perceived as irrelevant or annoying. These last two respondents use the terms "creeps in" and "sneaks in" to refer to the personal content, while my analysis uncovered a very high incidence of what I categorized as personal. But only a week later, this same respondent who spoke of getting apologetic about personal comments wrote to me about appreciating this very aspect of the CASLL listserv, and she seems to say that personal communication is one of this listserv's important characteristics:
Talking on CASLL is more like talking to my immediate colleagues. We have shared interests and concerns and we support each other professionally. But it's a much more personal list, one where I feel comfortable talking without much self-censorship. I feel like I'm talking mainly to old friends (or potential new friends). The field of Rhetoric and Composition is so small in Canada, I feel we need to connect with each other virtually, especially since it's so expensive to get together f2f [face to face].
The way this person feels "comfortable talking without much self-censorship" parallels the other informant's image of the playground and the "evaluation-free zone" at the conference. Apparently, people's perceptions of the listserv are rather complex, since more than one informant gives evidence of simultaneous discomfort and comfort with the personal nature of communication on the listserv.
The Inkshed Website
Russ Hunt also takes care of the Inkshed website, which houses the archives for the CASLL listserv. He announces to the list when he has made a change on the list, CASLL members make suggestions on how the website should look, and CASLL members contribute singly-authored texts ("invitations to participate" through giving feedback) or collaborative text (such as the Inkshed Newsletter, edited listserv discussions) to the website. This website is one of the few public "faces" of the Inkshed group, a way that new members can be introduced to the organization. As such, it performs important rhetorical functions for new members and browsers, helping to set the tone of communication and reveal the values of the organization. The first page one sees when entering the site looks like this:
Link to Inkshed page
The items on the page move from texts written collaboratively (the newsletters [about 10-20 pages long], the edited listserv discussion) to texts written by individuals which refer explicitly to the community, to individually-authored texts that do not focus on Inkshed. It also expresses an organizational hierarchy, for one goes from link to link to navigate throughout the site by clicking on the highlighted words, to find information that might not be explicitly listed here on the first page. The two links to "an edited discussion on Professional Writing" and "Cathy Schryer's letter explaining English 109" (notice the familiar name "Cathy" is used instead of "Catherine," the name that appears on her e-mail headers and footers) are the kinds of documents that are found within newsletters; perhaps they could not be included in time for the "publication" of a newsletter (newsletters are also presently mailed to members in paper format if they so wish).
On this opening page of the website, "Inkshed Publications" lists the five volumes on rhetoric and the teaching of literacy that have been published by Inkshed since 1994. "Inkshed XVI" leads to a page describing the proposed conference held this year; Russ Hunt is in the process of making this conference site more complete, but it now includes photos of Inkshedders on talent nite dancing with shoes on their heads (See pictures on the following page), the collected inksheds, the conference schedule with links to presenters' e-mail addresses and text versions of their presentations. "Links to Inkshedders" (note the nickname "Inkshedder," commonly used to refer to group members) currently has about 6 links to established members' professional websites that contain course information, CVs, etc.. The information contained on the "CASLL listserv" link is a half page of text that is linked to several other pages such as the listserv archives and Russ's short essay on Inkshedding. This "CASLL listserv" page ends with a touch of humor when inviting new subscribers to the listserv:
The message will be forwarded to Russ, and he'll complete the process (or, if he suspects you might be a mass mailer wishing to send all the members of CASLL an opportunity to get free XXX pictures, or buy real estate in sunny Napadogan, N. B., he'll write you to ask who you are, really).The jocular tone of this invitation is quite different from the politeness of the actual message he sends to new subscribers who do not have an academic address (as reported in an e-mail interview):
Regarding your request to join CASLL: this is an open list and you're welcome to join it, but it needs to be clear that it was set up to serve the needs of people associated with the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Literacy, and may not have much interest or relevance outside that group. If you still wish to be put on the list, please let me know.One can learn from this website and its links important information about Inkshed such as its age, the institutional affiliations of some of its members, what goes on at its conferences, what its listserv is like, its tone of informality (the jokes, personal narratives) and friendliness ("welcome to Inkshed"), and its commitment to collaboration and the writing process ("invitations to participate in various documents").
The listserv and the website are two important sites where the Inkshed community enacts its functions and represents itself. The website is a place where more established members are granted voice and authority (with some exceptions: my essay on Canadian Composition is on the website and I am only a 1-year-old member), and the listserv, being less official and permanent, is a site where newer members can potentially find more of a voice. However, it is hard for newcomers to become fully literate and feel welcomed into Inkshed listserv communication without first attending a conference.
What is Inkshed: interviews
During the conference in 1999 I was often referred to Russ Hunt by people who told me he was one of the "founders" of Inkshed and currently in charge of the listserv and website. At breakfast when I held a pre-planned group interview on the "culture of Inkshed," Russ was among several who tried to characterize Inkshed and their own roles in the association. Russ said that with all the hugging and in-jokes (people hug each other upon arrival and departure), older members are very conscious of how bizarre their behavior may seem to new people. "At every Inkshed, it seems," Russ said, "there is a discussion about boxing people out." I was also informed that there are no members who have been to all inkshed conferences; a few people have missed only 2 or 3 Inksheds, while others have missed more. This frequency of attendance is a frequent topic for socializing. At a later time I came into an informal discussion over beer in which Russ and a few other regulars had been discussing who among the regulars didn't come this time, and which among the ones present had missed how many conferences. This group-remembering was accompanied with short anecdotes about the people in question as well as their institutional affiliation. Thus it is reasonable to assume that among some, frequent attendance is a casual measure of commitment to the Inkshed group.
At the breakfast table, the discussion revealed differing views of what Inkshed was, though at the same time there was a sense that they were in the process of defining the group as they spoke. Before the discussion got started, I asked each of them to choose a pseudonym. Here are some fragments of the conversation roughly in the order in which the issues were discussed:
"Ruth Major," a member for more than a few years, said "there wouldn't be a Canadian composition group if it weren't for Inkshed. It's different from CATTW [Canadian Association of Teachers of Technical Writing]," CATTW is obviously another group of Canadian compositionists, so her comment shows that she thinks Inkshed plays a much more central role in "Canadian composition" than this other scholarly association that holds conferences and has a journal, listserv and website.
But scholarly reasons were not the only ones for attending. Anne, who said it was her 5th Inkshed conference, explained that there were "two layers" for her participation: the layer of friendship, and the layer of being a presenter. She said this year it was different for her since it was her first time presenting. She felt like she was more of a participant and peer, more involved and excited. In previous years she had attended with her husband who often presented. At Inkshed XV and XVI, there was another married couple present; the wife presented at both conferences, but the husband participated as an observer.
"Sandy" said that she comes to the conference mainly to spend time with "Kate Kendall," who did not present this year or the previous year. She admitted, "I'm not involved in writing anymore." Her friend Kate, who has been with Inkshed more than 5 years, made a comparison to yet another composition conference: "it's not like 4Cs. It's not competitive here. There's freedom to talk about problems at your institution."
"Thelma," who said it was her second Inkshed, picked up the friendship theme, stressing "I feel close to these people. I was on e-mail with Kate." When we first met face to face at Inkshed, Thelma had told me, "It's so nice to meet you. I like to be able to put a face to all the friends I've met on the listserv."
Sandy, recalling the topic of "Inkshed culture," brought up how Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler define "culture" as having the following components: hierarchy, members and non-members, their own vocabulary and own jokes, and shared values. She said that there are some "unstated hierarchies. Like between professors and graduate students, and the people in control of the newsletter are up there--but they [the editors] rotate." Sandy's comments affected my subsequent observation strategy, for I started to record when people laughed and what spurred the laughter.
There were several responses to Sandy's ideas about culture. Thelma added that "People like Russ keep Inkshed going." Ruth agreed. "Russ keeps the listserv; he is the center of the network. If the network is like a web, he is a point that has more contact with other points." Anne said that the strength of connections are based partly on one's commitment to the group, and Sandy added that "professional tenure, and commitment to do the newsletter" made one more central in the group. Regarding the cultural criterion of "hierarchy," the conversants transformed the concept from vertical levels of status into a metaphor in which centrality was the position of greater power, and power was defined by one's personal and professional connections and helpfulness. Yet Russ made it known that even the most "central" member does not always get his way. When Ruth mentioned that many Inkshedders specialize in writing, Russ replied, with a tone of mild complaint, "I keep pushing Inkshed to talk about reading . . . it's not the default."
At this point, Kate was brought back to Russ's earlier comment about "boxing [new] people out," saying "there's a lot of newcomers this time. I wonder-- what kind of influence do we have on first-timers?" Russ replied by saying that one of its influences is that Inkshed does not aim overtly to influence people: it "isn't disciplinary. It's not like a coming-of-age like the 4Cs conference. Inkshed includes different disciplines. That's important to the culture. It's interdisciplinary. So we are all kind of on common ground-- if I don't know something I can admit it."
"Juanita," who attended once a few years ago and has now come again, said she feels there is an unspoken division between insiders and outsiders based on whether one has academic tenure or a full time position; she mentioned that she is a graduate student and has been a contract worker, that she started out on the listserv but then got dropped from it suddenly. At this tale, Russ explained that this mistake must have been a computer glitch, and Ruth reaffirmed to Juanita that her work has been valuable at the U of Toronto. The conversation drifts off to talk about HTML and teaching web genres, which is Juanita's area. During this conversation the members at the table tried to correct Juanita's perception of being an outsider, showing her that she was in fact important to the group regardless of her institutional status.
It didn't take long for the discussion on Juanita's area of interest to go from web genres to e-mail and the CASLL listserv once again. Kate mentioned that recently she was surprised to see a group of messages that stemmed from a question about where one could get discussion about writing center issues. (Russ says that the person who wrote the question had been a lurker on the listserv for quite a while, and he was surprised by this person's impression that we don't talk about writing centers on our listserv.) In this way the listserv communication was integrated with the conversation at the conference.
Then I asked, "Is Inkshed an extension of the listserv or vice versa?" and Russ replied that there were 110 people on the electronic list, and about 100 on the print newsletter list, with an overlap of about 65-70 percent who communicate both ways. Apparently there are some members who only have contact with Inkshed through the 2 or 3 newsletters sent out each year.
The conversation went back to the idea that Inkshed is uniquely personal and informal. Thelma said "The inkshed culture is not mainstream, it's not competitive, you feel free." Russ added, "it's a kind of nostalgic hippiedom. We don't have to accomplish things or be utilitarian. However, at Inkshed 11 we did try to be collaborative and produce text. We gathered around computers [and wrote]." Ruth added that when she presents "it doesn't even feel like presenting." She asks whether others mark their presentations on their CVs, and then narrates her own professional situation in which people were hunting for collaborators to apply for a SSHRCC grant [Social studies and humanities research commission of Canada], and it was competitive to be welcomed into a collaborative group. But at Inkshed, "people let their weaknesses show; they ask for help." Russ agreed, adding "people check their baggage at the door."
"Perhaps [this freedom] is because of Inkshedding," said Ruth, and by suggesting this as a cause of the informality and vulnerability, she led the discussion toward the topic of inkshedding. Russ mentioned how it takes some time to introduce new members to the process and values of inkshedding. "Some new people write notes to themselves" in inksheds instead of writing for the Inkshed audience. Earlier during this breakfast, one of the conference organizers walked up to Russ at our table and reported that some tables in the conference room had inksheds that had no passages marked in the margins. Russ answered her by saying that he noticed some people are even marking phrases that are not something quotable. They agreed to give more direction about inkshedding during the next session. This manner of communicating is a trademark and a cherished tradition of Inkshed.
But members themselves disagree about what the function of inkshedding should be in the group. Sandy then said that in her opinion, "forcing Inkshedding is a bit too Fascist. You want to listen, to lurk. You just come from marking student papers, to this conference. I've noticed that if some people don't want to inkshed, they go out and smoke." Juanita interjected, "it's my understanding that you're free to choose not to inkshed," but Sandy returned, "I have felt that inkshedding is part of the culture and community." Russ agreed: "Here it's very difficult to absent yourself in discussion. But it's difficult to force people. There's always going to be some pressure, some social expectation." Kate sided with Sandy: "There's not enough discussion sometimes." Juanita added that with the size of Inkshed, and the absence of concurrent presentations, you get the "opportunity to write" about the experiences you share as a group. "It's a different way of shaping experience." Later on in the conference one of the organizers unsuccessfully tried to start discussion when half the group wanted to inkshed and the other half wanted to discuss; the inkshedders won and silence was kept until the inkshedding was complete and coffee break time came. There is a strong inertia toward the practice of inkshedding that is hard to break.
This discussion at the breakfast table happened with very little interjection and guidance from me; I was quietly taking notes as people talked. The topics flowed back and forth among what they perceived to be the distinctive sites and functions of Inkshed's culture: the listserv, the social pressure and opportunity of inkshedding at the conference, conference attendance history and different levels of commitment or centrality, the informality and intimacy of the group and the informal presentation format, and the group's effect on newer people.
While present at Inkshed and on the listserv one has access only to currently active members. But what about the perspective of members who used to be very active but are not anymore? Would they characterize the group differently, not having been to the conferences for many years? Perhaps its character had changed recently. I had the opportunity to learn about this kind of perspective when I interviewed Andrea Lunsford, a professor of rhetoric and composition at Ohio State University. She took part in the very first Inkshed conference while she worked at the University of British Columbia and has attended 6 conferences over the years, but none in the past 4 or 5 years, though she participated via a MOO at the conference in 1997. She said she is still "a lurker" on the listserv and reads its messages regularly. Her association with Inkshedders goes back to earlier than 1984 when the first conference was held. Four currently active Inkshed members were her graduate students at the University of British Columbia before she left in 1989.
Lunsford, like "Sandy" and "Kate," admits that she does not like the practice of inkshedding very much. She thinks it is too solitary and isolating, that it emphasizes the individual over the group, and making marks in margins "seems like voting on who is smartest." However, she has never brought up this feeling to anyone at Inkshed. She balances this observation with the statement that she is greatly in favor of Inkshed and what it does, namely, that it "unites everyone in Canada who is interested in writing as a discipline." This comment is similar to Ruth's , that "there wouldn't be a Canadian composition group if it weren't for Inkshed." When asked what Inkshed did for her over the years, Lunsford replied that it "gave Canadian writing scholars a sense of a network, a place they could go for advice and support." I asked her whether the Inkshed group was like CCCC, the American Conference on College Composition and Communication, and she said, "it is like 4Cs was 25 years ago. And it's like the 4Cs now in that a large percentage of the membership actually like to attend whether or not they are presenting." I shared with her my doubts about whether Inkshed would ever become as large as CCCC, and she agreed, saying Inkshed acts like "a closed group, a club" rather than a group that has a large membership and activist purposes. As a result of this interview, I was able to see that not much had changed in Inkshed over the years. It was described in many of the same ways as it was during my interview with the group over breakfast: it is described as a network, as similar yet different from 4Cs, as important to Canadian composition, and inkshedding is identified as one of its central practices, although this practice itself is not viewed as ideal.
I will now attempt to summarize my findings about the Inkshed community. Relationships among long-time members are both professional and personal. Though the majority of participants have been in Education and English departments, the participants are from diverse backgrounds. Unifying members of these fields is the Inkshedders' common interest in rhetoric, literacy, and pedagogy. The explicit borders of the group are vague enough to welcome many people from diverse fields who share these interests, but there are some values and practices that it protects, such as its value for collaborative learning and collaborative scholarship, and its bias towards affirming to the needs and views of students rather than the demands of academic and corporate institutions. In practical terms, it initiates new participants into these values and practices through inkshedding, informal presentation formats, and social and personal communication. Its own members define the conference as a playground and an evaluation-free zone, as well as a place for risk-taking and sharing close relationships formed over many years. Listserv members characterize the listserv group as a site for both personal and professional communication, though the role of the personal on the list is contested. The conference has a culture of informality, intimacy, interactivity, risk-taking, anti-hierarchy, and is a rather small community. The listserv shares features of this culture and community since a majority of its most active members have attended conferences. Both conference and listserv act as professional networks and forums.
Through interviews with individual members, I have discovered that people appreciate certain aspects of the community (usually its personal, informal nature, and the way it affords professional contacts and discussion that relates to their interests). But participants are resistant to certain aspects of it (its apparent lack of rigour, performance of ritual in inkshedding, and seemingly irrelevant personal messages on the listserv). Newcomers have strong responses to the Inkshed conference, usually commenting both positively and negatively on the unconventional nature of what goes on there. Most newcomers expect and wish it to be more professional than it is but appreciate the "fun" and stimulating discussions and events.
Listserv communication shares some features with personal discussions that occur at conferences, as people narrate their professional struggles and advise and collaborate with each other on their projects. Listserv communication is influenced by, and often closely tied to, conference events: people refer to conference plans beforehand and thank each other for their contributions afterwards. At the conference people are glad to meet with those who they have met on the listserv, and they often continue or refer to their email and listserv discussions in private conversation, such as around a dinner table.
Of interest to communication scholars and members of Inkshed are several questions and issues arising from this ethnographic study. First of all, this group evinces in many ways the common struggle between resistance and accommodation: between members and newer participants, and between institutional values and other values. The borders of the group can be seen in the presentation formats of new and member presenters and the reactions of the audience to these two kinds of presenters. Members continue to debate how much time should be spent inkshedding and how much spent discussing, and whether the emphasis should be on writing or whether the emphasis should be on all aspects of literacy equally. Members are also anxious that newcomers will feel welcomed as well as influenced positively by their group, for it would be against the group value of inclusiveness for it to become a hierarchical and/or exclusive group. As my interviews with newcomers illustrate, these are anxieties that are not without foundation-- the strong personal ties among members make the conference and listserv personally engaging but can also make it difficult for newcomers to learn how to fit in, or even desire to fit in.
Inkshed's Future--and a Proposal
I wonder what the future of Inkshed will be, given its values-- there are areas in which it currently resists change (it resists further professionalization, it wants to remain a single-session conference and retain its cohesive, friendly core group), and other areas in which it is open to change (it welcomes people from diverse scholarly areas to discussion so that members can learn about how literacy functions in various settings). I would like to see the Inkshed group rise in scholarly status and influence, of course partly for the sake of young scholars like myself who want to be part of something grand and growing, and for the sake of the advancement of the field within Canada. However, I now recognize that, as Andrea Lunsford has said, it is presently very much like a "club." It currently has more interest in nurturing its group members than in accomplishing larger goals as a group.
At the end of the Inkshed conference last year, I mentioned my desire that Inkshed would actually accomplish things for its members' advancement and for language instruction in Canada. I received two immediate replies from established members at my table-- one person reminded me that it already performs the function of being a support network for its members, giving professional advice and sympathy for members' professional activities. This is true. Another member stated "I never thought that Inkshed had a missionary function." Some Inkshedders seem cynical about the zeal for action and influence; others think it would be nice to do more but they are just too busy in their professional lives. Perhaps it has something to do with Canadian culture, but many of us hesitate to presume that we have the authority, and indeed the audacity, to collectively tread on the sensitive ground of institutional politics, but yet we freely complain about our institutional constraints, and critique them so intelligently. Nevertheless, many presentations and discussions at Inkshed communicate a fervent desire to move people to action, to change the way things are done. This presentation is one of those kinds. Why am I so earnest, so interested in action? Well, maybe because I'm only thirty and just starting a career, and I still have some naïve and grandiose hopes that Inkshed could do more than it now does. Maybe at Ohio State I've been influenced by American culture and I've taken on their bold and persuasive manner of speaking and writing. It's been two long years in Ohio, but I can still dimly recall how we Canadians often hesitate for a long time before doing something new, and how we Canadians are so civil that we rarely engage in persuasive discourse because it might offend someone. So maybe I'm wishing for something impossible, wishing for Inkshed to be something it is not, something unCanadian. Perhaps Inkshed activity and influence already reaches as far as it can or should into the realms of departmental politics, institutional structure, and the politics and economics of literacy instruction. Perhaps it just does so in ways that are not so obvious to newer members or outsiders. My complaint is that it just doesn't seem to do things as a group in arenas outside the group. It's presently a very good club, a camp, an exciting and stimulating yearly experience, a shed devoted to the mutual encouragement of people working in discourse and education. It does this well for many members that return again and again.
But can you join me for a moment in wishing that Inkshed could seem to do more, that it could be more visible to outsiders, that Inkshed would earn a reputation as an association that does something important and good in Canada?
I propose that we found an "Inkshed Institute" for graduate studies and research in Composition and Rhetoric, an institute that would take place over several weeks in the spring/summer just after the regular Inkshed conference. Ideally the institute would offer short intensive courses for graduate credit in a Canadian university. The "courses" would be taught by visiting instructors from Canadian or American institutions who have extensive experience and scholarship in the field. The Breadloaf School of English, for example, in which Andrea Lunsford and Beverly Moss and others have taught teachers of writing, is a model of the kind of institute I am imagining. Scholars would come together from all over Canada to work together for several weeks on projects that could be pursued through the coming year. Through such an institute graduate students of Composition and Rhetoric would have access to courses with professors from all over North America without leaving Canada, and faculty members or professionals who teach writing or study rhetoric could receive continuing education. Ideally, the location would have convenient accommodations nearby as well as access to a university library so that students could do research. An "Inkshed Institute" would extend the benefits that already arise from Inkshed conferences and would put many of our hopes and dreams into work on real projects.
In closing, I would like to thank you all for allowing me be your student-ethnographer, and in this essay I sincerely hope I have represented Inkshed faithfully to outsiders, and that I have served and encouraged my fellow Inkshedders.