Rhetoric to Reality: Presenting at C2U Expo 2015

by Anne Bergen & Andrea LaMarre

This year, C2UExpo was in Ottawa, at Carleton University. As frequent collaborators, we were able to relax and enjoy telling and listening to stories about community university partnerships. Fellow presenters @sharonaverona and Elizabeth Jackson were really great, as were the audience who attended. It was an amazing morning that helped us think about our work in new ways.

Both in preparation for and after the presentation, we reflected on how being a rhetorician seems to be part of the process of proposing sessions for conferences. We are asked to “sell” our work in a way that makes it stand out against the (supposed) floods of submissions. With conference abstract deadlines months in advance of the talk, we often have to speculate about where our work might be by the time we present. This speculation can lead to a feeling of never being able to live up to our promises; indeed, with a session cheekily named “Lost in Translation? Rhetoric and Practice…,” we wondered how we would actually deliver a talk that speaks back to the processes we participate in, even just by attending and presenting at the conference.

We  decided that we would try to tell some stories that provoked problem-solving and reflection in our audience. We created and shared vignettes about how expectations can create reality and how knowledge is shared among people and in organizations. With the help of the audience, we considered how we could “change the story” and better collaborate to create, share, and use research.

One full story, a selection of conference presentation tweets, and an overview of our other two stories follows.

Seeking Impact

(a story about IT processes that don’t work & building places that people don’t use)

Once upon a time there was a Very Important Person. This important person had done a lot of important things, and knew a lot of other important people. This important person had some good ideas about systems change, and building partnerships. To share these ideas, people organized a panel discussion to talk about Very Important Ideas. Other people came from miles around to attend the event, by plan, by train, by car, and by foot. At the panel discussion, the Very Important Person gave a cogent analysis of a complex problem, audience members exchanged business cards, exclaimed about how they wanted to stay in touch and maybe work together, and everyone went home satisfied. The panel discussion was filmed so it could be watched again later, and people agreed that they should open up a user discussion forum to accompany the video, so they could keep the conversation going. This is where our story really begins.

Everyone agreed that the panel discussion had been a stunning success. People talked about it the next week in the hallway at work on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday. The video sat on a memory card in the camera, because the student who knew how to upload the video only worked on Thursdays. On Thursday, the student transferred the video from the camera to a computer, and used a video editing program to add at title, uploaded the video, and sent a private link to the the Very Important Person. The Very Important Person was delighted that the video was online, but noticed that some of the titles were wrong. The video sat in the memory of the computer, waiting to be edited. On Thursday, the student came in, edited the video, and re-uploaded it, and sent a private link to the Very Important Person. The Very Important Person was busy on another project, but after a few days, she confirmed that the video now had correct titles. The next Thursday, the student sent the video information to the person who updated the website, so they could embed it in the Very Important Person’s webpage. The person who updated the website noticed that the logos were not legible in the embedded video. On Thursday, the student came in, fixed the logos in the video, and re-uploaded it, and sent the iframe details to the person who updated the website. The person who updated the website posted the video on the Very Important Person’s webpage and open up the comments for discussion. Then the video was online!

Everyone was very excited. The video sat online.

The student asked the person who updated the website to promote the video. There was a news item on several websites and several Tweets. People talked about the video in the hallways and there was a satisfying number of retweets and favourites on Twitter. After a few days, 5 people had watched the video online. 1 of them even watched all 45 minutes of it! No one commented on the video. The Very Important Person was pleased the the video was online, and hoped that the Very Important Ideas in the video would be shared and discussed like they were at the panel discussion event.

Everyone moved on with their lives. The video sat online. The comments were empty. No one really went to that page of the website anymore, and everyone was too busy to check the comments.

After a period of time, the bots found the video. The bots came to the video comments and talked amongst themselves. They gave links for working at home, losing stubborn stomach fat, and investment opportunities. There were more and more bots. The bots increased the number of comments, and registered for email updates. There were a lot of comments, but no actual humans interested in the Very Important Ideas on the video.

The video sat online.

Eventually, meaner, bigger, nastier creatures found the video. They noticed that the comments provided a backdoor into the website, and injected malicious code into the site. The page with the video was taken offline and quarantined. Eventually, the website was fixed, and no longer sent out Viagra spam through malicious code. But the video didn’t go back online. Someone had noticed that it wasn’t captioned, and it needed to be captioned before it could be reposted. The student had graduated by this point, and no one was sure how to caption the video.

The video sat on a server. A few years later, it was deleted.

Our other two stories spoke to the challenges inherent in community-engaged, collaborative work. The morals of those stories were:

  • Expectations are reality: Sometimes, the way we talk about something changes how others see it. This can be problematic, particularly when it sets up adversarial relationships between communities and universities. We used the example of ethics boards at Universities, which are set up to be a way of protecting both researcher and community but which can take on an image of burden when framed in that way in even casual talk. There is a fine balance between pragmatism and awareness of how bureaucratic processes can get in the way and the “over-sell” or oversimplification of complex processes: we need to be aware of what constrains all players in a collaboration, from bureaucrats to “minions.”
  • People have multiple roles and stakes in projects: this one seems fairly obvious, but the “human” side of collaborative research sometimes gets lost in the rhetoric. Each of us has a tendency of thinking that we are the busiest person in the world, or that we can do things better and faster than others. While this might be partially true, effective collaborative work means opening lines of communication, being clear about roles and expectations, and engaging with people as human beings, rather than cogs in a wheel. When this doesn’t happen, people get frustrated, knowledge can get stuck in the stop-gap of one person holding all of the institutional memory and none of the time to enact agreed-upon processes.