Writing Innovation

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by Jenn Fishman and Darci Thoune

This is the first 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.” 

Five years is and isn’t a long time, especially in higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 60% of college students finish their undergrad degrees in 5 years, while the Survey of Earned Doctorates reports the median time to PhD isn't much longer: just 5.8 years. For all of us involved in the annual Writing Innovation Symposium (WIS), 5 years turned out to be just enough time for us to realize that we were really on to something—and to start putting it into words. 

Since its founding in 2018, the WIS has been a regional event with national reach. Annually, in the dead of winter, the WIS lures writers and writing educators from all over North America to Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, for two days of writing activity. As co-founder and Chief Capacitator, Jenn leads the cross-institutional steering committee that brings each symposium to life. In 2022-2023, that group was helmed by Darci, Jennifer Kontny, and Patrick Thomas; it also included Grant Gosizk, Jackielee Derks, Jenna Green, Kayla Urban Fettig, Kelsey Otero, Lilly Campbell, Maxwell Gray, Sara Heaser, Shevaun Watson, and Tara Baillargeon. 


Marquette University hosts the Writing Innovation SymposiumMarquette University hosts the Writing Innovation Symposium


When we look back and try to put a finger on what, exactly, makes the WIS the WIS, a few concrete details come immediately to mind, starting with our modest size. Usually, the WIS registers about 100. Participants come mainly from across academic ranks, roles, and disciplines, though non-ac colleagues tell us they feel right at home. The weather is also a contributing factor. Together, we have braved both ice and snowstorms as well as a polar vortex, which dropped the temperature to -23! Yet, it’s always warm and cozy in the University Libraries, where on-site we hunker down, while off-site attendees click in and out of Zoom sessions and Slack channels to join us. In so many ways, the WIS is Brigadoon, and for the 48 hours we gather each year, we form something that feels like community.

In many ways, COVID-19 amplified this sense. The 2020 WIS was the last professional event many of us attended before the global pandemic was declared. Likewise, the 2022 WIS was the first in-person conference for a lot of us—and not just because it fit our budgets and schedules. Just as magnetic objects create force fields that attract particular elements (i.e., iron, nickel), the WIS draws writers and writing educators in a powerful way. By inviting everyone to base their contributions on work they have done—writing, writing pedagogy, research, writing administration—the WIS affirms the expertise that each participant brings with them. The WIS also primes attendees to learn from one another, and in doing so it affirms that everyone, from plenary presenters to the newest graduate teachers, has something to learn. 

Symposium themes help focus our collective energy. We have worked to “Connect!” (2019), and we’ve explored some of the many connotations of “Just Writing” (2020). We’ve also come together to “Write It Out” (2022) and to fill in the blank: “Writing as _____” (2023). However, we direct our word play along with our most serious efforts, our plenaries are interactive, and our programs always include workshops as well as a session that features posters and creative, digital and analogue displays. Last year, we introduced flash talks into the mix, inviting presenters to distill their WISdom into five-minute presentations accompanied by a single artifact (e.g., handout, bookmark, cookie). Inaugural examples prompted rich exchanges about everything from “Writing in Times of Hopelessness” and “Writing as Empathic Design” to “Composing in the Pool,” “Reinventing the Writer’s Workshop,” “Writing as Resistance,” and “Writing as Power,” and “Writing as Weapon/Antidote.” 

The story of WIS continues to be written. Recently, twenty-nine of us talked about an article that appears in Community Literacy Journal 17.2, and we’re glad to be contributing to Bedford Bits. Macmillan has been a vital supporter of the WIS, hosting meals and sponsoring opportunities like the workshop on Tiny Teaching Stories that Chris Anson led one year. In 2022, working in collaboration with Laura Davidson, we launched the Bedford/St. Martin’s WIS Fellows Program. It provides WIS registration, travel monies, and mentorship opportunities to early career colleagues. To date, B/SM WIS Fellows include: 

Look for more from us as well as them in weeks to come—and consider joining us in Milwaukee at WIS 2024! Read our Call for Papers here


Image via Wikimedia Commons