Post written by 8 minute read
February 22, 2019

Making Future Matters

A reflection on the digital text and the 2018 Watson Conference

Making Future Matters (2018) is a deeply collaborative digital text — and it also served as the theme for the 2018 Watson Conference. The conference theme asked attendees to consider what matters in our scholarly pursuits and to whom such work matters, and to think about “how our work materializes (in) the world.” In this interview, editors Rick Wysocki and Mary P. Sheridan discuss their goals for the conference and the text, their commitment to amplifying new ideas and new voices in the field, and how Making Future Matters helped shape the Watson Conference.

Much like the conference, Making Future Matters emphasizes discussion and collaboration. Through the main essays and the response essays, Sheridan and Wysocki created a model for open access, digitally supported, collaborative conversation. In reflecting on how the text reflects and offers new perspectives on the field, they write:

One focal point of the collection was attending to who and what are rendered legible in our field. What issues have been our historical matters of concern, and what has been left out? Whose voices are privileged, and how can we become more inclusive in embodied and epistemological ways? These questions were answered in a variety of ways, as illustrated by the cross-talk between the main essays and the response essays. The main essays obviously pushed for new directions in the field, and the response essays gave a sort of meta-commentary to consider what other concerns and conversations might be included. So while there were different specific topics and issues across all of the collection’s pieces, we saw a larger commitment to amplifying and circulating new voices and directions in our work. Across these essays, there was a shared attention to collaborative, responsive, and engaged knowledge-making that we viewed as one of the highlights of the collection.

That responsive knowledge-making also extended to considerations of accessibility that informed the creation and development of the final product. Wysocki and Sheridan write:

A central concern we had was balancing the exploratory nature of a digital collection with an ethical attention to accessibility. So often, the exciting “newness” of working digitally can lead people to forget the need to be inclusive of diverse audiences with different needs. So, from the beginning, we were committed to materializing a webtext that was experimental and exciting but that didn’t go so far as to lose readers. On the technical side, this meant using HTML5’s semantic markup in meaningful, accessible, and rhetorical ways. Of course, we had many conversations with each other and with authors about multimodal affordances and design as well. So we hope readers see this webtext as one that explores and experiments, but that it first of all is committed to making new knowledge in accessible and inclusive ways.

The editors also emphasize that this collection represents the development of the field in multiple ways, not only as a digital text that centers accessibility but also as one that provides space for new voices and new ideas. Sheridan and Wysocki regard Making Future Matters as a starting point rather than a finished product:

The work of amplifying voices and responding consequentially to pressing issues and concerns is not a “one-off,” so it’s important to view this collection not as a finished project but rather as an indication of a number of necessary and important undertakings. We hope that people take up some of these directions and run with them. Additionally, we were thrilled to see the collaborative activity among senior and emerging scholars, often in different subdisciplines, that materialized throughout this project. Again, it’s this commitment to shared knowledge-making that we would love to see taken up and pushed further.

Sheridan, as the Conference Director, was able to extend the goals of Making Future Matters to the Watson Conference. The theme of the conference created space for ongoing amplification of conversations that started in the text, and helped shape the event from the CFP onward:

A perk of running a conference is the ability to amplify conversations that we think are important. For this conference, I (Mary P) paired my long-time interest in how writing studies teacher-scholars foster responsive work with my more recent interest in how feminist new materialists are pursuing similar projects. In particular, I appreciate these theorists’ overt ethical commitments to making work materialize with consequentiality and to theorizing methodological possibilities for doing that. Consequently, I invited writing studies scholars across disciplinary subfields and ranks, from diverse institutions and parts of the country, to explore the matters of what futures we in writing studies would like to promote, whether we adopt new materialist lenses or not. From the call-for-proposals to the edited collection to the conference itself, we hoped to provide multiple low-barrier opportunities for people to explore these ideas and to learn from and partner with others who are investigating similar questions. We’re pleased people at and beyond the conference have continued these conversations, sometimes highlighting new ideas, sometimes challenging existing ones.Such work is not easy, but we encourage people (ourselves included) to productively engage in the issues that matter to our field, perhaps especially when that engagement encourages deliberation upon overlooked or ignored issues or when that engagement amplifies voices too seldom foregrounded in our disciplinary conversations.

Sheridan and the conference team looked for ways to bring the conference, attendees, text, and ideas together. The team built multiple entry points for discussion and engagement, including offering the collection as an open access document before the conference and creating “‘structured serendipity’ through shared meals and social time where people find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with others who may share their interests.” As a key portion of the conference theme, Making Future Matters garnered new attention and helped direct conference conversation. Wysocki and Sheridan shared some of their reflections about the relationship between the text and the conference:

We were so pleased to learn that the collection received over 12,000 hits in September and October (prior to the end of the conference), which speaks to both the collection’s timeliness and CCDP’s wide readership. We loved hearing how others were thinking through and across these essays in their own conference presentations, in the Q&A, and in hallway conversations.

Further, they hope that the text continues to shape potential collaborations and other forms of work in the field:

In addition to the topics, we also wanted folks to think about the materializations of these arguments through digital scholarship, both because of the ways digital scholarship circulates and because of how digital materializations entangle ways of knowing. We particularly valued collaborating with senior scholars who may not have had the same composing opportunities in their graduate education. We all have an obligation to understand diverse materializations of our scholarly work—especially those of us sitting on hiring or tenure committees—and since there’s nothing like learning by doing, we were happy to use the composing for this collection both to support that learning as well as to make the work of materializing digital scholarship visible, as evident in Rick’s response essay.

The discussions generated by Making Future Matters ideally will not stop now that Watson has ended, however. Wysocki and Sheridan note that one of their goals “was to contribute to conversations regarding how our disciplinary knowledge circulates and enters into consequential relationships with world. Or, simply, what is our knowledge doing, how do we assess the effects of that doing, and how can we materialize our knowledge in even more effective ways.” Collaboration, they note, is a central element of that materialization in both the conference and Making Future Matters itself: “At this point it might not need to be said, but you would be hard-pressed to find an indication of even the possibility of the lone-scholar ideology of knowledge-making in this conference and collection. At every level, collaboration and responsiveness to others was a central phenomenon.”

Wysocki and Sheridan also reflected on the conference itself, noting two highlights from the event, including the format of the keynote sessions and the affective dimension of conference discussions. They write:

First, on a programmatic level, we continue to value how the keynote sessions encourage structured opportunities to connect. The current format (10 minute recap/extension of the keynote essays, 30 minutes Q&A, 5 minute respondent comment) provides people extended opportunities to talk with each other, to find their way into disciplinary conversations, and to support others as they do the same. Second, on an affective level, we were struck at how the keynote essays highlighted entrenched concerns and asked us to leave the well-worn grooves of how things too often go. Despite the challenging topics, these keynote essays also offered hope; even in face of trenchant concerns, we can work together toward more inspiring possible futures.