In Praise of Small Conferences

You don't need thousands of people and academic superstars to learn a lot, writes Jason Pickavance.

April 9, 2007

This last fall I attended the 2006 TYCA-West conference. It was held in beautiful Park City, Utah in October. About 60 two-year college English faculty, graduate students, and even some university professors gathered to discuss the study and practice of teaching English. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting than Park City in the fall. The crisp mountain air and the burnt orange and red scrub oak painting the surrounding mountains lend a….

What? You mean to tell me that you’ve never heard of TYCA-West? TYCA is the Two-Year College English Association, which is a group of the National Council of Teachers of English. It is comprised of seven regions, and each region holds an annual conference. TYCA-West is the regional organization that includes Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, and (who would have guessed), Hawaii.

Let’s be honest, as far as conferences go, it’s difficult to imagine a less prestigious conference than a regional two-year college English conference. You aren’t likely to rub shoulders with star scholars in the field. Nor will you encounter presentations that will help you sort through the talked about new book or intellectual movement of the year. For that, go to MLA. I’m not against the big conference. But I’ve come to appreciate the strengths of the small conference, and for professors dedicated to teaching, regional conferences may in fact be more valuable and more rewarding than higher profile conferences.

At the TYCA-West conference, we tend to focus on practical issues associated with teaching English. This last year, our keynote address was by Sharon Mitchler, the past TYCA-National chair. She addressed the larger economic and demographic trends associated with teaching English in the two-year college. I learned, for instance, that two-year colleges “teach an estimated 50 percent of all college-level composition and 70 percent of all developmental composition courses,” and I learned that “college participation rates among low-income students peaked in 1998 and have been falling since then.” Mitchler’s presentation had a refreshingly empirical cast, something I’m not accustomed to at humanities conferences. But she effectively embedded those facts within a larger argument about how these trends will ultimately determine what we do in the classroom, whether we realize it or not. At the 2005 TYCA-West conference, we were treated to an excellent presentation by Kathleen Blake Yancey on the changing nature of literacy. It was followed by an engaging and pleasingly cant-free discussion about what we’re currently experiencing in the classroom. Many of the challenges associated with teaching writing persist. Instructors shared stories about how difficult it is to get students to become critical readers and writers. Many instructors, however, pointed to newer trends in writing instruction, like service learning, which offer students more authentic scenarios of composition.

I’ve also formed lasting friendships at TYCA-West.  Since becoming involved in TYCA-West, I now know and correspond with faculty members from each of the states within my region, from places like Yavapai College of Arizona, Community College of Southern Nevada, Western Wyoming Community College, and Dixie State College. We share an identity as two-year college English faculty, joined in a common enterprise. As faculty members who share similar economic and demographic challenges, we have also formed a regional identity, something not typically encouraged by the larger conferences. I feel like I have developed an authentic network through my experience at TYCA-West. From Jeff Andelora who teaches at Mesa Community College, I’ve learned about the history of community college English. From Bradley Waltman at the Community College of Southern Nevada, I’ve learned about the challenges associated with placing students in writing courses.

Here’s what you won’t find at TYCA-West or most other smaller, regional conferences. You won’t be subjected to the name-badge-glance-and-turn, a move I’ve always for some reason viewed as akin to a basketball player’s expert pivot. (If only the Utah Jazz center could pivot like that.) Instead, you will encounter colleagues at peer institutions genuinely interested to meet you and hear what you have to say.

Neither will you attend presentations obviously constructed for the sole purpose of CV fodder. No counterintuitive readings of canonical texts that strain credulity. No impotent counter-hegemonic posturing. Presentations tilt toward the practical rather than the theoretical. Though, believe it or not, two-year college English professors are interested in theory, but we typically put theory in the service of practical considerations. In my experience, you are more likely to hear what Joseph Williams called the “So what?” question at smaller conferences. Taken together, the presentations at our TYCA conferences soberly address the perennial challenge of how we get our students to become more effective writers and readers.

Finally, regional conferences are cheap. I briefly considered attending this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication in New York City. But rooms at the conference hotel are $300 a night and the flight would have cost me about $500 round trip. The total cost of the conference would have easily exceeded $1,500 and, though I am lucky enough to get support from my college to attend conferences, I decided that it just wasn’t worth it. For those faculty members who receive little or no support from their institutions, this year’s 4Cs conference is probably out of reach.

In contrast, let me present, Thoreau-like, the costs of my 2005 TYCA-West in Prescott, Arizona:

  • Travel $230 (round trip to Phoenix plus a shuttle to and from Prescott).
  • Hotel (shared room with a colleague) $75.
  • Conference Registration $140 (included breakfast and lunch on both days of the conference).
  • Food $75 (including a beer and scrumptious burger at The Saloon, which has a wall-sized painting of Steve McQueen worth seeing).

For around $500 I enjoyed a conference where I connected with professors from the region, went to Prescott for the first time -- a beautiful little college town in the mountains northwest of Phoenix -- and learned a little more about how to become a more effective English teacher. The 2006 TYCA-West conference in Park City was a 30-minute drive from my house.

Regional organizations can languish, though. Anyone who has been involved in the organization and promotion of a regional conference can tell you that it’s sometimes difficult to generate interest and attendance. Because the large, national conferences exert such a big influence over the discipline, it is often a challenge to persuade professors that small conferences are worth their time. After all, what will a presentation at TYCA-West do for your CV? But I am excited about next year’s TYCA-West conference in Las Vegas. (I suggested we adopt the line, “What happens at TYCA-West stays at TYCA-West,” in order to generate greater participation.)

Large conferences will always be important, and I still plan on attending them. But the academic work done by many college professors happens primarily in the classroom. The small conference provides an ideal forum for them to share this important work.


Jason Pickavance is an instructor in the English department at Salt Lake Community College, where he teaches courses in writing and American literature.


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