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
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
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
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
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.