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May 31, 2005

Fish in a Barrel

Must be something in the water. It's bad enough that I have to listen to the lame defenses offered by the College Board for its new writing exam, which appears to evaluate little more than a student's ability to generate context-free verbiage. But today, for whatever reason, I was treated to a couple of additional essays that cloud any sort of dialogue that we might have about writing.

Exhibit A is Stanley Fish's offering in today's NYT, "Devoid of Content." Fish offers us his definitive answer to the crisis, oft-repeated and rarely proven, of the clear sentence. "Most" of the millions of students graduating from high school and college, Fish explains, are "utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence." Okay, that's a load of crap, but probably not worth the effort that would be required to falsify the claim.

This crisis is exacerbated, according to Fish, because

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow.

This is an astoundingly craptacular claim. Even if Fish were much more of a micromanager than he claimed to be in his various tenures at Chicago, Duke, and Hopkins, I doubt that he could speak with any veracity about (a) what "most composition courses" at his own institution did, or (b) the "theory" behind what they did. As an assistant professor in a writing program who spent 2 years chairing the committee that directly supervised the first-year writing curriculum, I would never presume to characterize "most" of the composition courses in my own department, much less those serving "millions" of students, at institutions far more diverse than those for which Fish has done the majority of his teaching. And the "theory" that Fish cites should sound familiar, because it is the idea against which the contemporary development of composition and rhetoric has emerged. Substitute "literature" for "big ideas" (or don't), and you have the "theory" of composition that "developed" in English departments (i.e., literature professors) for much of the 20th century, at least until composition and rhetoric began to define itself in opposition to literature. Are there such courses, where a focus on content supercedes the teaching of writing? Undoubtedly so. But it's easier to slop them all together and dismiss them (without any sort of evidence, of course), because this is an article meant to enlighten all of us poor souls who have actually studied, thought about, practiced, theorized, and care about the teaching of writing.

Fish's solution is formal: "over the semester the students come to understand a single proposition: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships."

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students.

I will admit that I would have loved to take this course, and I can imagine plenty of other students who might have the same reaction. It's an intriguing idea, and one that undoubtedly challenges and educates. And most of the rest of the article is engaged in explicating it, punctuated with subtle self-praise. Fish closes with an implied claim about what his course accomplishes:

{In a content-focused course,] They will certainly not be learning anything about how language works; and without a knowledge of how language works they will be unable either to spot the formal breakdown of someone else's language or to prevent the formal breakdown of their own.

The only model for a writing course with content that Fish seems capable of imagining is one where "once ideas or themes are allowed in, the focus is shifted from the forms that make the organization of content possible to this or that piece of content," but last time I checked, the "focus" is one of the things that we might label a pedagogical responsibility. Again, are there classes where content does become the focus? Of course there are. But it's colossally insulting to every one of us who teaches writing to imply that we're incapable of teaching form in the context of actual writing. And it's absurd to imagine that Fish's is the only way to learn about form.

I'll close my little hissy fit here by noting that I don't doubt that Fish's students leave his class fully capable of crafting logically coherent sentences. And I don't doubt that some of them, and perhaps all of them, are capable of combining those sentences into paragraphs and/or essays that effectively communicate ideas and target particular audiences. But I can tell you that they don't learn the latter in his class. Writing is necessarily the blending of form and content in a particular context. It is certainly possible to examine language in the absence of particular content or context; such an examination has little to do with the skills and abilities that a writing course should be encouraging, however.

Fish's own clear and coherent sentences serve, among other purposes, a couple of "straw" arguments and at least one false binary. Hey, they're good sentences, though.

Exhibit A wasn't supposed to take so long. Let me get some other work done, and Exhibit B will follow...

May 30, 2005

Negative Intelligence Tracking Data, May 2005

a pie graph about bad habits

May 29, 2005

squeaky wheel?

I don't know if there was any relationship between the fact that I rant and rave on occasion about some of the less sensible (in my opinion) policies and procedures related to CCCC -and- the fact that this year, I was a Stage I Reviewer for said conference. But there you have it. For what it's worth, I still believe that there should be some of kind of database for potential reviewers--the system for selecting reviewers could be a great deal fairer with the application of a few basic heuristics.

The system for reviewing, though, is awfully darn efficient. I reviewed around 25 proposals, and I won't say what area except to note that there was no conflict of interest between my proposal and my reviewing, which is as it should be. The review system is entirely online, but I printed out (and have since shredded) my proposals, and read through them a few times. First time through, I did kind of a holistic read, scoring them pretty quickly. Then I put them in ranked order, and read straight through them, making various adjustments to their ranking. Then I set them aside for a day, and did another ranked reading. Finally, I went through them in order one more time, this time with the 4-point reviewer scale in order to separate them out into 4 piles. The piles ended up being pretty even, but skewing a bit towards acceptance.

One thing I'd note, and that's that there's not a huge gap between the proposals that I thought were best and those that I thought weren't. As you might gather, all of the proposals are pretty good, with a few standouts in each direction. Without going into too much detail, I do have a few thoughts about what made an excellent proposal, and what advice I'd give (and have given) to proposers:

First, I can't recommend enough Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin's chapter from Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication called "Gatekeeping at an Academic Convention." I wish that it was possible to update that study, in fact, because I think it offers tremendously valuable insight into this process. There's a bit of chicken/egg here, I guess, because I give this chapter to every graduate student at SU, so there's undoubtedly a fair amount of influence that it had on my reviewing.

Second, in any situation where you are likely to be competing on a level field, details matter. I didn't downgrade proposals that had spelling errors (and I intentionally pluralize both words there), but in almost every case, mechanical errors accompanied thought that was not as crisp as in other proposals. There were proposals that appeared not to have been edited at all, and it showed.

Third, I strongly recommend having at least one reader/editor who knows next to nothing about what you're doing. I don't know for sure that this is the right solution to this problem, but I encountered proposals that were too sparse in their accounts of their session, and others that were downright verbose. It seems obvious to me, but bottom line is that a proposal should accomplish two primary goals: they should explain what you plan on saying/doing/accomplishing, and they should explain why it's significant/important. What are you doing and why? There are plenty of different ways to achieve that balance, but too often, I saw proposals that were all one or the other.

Finally, one of the things that B & H talk about is the "insider ethos" that a successful proposal will often have, accomplished through references to trends in the field, specific texts, conversations, etc., and that was one of the places where there were real differences among the proposals I read. Again, no specifics, except to say that on some occasions, I encountered some fairly sweeping claims about the field, clearly attempts to strike that insider pose but which had the opposite effect. I can suspend my own positions to a degree, and I can see how certain topics/panels might interest others even if I'm not interested in them myself, but I can't ignore disciplinary claims that are flat-out incorrect.

I don't know that these points are specific enough to be of any real help, nor do I really think I've said anything here that hasn't been said before and in more detail, but there you have it. One thing that reviewing proposals has done for me is to confirm my own practices both as a submitter and as someone who reads and responds to a fair number of colleagues' proposals each year.

Now watch as my own proposal gets rejected this year. Jinx!

That is all.

May 27, 2005

I map, Cmap, We map

I've been slow to hop back aboard the blog train lately, and part of that is because there's a little piece of me mourning the loss of my vacation. Although my hiatus was generally spent on my own research and writing, a fair chunk of it was spent getting up to speed for the graduate seminar I started teaching this week.

In part, the exigence for this course came from our students, who (like all graduate students everywhere?) are feeling the pressure to publish, and who feel (rightly so, imho) that the program could be doing more to prepare them for this pressure. My own answer to this demand was to suggest the course that I'm now teaching, which combines a survey of genre studies with a publication workshop for the participants. When I proposed the course, I overlooked the small fact that I don't really have a great deal of background in genre studies/theories, and so, as they say, it's been an education. I've been doing a lot of background reading, some of which I've included in the course, of course.

And that's par for the course. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got as a graduate student heading out into the market was this: the vast majority of what I was prepared to teach in fact helped me very little. Most of my courses have been outside of the areas that I would have defined as my specialities back in the day. But hey, that's ultimately a good thing, because it keeps me interested.

Anyhow, in preparing it, I did a couple of things differently. First, rather than writing seminar papers (always a dicey proposition in a 6-week intensive course anyways), I've asked the participants to come to the course with an essay that they've already written, one that they would like to polish/revise/work up for publication. And second, in addition to the readings, they'll be doing medium-scale conversation maps. In other words, they're going to locate 25 sources in the area where they see their essay or article intervening, and their job, for the next month or so, is to map out those sources as a means of envisioning, invoking, and/or addressing the eventual audience for their essay. They've got a fair amount of latitude in determining what their map will accomplish, but at the very least, it will require them to become pretty familiar with the immediate disciplinary context for their own writing, and that's part of my aim with it.

I've recommended that they use a program called Cmap, which Derek tipped me onto, and with which I experimented a bit as I was preparing the course and writing up the assignment itself. It's not the best tool ever created, but it's simple, comes in a range of flavors (inc PC and Mac), and it does the trick pretty well. I've been browsing mind mapping/concept mapping programs for a couple of months, and for what I need, Cmap may be the best alternative.

Partly as a means of testing it out, I ended up doing a little concept map of the readings for the course as well, and I was pleasantly surprised at how the process of mapping really prepared me to talk about the way I'd planned and arranged the course. It's pretty rough, but here's the map that I ended up handing out on the first day:

genre studies map

I ended up using node shape to distinguish among three threads of scholarship on genre (four if you count the background stuff), and the map is arranged chronologically (roughly so, anyway) from top to bottom. Not all of the connections that should be there--generally speaking, I connected nodes when one cited another--are actually in place, and there's a great deal of work in genre that I've left off because it's outside the scope of the course, but still.

More and more, I am convinced that academic enculturation is a matter of being able to draw these maps in our heads, albeit much more sophisticated ones than this. And I think that being able to diagnose and assess the immediate disciplinary context for one's work is one of the really difficult skills that go almost entirely untaught in graduate programs. Not for a lack of caring on the part of faculty, but because it's hard to know exactly how to go about doing it. If yesterday's discussion (and the questions that came up) are any indication, I think I'm on the right track, though. In the context of the course assignment, some of the basic questions (how do you find texts/nodes? how do you decide whether two texts/nodes are connected? how do you arrange the map globally?) are also the kinds of questions that most of us would be embarrassed to ask about publishable academic writing (but probably should). So far, I'm happy with this idea because it's allowing those questions to be asked, and I have a hunch (and a hope) that by the end of the assignment, this disciplinary cartography will allow them to crystallize and clarify what they know about their topics, and how to present that knowledge more effectively and convincingly to reviewers.

I don't have a lot more to say, except to acknowledge that I'm probably waxing pretty optimistic here. And to acknowledge as well the fact that it was Jenny's post about imaginary maps that got me thinking to the point where it was worth blogging this.

May 25, 2005

Oh. My.

1 mystery solved, 1 plot foiled, 1 open hatch, 1 bizarre kidnapping, 1 horde of Rimbaldi zombies, and, um, "My name isn't really Michael Vaughn"?!?!?!


That's all.

May 20, 2005


Nope, not yet. Every time I get to thinking that I might go and see it, I flip on the tv and see Chewie (& the whole gang by the end of the commercial) whoring for one of the cell providers, Yoda whoring for Diet Pepsi, Darth Vader whoring for BK, etc. Hell, Toyota's even got Phil Jackson dressing up as Obi-Wan. For someone who's as reportedly as controlling as Papa G, he's clearly pulled out all the stops in an effort to (a) make all of the money in the world before it's over, and (b) ruin any sort of integrity the saga once held. Oh wait, that's right. Pod races. He's still clearly trying to make all the money he can, though. Hell, I could probably get Boba Fett, or Wedge at least, to pose with me for $20 at this point.

Maybe, I'll ease out of hiatus by, once a day, posting the funniest lines I can find:

The general opinion of “Revenge of the Sith� seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, “The Phantom Menace� and “Attack of the Clones.� True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion.

That's from the New Yorker, and the review as a whole has put me back on the fence. I know that it won't be worth full price, although it might have been Wednesday night had I just gone to make fun of the costumed. But now I'm torn about shelling out matinee price, too.

May 19, 2005


Other than a long day tomorrow, and a handful of 711 projects still outstanding, the semester is done.

And partly in celebration, partly in hibernation, I'm going to be taking a 2-week hiatus from the blog, from my feeds, from my department, and so on. If you need to reach me, email is the most likely way. I'll be back on the SU campus during the last week of May, teaching a summer course, but until then, I'll be pretty scarce, and most likely enforcing a strict window on my online activity.

Happy Mother's Day, and I'll see you in a couple of weeks.

May 15, 2005


Derek made the eminently reasonable suggestion that I give myself one or two "hiatus coupons," redeemable for those moments when I can't not blog. I've come close to redeeming them over the past week, but managed to restrain myself.

Anyhow, one of my aims in taking the hiatus was to put in some serious writing time (and I mean serious time for writing rather than time for serious writing. Heh.). Among my goals for this time was a draft of an essay that I'd like to send out to CCC sometime in the near future, and that draft is now complete-ish, awaiting feedback from eyes more critical than mine are at the moment. The piece is called "A Book of Stars: Slicing, Scaling, and Data Mining Our Discipline," and for the moment, I've posted a pdf version of it for anyone who'd like to feed me back on it.

I post it here mostly because it takes up issues, about the CCCC specifically, that I've raised in this space on occasion. It also partakes of a 2002 CCCC presentation I did on the way that we use the program as a map of the field (and mistakenly so, imho). There's some social software goodness in there as well, and a quick read of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink lined up with Kenneth Burke's famous reflection/selection/deflection. Coincidentally, that's the presentation I'll be giving at Penn State in a couple of months.

Okay, now I'm just babbling. I'd have to check, but I'm pretty sure that the coupon doesn't include that as one of the permissible activities.

Update: There are some parallels in my argument and the stuff that Clay Shirky's talking about in "Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags". It may be worth my time to make that parallel a little more explicit.

May 6, 2005

Blessing or Curse, Part 3

a webcomic about hexadecimation

May 5, 2005

sync-o de mayo

Happy birthsday to Derek, Donna, Kenny B, and Karl. If our proposal gets accepted for next year's CCCC, I'll be on a panel with at least two of them.

On a completely unrelated note, I wanted to toss a link towards Matt Welch's latest article for Baseball Analysts, Watching Dave Hansen: Living Vicariously Through the Career of a Pinch-Hitter. More and more, this country has become a football and basketball nation, with baseball occupying this weird place that's part sport, part business, part mythology. Whether I'm watching games or not, and even if I'm focused on other sports at the time, I'm a lifelong baseball fan through-and-through. I know not everyone comes here for baseball updates, but Welch's profile is worth a read anyway. Hansen's the kind of athlete that I wish we heard more about, regardless of the sport.

May 4, 2005

Biorhythmically speaking

a webcomic about biorhythms

May 2, 2005

Why does he get to be Mr. Pink?!

I'm sure that someone's already thought of this, but I'm feeling too dead lazy to google it, so instead, allow me to take credit for my new word: treyincidence. A treyincidence is basically a coincidence of three things instead of two. Although, really, "co" just means together, so technically you could have a coincidence of three things as easily as two. Anyways.

I was at Borders this weekend, the proud owner of a highly date-specific 30%-off coupon, and so I went over to the Psychology section to see if Steven Johnson's new book was out (it wasn't--May 5). I'm a sucker like that: instead of taking the 30% off of something that I would have bought anyway, I'll look around for something expensive, so that my coupon brings it down just to the place where I'll feel okay about buying it. I'm exactly the right person to give this coupon to, in other words.

Anyhow, I came across Daniel Pink's Whole New Mind, and was sorely tempted until I remembered that this is the kind of sucker I'm not: I do try to be realistic about buying hardcover books when I know that I'm only somewhat likely to read them before the softcover comes out at less than half the price.

Okay, that was a lie. I still do that sometimes.

I've seen Pink's book mentioned in spots lately, and he's also the guy who wrote the NYT article to which Jon Udell referred briefly in his piece on screencasting (although that didn't occur to me at the time). That was one incident.

The second was reading Alex's smart, smart post in reply to the screencasting discussion. In part, Alex suggests a writing curriculum that mixes composition, professional writing, creative writing, and new media. The result?

The result, ideally, of such a curriculum is a student who is a confident, practiced writer; who understands his/her creative process; who has developed a productive writing practice for him/herself; who has composed and performed work in multiple "creative writing" genres; who has internalized some sense of rhetorical and poetic theory (to really get into it would require further graduate study); who has experience writing in workplace genres and bringing a more creative, "right brain" attitude to them; and has a strong foundation in working with new media.

I'd planned on linking to this originally, but as I was frittering away my time yesterday, I came across my third incident/encounter with Mr. Pink, over at Kathy Sierra's site, in an entry where she contrasts the US and Japan in terms of their design (in)sensibilities. Her read on what Pink has to say?

Really, we're all designers -- at least with a lowercase "d". We're all trying to create solutions. But we should all--ALL OF US--be adding design to the list of "must learn" topics for this year.


We should all start thinking like designers.

The last time I taught our Professional Writing course here at Syracuse, I focused it around design, but it was a pretty modest course for all that. As I went back and re-read Alex's post, though, my ideas got wide. I'm thinking that, instead of trying to figure out how to negotiate a writing program amongst the traditional units in an English department, why not turn to design programs for our models?

That's the move that Stuart Moulthrop, Nancy Kaplan, and others made some time ago at the University of Baltimore, where the English dept falls under the umbrella of a School of Communications Design. And I think of the productive thinking that, for me, has been spurred by work like Kaufer and Butler's Rhetoric and the Arts of Design or Herbert Simon's Sciences of the Artificial. Honestly, what's to keep us from drawing on the curricula in graphic design, architecture, and/or art for a Bachelor of Design Arts in Writing? Or splitting the difference between an MBA and an MFA with an MDA?

I was going to end the post there, but that'd make it too easy for my first comment to be: "What's to keep us? Duh, Collin. You teach at a university, remember?" Yeah yeah. But I'm keeping the word treyincidence, and using it in a sentence daily. So there.

May 1, 2005

I relearn something new every Mayday

Under the heading of "Things I Think I Used to Know but Clearly Have Forgotten Despite Their Status as Occasional Curiosities," please include an entry on the definition of Mayday. On the one hand, "May Day" is May 1, which is not so much a big holiday Stateside or anything, but enough of one that most people are familiar with it. On the other hand, "Mayday" is an international distress call, whose etymology is most likely unrelated to a holiday celebrating the arrival of spring.

Enter Wikipedia:

Mayday is an emergency code word used internationally as a distress signal. Some people say that it was derived from the French Venez m'aider (help me)...Many official sources, however, say that the word was made up -- like the distress signal SOS -- because it could not be mixed up with any other word, is easy to remember and can be understood even if the strength of the radio signal is weak.

Sure it was made up. It's so substantially different, after all, from words like "payday" and "melee." I realize that it's not currently vogue fashionable 'round these parts to admit to borrowing words from the French Freedom, but puh-lease.

Anyhow, next year, on May 1st, all I'll have to do is to include a link to this entry.