I attended the 2016 Cultural Rhetorics Conference at Michigan State University. After finishing the drafts of two dissertation chapters, the conference was a welcome respite from heads-down writing. The trip itself was enlightening, emboldening, and humbling. The work being done by the scholars there is important, building alliances and honoring the space between our knowledges always seems to be at the forefront of thought. As is my usual process after conferences, I am going to outline three different takeaways from the experience.
1. “Wrong Panel”
When you’re at a conference, sometimes you can get caught up so much in the energy that you don’t necessarily pay attention to the details. I had every intention of going to the land-based rhetorics panel in 104B on Saturday morning. I had been eagerly awaiting that panel since I first saw it on the program. Then, being just caught up in speaking to people and the excitement of the conference atmosphere, I accidentally walked into the wrong panel. The panelist looked up, eyes going wide with excitement as one of them said: “Ah! We have one!” I was the only person, outside of the panelists in that room. I realized I was in the wrong place, but I couldn’t leave them.
I stepped inside and took a seat, wondering what neuroqueer rhetoric was. It was a term I had never really come across before except for in passing. All the while, I was listening to the joyful laughs next door. A few more people trickled in, but I stayed put. I knew I could ask the panelist next door for their information later, but I had an opportunity to learn whatever I could in this “wrong panel.”
What is really awesome about these happy accidents is when you’re exposed to something you’ve never really encountered before. When you’re put in front of a whole vast range of knowledge that you’d never much been exposed to. This panel was on neuro-divergence, writers with autism.
This was a great presentation! https://t.co/g8lwL3nLeG
— Chelsea J. Murdock (@ChelseaJMurdock) October 1, 2016
There was talk of burning tables, autistic discourse, about autistic perception of discourse. It opened my eyes to a whole different set of knowledges and experiences. By the end of what was a stand-out panel in my weekend experience, I found myself thankful for my own mistake. Though I missed an eagerly-awaited panel, I was fortunate to walk into a panel that opened my eyes.
I spent hours with Holly Meyers and others who crowded around the making tables. One of the most wonderful aspects of this conference was the space to make– to make connections, to make action, to make things. Holly led me through the process of beading, telling stories as she went and making us laugh with her humor. Nearby, people talked life and theory, good and bad. I’d never considered myself much of a maker, in the sense that I’ve never really been one for yarning, sewing, stitching. I remember my grandmother making quilts, and she taught me some of her craft, but I never enacted it. (I now have the temptation to start trying to make quilts, but that’s for another time.) You can see a bit of my beadwork below.
It was a fantastic first day at Cultural Rhetorics. So many awesome people doing awesome things. pic.twitter.com/EBw9nZuWcz
— Chelsea J. Murdock (@ChelseaJMurdock) October 2, 2016
There was a moment when I got ahead of myself. I began beading without knowing and messed up what progress I made by doing it incorrectly. My beads were loose and ill-done. Holly corrected me, erasing the beads I had sewn down. She set me to work again and made sure that I did it correctly this time around. It was like that moment in the writing process when you realize that you’ve got to erase what you had and start fresh. I’ve heard the two compared before, but I really felt it in that moment as I saw the beads falling back onto the tabletop. I’m used to erasing sentences and rewording them.
— Cultural Rhetorics (@CulturalRhet) October 3, 2016
For many, that room was a community space. People were constantly talking, children were playing, and I’d often get lost in concentration as I tried to “do” the beads right. I met more people in that room and at that table than I had in panels. It was a space for that, for conversation.
Even now, I am still not finished with my beading. I will have it done by the time I finish my planned chapters this semester, and that is enough for me.
Miigwech. Thank you, Holly, for teaching me.
3. The Rhetorical Situation
One of the standout presentations for me was Gail MacKay’s “Beadwork as Rhythm in Being and Function. In that presentation, which was powerful and thought-provoking, Gail put forward a re-envisioned visual of the rhetorical situation after passing around a pipe bag that had been made for her. In the image projected on the screen, Gail explained the various levels and nuances of the rhetorical situation as it might be understood with fire and smoke and land around it. The visualization of it has stuck out in my mind since the conference. I cannot post it here, but I have already asked Gail for a copy and she’s been kind enough to share.
She asked us to take notes, to share how we were receiving her words and ideas. Instead of taking notes, I drew a response on the notecard she gave me. I drew some flowers (ones that were on her pipe bag and others) and then my rough understanding of her drawing. I thought about the drawings that I look at every day and wondered if my meaning was clear. I hoped that it was.
And finally, Lisa King, Peter Cates, Kenlea Pebbles and I presented our panel, entitled “Rhetoric, Place, and the Tension of Memory: Case Studies of Indigenous Presence and Public Memorial Sites,” on Sunday morning. The work of my colleagues is important and necessary, from Lisa and Peter’s work with the Knoxville mounds to Kenlea’s observations on St. Kitts. I learned from each of them and look forward to the next time we are able to meet together again. It seemed to be full-circle for me. I came back around to Etowah in my presentations. From the relative solitude of dissertation work to the wonderful discussion we had, it was a welcome break from heads-down writing. Their enthusiasm was catching and wonderful.
All in all, a great conference experience. I hope to return to East Lansing in two years’ time for the next CRCon!