Tuesday, September 30, 2008

40.1 Contra the Rosewater Chronicles: On the Public Address Conference

This is part of my ongoing descent into crankiness.
NOTE: Revised after two hours away. Crankiness diminished.


On the Public Address Conference and More

In the last two weeks, I have been to Madison twice to attend conferences en route to visiting my mother. The first of these was mentioned in an earlier post, The Culture of Print in Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine. The other, the 20th annual biennial Public Address Conference, has been mentioned earlier and treated as a valuable experience by colleagues of mine. That my puzzlement at their experience has spurred in me a need to take some inchoate feelings and write.

To the extent that the powerful emotions visible in the Rosewater Chronicles 'blog and its commentators reflect their relationship to the honoree at the conference, I demur. But there are some other things that I must point out, with frission.

1. From the keynote, I felt a bit of frustration. The Amateur Humanist has done a good job of parsing the argument of the keynote, and I am grateful for that. I am not a public address critic, and so the genre of the paper may be alien to me. It seemed a bit theory-heavy -- front loading discussions of liberalism before conducting textual analysis. I became a teacher of rhetoric because I am interested in language. Language enables, produces, and generates as by-products some exciting effects, cognitively, intersubjectively and socially. So my desire is to see a paper start with the language, in action, rather than the political philosophy. (But then, this is a public address conference, not a rhetoric conference, and so I need to temper.)

2. Where there was rhetoric, in the first two days of the conference, it was formalist in its orientation. This formalism was discussed as the objection to the "feminine style" line of research -- that focus on the formal features of the style swamped its larger implications for public address studies. So the community does reflect on the formalism that seems to dominate.

This formalism is why projects on visual rhetoric as a form of public address are less persuasive than similar, media studies criticism: by locating the cultural power of images in formal properties, rather than the systems of distribution and legitimation that stand behind those images, they lose me as an audience.

(Note: There were papers that avoided this formalist imperative, and I enjoyed them.)

3. Anne Davis, one of the most precocious and insightful minds I've been able to work with at UMD, now a student at UWM, pointed out the startling lack of diversity in the audience on Friday night (during a mention of Civil Rights in the keynote), and it stung on Saturday AM. Then, a number of images not of people being lynched were described as participating in the style of lynching photography, utilizing its tropes. I don't know that we gain a whole lot in calling photos of Rodney King lynching photos, especially if we are mostly talking about formal similarities primarily. And I was uncomfortable talking about these powerful cultural images in such an undiverse community. There's some awkward feeling of reinscribing the content of the picture in observing it on a powerpoint in an "executive education center."

4. The Public Address community is in transition, to be sure. Dr. Zarefsky, the smartest man in the room, in my book, because he is the man most committed to disciplinary leadership as well as quality scholarship, said that the PAC was moving away from great oratory as a model for scholarship toward "the study of situated rhetorical action," a gesture that is both inspiring (in opening the doors of the community) and confusing, because it seems to me that all rhetorical action is situated. Indeed, if a linguistic act is not a response to the conditions/situation of its utterance/transcription, it isn't rhetorical, is it? There is more to be parsed, there, to be sure; as I said, I think Zarefsky is the smartest man in the room.

4a. I loved Aune's talk, and Josh's presence was a godsend. I regret that I missed his talk.

4b. The panel on Bitzer was amazing. I had never considered whether there was a normative component to Bitzer's work. Bitzer, who is among the smartest men in the room, gave an excellent reply, one that enriched my research because it helped me see Bitzer's relationship not just to Malinowski and Richards, but to the analytic tradition that Malinowski, Richards and Bitzer all descend from. But it seemed like he carried a 30-year-old grudge with Vatz. I don't know what to do with that. Maybe it was a rhetorical flourish, to entertain the audience.

5. That said, what the Rosewater Chronicles blog so positively experienced appeared to be, from the outside in a first-time observer, an air of inwardness. The sense at the conference was one of "arrival," of achieved legitimacy. The lure, to new visitors -- grad students -- was one of aspiration: "you can be one of us." But us, in this case, is them -- the researchers (largely) invited to present.

The whole feeling reminds me of a good book (caveat: have not read it all, yet): Sosnoski's "Token Professionals and Master Critics," which "argues that literary studies trains its practitioners to imagine as the professional norm a sort of career that few of us can ever hope to attain--that of the master critic, or leading intellectual, freed from the demands of service or undergraduate teaching (or, really, much teaching at all) in order to concentrate on 'his own work,' cutting-edge scholarship. In contrast, Sosnoski suggests, most of us end up viewing ourselves as token professionals, who accept the role of the master critic as an ideal, or even a norm, but who spend the vast bulk of our careers doing quite different work: teaching, administering, mentoring, and the like. Thus much of the profession is trained to think of the work we do as inadequate, second-rate" (CCC Review).

My great anxiety is that the PAC conference manifests and reinforces these professional norms. At the second-day luncheon, a young lady asked about the place of pedagogy in the conference. The answer was awkward -- you can take these papers home and work their ideas into your classes, was the gist. That was not the question. But this conference isn't prepared to answer it.

Should it be positioned to discuss pedagogy? The weakness in the research/teaching split is clear when you think about the current fate of the PA curriculum. (How many schools have the survey courses in "British and/or American PA"?_ These are the leaders who could and should grapple with the decline of public address courses in Departments of Communication across the country where such pedagogy would be manifest. (Even Minnesota, where the honoree teaches, lacks a real public address curriculum. What hope do liberal art colleges have of holding onto those courses?)


There is a caveat here. Part of this post stems, of course, in my own frustration. I was once great friends with some of the folks who really enjoyed the community of the conference, and still count myself good colleagues with many, near-friends with some, and very good friends with Josh (no matter the years). My absence from any sense of community could stem from simply not being the honoree's student, or from not being a real public address scholar/teacher. But it could stem from being a token professional, rather than a master critic, in conditions where position as master critic earns one entrance. And if I am reading this correctly, the Public Address conference is both an amazing experience and an eventually counterproductive one for many of the graduate students who will attend, as it becomes larger and more important to attend if you are not presenting. Because many attend who will eventually be the token professional.


All that said: I missed the third day of the conference, because my mother was mastectomized while Angela Ray was speaking. So all of this reflects a partial view. And it reflects a view based on a reading of the "Landmark Essays in Public Address" as my map of the sub-discipline -- little better than Cliffs Notes, I know.

(I am interested in rhetoric as a field of theorizing and of institutional pedagogy from a historical perspective; the presence of rhetoric in the public, political sphere is tangential to me. So maybe I missed the boat, entirely, because, as one colleague put it, "this is not my tribe.")

And my head was probably elsewhere.


The conference was provocative, and provocative things deserve the best I can give, in terms of evaluation, discussion and response. I enjoyed the conference, and while I don't know that I will attend, again, in two years, I will certainly follow what happens in Public Address as a subfield.



DJ Joshie Juice said...

Goodness, David. Fortunately the hand you're biting does not feed you. I had some issues with some talks, but you'll note I chose not to say anything at all. Good advice from my mother, but I tend to reserve for my communities. Or to put it as my father might, don't piss in your own sandbox.

Which you are not doing. Given your tone, though, I would humbly suggest you don't go to the next one.

DG said...

Beardie, I hear you. I think your comments are insightful, but a little disgruntled. It's funny, I felt the outsider through much of the conference, too. And noted the self-congratulatory tone.

My interests in public address stem from the fact that I teach it regularly, but don't really research in it per se. Anyway, you can read my take at my new blog, www.avenhampark.blogspot.com

David said...

JJ and DG,

My tone in the first draft of this post was 80% frustration. The thoughts were always there (you should have heard me whine to WK), but they needed address when reading about how much community energy was present at the conference.

I never felt it, and I needed to articulate why. If I was unsuccessful in articulating it as rooted in the conference, I would know that it would have to be localizable in me.

Now, I missed the celebratory dinner, so maybe I missed the kairotic moments.

But maybe, I hope, my thoughts and the thoughts articulated through Sosnoski helped me find something interesting about the larger enterprise of the conference.

The revision phrases things more tentatively, and sharpens the point. Thanks for the heads up.

David said...

I hope, in the revision, I am staying clear of all sandboxes, professionally speaking.