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Writing Networks for Social Justice

Interview —

Joyce Locke Carter on How 4Cs Works

Joyce Locke Carter
After we carried out our work with 4C4Equality at the 2014 Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs) in Indianapolis, we realized that we needed to develop a deeper understanding of how the conference functions. 4C4E's relationship to 4Cs was—and maybe still is—tenuous. While we contacted members of various 4Cs groups, we worked with individuals, which is to say without the formal support of these groups. We were relatively new to the conference and the field, and we focused our resources on connecting with local organizations, e.g., Indiana Equality. Still, we wanted to build coalitions that included 4Cs groups for subsequent conferences and actions.

In the midst of planning our work for 4C15 in Tampa, we began to deal with this issue. To that end, we interviewed former 4Cs chair Joyce Locke Carter in order to see where we might focus our attention. Dr. Carter has been a long-time member of the Queer Caucus, served on the Executive Committee from 2011-2014 and the Committee on LGBTQ Issues from 2009-2012, and was elected to the chairs rotation, which she served on from 2014 to 2017. While this interview was not originally intended for public consumption, the information that Dr. Carter provided could be useful to anyone considering how to develop new initiatives through 4Cs. The interview illustrates the complexities involved in making change within large, amorphous academic organizations.

We conducted the interview through Skype in October 2014. It has been edited for clarity and length. - Liz & Don

Liz & Don: We have a lot of questions about how 4Cs functions, such as what the different organizational bodies are and how they fit together. Maybe we could get at that by asking you about your experiences. Could you give us a brief overview of the roles that you have played in 4Cs?

Joyce Locke Carter: A lot of people say that 4Cs is an independent organization. It's not exactly true. 4Cs is a part of NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English). NCTE is a nonprofit organization that has advocacy offices in Washington, and its main offices are in Urbana, IL. As part of what it does, NCTE sponsors a lot of sections. It has an elementary section, a high school section, a college section, and it also sponsors conferences, such as 4Cs and NCTE, among others. After serving on 4Cs' Executive Committee (EC) as well as in this chairs rotation, however, I have seen that there is a lot of independence. Being higher educators, we behave a lot differently than the other people in NCTE. However, 4Cs' support and structure has got to be seen within that umbrella. That said, 4Cs is a conference that has its own EC and officers, journals, and budget. It behaves very independently in many ways, except at the highest levels of coordination where 4Cs works with the Executive Director of NCTE.

The Executive Board

JLC: The 4Cs is run by the officers, or the Officers' Committee, and the EC, who are all elected by the 4Cs membership. There are seven people on the Officers' Committee: NCTE's Executive Director (ex officio), 4Cs' liaison (ex officio), four people who are in various stages of being Chair and the Secretary, who is elected for a five-year term. When you first get elected for the chairs rotation, you are the Assistant Chair, then you are the Associate Chair, then you are the Chair, and finally, you are the Immediate Past Chair. The first year in the chairs rotation you are a newbie just learning the ropes. You have to put out the call for papers and watch to get a sense of how things work. The second year you run the conference. The third year you're the Chair. You have the gavel, convene meetings, and make decisions. The Immediate Past Chair is there to foster institutional memory. The officers meet four times a year: at NCTE; at a January retreat; at 4Cs; and one other time. They also meet monthly on conference calls to deal with budgetary issues and planning.

The Executive & Nominating Committees

JLC: In 4Cs, major things are voted on by the EC, and they are a representative committeeof about 30 people that meets twice a year, at 4Cs and NCTE. The Nominating Committee is charged with creating the ballots from which members elect the EC. The Nominating Committee sets up categories to nominate people for the EC because their mission is to create a broadly diverse representative body.

Members of the EC serve three-year terms. The EC and the officers primarily deal with a few major categories of things, such as budgets, policies coming out of committees, and conference site selection. In terms of the budget, 80-90% of it is pro-forma. It's money that has already been committed to research initiatives, future conventions, or travel monies for contingent or Latin American faculty, for example. There are a variety of things that previous boards have authorized. We could decide to cut or augment those things, but by and large they have become standing budgetary expenses. Therefore, we look at things on the edges. We have certain ratios that we want to keep. We want to have a certain amount of money to run the organization if we have two terrible years, so we keep track of our burn rate, i.e., what it takes to run the organization, and we set that funding set aside. Everything else is potentially usable. It can be spent, or it can be invested. We watch our investments carefully, we look at our rate of returns, and we decide whether we should spend more money on research awards or other worthy projects, or if we should be more conservative. We also look at all the committees.


JLC: The committees work for the EC, and they have charges. That charge may be to collect data or to do something. We look at every committee's report twice a year. A lot of times they don't ask for anything. They say, "we're still doing our work." Some committees ask for money because they need it to do something. We will take that up and decide whether or not to do it. Some committees have already finished their charge, e.g., the Online Writing Instruction Committee just submitted a great document on the best practices for online writing instruction. It took them years to write it. We received it at our last meeting and agreed to adopt it. It means that committee's charge is over. Then, the Chair and the EC could decide to reconstitute that committee or say they are done. That's what the EC does. It looks at money, committees, and conference sites.

Conference Site Selection

JLC: Every November the EC decides the next 4Cs location. This year it's in Tampa (2015). It's in Houston (2016), Portland, (2017), Kansas City (2018), Pittsburgh (2019), and now we're looking at three locations in the middle of the country. You know we go left, middle, right, middle, left, etc. This year we are looking at Milwaukee, Louisville, and Fort Worth. We'll be evaluating those sites by looking at the spreadsheets with the average travel time from around the country to each of those locations, average hotel costs, etc. It's a fairly serious decision because it has to do with what the future Chair will have to work with. If suddenly 4Cs decides to grow, we're already committed to a number of agreements. If we wanted to be bigger than 3300-3500 people, it would be really difficult to pull the trigger on that for the following year. It would have to be something we were looking at three, four, or five years down the line. The same issues arise if we shrink, we've already committed to buying so many hotel rooms. The EC looks at long trends to see what our registration looks like and where attendees come from. Are they members who fly around the country, or are they just walk-in members? It's very important to try to estimate because we have a lot of money at stake; we've committed to so many rooms, to so many floors of the convention center, so many ballrooms, etc. The EC manages the data we collect in a hands-on way. Since we have a meeting, dealing with the money for that meeting affects many aspects of what the EC does.

Special Interest Groups (SIGs) & Caucuses

JLC: Having served on committees, such as the EC, has been very helpful in my role as Chair. Being a member of Special Interest Groups (SIGs) for years and years has been helpful as well. I'm bullish on SIGs. Grassroots participation is key, but it's also weird. Over the years you'll meet, have wine, and talk about your issues with the Kenneth Burke Society or the Queer Caucus or whatever it is, and people say, "Well, ok, so we feel good about things, but we don't know how to get from here into practice." There's this disconnect between a desire for action or change at the grassroots level and an understanding of how to make that change or how to bend the ear of someone in charge. I see that as a transparency or organizational issue.

Someone needs to explain what SIGs are. A lot of people think SIGs are formal structures. They are not. They are people who just like to get together. Conversely, people think committees are grassroots. They are not. They are very top down. They are created by the Chair for particular tasks to help 4Cs do its work. There is a lot of miscommunication among people who've been in positions for years, not just newbies. I see my job as being a teacher teaching the membership how we work and helping us identify places where we really like that kind of stability and predictability, but also introducing creative disruption into the process to help us rethink these relationships. How can a newbie who is very energetic and wants to make change in the world, like 4C4E or lots of the people who come to the SIGs and Caucuses? How do we listen to them and channel that energy into the organization? Connecting the grassroots, the SIGs, and the leadership is a really important thing. There are so many good ideas from the grassroots. All the SIGs, all the Caucuses hang out at the bars, and there are people talking about so many interesting things. We don't lack good ideas. We just don't have easy or known channels to get those good ideas into circulation and debated, funded, and put into action.

Standing Groups

L&D: We appreciate that you zeroed in on issues related to 4Cs' culture and increasing participation. Are there other things that the EC or Chairs have done to increase participation?

JLC: We were just talking about the grassroots nature of SIGs and Caucuses and the top-down nature of committees, but a couple years ago we created Standing Groups, which are sort of in between. If a SIG or Caucus has met for five years in a row, they can petition for Standing Group status.

What that means is that they have a slot on the program. That's the first innovation made to scheduling in a very long time. It's typically been up to the Chair to decide how things are going to look. We were concerned that it would lead to some kind of fragmentation, but we think it's worth it because it invests these grassroots groups that are very stable with some representation on the program. We will see how that shakes out. We are not going to revisit this policy for five or ten years, so we will get a chance to see if it's a good idea. If we could have some sense over the two or three years that we are getting new people serving on the EC or we have new members serving on committees, then it gives us some sense that members are more invested in owning that membership and they feel like they are running 4Cs. I don't know how you track that. It's kind of just on the wind, but that would be a very good thing. The last thing that 4Cs needs to be—and in the past it has certainly felt like this—is an echo chamber of names you recognize meeting in little rooms and determining what writing studies looks like. It may have never deliberately been like that, but it's certainly felt like that. It was mysterious why 4Cs met in certain places and why certain things got on the program and certain things didn't and what 4Cs does other than being a place to go and give your paper and then go to the bars. 4Cs has a good mission, and it has good people. I am not interested in creating an echo chamber. I am interested in making it a broader, more inclusive conference.

The Business Meeting

L&D: How does the Business Meeting fit in terms of the conference how the conference functions and providing some potential for grassroots action?

JLC: The business meeting is mandated by the 4Cs charter. Typically, it takes place on the morning of the final day of the convention. It's open to the 4Cs membership, and we often struggle with getting quorum (75 people) in order to conduct the meeting. The bylaws make it hard to get resolutions to the floor. But yes, if you get your resolution to the officers a month ahead of time and you get a group of people to the meeting, then your resolution could be debated and voted on there. If you wait until the last minute, then you could ask for a sense of the house motion instead. A sense of the house motion is not binding, and people do all kinds of stuff. Those are interesting if you follow them over the years because they are testing the wind on things. A sense of the house motion isn't binding. If a resolution passes, on the other hand, then it is forwarded to the officers who try to determine how to implement it. That assumes that the resolution doesn't contradict something in our charter or our bylaws. If you had a resolution that said, "Be it resolved that..." We will do something inflammatory or something against our charter, it may have passed democratically—maybe people flooded the business meeting and voted for it, but the officers won't take action on it. Someone could pass a resolution to give away a million dollars of our surplus for one big research award, and it might pass. We would never implement that because it would not be wise to do it. The officers take up the resolutions from the last Business Meeting, find out why they got passed, try to find a way to implement them, and perhaps not be able to. They might, however, take the spirit of it and make something happen with that.

Examples of Change in/through 4Cs

L&D: Along those lines, how do organizational initiatives get started, e.g., the Lavender Rhetorics Awards?

JLC: About six years ago, before I was on the EC, Mark McBeth, who was the Co-Chair of the Queer Caucus at the time, had an idea to bring a resolution to the Business Meeting to add queer scholars to the Scholars for the Dream award. The caucus thought it was in the spirit of inclusion, and it was in the spirit of representing underrepresented groups. We knew it would be controversial, but when it came to the Business Meeting there was a firestorm. It does not say in the language, but everyone knows that Scholars for the Dream was set up for racial minorities as a way of bringing people into 4Cs. It was never conceived of as dealing with other types of minority participation, and the resolution was voted down. There were a lot of angry people about the whole thing, but Mark got it out there. That was a non-starter. There was no way that was going to happen.

About the same time, that might have been San Francisco (2009), Chuck Bazerman set up a committee to investigate LGBTQ concerns. That's one thing that happens. The Chair can strike up a new committee. The Queer Caucus was very unhappy. The theme for San Francisco was making waves. They felt that this was going to be the queer time in San Francisco. This is when 4Cs is going to recognize stuff. And there was nothing. There were very few LGBTQ sessions. It was very disappointing, and that was the convention where the issue was brought to the Business Meeting. Anyway, Chuck had said in response that he was going to convene a committee to look into concerns of the membership around these issues. The committee has moved in fits and starts for several years, but it really has never achieved the full vision of what it was charged to do. It did a survey of faculty and grad students about attitudes toward LGBTQ issues at their schools, both in their classrooms and on their campuses. It was not bad. It was not surprising. It was before the national wave of work about same-sex marriage initiatives. By and large, people said that they felt safe on their campuses. They felt that campuses were fairly open places. They felt that their students were fairly safe. There was little noise in the survey. The committee was going to work on something else. It was going to come up with a policy statement. Research alone was not very satisfying. There was a lot of issues with the committee makeup, though. Mark (McBeth) and Martha (Marinara) were the committee Chairs for a while. Then, Jonathan (Alexander) and Jackie (Rhodes) replaced them, but they got involved in a research project and said that they couldn't continue to do it, so now it's Martha. I don't know what is going to happen to the committee. It's probably going to get decommissioned at some point. Those of us on the committee bounced around an idea about making a new policy modeled on Students' Rights to Their Own Language, sort of a Students' Rights to Their Own Identities. We got excited about it, but I don't know where that is. The committee has had difficulty getting things done. The committee's hands are tied. It has to follow its charge. It has to work within the structure of 4Cs, which is like molasses.

While all this is going on, the Queer Caucus decided to take the ideas in the resolutions that got voted down at the Business Meeting in San Francisco and rework them. There were ideas about being part of Scholars for the Dream, but we also wanted additional awards for queer scholars. Those passed through a sense of the house motion, but they were drowned out in the arguments about the Scholars for the Dream. We said let's take that as a sign, and let's write this up. About three or four years ago Garrett Avila-Nichols and Donnie Johnson Sackey started working on putting some meat on the bones. They wrote it up, passed it to the EC and to the Chair. The Chair sent it back for revisions. I was on the EC at that time. We voted for it on the top floor of the Riviera in Las Vegas (2013). That's when it came in its final form to the EC, who committed funds for the awards with very little discussion and completely apart from the LGBTQ Issues Committee. This was all Queer Caucus, and it was a good thing. The EC felt that it had solved the problem of the autonomy of Scholars for the Dream by creating something separate that recognized queer scholarship and queer scholars. It got implemented the next year. We put out the call at 4Cs in Vegas (2013) and were able to award those the very next year. That's a really good example of an idea that starts with a Caucus, goes to the Business Meeting, gets shot down or gets tabled, the Chair creates a committee, the committee doesn't really get things done, and the Caucus continues doing its work, and then works with the Chair to craft new things to get voted on. The LGBTQ Issues Committee never had anything to do with this. The committee can only do work that it knows it has to do, and the Chair–when they create a committee or a task force–charges it very specifically. If you don't know what the problem is or there's no grassroots sense of what's going on, how would the Chair or EC know what to do? That's why it's so important for the Business Meeting and the Caucuses and SIGs to get those ideas into circulation.

L&D: That's what we're hoping to do this year in Tampa. We're putting out a call to see what other people want to happen. If we don't get local participation, we don't want to tell people in Tampa that this is your issue and this is how you should approach it. Our fall back is to work among Caucuses and focus on strengthening connections among them.

JLC: Exactly, 4C4E is a really good example of not going through a SIG or a Caucus but identifying an issue and saying that we don't want to bury this. We want to talk about it. I know future Chairs don't have to support that, but I think it's innovative. It's similar to the Cs the Day folks. That's not an authorized thing. It's its own thing. Those are two really good examples of initiatives that have benefited the membership, without question, but didn't propose a SIG meeting time or to be treated as a SIG or a Caucus, but as something else. Maybe that's a sign that the SIGs and Caucuses are valuable, but maybe there need to be other avenues for participation–just being on the floor and talking to members and handing things out. Cs the Day is seeking more stability, so they just requested something of the officers. We're going to discuss it in Washington at NCTE (2014).

Almost all grassroots efforts eventually have problems with people getting tired, bored, or retiring. They're hard to sustain. Even the very stable CUNY project about the Writing Studies Tree has had issues with technical support, and that's connected to their academic program. They have turnover. They're seeking some kind of stability. There are lots of good ideas that our individual members or one or two members put forward that benefits 4Cs greatly. But, we don't want to take good, grassroots projects under our wing and kill them with bureaucratic love. That's not what you want. I'm a big fan of letting grassroots initiatives do what they want to do. What 4C4E is doing is a really good example of alternative member-driven initiatives. They're great to have at the conference.

L&D: Are there other resources that help explain or visualize how 4Cs works? We ask because it might help us show how we relate to 4Cs as well as how different components of the conference relate to one another.

JLC: It's a big beast, and it's hard to visualize. It's like the ten blind people and the elephant. It depends on what part you're engaging with as to how you think it feels. To some people it feels like a big get together with friends. To some people it feels like a working space for three or four days. To some people it feels like a research conference where you're really engaged in sharing your research and learning about things going on in the field. When I was a grad student going to 4Cs was like a fun road trip. I got to see people. I got to put names to faces of people who I had read. For me, these last four or five years feel like 4Cs is scheduled every minute of every day from 7 am to 7 or 8 pm. It feels like a big business that I am part of, maybe not a big part, maybe a cog, and I have an important role in helping it go. When I wasn't on the chairs rotation, I'd go to ATTW, and then attend a lot of sessions. I like going to sessions. I like to hear what people have to say and how they present their ideas. Now, I'm trying to create structures so that those ideas don't just die in a little room, but they get into circulation. That's what I'm using the Action Hub for, to make to-do lists and action items from the sessions, to report on the sessions. What's the coolest concept that you heard from a session? Put it on a real or virtual bulletin board or maybe tweet it and to break that barrier between the session and the rest of the lifeworld, to try to open that up. After I'm finished with the chairs rotation maybe I will have nostalgia for it. Who knows? You can look at former Chairs like Cyndi Selfe and Victor Villanueva who tend to stay very involved, sometimes coming back in, e.g., Cheryl Glenn just got elected to the Nominating Committee; that's a good example of coming in through some other role after you've had several years to get it out of your system by not being involved in all these meetings. Considering all my experiences and different views of 4Cs makes me feel like it's a big community that leaves space for people to view writing studies differently.