CCCC 2006 in Review
In the history of magic in the United States, Chicago is an important city. In the mid-twentieth century, trailblazing performer Bert Allerton opened up the restaurant as a venue for magic when he performed tricks with cards and rope at tables in posh restaurants such as the Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel. At around the same time, Chicago barkeeps such as Matt Schulien, Johnny Paul, and Heba Haba Al amused patrons with raucous jokes and sleight of hand delivered along with the drinks. In television's infancy, when Chicago's Don Alan starred in "The Magic Ranch," the first series to regularly feature magic, there were five magic shops in the Loop. One of the most important ones, the National Magic Shop, was in the Palmer House, and each day I couldn't help imagining I'd turn a corner and find it.
I have been a magician for 35 years, a writing teacher for 18 and a writing program administrator for less than one. This year marked my first visit to Chicago and my first CCCC. Since I cannot compare this years' CCCC to other CCCC's, I shall compare it with magicians' conventions I have attended.
One obvious similarity is the extent to which commerce seems to dominate both types of conferences. The dealer rooms at magic conventions are filled with displays of colorful tubes, boxes with fake Chinese characters, silver balls of various diameters, and a wide array of cards, cups, and pans. Between lectures and performances, the magicians go up and down the aisles looking for the newest miracles that will amaze the crowd at their next show. The more scholarly magicians look for the magic books, especially the old ones, because they realize that the best new ideas are to be found in the older books that no one pays attention to anymore. The younger magicians purchase the many instructional DVDs that are available, and they practice until their performances are proficient but pale copies of the ones on the DVDs. At whatever level and whatever specific interest, though, the dealer room is a central meeting area. Everyone passes through the dealer's room at least a couple of times each day, and everyone spends money there.
The exhibition area at the CCCC seems to fill some of the same social function as a meeting place, and as a place to while away the time between events. Certainly, purchases are made and new ideas are sought, but to a much greater extent than at the magician's convention, the commerce goes both ways. Many of the people walking the aisles have written the books, or at least contributed to the journals that are on exhibit. There is also more at stake here, since most attendees at magicians' conventions are amateurs on vacation while the CCCC is a conference for professionals and soon-to-be professionals. There are more products, which makes sense since there are certainly more writing teachers and students who need instructional materials than there are magicians who need equipment and information.
Even so, the sheer size of the exhibition hall at CCCC filled me with awe. I looked at all those books and wondered if, in fact, there are really that many different ways to teach writing. After all, in the magic literature, there are often hundreds of minute variations on the same card trick, and magicians often debate with evangelical zeal the relative value of them. To the non-magician public, however, all of them produce the same effect and are therefore the same.
Some magician's conventions, such as Abbott's Get-Together and Hank Lee's Cape Cod Conclave, are actually organized by magic dealers and manufacturers. Sometimes, the dealers donate some books or apparatus for a raffle, or maybe the sponsoring magic company gives away a collectors' medallion or souvenir booklet. There are, however, no giveaways of anywhere near the same magnitude as the jaw-dropping Bedford/St. Martins party held at the Field Museum. We had free run of the museum, free food, free alcohol, free dinosaurs. I would imagine this is as close as I will get to the sorts of events at which big money people are courted. (Or, perhaps, I am being courted. Ever since I became the head of the freshmen writing program at Drexel, I have become sought after by book reps. Back at home, one of them followed me to my car and offered to fill the parking meter for me.)
In addition to the financial aspects of the conferences, it was my pleasure to see that both magicians and compositionists appreciate mastery. Magicians conventions, or at least the larger ones, are organized around the talents of a handful of performers/lecturers who appear on stage and/or close-up shows, and who present lectures in which they teach their tricks. Over the years, I watched and sometimes met the finest magicians in the world, such as Dai Vernon, about whom the book The Magician and the Cardsharp was recently written. I also got to watch the legendary misdirection guru Slydini, close-up magic genius Albert Goshman, and Chicago's own comedy/magic legend, Jay Marshall. These and many other masters of the art of magic performed and lectured and (usually) politely answered the questions of the magic lovers who flocked around them.
The CCCC is not organized in the same way. Yes, there were some marquee names in the mix, but it would be impossible for anyone to see everything since dozens of panels and workshops are happening at the same time. The panels I attended were hit and miss, although I got a good chance to see the different ways that people approach the work of teaching writing and administering writing programs. For example, I was engaged by the panel at which dance was considered with respect to writing pedagogy (B.02) as well as the panel at which I learned just how deeply writing program administrators hate the SAT writing test (G.09).
It was a special treat for me to see two masters. Peter Elbow (A.42), who had to be moved to the main ballroom to accommodate the overflow crowds, was probably the first compositionist I was aware of, since an idealistic teacher in my undergraduate years assigned Elbow's Writing Without Teachers. I was tickled to see him in person. He has the ease of a man who knows his status is assured, and it was a great pleasure to hear him extend some ideas from his early work about the importance of reading out loud. The other masterful performance I saw was by the Distinguished Guest Speaker and MacArthur Genius, Patricia J. Williams, who calmly and precisely blended the personal with the political. Her stories of her family were engaging, as were her stories of sparring with conservatives, and I kept thinking how she was worth whatever the Bedford/St. Martin's people paid her.
Magicians who go to conventions frequently will tell you that the most important events are not on the schedule-the "real work" can be seen and discussed at private sessions in hotel rooms, or in nearby bars or diners. Magic is about secrecy-the best ideas are to be "kept under your hat," so to speak, and therefore the less-connected, neophyte magicians will not get to attend the events held by and for the more experienced magicians. It may disappoint you to hear that as long as I have been doing magic, I have never attended one of these informal sessions at a convention. Truth is I have never been invited to one. I tell myself that it's because of shyness. I also tell myself that it's because I need my sleep at night.
Perhaps the "real work" in composition studies also happens informally, in-between the panels and workshops and SIGs, in the public and private spaces in and near the hotel. For me, there were three of these informal events, each of which was a highlight of my trip to CCCC. The first, very brief, meeting happened at the beginning of the conference, after the Writing Program Administrator's breakfast that my friend and CCCC guide, Will Hochman, suggested I attend. While it is always a great pleasure to see Will, it was a special joy to see some of my old comrades from our graduate school days at the NYU Expository Writing Program. My chats with Alfie Guy, Rita Malencyzk, and Lauren Fitzgerald were extremely brief, but they brought back vivid memories of times that seemed difficult, but which I now realize were mostly fun. I also attended a dinner at Vong's Thai Kitchen with Will and Mike Palmquist and Chris Dean, who discussed conference sports and patiently explained to me the difference between apparatus and scaffolding. I then gave these academics the magic dessert of a card trick and an exhibition of wooden cigarette manipulation. Finally, on my last night, I hung out with some of my colleagues in the Philadelphia area chapter of the Writing Program Administrators. While I didn't learn much in the way of "real work" at any of these meetings, they were all opportunities to reestablish old relationships or forge new ones, and this is a skill that our field and I must cultivate.
When I first planned my trip to Chicago, I had fantasies of making a magic pilgrimage. Unfortunately, Chicago is not the magic city it once was. While there used to be five magic shops in the Loop, now there are none. The magic shops that are left have all moved to the suburbs, or at least away from the central part of town. The old spots for close-up magic are either gone or not to be found by outsiders like me. Even so, there was some magic at CCCC: mastery of any kind is magical, and from the commerce in the exhibition room to the academic practices in sessions, there I experienced intelligent collegiality. I'm ready now to do the real work; to use sleight of mouth; to manipulate apparatus; to produce, with sleeves rolled up to the Elbow, fans of cards and colored scarves and scholarship.
— Fred Siegel
For more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.