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Inkshed-- "What Kind of Shed are You?"
A Micro-Ethnography of the CASLL/ Inkshed Listserv and Conference

(shorter version, as delivered at the conference; for the full length text, click here)

by Tania Smith, 2000

It is May 1998. It is the 15th meeting of the CASLL, the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning, otherwise named "Inkshed." Approximately 50 scholars and professionals are watching a person give a presentation using an overhead projector. The phone on the wall behind the presenter starts to ring. It rings again. A woman gets up from the audience and walks over to the phone while its ring cuts the silent air again. She answers the phone and quietly whispers into the mouthpiece, putting her hand over her other ear. The presentation awkwardly resumes while she has a conversation that must have sounded something like this:


"Hello. Is this someone from the Ink Shed group?"


"Yes. I am the bus driver who is supposed to take your group from the hotel to your evening activity. What time would you like me to come? . . . [the conversation continues] . . . Oh, and I have another question."


"Ah . . . Inkshed . . . exactly what kind of shed are you?"

This question was later reported by the woman who answered the phone, and is remembered in different ways by many who were present. This anecdote even has a space on the Inkshed website, as it is told by Russ Hunt, one of the founders of Inkshed. Stories, jokes and musings among Inkshedders about the identity and function of the Inkshed group are fairly common; perhaps this is a sign that the group's identity is continually in question. After this session people wrote inksheds, and the collection of writing revealed this comment on the interrupted presentation: (Overhead)?

"Totally sidetracked by that bus driver's question: What kind of shed are we? Watershed? Toolshed? Coal shed? Cats shed? You have to love how an innocent outside query can utterly derail your train of thought."

This nagging question is also a seed of this ethnography. What kind of shed, what kind of group, is Inkshed?

As I speak here to the group itself, at the end of yet another yearly conference, it seems an appopriate time to ask, "what kind of shed are we?" New presenters and guests may well be asking "Do I belong to this group?" or "Do I want to belong to this group?" Those of you who are time-tested inkshedders, or who have had some connection with the group over many years, may well be wondering, "what will Tania Smith say about our group?" Or, "On what basis does Tania Smith have authority to declare to us what Inkshed is?" Yes, I know that if I give a static and concrete definition of Inkshed there will be those who will resist it. Especially since the conference theme is resistance to teaching, people will have their critical radar working overtime, looking for ways in which my exploration of Inkshed-identity actually contains Inkshed or limits it instead of leaves room for difference and expansion. What's my agenda? Who am I who selects and presents the information? I know that this audience in this postmodern age demands self-reflexivity. It's an ethical imperative. But don't let it fool you that I am but a single speaker and seem to have a limited view. I have been constructed by Inkshed in many ways as I study it, as much as my personal view itself constructs this study of Inkshed. I am "A" mirror of Inkshed, however bent, however scratched, however foggy, and you might indeed be able to see Inkshed in me as well as through me, or at least, in spite of me today.

Doubtless, Inkshed looks different to long-time members than it does to newer attenders, and it must have changed a lot over the years. Three years ago I gave my very first scholarly presentation, and I am grateful that it happened at Inkshed. I was warmly welcomed into this group by many of you, and I wanted and needed to belong, for social reasons as well as scholarly reasons, and so I am an Inkshedder. But I still wonder what that means-- to be an Inkshedder. It depends so much on what kind of group Inkshed might be. To a young scholar like myself, still in graduate school, it matters to me what Inkshed is. What do other people, insiders and outsiders, think it is? What about its functional definition: What does Inkshed DO for its members, for its members' students, for its members' workplaces? What are the possibilities of the things the group can do, and what will it be doing in 2, 5, or 10 years? What has Inkshed done for all of you until today? What visions do you have of its future? You may think these are rather large questions for a group that only meets once a year. But it does make a difference for many like me, in terms of my professional identity. As a graduate student, I don't yet have a scholarly identity that comes from a place of employment; I don't have a long list of articles and presentations on my CV. As a Canadian studying in the US, Inkshed is a tie to scholars in my home country where I hope to establish a career. Perhaps the question of Inkshed's identity also matters more to you than a place to meet friendly folks once a year. I believe that many of you find that in your institutional surroundings, whether academic or professional, you are rarely around people who look at language and learning in the ways that Inkshedders do. There must be needs out there, reasons for Inkshed to exist, or else, frankly, it wouldn't exist

This micro-ethnography was done in the next academic quarter of study, in the spring of 1999 as I was enrolled in a graduate course on Ethnography as a research method in Composition studies. The course was taught by professor Beverly Moss, who is known for her insightful ethnographic study of the literacy practices of several African American preachers. At first Professor Moss was hesitant to let me do an ethnography on Inkshed because it didn't seem at first to be a community. But I overcame her resistance to the proposal. The course also required that I write an ethics statement about my proposed ethnography, and my role as an insider of the group complicated the issue of ethics. I found ways to write myself out of various quandaries in the ethics statement. But writing and doing are quite different things.

Those of you who were at that conference can remember what it was like to have me as an ethnographer among you. Talk of resistance. Reluctance. Skepticism. Mistrust. During the business meeting people shouting out, "Tania, don't write that down!" During dinnertime, people being afraid to sit at the same table with me. The conference organizers expressed an understandable concern that my writing tablet would stifle free conversation, and curtailed my use of that weapon. I sometimes learned what people's limits were by naively stepping over those limits and taking the consequences. It definitely was not comfortable. For me or for others. The first year I came, I was welcomed and befriended. The second year, as an ethnographer, I had a painfully different reception. I really wanted to quit, but quitting was not an option. I still really wanted to learn about the group, and learn about the practice of ethnography, it's just that learning these things in real life had a higher price than I had dreamed. In response to this resistance, I decided to put my ethnograpic field notes on the reading table as soon as they were written, as a gesture of good will, so that anyone curious about what I was writing down about them could peruse the notes, or write in the margins. They could even steal or destroy the notes if they wanted to, but to my great relief that didn't happen. Whether or not this gesture of opening my notebook had any effect on how people saw me as an ethnographer, it made me feel like less of an enemy and outsider. The experience wasn't all that bad; there were many people who sympathized with my difficult situation, or who were interested in the project itself, who were willing to cooperate and play the game of being studied, and I'm thankful for that.

On my interactive poster, I have included additional information about the format of presentations at Inkshed last year, the types of communication on the listserv, and the varieties of opinions and experiences regarding Inkshedding at conferences. In this presentation I would like to pass on some anecdotes and quotations which I believe best characterize Inkshed, and to briefly propose some ways of defining the Inkshed community.

To begin with a generalization, Inkshed is a group that discourses about discourse in a variety of settings. It has as its aim to facilitate such meta-communication in as many ways as possible, in order to explore discourse in a variety of settings and through a variety of approaches. It welcomes risk-taking and diversity-- and also social intimacy. It satisfies the social as well as professional interests of many of its members. Anyone who has had the Inkshed experience at an Inkshed conference knows that it's sometimes more like a spring camp for language scholars than it is a scholarly conference. A camp. As Russ Hunt writes, it is a group dedicated to "extending and testing the limits of the ways in which conferences can be organized."

For example: One of my clearest memories of Inkshed XV near Halifax was the experience of riding in a yellow school bus to a crab dinner with fellow conferees. We sang a song together, led by our very own musical bard, Sam Baardman, that went "hey-oh, chicken on a raft!" On the bus ride back I was improvising harmonies to the songs. Our conference of scholars has a magic that dissolves the stiffness and stuffy egocentric kinds of institutional selves into people with open minds and open hearts. The magic may be partly created by the small size of the group. All participants at the conference are able to attend all sessions; there are no concurrent sessions, so they truly share the experience, a factor that aids in bringing together people of diverse fields of study. There are traditional presentations, given from behind a podium or at a table, with speakers delivering a 20-minute talk, as at other conferences. But at Inkshed, non-traditional and interactive presentation formats are encouraged.

Here is one of my favorite examples of a nontraditional presentation that was very successful. During Inkshed XVI, two co-presenters led the audience into the carpeted hall, asked them to remove their shoes, and instructed them to perform a kind of dance in which triads of people were asked to take on the symbolic roles of heart, head, and body. The person representing the body was to dance freely to music played on a portable stereo. The person who represented the heart held his/her hands out to guard the body from bumping into other dancers, and the representative of the head wrote down impressions of the dance he/she was observing. After people overcame their initial embarrassment and discomfort during the warm-up, everyone participated in this unique mode of composition. Five or six people joined the presenters afterwards for more dancing in one of the hotel rooms. I'm sure that those of you who were there have not forgotten that presentation; it is inscribed on my memory as one of the wilder and freer varieties of Inkshed experience.

During and between presentations at dinners and times for social mixing, participants perform a less controversial social dance of conversation. Conversing together around the food in the hotel's dining hall, people often get to know each other much more intimately than they do at many larger conferences that hold concurrent sessions. On the first day of conference, the core members of the group serve to establish an atmosphere of intimacy as they welcome people at the registration desk, coming out behind the tables laden with name-tags and schedules, hugging and laughing with old friends, and shaking hands with newcomers.

Inkshed communication on the listserv is often a distant reflection of this mixture of scholarly and personal communication. Of course, on the listserv it is not as able to be warm and friendly to its unseen lurkers, but it welcomes them by its friendly debates and confessions of professional struggles.

And now for an examination of the Shed metaphor in Ink-Shed. . .

What kind of group is this who, besides being a scholarly organization, inspires people to sing on buses, do modern dance, hug each other in welcome, and chat on a listserv? "What kind of shed" are we? Perhaps this 'shed' and 'shedding' metaphor is particularly appropriate and characteristic. A shed, as a building, is a location and purposeful structure: the image evokes a spatial location, one of the characteristics that most often defines "community." But the Inkshed group is dispersed across a large geographic area. At the Inkshed conference there is an extreme compensation for this distance in the close quarters and shared experiences at the hotels where the event takes place. Participants stay in the "shed" or hotel, for four days, meeting, eating, and greeting one another repeatedly, in speech, writing, and over meals, alcohol, and music. "Shed" also has metaphorical meaning as a verb, the act of shedding. At the conference, members "shed" their institutional selves at times. Therefore people are reluctant to associate the shed with currently institutionalized sites of formalized inkshedding, like the refereed journal. For example, after Inkshed 16, in response to a discussion about whether Inkshed should start publishing a refereed journal, one participant of many years wrote to the listserv,


For my own part, I think of Inkshed as an "evaluation-free zone" -- a place where I come to learn from and be silly with people who I respect in the fields of language and literacy. I think a large part of its value, for me, lies in the fact that it is a sort of pedagogical playground; I can risk making a fool of myself (either on Talent Nite or in a session or on an inkshed) without worrying that I am ruining my career, or something. I don't think I'd play nearly so well if I felt like I wasn't -- for this weekend at least -- peers with everyone at the conference. I know that the people at the conference might referee my work in other contexts, and that's fine -- they won't in this one, though, and that's fine, too. (5/11/99)

A playground has no walls and roof. This is an image far from an enclosed "shed," which one imagines as a small, humble structure used to house gardening tools and such. Playing on structures, "on Talent Nite, or in a session, or on an inkshed," where there is both "risk" and "respect" among participants-- this is an image of freedom and childlike abandon. For newer members who expect formality and seriousness, it may take some time to adjust to and accept this informality, especially if they came prepared to perform a traditional presentation. But for established members, coming into this "shed" together takes them out of their institutional communities and institutional relationships, and helps them "shed" their performance anxiety.

As Inkshedders' conversations reveal, one of the ways the group consciously holds itself as distinct from other scholarly associations is through the high degree of diversity and risk-taking it affords. As an example of risk, during Inkshed 15, several Inkshedders actually dared one another to swim in the spring-chilly ocean that nestles the Nova Scotian inn where the conference took place in 1998. Inkshed demonstrates its diversity by being able to accommodate not only spontaneous fun, but profoundly theoretical presentations, such as one titled "Exploring Risk as Cultural Practice: Pedagogical implications of post-phenomena" and another titled "Electronic Discourse and Academic Inquiry" (May 1998). Inkshed, welcoming a degree of diversity of communication formats among its speakers, and welcoming scholars from diverse fields, nevertheless holds itself together against the centrifugal force of diversity. Risk-taking takes place among people who have a degree of trust in one another. In fact, it is an evidence of my sense of trust that I consciously took a risk in doing this ethnographic study, for I put myself on the borders of the group by defining myself as both an observer and a group member.

The content of inksheds and the method of editing them is a process by which Inkshed's institutional and cultural expectations are enforced even while freedom and collaboration are encouraged. Though the writing process of inkshedding is akin to freewriting, the way that inksheds are read, marked and subsequently edited ensures that certain kinds of ideas and expressions are deemed meaningful while others are not. However, it does have elements of a collaborative process that could potentially include new participants' voices. On Inksheds, people may "shed" their identity by not signing them. But only the shedding that is group-authorized and editor-authorized is "saved." The inksheds that are saved are often, in content and manner of speech, very academic, theoretical, cerebral, and serious, in stark contrast with the informality of many presentations, dining room chat, and the play of "talent nite." There can be a considerable culture-shock for new presenters in terms of the variety of presentation styles and the singular ritual of inkshedding.


I will now attempt to summarize my findings about the Inkshed community. Relationships among long-time members are both professional and personal. Though the majority of participants have been in Education and English departments, the participants are from diverse backgrounds. Unifying members of these fields is the Inkshedders' common interest in rhetoric, literacy, and pedagogy. The explicit borders of the group are vague enough to welcome many people from diverse fields who share these interests, but there are some values and practices that it protects, such as its value for collaborative learning and collaborative scholarship, and its bias towards affirming to the needs and views of students rather than the demands of academic and corporate institutions. In practical terms, it initiates new participants into these values and practices through inkshedding, informal presentation formats, and social and personal communication. Its own members define the conference as a playground and an evaluation-free zone, as well as a place for risk-taking and sharing close relationships formed over many years. Listserv members characterize the listserv group as a site for both personal and professional communication, though the role of the personal on the list is contested. The conference has a culture of informality, intimacy, interactivity, risk-taking, anti-hierarchy, and is a rather small community. The listserv shares features of this culture and community since a majority of its most active members have attended conferences. Both conference and listserv act as professional networks and forums.

Through interviews with individual members, I have discovered that people appreciate certain aspects of the community (usually its personal, informal nature, and the way it affords professional contacts and discussion that relates to their interests). But participants are resistant to certain aspects of it (its apparent lack of rigour, performance of ritual in inkshedding, and seemingly irrelevant personal messages on the listserv). Newcomers have strong responses to the Inkshed conference, usually commenting both positively and negatively on the unconventional nature of what goes on there. Most newcomers expect and wish it to be more professional than it is but appreciate the "fun" and stimulating discussions and events.

Listserv communication shares some features with personal discussions that occur at conferences, as people narrate their professional struggles and advise and collaborate with each other on their projects. Listserv communication is influenced by, and often closely tied to, conference events: people refer to conference plans beforehand and thank each other for their contributions afterwards. At the conference people are glad to meet with those who they have met on the listserv, and they often continue or refer to their email and listserv discussions in private conversation, such as around a dinner table.

Of interest to communication scholars and members of Inkshed are several questions and issues arising from this ethnographic study. First of all, this group evinces in many ways the common struggle between resistance and accommodation: between members and newer participants, and between institutional values and other values. The borders of the group can be seen in the presentation formats of new and member presenters and the reactions of the audience to these two kinds of presenters. Members continue to debate how much time should be spent inkshedding and how much spent discussing, and whether the emphasis should be on writing or whether the emphasis should be on all aspects of literacy equally. Members are also anxious that newcomers will feel welcomed as well as influenced positively by their group, for it would be against the group value of inclusiveness for it to become a hierarchical and/or exclusive group. As my interviews with newcomers illustrate, these are anxieties that are not without foundation-- the strong personal ties among members make the conference and listserv personally engaging but can also make it difficult for newcomers to learn how to fit in, or even desire to fit in.

I wonder what the future of Inkshed will be, given its values-- there are areas in which it currently resists change (it resists further professionalization, it wants to remain a single-session conference and retain its cohesive, friendly core group), and other areas in which it is open to change (it welcomes people from diverse scholarly areas to discussion so that members can learn about how literacy functions in various settings). I would like to see the Inkshed group rise in scholarly status and influence, of course for the sake of young scholars like myself who want to be part of something grand and growing, and for the sake of the advancement of the field within Canada. However, I now recognize that, as Andrea Lunsford has said, it is like a "club." It currently has more interest in nurturing its group members than in accomplishing goals as a group.

At the end of the Inkshed conference last year, I mentioned my desire that Inkshed would actually accomplish things for its members' advancement and for language instruction in Canada. I received two immediate replies from established members at my table-- one person reminded me that it already performs the function of being a support network for its members, giving professional advice and sympathy for members' professional activities. This is true. Another member stated "I never thought that Inkshed had a missionary function." Some Inkshedders seem cynical about the zeal for action and influence; others think it would be nice to do more but they are just too busy in their professional lives. Perhaps it has something to do with Canadian culture, but many of us hesitate to presume that we have the authority, and indeed the audacity, to collectively tread on the sensitive ground of institutional politics, but yet we freely complain about our institutional constraints, and critique them so intelligently. Nevertheless, many presentations and discussions at Inkshed communicate a fervent desire to move people to action, to change the way things are done. This presentation is one of those kinds. Why am I so earnest, so interested in action? Well, maybe because I'm only thirty and just starting a career, and I still have some naïve and grandiose hopes that Inkshed could do more than it now does. Maybe at Ohio State I've been influenced by American culture and I've taken on their bold and persuasive manner of speaking. It's been two long years in Ohio, but I can still dimly recall how we Canadians often hesitate for a long time before doing something new, and how we Canadians are so civil that we rarely engage in persuasive discourse because it might offend someone. So maybe I'm wishing for something impossible, wishing for Inkshed to be something it is not, something unCanadian. Perhaps Inkshed activity and influence already reaches as far as it can or should into the realms of departmental politics, institutional structure, and the politics and economics of literacy instruction. Perhaps it just does so in ways that are not so obvious to other members or outsiders. It just doesn't seem to do things as a group, in arenas outside the group. It's presently a very good club, a camp, an exciting and stimulating yearly experience, a shed devoted to the mutual encouragement of people working in discourse and education. It does this well for many members that return again and again. But can you join me for a moment in wishing that Inkshed could seem to do more, that it could be more visible to outsiders, that Inkshed would earn a reputation as an association that does something important and good in Canada? In closing, I would like to thank you all for letting me be your ethnographer, and in this presentation today I sincerely hope I have served and encouraged my fellow Inkshedders and welcomed the newcomers.

To full length version of the ethnography


        PAGE UPDATED January 9, 2011 BY T. Smith | U of C -- A TO Z INDEX