Symposing as Happening

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by Jenn Fishman and Darci Thoune

This is the fifth post in an occasional series affiliated with the Writing Innovation Symposium (WIS), a 2-day annual event hosted online and in Milwaukee, WI, by a group that includes Darci and Jenn. Learn more below and in posts tagged “writing innovation” and “symposium.” 

Professional meetings are a mixed bag, whatever we call them: conferences, conventions, institutes, seminars, or workshops. On one hand, they give us chances to share work, learn from each other, and network beyond our home programs, departments, and campuses. On the other hand, conference-going can seem obligatory (i.e., just another CV line); attending can present real hardships, financial and otherwise; and too often professional meetings reinforce institutional biases. So, how do we make choices about what to participate in, how, when, and why? 

Some of us involved in the Writing Innovation Symposium (WIS) recently asked ourselves these questions thinking about our own, much beloved annual event. The WIS just turned 5, and 29 of us celebrated with an article that appears in Community Literacy Journal (17.2). Our conversations were free-ranging reflections on our upstart event, a local meeting with national reach that usually registers about 100 onsite and online participants, all writers and writing educators. Talking with each other confirmed our sense that the WIS is a “happening,” which Geoff Sirc defines as “a space no one wants to leave.” That feeling was shared by one-time attendees and regular participants. It even inspired some colleagues, including Jessie Wirkus Haynes at Bellin College and Barb Clauer and Melissa Kaplan at Lansing Community College, to plan WIS satellite events that will take place on their campuses later this year. 


Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin hosts the annual Writing Innovation SymposiumMarquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin hosts the annual Writing Innovation Symposium



But what happens at the WIS or any other professional meeting to make it a “happening”: to make participants feel drawn to stay or, in our case, to return from year to year and even to extend their experience in some way?  While we don’t have a single answer or recipe to share, we have some ideas.

We notice, for example, that the WIS centers us as writers as well as writing educators, and the event itself centers on interactivity that is rooted in relations. For example, in 2023 when our theme was “Writing As_____,” plenary presenter Melissa Tayles did more than talk to us about trauma-informed writing pedagogy. She got us writing and helped us develop what she described as “sustainable plans for instructor well-being and regulation in the writing process.” The next day at the plenary workshop, Barb and Melissa invited us to write collaboratively, and we spent 2 hours immersed in the collective creativity of their Community-Generated Poetry Project. Before and after these sessions, we talked to each other. We talked about the plenaries and the courses we were teaching. We talked about our students, our writing research, and our families. We swapped references and recipes. We connected as writers and writing educators—and as people. At the closing session, when a student group called The Comet Project performed some of our poems (from the plenary workshop), we were rapt. Together, we laughed at the humor they found in our words, and we were moved by the depth and emotion they discovered in our drafts. When they finished, as we applauded and applauded, it sure seemed like no one wanted to leave. 

We draw from this set of observations a sense of how important it is for conferences and symposia to welcome us as we are and wish to be, both professionally and more broadly, more personally. We see how glad WIS participants are, including ourselves, to reciprocate: to offer things we know about writing and to glean new knowledge—and not just by listening. WIS taps into a shared desire for something that might be comparable to the hands-on learning that many of us like to incorporate into our classes. WIS also cultivates a robust “underlife” by giving participants so many opportunities for the exchanges they wish to have over and above–as well as before, during, and after—formal programming. 

As we and our WIS colleague Jennifer Kontny embark on more formal inquiry into what makes a professional meeting a happening, we wonder how you would describe the conventions, seminars, workshops, &c. that have meant the most to you.


If you’re interested in learning more about the WIS consider joining us in Milwaukee at WIS 2024! Read our CFP here.