A Peripheral Review of Watson 2016

by Andrew Rihn

Because my wife was presenting on one of the panels, I had the opportunity to attend the 2016 “Thomas R. Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition.” The conference (known simply as “Watson”) is a relatively small, relatively prestigious academic conference held every two years at the University of Louisville. Attendees from all over the country arrive in Kentucky, and for three days they present, discuss, and question cutting-edge theories regarding rhetoric, composition, and teaching.

Like all such academic conferences, Watson 2016 had a theme, a big-tent metaphor meant to help guide participants’ ideas and give some focus and cohesion to otherwise diverse presentations. This year’s theme was “Mobility Work in Composition: Transition, Migration, Transformation.” In their Call For Papers, Watson organizers offered a series of questions to help get potential participants thinking.  For instance:

How do or might digital and other technologies shape and afford forms of mobility in composition, of what kind, for whom, and to what effect?

The conference was scheduled to run three days: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. My wife and I made the drive from northeast Ohio to Louisville in about six hours, taking I-71 South nearly all the way down, stopping once for gas and dinner at a White Castle.  Although the conference had made arrangements with a local hotel, my wife and I chose to book a cute bed and breakfast fifteen minutes away from the University. We arrived Thursday evening, but decided to skip that evening’s conference events, a bit tired from the drive, happily giving our evening over to a private hot tub, and Golden Girls reruns on the television.

We set off for the University of Louisville campus late Friday morning, and by 11:30 A.M. we had located parking and found the conference registration site. My wife was presenting later in the day, during the last time slot, around 4:30. She wanted time to herself to finish preparing her remarks, so I set off to explore on my own.

Like her, I work in the field of rhetoric and composition. I work as a tutor in a college writing center, itself a sort of peripheral sub-field of rhet/comp. As I read the conference program, I saw several names I recognized, some personally and some by reputation, and even one of my former professors. Having some time before the next round of presentations, however, I decided to go for a short walk around the campus.

How might we better conceive of and engage the movement of knowledge across boundaries of disciplines, programs, institutions, and routes of production, circulation, reception, execution?

I found myself next to the Speed Art Museum, and, deciding to forgo the conference for a bit, entered. It was an art museum populated like most art museums: the ticket-taker explaining the price levels for different exhibits, the cashier yawning in the gift shop, the guards pacing quietly, the docent leading a chatty tour. I declined to wait for the guided tour, and set off by myself to explore. The art was separated and segregated like art in most museums: by chronology and geography mostly, with the occasional special exhibit slipped in between.

I was soon drawn to one piece, a painting by Italian Cristofo Savolini: “The Expulsion of Hagar,” from 1675. In the Old Testament, Abraham casts Hagar and her son, Ishmael, out into the woods with only a loaf of bread and jug of water. The scene has been painted many times, yet this version was different. The bodies, painted realistically in full detail, stood apart from a solid background of muddy brown. Their images appeared as if clipped from a magazine and pasted on to this field of solid color. The effect was striking, and wholly unexpected for the period.

How does mobility challenge dominant conceptions of and commitments to identities of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, race, class, language, ability, nationality, profession, and place? In what ways might we conceive of and pursue, or resist and challenge, mobilizations of identity in and through our composing, teaching, administration, and research practices?

A placard filled in the details. The background had been intended, but the painting was unfinished; Savolini was killed suddenly in a horse-riding accident. The unfinished painting reveals a bit about his technique (one common at the time). Savolini painted the entire canvas a reddish-brown color first, building up layers of brighter colors for the figures’ skin and clothes in the foreground, allowing these colors to “pop” out from amongst the darker ones.

However, the three figures stand in varying stages of incompleteness. Hagar clutches her bread and water. Abraham’s right foot is disconnected from his unfinished leg. Ishmael’s face is forlorn, his body merely a sketch. Savolini’s sudden death provides an interruption to the expulsion of Hagar. An interruption lasts only a moment, yet Savolini’s painting freezes that moment, allowing us space to reflect on it, interrogate it. The expulsion – a forced mobility – is paused.

The figures exist now in an alternate dimension, freed from the dichotomy of foreground/background. There is no more here and there, us and them. No back story, no future. Only the muddy brown field of color. They float above that murkiness, emerging from it, receding into it. When we lose context, we lose perspective. Without background and foreground, there is no longer a city to be expelled from; no woods to be banished to. When the entire world is a field of mud, it becomes difficult to expel anyone from anywhere.

How might theories of mobility in knowledge, meaning, and identity contribute to or revise our approaches to translation, transfer, and genre and such matters as form, medium, text, and stance?

Upon leaving the Speed Museum, I noticed a few outdoor sculptures, and, it being a sunny enough day, decided to walk the modest grounds and have a look. I was most impressed by a rather simple, even innocuous looking piece. Deceptive at first glance, it was a modified park bench: all white and constructed from “planks” of plastic or steel. It had a certain familiarity, smooth and industrial, a mass-produced look. Except where a usual park bench is about five or six feet long and straight across, this bench looped back into itself to make a complete circle.

“Modified Social Bench C” is part of a series by Danish artist Jeppe Hein. He turns the often solitary act of sitting on a bench into a social event by interrupting an otherwise ordinary practice. He draws attention to that practice, allowing the viewer to re-view from a new perspective. The bench is circular, and this gives it the appearance of a friendly and forgiving social space, one of ergonomic comfort and mutuality. Didn’t my first college composition professor have his students re-arrange our desks from rows into a circle?

Hein’s bench, however, is a closed circle: without an entrance, one must climb over the back in order to sit. The viewer quickly realizes the bench breaks standard design rules for public space. Rather than design for convenience and ease of mobility, it becomes a difficult site to enter, one geared toward hindrance and disruption.  Climbing over and jumping in is awkward for most, difficult for some, and impossible for others.

How might we usefully distinguish among the kinds of mobility experienced and exercised by differently positioned actors in our field?

Sitting empty, the circular bench looked a little like a corral, or a wall, or a fence. Contrast that to the image of it on the artist’s webpage, however; there, “Modified Social Bench C” is filled with smiling children, sitting comfortably, backlit by a shining sun. Again, the first impression is marked by the positive sociality of the bench, until one notices that a circular bench without entrance is also without exit, a site of immobility. Suddenly the children appear trapped, their smiles set to expire as they become fully aware of their surroundings and its implications, corralled or caged within this social experiment.

Didn’t my first college composition professor have his students re-arrange our desks from rows into a circle? We moved the desks ourselves, every class, even though we knew our actions made the space more difficult for students who entered late, or for students who had to leave early. Our bodies became interruptions. But like the children in the photo, we smiled too, knowing we had followed instructions, knowing we had completed the task, played the game.

How might the problematics of knowledge mobilization contribute to or help us better grasp composition’s enduring history of poor working conditions and low disciplinary status?

A circular bench, a social space without entrance or exit. Hagar and Abraham unbound, decontextualized above a field of muddy brown. And just a few buildings over, compositionists and rhetoricians discussed the merits, problems, and paradoxes of their field.

Academia has sometimes been described as a “Burkean Parlor.” The rhetorician Kenneth Burke described a certain type of parlor, a sitting room where people hold an ongoing conversation. You enter the room and sit down, without knowing who began the conversation or when. You begin to pick up threads of the conversation, and slowly you chime in. Perhaps over time you even begin to lead the conversation. Others come and go, and after a period, you tire and decide to leave as well. The conversation continues unabated as you exit. The “Burkean Parlor” continues, sustained by newcomers who entered it just as you had, without knowledge of how it began, and without knowledge of where it will lead.

What models of mobility might we advance for what kind of work, and why?

 In that classroom dressed as a circle, the professor still gave out grades. The shape of our conversation had changed, and that is important, but the shape of power remained constant, and that is important, too. We interrupted the structure of the classroom, but not the structure of the system. The Burkean Parlor is an imagined space, full of entrances and exits yet without beginnings or ends. It is an ideal/ized space: without interruption, and without foreground or background. The Burkean Parlor is a field of solid color: murky, unreal, and unable to support the weight of actual bodies.

I left the Speed Museum thinking about what kinds of social situations and social actions are made possible by different locations. I left thinking about classrooms, about museums, about parlors. About conversations I can enter or exit, and about those I cannot. I think about muddy brown fields, about foreground and background. I thought about how mud is itself a context. How whenever I move, I leave footprints, fragments, traces. Sometimes my social situations themselves are muddy; sometimes my only action is to leave behind mud.

In what ways might mobility get taken up in practices and rhetorics of activism in engagements across divides of institution, discipline, program, location, and language?

I returned to the Watson conference and watched as my wife gave her presentation. The last panel of the day, she and her co-panelists discussed “the limits of mobility.” They took the conference theme head-on, challenging it, interrogating it, interrupting it. They discussed the periphery of the field of composition, dislocating themselves, finding fresh perspectives from the margins. They were so smart; I was overwhelmed, unable to formulate a single intelligent question to pose during their question and answer period. Someone else noted that perhaps it was fitting that the panel on limits had been given the last time slot of the conference.

My wife and I left the University campus and got in our car, prepared for the six-hour drive home. We began moving; we became mobile. Congratulating her on her talk, I told her how impressed I am by her.

In Louisville, I leave behind a painting without foreground or background. I leave behind a bench with no beginning and no end. And yet I carry them with me as well. I add them to my archive of memory, my Burkean parlor of remembrances and references.

The sun was setting as we took the ramp to I-71 North. Headlights on, we navigated that darkness together.


Andrew Rihn is a writer of poems, essays, and scholarly articles. He lives in northeast Ohio with his wife, the writer Donora A. Rihn. They share a tiny house near the Portage Lakes with their dogs Choo Choo and Ozu.

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