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November 30, 2004

Poll Sham-pionsip Series

I know, I know, more sports? But it is basketball season now, you know.

One of the headlines this week is how the ACC has-wow!-seven teams ranked in the top 25. Umm, yeah. I may be an Iowa homer, but I'd like one of the "coaches" who voted to explain how Virginia, whose 2 victories came over traditional basketball powers Appalachian State and Richmond, deserves to be ranked ahead of Iowa, who beat top-15 teams Louisville and Texas (on a neutral court) and lost to a top-10 team (North Carolina) in the Maui Classic. For that matter, how is Wisconsin--also a 1-loss team whose loss was to unranked Pepperdine--ahead of the Hawks? Or Cincinnati?

The answer, of course, is that (a) the coaches have their assistants vote, assistants whose jobs require roughly 95% of their attention to be paid to their own team, (b) even those coaches who do fill out their own ballots pay roughly 95% of their attention to their own teams, (c) it's far easier to simply assume that ACC teams are "great" than to do a little research, particularly early in the season, and (d) early-season polls are worse than inaccurate, because most of the folk who vote aren't actually qualified to do so, period. For the first two months, the majority of voters are just guessing, based in part on mainstream buzz. How else to explain the five people who gave first-place votes to a Kansas team that struggled to beat Vermont on its home court. Puh-lease.

But that's not as bad as the football polls which, thanks to the BCS, has become a system that is so utterly gamed as to be invalid by now. Almost every analysis I've seen or heard has discussed the voting process in such detail as to make it impossible to vote honestly. And I can guarantee that people will vote for Pitt so that the BCS doesn't suffer the embarrassment of a 6-5 Syracuse squad (who lost 51-0 to Purdue, for goodness' sake) appearing in a BCS bowl. The only reason SU isn't the Big East champion? Instead of tie-breaking by head-to-head (which SU would get, having beaten Pitt), they go by rankings, and this means that even if they lose to South Florida, Pitt will get the Big East bid. And by this time next year, I'm guessing that the Big East will learn what it feels like to be on the wrong side of the electric fence that protects the major conferences from teams like Utah, Boise State, and Louisville.

Okay, I'm done with the sports for a bit. And back to the blogging.

November 23, 2004


[Via MetaFilter] A page of alternative "warning stickers" for your local schools' textbooks...

warning sticker

This page should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

[Update: It makes a lot more sense when I actually include the link to the page itself, doesn't it?]

Well, obviously! Their new uniforms are red...

I haven't been doing much by way of movie reviews lately, due mostly to the fact that I haven't been going to see movies lately. I did get out with a couple of friends two weekends ago, though, to see The Incredibles. It was quite good, both from a technical perspective and as a superhero movie that manages to present broadly in terms of audience.

I really hadn't planned on writing about it, though, until I came across Andrew Sullivan's review of it over at the New Republic site. I have a lot of respect for Sullivan normally, but his review, I must admit, pissed me off a bit. There's nothing wrong with treating comics, cartoons, et al. seriously, but his review was of the "think globally, nitpick locally" variety. That is, he looks at The Incredibles and Team America basically as a pretext for explaining (AGAIN) just how it is that the lib-elites are out of touch with mainstream America:

The Incredibles in some ways portrays normal American life as stultifying. Its brutal parody of family squabbles is by no means an encomium to traditionalism. It's not anti-family, of course. But it is pro-talent and pro-opportunity. It is in favor of the urge to get out there and achieve things without apology. Within the right-left rubric of American cultural discourse, the movie is therefore rightward-tilting. And that's why many critics on the left have decried it.

Because, of course, they couldn't decry it for its "less inventive" characters, its "more contrived" plot, or the fact that "its jokes [are] less wry." Yes, only critics on the right (hunh?) are capable of treating a movie as a movie, rather than the localized expression of an overly simplistic and largely rhetorical dichotomy foisted upon them by the news spindustry. And goodness knows, no critic on the left could get on board with a movie whose villain attempts to win the support of an unsuspecting populace by propping up a fake enemy and then posing as a hero by claiming he's the only one who can keep us safe. I mean, that's just too fantastic to be believed!

Oh darn. Was that a spoiler?

Nor could any critic on the left place The Incredibles in a cultural context other than "Pixar films," because to do so might be to connect them with a fairly substantial tradition of "post-superhero superhero comix," including books like Moore's Watchmen, Miller's Dark Knight Returns, or more recently, Bendis's Powers, because, you know, to do so would be to buy into the implicit post-superhero critique of the kind of jingoistic, blind optimism that is often associated with so-called Golden Ages, a critique that Incredibles largely abandons in favor of a story about a single middle-aged hero who learns that his mid-life crisis isn't such a crisis after all. But then, placing it in that context makes it tough to claim, as Sullivan does, that

The fundamental moral of the movie is that this restraint is wrong and needs to be overcome: Letting the talented earn the proud rewards of their labor, and the fruits of their destiny, harms no one and actually helps those in the greatest need.

Except that, of course, there are two major restraints in the movie, and the one that Sullivan ignores here is the family. By the end, Mr. I's attitude is most certainly not that he should "overcome" them, but instead accept that his power doesn't exempt him from the same set of responsibilities as the rest of us. He learns that he's responsible for people beyond himself, and that his selfishness placed his family in danger.

Then again, what do I know? I'm not very good at spinning a web of rationalized, psuedo-Nietzsche Shrugged, trickle-down fantasies. All I know is that none of the above had to do with whether or not I enjoyed the movie. I thought it was very clever, exceptionally designed, and that it probably skews a little older than Pixar's earlier movies. I recommend it, and more to the point, I suppose, I recommend avoiding any reviewer who thinks it useful to label movies red or blue.

November 22, 2004

academic weblog awards

Alex notes the absence of a "scholarly" category in/for the 2004 Weblog Awards, and sets about gathering nominations anyway. I'm a little embarrassed, given that I was writing about this kind of micro-fame a few months back, that it took me an additional, updated request from Alex to prompt me to mention it here.

So get over there and get nominating. Alex put together the single most comprehensive list of scholars who blog, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding sites to nominate...

[Update: Thanks to James Farmer, this idea just became a lot more official. Check out the Edublog Award page...]

November 21, 2004

Farther-reaching and faster!

Like Joi, I found this just too funny to resist; to paraphrase, some columns are unintentionally unserious.

[via Joi Ito, "Poor Librarian Immerses Self in Irony"]

"Something Borrowed," Someone Blue

This entry would be a lot better than it probably will be, if only I had the expertise of Becky and the scathe of Jeff to bring to bear upon it. We'll see if we can't muddle through, though.

A few people (most notably Anil Dash) have picked up on Malcolm Gladwell's "Something Borrowed," an essay appearing in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. I mention Becky because the essay in question carries the subtitle "Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?" and is about Bryony Lavery's plagiarism of Gladwell for her Tony-nominated play "Frozen." Gladwell complicates things quite a bit, though, because plagiarism is a far more complicated issue than most people are willing to acknowledge. The ability to rip, mix, and burn is a crucial element of culture, so crucial that Lawrence Lessig (who's quoted by Gladwell at length) locates it in the birth of nearly every major form of mass media available to us today. In certain ways, culture is about "pirates" becoming "property owners," a cycle repeating itself over and over.

It was only a matter of time before this nuanced take on the relationship between intellectual or creative property and creativity was taken up in various academic discussions on plagiarism, most of which tend to abandon nuance in favor of a neoPuritanism, or what Gladwell calls "property fundamentalism." The discussion has begun on one of our field's lists, and will presumably begin over at Kairosnews, where Spencer Schaffner tries to think through Gladwell's article (without abandoning nuance) in conjunction with a recent encounter with a plagiarism/cheating "expert."

I mentioned Jeff above because the "solution" to the problem of plagiarism is a painfully conservative one--conservative in the sense of resistant to change. The argument runs that we must "educate" the "savages" through honor codes and increased surveillance, to rehabilitate those poor souls who, left to their own devices, can't help but turn to the dark side. The approved solution, one that administrators are willing to pay millions of dollars to support, is to fall back on conservative assumptions about education, to treat students like incipient criminals, and to police them vigorously. There are still plenty of people in my field who are like the professor Schaffner describes:

The other afternoon, at this panel I keep referring to, after we panelists had paneled, a professor in the audience stood up and asked a question. "How can I get my Computer Science students to stop plagiarizing? How can I get them to see that it is wrong to copy another person's work and turn it in as your own? They just don't see it as unethical!"

This guy is looking, it seems, for a way to teach the ethic of original composition ... but how can such ethics be articulated without also being critiqued as fetishizing the solitary writer and the marketplace of (TM) textual products? And even moreso, I am concerned, how can we advocate for this aspect of academic integrity when so many other aspects of our academico-socio-cultural fabric is so lacking in integrity?

The problem with those first two questions is that the professor who's asking them believes them to be synonymous, when in fact they're not. We all plagiarize, which of course is the opposite of what one list denizen accuses us trendy folks of believing: "It may be interesting, even fashionable, to argue there's really no such thing as plagiarism..." Yeah, ummm, no. We all plagiarize, in the sense that we learn language by copying each other, from picking up on words that we like, all the way down to learning which grammatical structures are acceptable and which are less so. Reading is ripping. We are what we read, from our heads down to our feet--check out Don Foster's Author Unknown if you don't believe me. The problem comes with the mixing, with how much we mix (or how little, in the case of copy-paste plagiarism). Academics are taught to mix well, and to use quote marks when we choose not to. But there is no zero degree of mixing--putting one's name on someone else's work is pretty damn close to zero, but it's not. What we think of as "original composition" is in fact a case where the mixing is done so well that the composing, the putting-together, produces the effect of originality. Even Gladwell, knowing that his words had been lifted verbatim and placed in Lavery's manuscript, testifies to this effect:

Then I got a copy of the script for “Frozen.� I found it breathtaking. I realize that this isn’t supposed to be a relevant consideration. And yet it was: instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause.

Problem is, many of us in academia have come to believe, or perhaps simply assumed, that what we ask of students is itself a "grander cause," even if it's a mandated requirement in a mandated course that may have no immediate connection to a given student's interests or education. This is not the absolute answer here, but not every student sees an essay fulfilled for an assignment in one of my classes as "their own work." The grade is theirs, perhaps, but the work (in their eyes) is mine--it matters to me, but not to them. The question that the professor above should ask is whether or not there's a better way to teach the material, design the assignment, or build the course, a way that encourages the student to see the benefits of mixing. There are ways, you know. Ways to design assignments that don't lend themselves to what Jenny's described as the general equivalency of paper mill assignments.

None of this means that there is no such thing as plagiarism or cheating, nor does it mean that there aren't students who won't willfully attempt to achieve the best results for the least amount of work, even if there are honor codes prohibiting their behavior. But there are also professors who assign mind-numbingly bad assignments, ones that are eminently plagiarizable because they are so predictable. Instead of only asking why students plagiarize (and concluding that they're simply evil or stupid), we might also be asking why they're able to plagiarize, why our assignments are so meaningless that they don't see the virtues of actually completing them on their own. The problem is undoubtedly broader than bad assignments or indifferent professors, but neither of those factors is entirely blameless.

And discussions like these would progress much more briskly if the issue of blame weren't such a huge part of them. That is all.

November 20, 2004


I was going to lay off the sports this week, mainly out of pure disgust over the NFL Apologevent that was the opening skit for Monday Night Football. Oh. My. God. Every damn time I've watched a game for the last two years, I've been treated to those godawful Coors Light "Twins" commercials, which refer to "twins" in exactly the same way that "Hooters" refers to the owl in their nudge, nudge, wink, wink logo. If it were up to me, I'd make Bruce Smith and John Elway wait an extra year to be admitted to the Hall of Fame for that reason alone. How those commercials differ substantially from a commercial for Desperate Housewives featuring Nicolette Sheridan wrapped in a towel, I do not know.

But anyway. While I was watching SU cruise to its victory in the Coaches v. Cancer tournament, the real show was happening in Detroit, where a Pacers-Pistons game was called on account of violence. Watch ESPNews over the next day or three, and it'll be impossible to miss. In fact, it was nearly impossible for me to stop watching for the better part of an hour. A brawl between Ron Artest and Ben Wallace broke out on the court, and then, as it was settling down, someone in the crowd threw his beverage at Artest, who promptly rushed into the crowd swinging and was followed by several teammates. Minutes later, after everything from popcorn to beer to a chair was thrown at the Pacers players, the game was called. Fans were rushing the court and confronting players, fists were flying, and hooliganism was the rule.

Shameful. On all accounts.

But what they didn't talk much about, except to dismiss it quickly, was the initial incident. Put it in its full context: The Pistons are playing at home, and losing by 15 points to a pretty fierce rival with a minute left. Their best player (B Wallace) goes in for a layup or dunk (I can't recall which)--their best player who just returned from injury, if I remember correctly--and he gets chucked from behind, flagrantly in my opinion, by Artest. Should he retaliate? Of course not. But that foul was late, cheap, from behind, flagrant, and completely unnecessary--the Pistons weren't going to erase a 15 point deficit in less than a minute. Wallace was out of control, as were the Pacers and the fans later on, but none of it would have happened without Artest instigating.

He's a great player--I rue the day the Bulls gave him up for a song--but he's by far the biggest head case in the NBA, and it should be clear by now that he's not going to stop that kind of crap if left to his own devices. I totally agree with Ray Ratto that we're in for lots of apologies, lots of hand-wringing, and no real changes, but if I could see one genuine penalty handed out, I'd like to see the NBA give Artest the month off he was asking for. His behavior didn't warrant the shameful display that followed, but it most certainly caused it.

November 18, 2004

Mecology revisited

I've been thinking lately about the week-by-week for my spring course, and have been figuring out what the course requirements are going to be. First week, we'll spend the time with some of the applications (MT, Bloglines, Furl, del.icio.us, et al.) that I'll be asking them to use during the semester. At the same time, I'm mindful of the question that many of us academic bloggers are asked (and which Madeline and I talked about on Wednesday): where do you find the time to do all of it?

The obvious answer to this kind of question is that it's not really an addition on top of everything else, but a reordering of priorities, a revision of what, this summer, I called "mecology," or "the various ways that I manage and organize my space, time, resources, memory, information, etc." We're more familiar with the idea of a media ecology, a macroscopic network of various media that are both complementary and competitive, amidst which we locate ourselves. But lately, I've been thinking about mecology as the personal version of that--it's affected by the dynamics of the larger media and information ecologies, but there is a degree of agency involved as well.

I started thinking of this again while reading Ton Zijlstra's account of a workshop/discussion with Howard Rheingold:

One of the more interesting things to me was when Howard Rheingold showed us the tools he uses in his personal information strategy. For the bloggers in the room there really were not many surprises. RSS, BlogLines, Del.icio.us, all with actual screenshots, came up. He stresses weblogs as his community filters for information. Most people I talk to blogs about seem to think they're publications, sources next to other sources like papers, where I see them as conversations. Howard spends some 4 hours in the morning engaging with his on-line community and sources of information, after which he spends the afernoon writing. He does keep an eye on IM and e-mail in the afternoon though.

Ton also observes "how little we actually talk about our info-strategies, and info-diet, and the tools we use for it," and part of this, I think, comes from the attitudes that danah boyd is critiquing over at Operating Manual for Social Tools:

The ways in which tools for mediated sociability are conceptualized and analyzed must shift. No longer can we simply study how the user interacts with the tool, but instead we must consider how people interact with each other and how the tool plays a part in that interaction. Note: people, not users. The tool is not a primary actor in sociability, but a tool that mediates. People should not be framed in terms of the tool, but the tool framed in terms of their use.

I tend to shy away from speaking in terms of tools, but that may just be my fondness for abstractions speaking. I'd say that the difference danah is writing about here is the difference between taking a pretty narrow, positivist vision of individual "tools" and adopting instead a vision that understands people at the center of individual mecologies, that include not only tools and texts, but other people as well, all densely interconnected. There are undoubtedly huge fields of overlap in use patterns, but I expect that there are also some significant differences in the ways that some of us take up certain media, applications, tools. I take danah to be claiming, in part, that it's a mistake to try and erase those differences in the name of usability or HCI.

Of course, there's a lot of inertia against this shift, and the question about "how we find the time" is symptomatic of it. And if there's a place where that inertia is drummed into us on a daily basis, it's academia, where we tend to think first in terms of "areas" to be "covered," as though blogging were something like 19th century poetry, an entirely separate area of inquiry, rather than something that cuts across the very activity of academic inquiry (or at least has the potential to do so). One advantage I'll have, though, is that at least some of the students will already have been blogging (testimonials!), so I won't have as tough a case to make. And to a degree, I'll be able to build this into course requirements, with the hopes that eventually, blogging and the like will become more than simply homework. And I think that one of the ways that'll happen will be for me to be more explicit about the ways that my own mecology has changed over the past year...


Growing up, I was pretty care-free, health-wise. There were some allergies that ran in my family, but through dumb luck, I never fell prey. I got the occasional cold, blah blah blah. All that changed when I lived in Ohio for two years--people warned me that they had nicknamed our little corner of the state Sinus Valley for the detrimental effect that it had on people's health. I don't know whether it was acid rain or what, but ever since then, I can count on Quarterly Sinus Reports.

Such as the one that's going on now, in roughly this order:

  1. Clog, where it feels as though a balloon is being inflated inside my head
  2. Drain, where it feels as though my head is being melted and poured down my throat
  3. Rasp, where that meltage cleans off the pesky protective surfacing of my throat, reducing my voice to a pale croak of its normal self
  4. Clog, where it feels as though (a) I've been kicked in the chest, and/or (b) elves are reassembling my head inside of my ribcage

Permeating all 4 stages, of course, is Ache, where it's so difficult for me to sleep that I inevitably locate the worst possible positions for doing so, thereby guaranteeing that my arms, shoulders, and back will punish me for the sin of motion during my waking hours. We're currently settled into stage 3, battling it fiercely with our comrades-in-arms Vitamin C, Ginger Ale, and Orange Sherbet. If we can make it through the night, we have it on good authority that reinforcements are soon to arrive in the form of Chicken Soup and Saltines, completing the 5 Food Groups of Sick.

The funny thing is that, other than the Ache, my body doesn't feel that badly. It's not as though I don't have normal energy--I'm not bed-ridden or anything. But ask me to focus for more than about five minutes? Not bloody likely. Ugh.

November 17, 2004

The P word

Here's one of the most direct, no-nonsense statements I've seen about what needs to happen in the Democratic party: 3 November Theses. No "coalition of regret, devoid of feck" here, folks.

Never having been especially happy terming myself a liberal, I think that this is the document that convinces me of the need to reframe "liberal v. conservative" as "progressive v. fundamentalist."

[via joho]

November 16, 2004

appearing much wiser

You take a couple of days off from the blog, y'know, cuz you just don't feel like writing, and pretty soon, the threshold starts to climb, the threshold between blogging and not-blogging, and you start to read other things in your aggregator, thinking that, hey, you could blog about that, but then the self-doubt comes, and you think, yeah, but is that really important enough to blog about, I mean, if it were, you could have blogged about it yesterday or the day before, but didn't, and anyway, you're not sure that you really know enough to add anything beyond another damn link, and really, where's the value in that, I mean, there's got to be a point to your writing beyond just dropping links, right, and then threshold really starts to loom, and pretty soon, it almost gets ridiculous, it gets to the point where you're just looking for any old thing to break the streak, a streak that you really didn't intend to start in the first place, you were just taking a day or two off, nothing mysterious about it, or at least you don't think so, but what if you were sending yourself subconscious messages about how much time the blog's taking up, and what if you just bowed to the forces of blogspace, and let your aggregator climb over 100 entries once in a while without panicking about it, I mean, really, what's the big deal about that, cuz it's not like you haven't clipped like 20 entries already, intending to do something with each and every one of them, but letting them fade into the background instead, and now, blogging them or sending them feels like sending out christmas cards in February, which as we know, is not exactly the height of manners, but then again, it's not as though blogging should have to be about manners, I mean, it's your space, with which you should do as you please, even if it means breaking the looming threshold of blog silence with windy, run-on sentences, and an "obscure Chinese proverb" from McSweeney's:

He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever and yet appears much wiser than he who asked five minutes ago.

that is all.

November 12, 2004

i was only three years dead

I'm confident that you'll join me in not thanking Derek for passing this along. Honestly, I haven't been earwormed that good by something on the web since I tracked down the spongmonkeys' moon song. At least with the llamas, I don't scrape the heck out of my throat...

In other news, I'm adding three more blogs to the 'roll. George Rhinehart is the technological wind beneath the Writing Program wings here at SU. Paul Bender is an asst. professor at Ohio Northern, having defended his dissertation in the nick of time this past summer. And finally, Sharon Boggon is a Ph.D. student at Australian National University who "examines personal sites as a hybrid genre linked to traditions of autobiography and self portraiture," and also participates in a group blog on new media, underthesun. Give em each a visit...

November 11, 2004

improperly biased

I don't recall where I caught the second-hand link, but wherever it was led me to Erin O'Connor's citation of this article by Mark Bauerlein in the Chronicle Review, called "Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual." Three guesses what it's about...

In fact, it's a pretty measured and temperate piece, even if it falls back unproblematically into the equation of diversity with so-called "intellectual diversity" of the sort that David Horowitz has been pushing for the past several years. And the slide from surveying "humanities and social science scholars" for their political affiliations to making claims about campuses, colleges, and universities (which, as we know, don't teach the hard sciences, business, engineering, or technology) goes unexamined as well. Nevertheless, Bauerlein's root claim, that there are various fields where conservative thought is basically unwelcome, is fairly accurate.

The secondary claim, however, that there is "an indirect filtering process that runs from graduate school to tenure and beyond," is one that I'd dispute to a degree. The trick at work here is to accuse leftists of being anti-discrimination in theory and discriminatory in practice--fair enough. I'm not so naive as to believe that this doesn't happen, or that there aren't "several conservative intellectuals in the last year who would love an academic post but have given up after years of trying."

Bauerlein cites a Chronicle survey, though, which found that roughly half of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "campuses are havens for left-leaning activists," that "colleges improperly introduce a liberal bias into what they teach." Okay. Setting aside the colossal hubris required to make a statement of that magnitude--which I myself couldn't comfortably make about any school that I've ever studied or taught at--I want to raise a chicken/egg question. Bauerlein, Horowitz, and others who make this argument suggest/assume that universities are a place from which conservatives have been expelled, but I guess I'd suggest that it's at least as relevant to consider campuses as places, as havens, to which these dreaded left-leaners aspire.

Why is this an important point? Because, contra Bauerlein, this process doesn't begin in graduate school. By the time students arrive in my courses, they're adults, albeit young adults, but they have a full set of values that steer them towards particular fields--they've been raised in a society where the hierarchy of values is pretty clear, and they don't need to see the comparative salaries of assistant professors to know which departments, programs, or careers are most compatible with their value set. I'm not arguing that those of us who are less than economically rational about our career choices are any more noble, or any better for that matter, than anyone else, but I think it safe to surmise that I may hold values more similar to those of my immediate colleagues than they are to, say, those of the faculty in the business school. I suspect that someone with my beliefs would feel just as out of place there as someone with conservative beliefs might feel in an English department. But then, that's hard to say, because Horowitz didn't include them in his survey.

I don't disagree with all that much of this essay in one sense. I do think it's important for students at every level to be party to asking questions rather than assuming answers, and I do acknowledge that there are fields where the latter happens more often than perhaps it should. But to paraphrase O'Connor's prior post, "I won't deny that such schools and such attitudes exist--but I will say that it's wrong to stereotype [higher education] and the [faculty] who [populate it] in such narrowly rigid ways." And to do so in the name of diversity is to misunderstand intentionally that particular ideal, in a way that elevates the stereotypes of conservatism and liberalism to the level of knowledge, an elevation that Bauerlein rightly, I think, recognizes as anti-intellectual.

November 10, 2004

To that same old place that you laughed about

Nothing dramatic today. Just wanted to welcome Dave Rieder back to blogspace after a 7-month hiatus. He's back on the 'roll to the right.

Also recently added are a couple more SU bloggers. My colleague, Becky Howard, has finally taken the plunge, and has assured me that her site is unintentionally pseudonymous (and only then if you ignore the URL). Also, one of our ABD's, Jon Benda, who's currently teaching in Taiwan, has started "Notes of a Former Native Speaker."

I've got a couple more additions to make, but I'll get to them in a bit.

Convergences redux


If you scroll down, you'll find my (decent) Day 1 and (less than adequate) Day 2 rundowns of the conference I was at this past weekend. Also, I've posted some pix from the final, alcohol-soaked gathering of the conference, at a bar called Lizzie's, I think. A few of us had already left, so not everyone is represented there. Sorry bout that.

November 9, 2004

The Long Tail of Politics

Is there an opposite of nostalgia (and by nostalgia I mean its etymological root meaning of homesickness)? I woke up this morning with what I can only describe as post-peripatetic depression. Okay, I could probably think of a better term, but for the last two months, I've had "somewhere to go" even when I was in the same location for a week or two. The prospect of laundry, groceries, undoing the mess I left in my apartment, or even removing the dust from that mess fills me with the will-to-nap.

The blog it eyes me suspiciously, as I owe it rundowns of both days of the conference as well as the final stats on my trip, but it will have to wait. I'll probably predate and put them up in the next day or two.

I stopped by campus yesterday for a faculty meeting on revising some of our grad program policies--figuring that, since I'll be taking it over in the spring, I should keep abreast of exactly what I'll be taking over. Afterwards, I stopped by Steve Parks's office. Steve is in his first year here at SU, having been hired away from Temple, and he's started a blog that more than a few of you will be interested in: it's progressiveteachers.org. Right now, it's basically Steve's blog, but he's hoping to build it up into something a little more collective. Take a look, add it to your 'rolls, etc. And be sure to welcome Steve, who's new to all of this.

Steve and I had a nice chat yesterday about all sorts of stuff, but I wanted to jot down a few notes here about something that first occurred to me during Convergences and which I repeated during that chat yesterday. A couple of weeks ago, I posted a couple of entries about Chris Anderson's WIRED article on the long tail (although somewhat obliquely in the third entry). In the meantime, I've been thinking about it some. Here's one of the illustrations to Anderson's article:

long tail graph

The x-axis represents individual titles and the y-axis sales figures. One of Anderson's points is that the next generation of resellers (Amazon, Netflix, Rhapsody, et al) is not constrained by physical scarcity, like shelf space, and can thus afford to set their threshholds much further down the curve, making less popular works available to consumers. As I think I mentioned last week, one of the successes of this strategy is that, since Amazon "stocks" academic press books, I'm loyal, and more likely to order popular press books from them, even when I can get them at Borders. In other words, there's a certain amount of long tail loyalty that persists, and that's where they compete with the bricks-and-mortar booksellers. Amazon's more obscure titles also help them sell the big ones.

So, what if the Republican party is pursuing the same strategy?

I'm no political historian, so I could be entirely wrong here. I know that power law curves have been applied to voting numbers and elections, so try this: treat the x-axis as the various kinds of elections, from Presidential all the way down to local, and imagine that the y-axis is the number of voters. My hunch is that this graph would look pretty similar: tons of folks voting in national elections, with a long tail of relatively low-turnout local elections.

In the 90s (and again with the caveat here), the Reps did the whole Gingrich, Contract with America thing, and I remember hearing about a lot of conservative grass-roots organizing--perhaps you recall Gingrich's "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control"? While we're bemoaning the emergence of Jesusland, I wonder honestly if we're actually seeing the results of that work in the 90s.

Because here's the deal. Unless you're a celebrity (like the Governator or Daddy's little shrub), you work your way up the ladder--you start at the tail and work towards the head. But there are advantages to incumbency--people see your name associated with victory and are more likely to make that association when they vote--so that success in the long tail may gradually trickle a candidate up towards the head.

I've been thinking about this because Steve and I chatted yesterday about this entry of his, wherein the Texas Board of Education embarks on a crusade to purge our textbooks of "asexual stealth phrases." But this isn't happening because Bush was re-elected, or at least, not only because of that. It's too simple to say that this kind of censorship is happening because Reps care about school board elections and Dems don't, but there's something to this, I think, because it's equally oversimplified to lay all of it at the feet of the national polidrama. There are limits to how successful any one candidate can be at reaching individual voters, and I think this election made that painfully clear. As shocking as it may seem, there were an awful lot of people who seemed to think that W was, on a macro level, more representative of their micro interests. Seems to me that one of the potential strategies to combat this, rather than finding more and more conservative Democrats, would be to work in a coordinated fashion at the micro level. Which, unless I miss my guess, is what the Reps have been doing for the better part of a generation now.

November 6, 2004

Convergences, Day 2

See, here's my problem. I hate speaking in public. And so I go through 3 distinct phases when I have to do so. First, I get really antsy, and having trouble focusing. Then, when I have to speak, my conscious mind goes mostly on autopilot, allowing me to slide into some lizard-brain zone where I remember very little of what actually happens. Finally, I slowly climb back out of it, fueled mainly by relief that my time is over. And none of these phases is especially effective for note-taking. Keep that in mind.

Kevin Mahoney and Rachel Riedner began day 2 with a tag-team presentation, "Cultural Studies Pedagogy and the Corporate University," whose first couple of minutes I missed, thus depriving myself of the frame for their talk. As best as I can tell from my notes, Kevin and Rachel argued for a deeper understanding of pedagogy as a site of political engagement. What we have taken to calling empire is, in their words, a public pedagogy of neoliberalism and globalization, one that's especially effective at deflecting resistance. It does so by producing individuals who compete for their own personal gain, to the detriment of public participation. They argued that traditional leftist discourse has begun to interfere with our ability to form counterpedagogies and to sustain horizontal relations, and these were two of the strategies they suggested given current conditions in higher education.

Bradley Dilger talked about "The Logic of Default," riffing on a section from Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media. Manovich suggests that using defaults when it comes to interfaces is one way of resisting the lure of customization that drives technology consumption. Bradley complicated this notion, however, noting that Manovich's default-ism, even if it's relevant at the scale of interface, happens at multiple scales, and as a result, we're always already choosing, whether or not we go with defaults.

Then some nit talked about networks.

And after that, I stopped typing notes. This was bad. The panel after mine featured Jenny Bay, Sarah Arroyo, and Thomas Peele, and I listened rather than typing. They raised various questions about new media, and because they were taken up in the discussion that followed, I actually remember the conversations more than the panel per se. Perhaps someone else will contribute notes?

The final panel of the conference began with Byron Hawk, who presented portions of his book on vitalism. He traced a lineage of vitalism from Aristotle to Burke to Deleuze, one centered on Aristotle's conception of entelechy. Chuck Tryon discussed his study of the film Capturing the Friedmans, focusing on the way that this documentary complicates the separation of public and private spheres in its nostalgia for the nuclear family. Finally, Karen Kopelson presented some of the results for a qualitative study she conducted, asking graduate students about their expectations and experiences in rhetoric and composition.

I can't help but feel that this rundown is woefully unfair, because the two panels that followed mine were both quite good. By that point, though, I was tired of taking notes--the fact that I participated more frequently in the conversations was one sign of that, I suspect. Oh well. Maybe someone else can fill this gap...

Day 2 ended with a trip to Moonlight Pizza (long time to sit, but good food to eat), and then to Lizzie's, where we closed the joint, drank our fair share, and pledged to keep this conference going...

November 5, 2004

Convergences, Day 1

Here's my rundown of Day 1 of Convergences. Keep in mind that my note-taking varies in intensity from session to session--it's hard to pay close blogging attention all day. Next time round, I'm going to suggest that we each volunteer to take notes (and/or blog) for one other session. When I post my day 2 rundown, you'll see why I say that...

David Rieder started off day 1 for us with "Placeless Rhetorics and Writing: Post-Alphabetic Explorations of Non-Places." The central claim of Dave's talk was that, rather than working against the conditions that make our classrooms non-places (Augé), we should be investigating those forms of writing (potentially post- or extra-alphabetic) that might provide us with new models. He discussed the works of Franck Scurti and Teri Rueb, and encouraged us to interrogate the place-based models that ground the composition classroom.

Tim Mayers went next, and presented material from his book, which is currently (I think) in press at Pittsburgh: "Reviving the Discourses of 'Craft': Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of English Studies." I may be projecting here, but I think Tim was working from the premise that writing studies is constrained by its long association with literary studies. His attempt to work out of that constraint was to suggest a partnership between creative writing and composition, one grounded in an expanded notion of "craft," one that extends craft beyond its current scope as technique. Such a partnership, he argued, would bring social concerns to creative writing and return a concern with aesthetics to composition.

The third session of the day was a 3-person panel on the topic of affect. In "Affect and the Times and Spaces of Change," Dan Smith argued that social transformation requires more than proofs, that critique often works through affective dispositions. Critical pedagogy fails to acknowledge its own investment in what Dan described as a "conversion ethos," one that treats the classroom as the only possible time and space for change, and places undue emphasis on our own desires to "witness" such change. More a critique of strategy than of aims, he argued that we need to think in terms of broader spaces and times--what he called ecologies of affective disposition--and come to terms with the possibility that the payoff for our pedagogical work may not always be visible.

Jenny Edbauer presented work from the second chapter of her dissertation, "Rhetorical Theory and the Affective Field of Culture." Her presentation was also a call for broadening our scope to include affective issues, but she focused on the site-based presumptions of Bitzer's rhetorical situation. She argued that rhetorical situations are located in the interactions (often affective interactions) among the so-called "elements" of the rhetorical situation, rather than in the elements themselves.

Christa Albrecht-Crane closed the panel with "Affect, Bodies, Interruption, Fear." She discussed teaching literary theory to conservative students, which caused her to reflect on the trouble that progressive educators have understanding how conservatism operates. In this case, she discussed a paper where the energy of the student's response exceeded his abilities to fully account for it in his writing.

In the interests of time, on a day where we were running a bit long, Judy Isaksen offered to forgo much of the oral portion of her session, "Worrying the Rhetorics of Whiteness." She played a DVD for us, inspired by DJ Spooky's remix of D. H. Wallace's Birth of a Nation. Judy's mix spliced together scenes from Birth, quotes from contemporary race theorists, and a wide range of African-American music.

The final panel of the day--on the place and places of theory--was a little less formal, not the least reason for which was that we were all, I think, getting a little punchy. Jeff Rice began by interrogating what he described as our field's pedagogical conservatism, the unwillingness to see ourselves implicated in the theories that we study. Particularly when it comes to new media and technology, he argued, we remain in a mode of explanation and story-telling rather than performance. Digital culture is unclear, elusive, speculative, and pedagogy (or theory) preoccupied with the clear explanations of its success makes for a problematic fit.

John Muckelbauer talked about the strategies necessary for theoretical work in a field that doesn't seem to make much room for it, one of which was the conference itself. The branding of theoretical writers and ideas has resulted in the bad habit of going to these theorists already knowing what we'll find, and then--surprise--finding what we thought we would. John advocated a strategy of non-recognition, where we draw on rhetorical vocabulary to do theoretical work, thereby enriching both.

Thomas Rickert raised several questions for discussion, related in part to the other two presentations. He suggested that perhaps we have moved from an age of theory to an age of invention or rhetoric, that perhaps the currency of capital-T theory has indeed passed. Rather than indulge in nostalgia for some golden age, though, he suggested that instead we think of the particularity of our own theoretical work as something that has yet to be discovered.

I hope that I haven't misrepresented anyone here too badly. After our first day, we went back to the Clarion and psyched up for dinner, which took quite a while at a restaurant whose name I've already forgotten. Some of us went afterwards to the Flying Saucer, but it was cold, we were tired, and it was a relatively early evening.

November 3, 2004


I am deeply, profoundly disappointed. If I have time over the next few days, I'll elaborate. In the meantime, I offer Mark Morford from SF Gate:

It simply boggles the mind: we've already had four years of some of the most appalling and abusive foreign and domestic policy in American history, some of the most well-documented atrocities ever wrought on the American populace and it's all combined with the biggest and most violently botched and grossly mismanaged war since Vietnam, and much of the nation still insists in living in a giant vat of utter blind faith, still insists on believing the man in the White House couldn't possibly be treating them like a dog treats a fire hydrant.

Inexplicable? Not really. People want to believe. They want to trust their leaders, even against all screaming, neon-lit evidence and stack upon stack of flagrant, impeachment-grade lie. They simply cannot allow that Dubya might really be an utter boob and that they are being treated like an abused, beaten housewife who keeps coming back for more, insisting her drunk husband didn't mean it, that she probably had it coming, that the cuts and bruises and blood and broken bones are all for her own good.

I listened to NPR and talk radio today for as long as I could. I got to hear people like George Lakoff, Thomas Frank, and others try to explain yesterday's results. For me, though, it comes down to one thing--the Reps are far better than the Dems at juking the system. I'm not suggesting that's the only reason that Bush won, but the fact that 1/4 of the states had gay marriage bans on the ballot guaranteed a sizable vote from the more intolerant of my fellow Americans. Any guess about which way that vote broke? The amazing thing about that (and I heard plenty of callers today announce that it was one of the reasons they voted for Bush) is that Kerry is no more liberal than Bush on that topic.

And the fact that these referenda were on the ballot yesterday is not an accident. Blah blah blah mobilize the base blah blah blah. The quickest way to get those people to vote is to play on their fear and/or hatred. And it worked again. Hooray for phobocracy.

November 1, 2004


It's my last full day in Iowa, so I won't likely be posting much over the next few days. Next stop on my national tour is North Carolina, where several of my blogroll regulars and I will be converging and conversing about theory, rhetoric, and writing. I'll do what I can to blog as many of the sessions as I've got energy for.

In local news, Iowa's Republican Senator, the lawn-mowing Chuck Grassley, has scraped the bottom of the endorsement barrel, by inviting Zell "With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?" Miller to speak on his behalf. My guess is that he'll win, but that's a hunch based largely on the fact that I don't really know who's running against him. That, and the fact that there comes a point in the Senate races where a state has to vote to reject a senator's seniority and all the perks that come with it. It would take a lot more than ill-advised cameos to topple Grassley.

We got a visit from the evil pumpkin faeries over the weekend. Up and down the streets: smashed pumpkins, torn up political signs, and assorted random acts of childish vandalism. I don't think that it's a coincidence that the most popular costume, based on my intentionally unscientific survey, seemed to be "High School Kid Too Lazy to Actually Dress Up." There were lots of them. Even so, it only just beat out "Buzz-cut Nascar Dad Drinking Beer from a Can," but most of the kids in that costume were escorting much smaller angels, power rangers, and superheros from house to house.

I went over to the Quad City Times website, with the idea of snatching a photo from last night's Halloween parade, hopefully one of my dad in his borrowed Galaxie 500 convertible. Alas, though. Only two photos, and if you go look at them close up, you'll see that they're not only devoid of mayors, but they're actually pretty crappy. Using Flickr for the past few weeks has really made me think about how local news organizations might take advantage of social media. To post a photo there, I just send it in an email, and I can title and caption it. If I were working at the QC Times, I think I'd take some of my budget, open up a Flickr account, and give the entire community an opportunity to have their photos published. Pay a small fee to the people whose pictures you use, instead of keeping people on staff to do it. I'm sure that there are loads of good pictures of the parade out there, but I can't access them. Tools like Flickr could turn local news into community news very quickly, and really improve both coverage and access.

I have to admit that I was basically thinking about this last night as well, watching one of the local TV news stations doing disaster stories on Hawaii and Florida, stories whose only local relevance was the shock value of catching a channel surfer's attention. They spent more time on disasters thousands of miles away than they did on local events. I know that this is the norm, but it's a bad one. They led with a good story, one about attempts to defraud some voters by misleading them about their polling places, but after that, the deluge of "interest" stories that actually had nothing to do with the QC.

Yeah, I'm going on and on, when really I'd just intended to do a small, final Iowa entry. See you later this week. That is all.