By Natalie Malin, Texas Woman’s University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I had heard about the famed national Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and was thrilled to finally be able to attend one because Houston is in driving distance from my home near Dallas. Ok, so I’ll admit I didn’t drive—a colleague did—because I didn’t trust my 11-year-old 166,000-mileaged Camry to make the four-hour trip south without a hitch. Good thing, too, since two weeks after we returned from CCCC, both rear wheels needed new bearings, yet another expense that made me want to hurry up and finish my dissertation so I can stop living off ramen. Ugh.
An extra surprise was that I also had the good fortune of having my proposal accepted, but after the initial excitement I felt from being acknowledged, I began to worry if I was up to snuff when compared to other professionals who had become regulars at the humungous venue. What should I wear? What should I pack? How do I introduce myself? Would anyone approach me? Is this sucker going to be all it’s cracked up to be? Imposter syndrome was seeping into my pores reminding me of the anxiety I felt right before taking my comprehensive exams. I also had to find substitutes for all the composition classes I taught—at both colleges—and trust my 15-year-old and 19-year-old to not burn down our little house while I was away for three nights and four days, something I had never done before. I willed myself to enjoy this behemoth because this was my chance to experience it firsthand. I felt a bit guilty because I was actually looking forward to having a break from teaching, cooking, making my bed, and commuting an hour, almost as much as going to this thing.
So here are this newcomer’s first impressions: arriving at the conference the day before workshops begin is a brilliant idea if you can swing it. You have time to walk around and explore the layout of the hotel and meeting rooms when you do this. Cities win bids to host CCCC because of many things, one of which is that they have enough hotel and convention space to hold 3,500 teachers and administrators, so saying the Houston Hilton of Americas is big is like saying writing professors like books. However, it seemed to me that most conference attendees appeared to arrive Wednesday afternoon, but they missed workshops by doing so, or at least the morning ones. Since I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to attend a CCCC convention again, I was on a mission to do everything I could to get the full experience.
CCCC was not what I expected. It was better. For example, the first workshop I went to was a reading workshop, and at first I was shocked that only half a dozen of us sat around the five small round tables. Where was everyone? Is this normal? I have no idea why, but for some reason I expected 100 people to be at workshops and for them to be run very formally. Not so. After about an hour into the three-and-a-half-hour workshop, I felt like I was chatting with friends who really wanted to help their students and share what they learned from their own experiences and failures. For example, we teach students how to improve their writing, but we usually don’t give them explicit directions on how to read. Hmmm, so interesting. I took notes in my wide-ruled spiral notebook as fast as I could and no one made me feel silly for doing so. No one was in a suit either, and come to think of it, I don’t think anyone wore a tie. Most impressive was that no one introduced themselves as “Dr. so and so” either when we went around the room for introductions. Wow.
The second workshop I attended after scarfing down some trail mix was on disabilities. I only had an hour break between the two workshops and did not realize I would continue chatting with this group even after our time was up. Thank goodness I had some snacks and a water bottle stashed in my oversize purse because I didn’t want to go all the way back up to my room on the 19th floor on the other side of the Hilton. I also didn’t think I’d have time to hit a restaurant with just an hour, assuming that the Papasitas restaurant and open-faced bar in the hotel lobby would be slammed. Again, only a small group of people attended this workshop, but I learned quickly that collegiality tends to improve if attendance size is more manageable.
The presenters were so down to earth yet brilliant without being know-it-alls. They shared some jokes with us and created a collaborative environment that was yet again stimulating. I learned about the usage of style sheets on Microsoft Word and felt like a dork for not clicking on them sooner since I tend to be a curious person. I was also a bit embarrassed when I learned I was sitting next to and chatting it up with Will Hochman, who couldn’t have been a nicer person. Hochman, who used to be editor of these Kairos CCCC Reviews, noticed I had a sticker on my nametag signifying that I was writing reviews for Kairos, and even introduced me to one of the editors personally—Andrea Beaudin, who just happened to be one of the presenters at this workshop; talk about kismet.
After a couple hours’ break I went to the Newcomers' Orientation. People came from Jamaica, Canada, Tokyo, and Guadalajara! I would guess about 75 of us sat in the audience while chairs of different committees within CCCC introduced themselves and showed us a very informative slide presentation. They talked about ways to connect whether it be via Twitter, the Google app NCTE Go Mobile, the whiteboards in the hallways where we could use dry erase markers to contribute answers to prompts, or even the 4chouston.com hospitality website, and so on. Everyone was so upbeat and happy we were here and kept reminding us to ask anyone, especially those with a yellow Volunteer ribbon on their nametag, questions about anything, noting that they wanted us to make friends. And they meant it.
Afterward, I learned that many conference goers tend to meet up with their alma maters for dinner on Wednesday, the night before the conference officially begins. That was a lovely surprise. My friend I drove down with texted me while I was in the Newcomers' Orientation inviting me to dinner, and she was willing to wait for me too. I met up with some people whose names I knew, but whose faces I had not ever seen. I acted like a schoolgirl again, but this time righted myself much quicker than when I found out Will’s last name. They were wonderful—letting me gush about everything from my experiences that day to my research—and gave me their cards too. I decided right then and there I was going to do the same when the shoe is on the other foot.
When I returned to my quiet, clean room with a beautiful view, I was tired but too wound up to sleep right away. I had been up very late the night before grading stacks of papers and thought I would jump into my jammies and be out, but I needed to play with all my handouts, look over my notes, and peruse the booklets on things to do in Houston and things associated with CCCC. I was so glad I brought empty tote bags, and this was only the preconference papers.
The next morning, I went to the Newcomers' Coffee Hour which started at 7:30 a.m. Yes, 7:30 a.m. My grogginess wore off the instant I sipped the super strong coffee and began getting to know some of the others at the table I sat at. One woman was from Austria and handed me her card with a smile in the first two minutes of our conversation. Another one gushed with me over the sheer size of the hotel and the beautiful chandeliers and light fixtures. Together we learned of things like Cynthia Selfe’s retirement, and I felt lucky to be present again. No one was stuffy!
Then the opening session of the conference was impressive. It was held in an adjacent and equally large building and was filled to capacity, which I would guess was about 300–400 people. Sondra Perl, another one of my heroes, was also retiring this year and gave a moving speech after accepting her Exemplar Award, noting that emancipatory pedagogy is a must. After her, Chair Joyce Locke Carter was fun to watch as her image with various light shows was projected onto the screen behind her. Some of her most poignant statements included “Failure is how we learn to write,” “Don’t give power to a technocrat,” and that “Disrupting is a stance, a mindset.” She also listed dozens of innovations created by those in our profession, such as CompPile, eServer, Kairos, and the WAC Clearinghouse. My hand was starting to cramp from taking notes, but I didn’t care.
I could write several more pages easily but want to leave readers with this, since much of what I would say is more glowing reviews about the unprecedented organic networking that happens at CCCC. Go to CCCC if you can. Don’t be intimidated to walk up to someone and initiate a conversation. People started gabbing with me in the elevator and while waiting for the shuttle to the Bedford/St. Martin’s party at the Astros ballpark. Bring comfy clothes and good shoes because you will be walking a lot in between sessions. Get outside just for a breather, too, if you can because, I tell you what, I was not prepared for all the fabulous non-stop intellectual conversation. It was wonderful to be surrounded with like-minded people and learn from them, but when I walked across the street to Discovery Park, a small wonderful space downtown where tall birch trees, public art, and fountains abound, right before heading back to Dallas, all I wanted to do was let everything sink in so I wouldn’t forget. I have to find a way to go again.