I’m returning from the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association (SWPACA) conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s my first time to this conference, the first time to New Mexico, and the first time to present a paper since my master’s degree days. I’m pleased to report that my paper presentation went well, although I think I excelled more as a panel chair than as a paper presenter. Never mind. I’m fortunate to have skill sets for both.
My paper, Boundary Crossings: (T)here Lies the Trickster, proposed the mythological trickster construct as a contemporary boundary object, synthesizing the boundary object definitions of Star and Griesemer (1989), Popham (2005), and Wilson & Herndl (2007). I used a class I proposed and taught called “Tracking Contemporary Trickster” as a case study demonstrating the benefit that using a trickster lens as boundary object has on the way students see the world.
In a sense this was a remarkably interdisciplinary paper. Although I presented it in one of the Myth and Fairy Tales panels, my topic connected to mythology only in that it used the trickster, a character that appears in many mythologies, as my object of study. My critical approach was application of professional and technical composition theory (the boundary object), while my case study involved pedagogy.
My experience suggests that this interdisciplinarity is the conference’s strength. The conference ethos is deeply accepting and encouraging, and represents, with few exceptions, an invitational rather than persuasive rhetoric. Presentations were not about presenting claims and theories as fact, but were instead aimed at capturing ideas and sharing them with others for consideration and feedback. Post-presentation comments were not about tearing down or critiquing arguments, but about praising areas of strength and offering suggestions for continued, further, or parallel research work. Interdisciplinarity appeared to be encouraged and appreciated, with a range of critical approaches and methods accepted and valued. More importantly, individual presenters were valued, an ethos handed down in large part, as I observed, by the panel chairs.
That said, I didn’t actually find my research niche during the conference. I guess I wasn’t really looking for a niche, but I found several of my ODU colleagues gravitating toward areas of study and consecutive panels in the same areas. Game studies was a very popular strand throughout the conference, and the networking and collegiality of the group was obvious and warm, even inviting to non-games people who were willing to listen and observe. As I seek to further refine my research agenda, particularly in the realm of the intersection of technology and rhetoric, I found the games studies researchers and scholars the most akin to my imagined future work. Digital games are spaces where technology and rhetoric intersect deeply and successfully, as are, perhaps to a lesser extent, classrooms. The parallels between classroom and game are striking and intriguing; there’s a strong case to be made (by Maury Brown or Megan McKittrick and other ODU games scholars, I think) that the classroom itself is game space, or can be conceived of as game space.
A brief chat with Marc Ouellette about indexical signs and algorithmic rhetoric was intriguing. Ouellette shared that he is interested in questions surrounding the practice, current and future, of indexical signs subsuming the human sign — of identity becoming indexed as data points rather than human or lived. We talked very briefly about the use of so-called small data in medical practices for diagnostic and health maintenance purposes, along with the use of health product purchasing data by pharmaceutical companies to target advertising toward those who are depressed or under stress, based on their buying habits. He was quite open to the idea of algorithmic rhetoric. And he offered two pieces of advice: talk to the librarians and follow the content. Librarians use algorithms regularly and are well aware of the impact that algorithms have in providing search results. The content I think is about what people are seeking for, although I’m not entirely sure what that means or how it relates. It likely has to do with the materials that pass through our bandwidth, characterizing and beginning to develop algorithmic modeling that can start predicting search results. Maybe. I’ll need to think and read around this topic.
I also met briefly Stephanie Vie and Dawn Armfield, both rhetoric or composition/rhetoric or digital rhetoric and communications scholars that I follow on either Facebook or Twitter. It’s delightful to connect faces to Twitter handles.
I’m already asking myself if I intend to return next year, and I can’t yet answer that. I find the ethos useful and supportive, inviting, even — but I’m not sure that’s going to be enough. I think it will depend on what I believe I can propose in terms of algorithmic rhetoric or technical literacy at the conference, and whether I can find the right group of people with whom to network. Right now games studies, somewhat to my surprise, feels relatively comfortable, even though I myself neither play the games nor think about or theorize their development. But given the way game studies theory addresses agency and rhetorical choices, along with the digital component and the advanced use of technology to code and play games, the intersection of rhetoric and technology appears, at the moment, to include games studies. Perhaps games studies is a boundary object that will enable me to pull together disparate disciplines in a pedagogically sound way that focuses on the technical writing, rhetorical agency, and user-designed interface.
A final note, about being a panel chair. The Myth and Fairy Tales area chair was originally the panel chair for each of the three Myth and Fairy Tale sessions. However, she fell ill and asked each panel if one member would take on the role of chair for the session. I agreed to do so, which explains how I found myself both chairing and presenting in the same panel. I appreciated the opportunity to chair; as a result, I intend to volunteer to chair additional panels in the future, as appropriate and capable, both as valuable experience and as an opportunity to include the experience on my CV.