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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.


Wow, that is frelling awesome. I wish I were in that class! It seems to me that the mapping method is a good safeguard against what some in my department call a "shopping cart" approach to theory. In my program they encourage us to use a coherent body of theory, and in this kind of work, even if you're not using a group of theorists who lived at the same time and in the same place and wrote letters to each other, you can still be much more deliberate in how you're going to use them, more careful with the connections.

Inspiration and FreeMind are also pretty good mapping tools, but Cmap looks great.

Thanks, C. I remember looking at FreeMind, since "free" was one of my chief criteria, but a lot of the mind mapping software out there automatically hierarchizes, which I wanted to try and avoid. I've been messing around with GraphViz as well, but Cmap has a much easier interface (although I think the DOT language makes GV more flexible).

That whole issue of connections is something that I've been thinking about a lot recently. So much of the way that we link up work in our field is implicit and tacit, and yet we all build our own mental hypertexts of the "field" where the connections are driven by so many factors that it's hard to know where to begin. I don't think we're especially unique in our mappings, and there's a lot of implicit mapping in the way that we present the discipline to each other, but this is my first "grand experiment" in making it more explicit.

We'll see how it goes...

I agree. It's cool. I tried to do something in my undergraduate courses, which flopped big time. At the graduate level, however, I think this mapping would be awfully useful.

Personally, I don't know if the mapping thing would work for me or not, and this along with some of my doubts about so-called "visual rhetoric" makes me think that I am not as much of a visual learner/thinker as I had thought.

But I took a class in my Ph.D program in academic publishing and it was quite useful. Besides talking about the pros and cons of graduate students needing to "professionalize" themselves early, we learned a lot of "nuts and bolts" stuff about sending things out for publication and for proposing at academic conferences (we didn't read that article you mentioned though, at least I don't think we did), we learned about various editing decisions that need to be made by journals (the guy who taught this course was the former editor of the CCCs), etc.

It wasn't a particularly theoretically savvy course, but still interesting and memorable. I'm sure course will be more sophisticated and more memorable, too.

Definitely like the idea of bringing a paper to class and the idea about mapping an audience. I'll have to check out cmap.