Monday, November 16, 2009

129. NCA: The Reflection: ASHR

There were some major changes in NCA this year, as I experienced it. and they are worth reflecting on.

1. The biggest, for me, is the decision by the leadership of the American Society for the History of Rhetoric to no longer host a pre-conference at NCA. Instead, they will host panels as an affiliate organization within NCA, but move their pre-conference to the Rhetoric Society of America's meeting in Minneapolis.

This is a decision that I think stems from two problems:
1a. ASHR has always felt a bit embattled at NCA. On the one hand, they are allotted upwards of 15 panels at every NCA -- among the highest number of any affiliate division. (For point of reference, the International Listening Association, another affiliate association which I am familiar with, has twice as many members (three times as many paying members, according to the ASHR board meeting), gets one panel and one business meeting session.) Yet, because ASHR is focussed on the history of rhetoric, they occupy a niche that increases a sense of isolation.

For point of reference, the "rhetorical and communication theory" division of NCA accepts something like one in four panel proposals, but definitely emphasizes contemporary research. The goal is the creation and application of rhetorical theories (and communication theories), not the historical study of them. And this distinction splits hairs if you are a social scientific scholar of interpersonal communication, but it matters a lot if you are a historian of rhetoric. ASHR, on the other hand, accepts at a much, much higher rate (and the first thing a grad student attending NCA needs to learn is how to disperse their risk in applying to present among the divisions). Is "rhetoric" underserved at NCA? No, I'd wager. Is "historical studies of rhetoric prior to the 20th century" underserved? Probably not, based on the membership in ASHR. But as my student, Beth Schoborg, put it, to be in rhetoric is to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. It is our nature to feel embattled, outnumbered, and uncomfortable.

1b. Second, I think that ASHR has had a problem thinking though what the purpose of the symposium (formerly called the "preconference") was. In some years, it was organized under a thematic calls for papers, but outside that general thematic, there was little about it that wasn't just "another selection of the panels typically held during NCA." In other years, it was more planned, more structured -- a larger proportion of invited speakers, invited to engage each other, terminating (in the case of the Seattle symposium) in products like the Viability volume. But it hasn't always been clear what the purpose of the symposium was -- as both a part of and a counterpoint to the NCA programming, and as a means of fostering the growth and identity of ASHR.

I have a set of anxieties that follow from these decisions.
1c. First, if, in fact, RSA is a more natural fit for ASHR members, that is potentially problematic. Will ASHR membership flatline if its symposium is placed at a conference where its members also attend? (What is the incentive to pay two annual membership fees to attend what is, functionally, one conference experience?) The journal will become the primary reason to join.

1d. Second, there are many years when I must decide whether to attend NCA or RSA. I lack travel support enough to attend both. I have the luxury of not being institutionally compelled to attend either, but many institutions build an expectation around NCA attendance -- it's where they recruit students, interview job candidates, and so on. How will this inflect attendance at ASHR and membership in ASHR?

1e. Finally, there was a way that the position of embattledness encouraged an investment in ASHR among NCA members. Taking a role in ASHR meant sustaining that which needed to be sustained. Will that imperative diminish without the symposium?

2. Additionally, ASHR voted to add a "board of advisors" to ASHR. An organization with 150 members, maximum, wants to pull another half dozen into leadership roles without any formal responsibilities. It's not quite articulated, yet, but it could go in either direction: an important move to create a visible leadership, or a two-level hierarchy which could cause some complications, and perhaps undermine what little prestige there is to being on the committee that makes ASHR work

3. All that said, I was happy that Dr. Bruss referenced my work on the ASHR website as providing a helpful tool for scholars in rhetoric. And Dr. Graff referenced the Advances volume that I worked with Dr. Enos to construct. Service is what I am good at, not because I lack other chops, but because I am sensitive to what is needed by the communities I work and live in, and I know the paths to fulfill those needs. (The same skill is necessary for research, as well, but I take less pleasure in that.)

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