Sunday, January 20, 2008

Midwest Winter Workshop

Wow, what a weekend it's been! This Saturday, a great group of graduate students in my department hosted the third-annual Midwest Winter Workshop (a.k.a., MW3--you know something's significant when it warrants an acronym). The event brought together faculty and grads from some of the most stellar communication programs across the region. This year the participants hailed from the University of Illinois, Indiana University, the University of Iowa, the University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, and the University of Wisconsin. In years past, the event attracted folks from as far away as Pittsburgh and North Carolina.

The MW3 began with three back-to-back plenary addresses on Saturday morning, which focused on the theme of publics. The featured speakers were U of I's Cara Finnegan, who made the case for better historicization of "visual culture"; UMN's Ron Greene, who stressed the analytic importance of the category "communicative labor" in discussions of public activism; and IU's Phaedra Pezzullo, who explored the rhetorical processes through which deadly environmental hazards in and beyond the workplace have been rendered normal or everyday, and hence not worth publicizing. Needless to say, all three talks sparked lively discussion that lasted throughout the day.

Lunch was followed by the first round of break-out sessions, in which groups of 20 or so gathered to talk about specific themes. I had the good fortune of landing in the "Media and Counterculture" group, where I was joined by U of I's James Hay and Spencer Schaffner, U of W's Rob Howard, and by a talented group of grad students from across the six participant institutions. I talked about The Century of the Self, one of my favorite documentaries (and something I've posted about previously), as well as some books I've been reading that have provoked me to begin digging deeper into the intellectual-historical roots of oppositionalist discourses in cultural studies. (If you're interested, the books are Rachel Bowlby's Carried Away, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's A Nation of Rebels, Preston Shires' Hippies of the Religious Right, Joseph Turow's Niche Envy, and Fred Turner's absolutely brilliant tome, From Counterculture to Cyberculture.) As a whole, the group tried to get at what it means to be "counter" and whether or not the term is politically serviceable in contemporary times.

Thereafter, even smaller groups convened to workshop graduate student writing and research. These break-outs, which were student-led, gave each participant the opportunity to receive feedback on his or her work from a cohort of grad students, in dialog with two faculty members. Personally, I enjoyed not only learning about Erik Johnson (NU), Michael Lahey (IU), Kim Singletary (NU), and Jeff. St. Onge's (IU) work, but also learning, through it, more about the kinds of questions their respective graduate programs are focusing on right now. We covered everything from Google Street View and the racial politics of high fashion to audience labor and emergent constraints on political activism in the United States. Whew!

Practically every faculty member I spoke to during the weekend commented on how much she or he enjoyed every aspect of the MW3. Especially welcome was the opportunity to interact with incredibly bright students from outside of one's home institution. I also heard several colleagues mention how much they appreciated the opportunity to get to know fellow faculty in a smaller, more personable setting than your usual large-scale academic conference. I couldn't agree more.

The MW3 was real gem, and that was due to all the students who made it happen. They're a remarkable bunch who deserve heaps of praise. And here I feel compelled to single out the IU Department of Communication and Culture's own Jeff Motter. He helped conceive of the first MW3 three years ago, when it was hosted at U of I, and both this year and last, he shouldered a major share of the responsibility in organizing the event here at IU. Kudos, Jeff, and thank you for such a memorable weekend.

1 comment:

metaspencer said...

Yep: loved the event! Lots of fun!