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Academics Must Get Out of Conference Comfort Zones

by Michael A. Moreno

Michael A. Moreno

Michael A. Moreno

This week, I am attending for the first time the Latinos in Tech Innovation and Social Media, or LATISM, conference in Washington, D.C., and I have been thinking a lot about why higher education professionals, including teachers of writing such as me, should attend conferences like LATISM.

You don’t have to twist arms to get academics to attend discipline-specific meetings. The case has been made, for example, for literature professors to attend the Modern Language Association’s meetings. It’s also not that hard to convince academic department administrators to cover expenses for disciplinary meetings, though it certainly has become more challenging recently as universities facing state funding cuts have tightened their belts. But it’s quite a bit more difficult for academics to make the choice of and case for attending nonacademic, interdisciplinary conferences with broad themes that do not appear to directly relate to their day-to-day responsibilities.

For example, LATISM’s theme is “igniting Latinos to drive the innovation economy.” That sounds great in theory, right? It sure does to me. But what does that have to do with teaching writing? Well, a lot, actually. LATISM has a number of tracks, and each, in one way or another, relates to what I teach in my writing classes: persuasion.

Here are the LATISM tracks and how they relate to my work:

 

  • Business. I teach two business writing classes at the University of Maryland University College. Those classes focus on workplace communication and research-based writing. A professional who is not able to persuade ― using traditional and emerging mediums ― is not likely to be very successful.
  • Civic engagement: I teach two college writing courses at American University (AU). Those classes instruct students on how to weigh in on ongoing debates ― how to make their voices heard in a crowded field. While various studies have found Gen Y to be more or less civically minded than previous generations, I can tell you that the vast majority of students I’ve taught want to contribute in meaningful ways to the causes that move them. In college writing courses, or at least in mine, students transform from passive consumers of information and media into active creators. Simply put, my students are tomorrow’s thought leaders.
  • Diversity and inclusion: Last week, I attended a training session for AU faculty on unconscious bias. Run by representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the training revealed (for some) and reinforced (for people of color like me) the role of faculty members in creating truly inclusive classrooms. This came at a critical time for AU. Like several other universities, AU has been in the media spotlight over student use of the social media app Yik Yak to post racist comments. I’ve written about this before and, at this point, can say that I’m encouraged by the steps AU administrators are taking to promote inclusiveness. Since the Yik Yak comments emerged in the spring, I’ve made a point to use texts that explore White privilege and the institutional barriers that minorities face. After all, rhetoric is a driver of discrimination, and I teach rhetoric.

 

  • Education: It’s easy for higher ed professionals to decry the failings of the K-12 system, but too few actually engage with K-12 educators and innovators. Broad, interdisciplinary meetings can foster collaboration ― or at the very least help academics better understand what’s working and not working in primary and secondary schools. Best-case scenario: Game-changing ideas emerge.
  • Health: One of my college writing courses at AU is titled “Infected.” It explores past and present debates related to public health, such as those about vaccines, quarantine during crises (such as the Ebola outbreak), exploitive human experimentation and health disparities. There again, rhetoric shapes what our society accepts as ethical.

 

  • Policy: I know I don’t need to explain the role of rhetoric in shaping policy, but let me say this: As an independent voter and rhetoric teacher, I have watched very closely the ongoing GOP presidential primary race. It has produced a number of racist policy arguments. Donald Trump supporters have violently targeted Latinos, citing the candidate’s immigration rhetoric. Ben Carson has made controversial claims about Muslims and gay people. Teachers of all disciplines should be prepared to confront dangerous rhetoric head-on ― and should challenge their students to confront it.  
  • Tech entrepreneurship: Many students today are tech savvy and possess entrepreneurial drive. I encourage my students to transfer their newfound skills of persuasion beyond academia, and tech entrepreneurship is one way for them to do that.

 

If an academic is forced to choose between attending a disciplinary meeting, at which he or she can present in front of an audience of his or her peers, or a nonacademic meeting, at which he or she will be an outsider and perhaps even a learner, the academic most likely will pick the safe bet. I argue that the safe bet is not always the best bet ― for us or for our students.

 

Michael A. Moreno teaches writing at American University and at the University of Maryland University College. Follow him at www.twitter.com/morenoreads.

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