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CCCC 2006 in Review

M22 The Centrality of Orality: The Conference Paper as a Site of Mediation for Scholarship, Teaching, and Public Performance

Kate Ronald, Meredith Love, and Hephzibah Roskelly engaged their audience in a conversation about the rhetoric of the CCCC conference presentation. Most likely every person in the room had presented at the conference, and each of the speakers connected with this common experience to lead us to consider new ways of framing that experience. The panelists did not sit behind the head table, use electronic visuals or provide handouts. They chatted and laughed with audience members before the session began, and this collegial atmosphere continued throughout the insightful and often humorous presentation.

Kate Ronald began the session by expressing how presenters both desire and dread the opportunity to present at CCCC. I recognized my own desire to attain this professional milestone, to have my name in the program book, and to attract listeners to hear my ideas and discuss my research. Yet, when she described the dread that grows exponentially as the hour of performance approaches, I also recalled the dry mouth, shaking knees, and mental blankness that have accompanied my opportunities to speak publicly. Every treacherous nerve fiber of my being resonated with her description of presenting a paper as dislocation, as an out-of-body experience. Like Ronald, I also have given a paper and then have not been able to remember much about the experience afterward. Ronald reminded those at the session, that with eyes glued to a quivering paper, a nervous presenter focuses so completely on the text that it can become a barrier between speaker and audience.

Ronald advised overcoming that barrier by seeing the conference salon as a classroom. Presenters can move beyond fixation on the text by cultivating a pedagogical relationship between themselves and the audience. She clarified this "pedagogical relationship" as more mindset than actions. In other words, it does not imply that presenters need to ask audience members to free write or to go around the room introducing themselves. Instead, the pedagogical relationship expresses one possible rhetorical purpose for the CCCC presentation: to teach. Speakers who name teaching as their purpose find the motivation to look up from the text and engage the audience.

She also cautioned that conference presenters should know their subject matter well enough to be able to talk about it without being tied to the paper in their hands. Not that they shouldn't bring a written text, but if—due to some unforeseen misfortune—the last four prepared pages should be missing, the speaker should still have something to say. Speakers should be able to think on their feet.

Following Ronald's description of the pedagogical model, Margaret Love envisioned the conference presentation as a performance. She reviewed the long-standing, conflicted relationship between rhetoric and acting. Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian all taught rhetors to consider the character they create and offer to the audience. In particular, Love noted that Quintilian advised students to study music and acting to gain expressive vocal and physical practice necessary for effective oratorical delivery. She cited 18th century rhetoricians Gilbert Austin and Thomas Sheridan who both advocated teaching students how to use the body to deliver texts "with spirit." Love emphasized that the goal was for speakers to appear relaxed and natural. Students (and CCC presenters) need to expend effort to appear effortless. She also compared the rhetorical skill necessary for effective public speaking to method acting, quoting acting theorists Anna Deavere Smith and David Krasner. Love encouraged future presenters to "act" in a way that expresses our enthusiasm for our work and the opportunity we have to share it at CCCC.

Like Ronald and Love, Hephzibah Roskelly lamented the current "default position" regarding conference presentations: reading a paper. She then listed possible reasons for the prevalence of the default position, reclaimed that default position, explained how manner of presentation is a rhetorical choice, and finally described how explicit choice of presentation manner might be worked into our practice at CCCC. Roskelly noted that CCCC participants currently name the practice as "reading" or "giving" a paper without thinking about the action. She wondered how an organization devoted to rhetoric could seem to have so little understanding of the rhetorical moment of the conference talk.

She then explored possible reasons for the existence of the text-oriented default position. First, text has powerful appeal for us because, as writers and writing teachers, the text is the way we establish ourselves as professionals. In addition, the default position is influenced by our notion of the professor. She identified the college professor as a "secular cleric," and suggested that just as the priest presents not himself but the "Word," the default position disembodies the secular cleric so that the text can speak. Thus the speaker "gives" a paper. Thirdly, she insightfully pointed out that "embodiment carries enormous risks, especially for women and people of color." People who have experienced rejection or oppression based on their physical characteristics understand the risks of embodiment. Criticism of an embodied presentation touches the person; criticism of text does not. The disembodied default position is safer. Finally, the default position serves our common need to produce texts for publication.

Despite the panels criticism of the default position, Roskelly affirmed the rhetorical choice of using the conference presentation to develop texts for publication. As an intentional choice, the default position of reading a paper could be made even more useful to presenters and more satisfying for audiences. Presenters could explicitly ask the audience to comment on particular sections or to suggest relevant sources or views to consider. The presenter would not be "reading scared," but guiding the audience through the paper: looking up, considering pacing, and providing the necessary meta-commentary to facilitate discussion. Some sections of long papers could be summarized. A paper could be posted on the web before the conference for attendees to read in advance. The decision to read a paper (rather than to teach or to perform a paper) is a rhetorical choice that entails a particular manner of presentation.

Summing up the panel, Roskelly argued that conference presenters, as rhetors, need to choose the manner of presentation according to their rhetorical aim. If the purpose is to develop a text for publication, the speaker should choose the default position which she renamed the "scholarly/reading model." Speakers who want the audience to consider new methods of practice should choose Ronald's teaching model (the "pedagogical relationship"). Finally, if the speaker's goal is to move the audience to action, as so ably done by the 2006 Distinguished Guest Speaker Patricia J Williams, then the choice would be Love's performance model. Roskelly suggested that the CCCC develop a system of markers for manner of presentation, and employ the markers in future conference programs. The marker would identify each speaker's intention to read, teach or perform. In the lively discussion period, Christine Casanave suggested that instead of being listed in the program, the system of markers could be explained in the call for papers. The call for papers could require potential presenters to identify the rhetorical purpose of their proposals.

— Joleen Hanson

CCCC ConventionFor more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.