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June 29, 2005


Jeff's already got some good thoughts working on the place(lessness) of technology in Fulkerson's article, so I'm going to open with a different tack than I might otherwise have taken. Derek's riff on itineraries and maps, not to mention the trip I'll be taking in a couple of weeks, has me thinking about destinations and such.

And I must admit, as I was reading through the article the first time, that my eyes tripped a little over Comp-landia. It appears in the first subheading ("Mapping Comp-landia: Now and Then"), right before the first sentence promising "a suggestive picture of large-scale changes in the discipline." The table that follows, the one that lines up the chapters of the two collections Fulkerson discusses, bills itself as "Two Views of the Composition Landscape." All sorts of spatial metaphors abound here, and as Jenny notes, the article closes with Fulkerson echoing Bob Broad's call for "dynamic mapping" of our programs.

So, Comp-landia. Not Rhetoria, Saskatchewriting, or the District of Comp-lumbia. How much more do I need to say here? Heimlich is quite literally "home-like," and already I'm a little leery of what's to follow, because I don't recognize myself as a citizen of Comp-landia. Maybe something closer to a dual (or trial?) citizenship, perhaps. Already there's a "home-ly" assertion here that I'm not entirely on board with.

And still, I was ready to reserve judgment. I distributed the first few pages of this article to my graduate class this summer, at a time when they were reading Fahnestock and Secor's "Rhetoric of Literary Criticism," Laura Wilder's recent "revisit" to that article from Written Communication, and Richard McNabb's study of opening gestures in graduate student submissions to Rhetoric Review. From the first few pages of Fulkerson's article, I anticipated a close reading of two exemplary texts, two instances of the same genre, that would be used to suggest some differences between the times and places they were written and collected. I expected that, at some point, the case might be made for the texts' status as representative anecdotes of, if not the entire field, at least that portion of it devoted to the teaching of first-year writing.

There are some moments where my expectation of close reading is at least acknowledged, if not fulfilled. For example, Fulkerson's comparison of Lauer's and Covino's respective chapters on rhetorical pedagogy (672) hints at the possibility of a close read, I suppose. And there's certainly enough information about each book to give the reader a general sense of each.

And yet. Maybe it's too facile, but I was struck by some of the basic differences between the books, like the fact that Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition was published by NCTE, while A Guide to Composition Pedagogies comes to us from Oxford, not the most comp-friendly press out there, and one much more likely to publish a relatively conservative, "scholarized" version of composition than, say, NCTE or BCH. And I think that's reflected in the titles themselves: "approaches to teaching" on the one hand, and a "guide to pedagogies" on the other. The latter volume is a victim, to a certain extent, of academic nominalization. The rule for chapter titling in this recent volume is so strict that, rather than break the pattern of "X Pedagogy" (9 or 10 of the 12 chapters, depending on how you count), they allow the title of Becky Howard's chapter, on "Collaborative Pedagogy," to stand, even though that title is misleading (my first thought upon seeing it was "team-teaching," not using collaboration in one's pedagogy). Approaches to teaching are flexible, negotiable, and variable in my mind; a guide to pedagogies surveys a terrain (Comp-landia, perhaps) where the provinces are clearly demarcated and established.

I find it no accident that the method Fulkerson uses tends towards the latter model of envisioning the field, because he himself is one of the most active contributors (along with Berlin, Faigley, et al.) to that model. Tate et al. write in their preface that the word "pedagogy" is widely used and poorly defined, and while that may be true, I'd argue that "composition pedagogies" have seen a great deal of definition and explication, enough so that the weird flattening of the term that appears in the Guide doesn't merit a mention. In some chapters, it refers to particular sites, in some places to specific techniques or approaches, in some places to philosophies. The end result of this is that, for me, at least, "pedagogy" feels a lot like "excellence" as Bill Readings describes it, an empty term that can be infused with whatever seems appropriate.

I really didn't plan on going on and on like this, so I'll save some comments for another post. Let me close, though, by suggesting that it feels a little like Fulkerson is trying to put the genie back in the bottle, a genie that he played some role in releasing in the first place. To return to Jeff's observation, there's really no question (among F's quartet) for which technology is the answer, and so he just ignores it. And I get the feeling that the other "new" approaches that he names are similarly ill-suited for the grid, enough so that there are places where it feels like he doesn't quite get them, either. The funny thing about this is that, like Jenny, I'm actually sympathetic to several of the claims made here. But they're erected on a foundation that doesn't actually support them. There's a feint here, at the beginning of the article, that implies one approach to his attempt "to make personal sense of composition studies" while it actually takes another.

And that other is more personal observation than anything else. And I'll write a little about those in a day or two...

That is all, for now.

June 28, 2005


Jeff and Donna have already begun to take up Clancy on the suggestion that we rebegin our little rhetcomp carnival, and so this is a bit after the fact, I suppose. Nevertheless, anyone who's interested should pick up Richard Fulkerson's essay "Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century" from the latest issue of CCC:

I argue that examining two collections of essays designed for the preparation of new writing teachers and published twenty years apart provides some important clues to what has occurred to composition studies in the interval. Building on the framework I established in two previous CCC articles, I argue that composition studies has become a less unified and more contentious discipline early in the twenty-first century than it had appeared to be around 1990. The present article specifically addresses the rise of what I call critical/cultural studies, the quiet expansion of expressive approaches to teaching writing, and the split of rhetorical approaches into three: argumentation, genre analysis, and preparation for “the? academic discourse community.

Feel free to trackback this entry to alert us to contributions in your own space(s), or drop a link in the comments. Or Jeff's. Or Donna's. Or Derek's. Or Jenny's. etc.

And the winner might be...

It might be Jeff, depending on whether or not he actually has an Amazon wish list. A search of Amazon reveals no fewer than 25 "Jeff Rice" wish lists, but while one or two suggest themselves as possibilities, I got tired of searching through them. More to the point, I guess, none of them listed Detroit or Michigan in their addresses. There was one, with a single item on it, that seemed a possibility, but there was no mailing address and the item was out of stock.

So, Jeff will get the post for sure, sometime in the next week or so, but the Amazon prize may have to drift up or down the list, depending...

Oh, and no fair substituting someone else's wishlist for one's own, especially if that list was created so long ago that it lists Arlington, Texas as a mailing address. I'm just saying...

Update: Jeff's wish list has been created, and visited. The 1000th Comment Prize should reach Jeff in a few days...

June 27, 2005

Speaking of statistics

The production crew here at cgbvb has asked me to let you all know that we're rapidly approaching another Magical Milestone, this time related to the number of comments on this here weblog.

Let it never be said of me that I was above the occasional, well-placed bribe. Let's just say that comments are currently somewhere in the 990's, and for the 1000th comment (or rather, for the author of the 1000th comment), I offer two--count them, two!!--prizes: first, a random gift selected from your Amazon wishlist (within reason, of course); and second, a blog entry all about YOU. (The occasion of Lori's 500th post reminded me how much fun I had writing fake posts over at Aly's site, and what can I say? I've got a hankering.)

To be fair, I should probably restrict this contest to people who have contributed at least one missive to the 990-something comments that have come before, but we'll see.

June 26, 2005

Weblog survey

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

June 25, 2005

You think you got problems?!

Last week, the students in my genre theory course read another of those sine qua non essays about academic publishing, Richard McNabb's "Making the gesture: Graduate student submissions and the expectation of journal referees" [via FindArticles], and as I was cruising the web looking for a nice handout-sized thumbnail of John Swales's description of creating a research space, I came across Joe Williams's monograph Problems into PROBLEMS: A Rhetoric of Motivation, which was announced at Kairosnews back in February.

I can't do much more than gush about Williams at this point--I'll definitely be teaching Williams and Swales alongside McNabb in the fall. Williams's monograph is a careful exploration, supported by some pretty broad, multimodal research, of how to write introductions, and more to the point, how to pose a PROBLEM in the academic sense. Among a number of smart things in this document:

Our students find this kind of thinking bizarre. But it’s what we do -- a kind of Zen locksmithing: we have made a key that fits a lock before we have made the lock that fits the key.

Students may find it bizarre, but I still think that there are plenty of us who find it opaque, or who learn how to do it without necessarily articulating what it is that we're doing. And Williams does, in painstaking detail. Not only will my graduate students in the fall be reading this, but I'm going to require it of all my dissertators as well. Believe me when I say that it's worth a couple of hours of your time, if you're writing for an academic audience.

That is all.

June 24, 2005

The EdTech gamble

[via Clancy] New Kid on the Hallway has a dead-on critique of Patrick Allitt's literally "old school" rant about educational technology, and it's both thorough and wicked enough that I have little to add.

Except to note something that's occurred to me no less than three times over the past day or so. Partly it's what I was thinking about the LA Times, but it's popped up in a few other contexts as well. It's unbelievably presumptuous of me to name it after myself, especially since I'm sure that there are plenty of smarter people out there who have thought and said it before me, but oh well:

Collin's Wager: Technology is golden only insofar as you're willing to risk it being garbage.

In terms of Allitt's description,

Throughout the class the students took notes on the computers, creating a ceaseless keyboard clatter and making it difficult for anyone to hear the teacher's voice. Worse, as they faced their screens they looked away from the professor and away from one another.

First of all, it's remarkably short-sighted to stock a computer classroom with loud keyboards, but oh well. More importantly, it's easy for me to imagine some of those students really benefitting from having the computers handy. Imagine being able to take notes with concept map software, being able to dump links and/or graphics into the map, etc.

But the rewards of those possibilities are bought with the risk that those same students will IM, check their emails, surf for fun, etc. That's the gamble you take. And it's almost beyond belief to me that someone who's the "director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum" would argue that, rather than making the teachers there aware of this gamble, we should just dump the technology. His little fantasy (complete with Mark Trail exclamation point!)--

How much better the class would have been with no more than a blackboard and a few sheets of paper! Note taking would have been silent; students would have talked to the teacher and each other, would have concentrated on the substance rather than the technology, and would have had more time -- not less -- to devote to their work. Best of all, a warm atmosphere of collective endeavor would have displaced the anonymity and chill that the machines created.

--is an expression of his desire for the illusion of control that such a classroom entails. As though students don't doodle, zone out, pass notes, gaze longingly out the window, etc. But in the old school classroom, teachers don't have to compete with these activities because they don't have to acknowledge that they're going on. After all, no endless keyboard clatter! No burnt out bulbs on the projector or flaky remote controls! IM only happens In the Margins of student notes! And so on!

I don't know. Maybe I'm just tired of people who seem to think that it's possible to wait out the problems, who think that if something doesn't work perfectly, it doesn't work period. I know that there are good reasons for feeling that way (the tyranny of bubble sheet evals, anyone?), and I know that there are plenty of people who can't afford to lose the wager, but Allitt and others like him need to understand that "the most important issues in education have not [indeed] changed." Reading and writing well are still important, granted, but they're important in different ways, different media, and different milieu than they were even ten years ago, and all the wishing in the world won't make it otherwise.

Did I say "little to add"? That is all.

To Dance or to Coma, that is the question

Why aren't I dancing around my office, you might well ask?

Well, do you remember rain sticks? There is a shocking level of correspondence between the sounds that rain sticks make and the creaking coming from my limbs right now, the only difference being that the movement of my limbs is also accompanied by loud groans and moans.

You see, on Wednesday, the people in charge of my building dropped by to check on my progress (which was fairly substantial). I said that I'd be ready on Friday to move, and they told me that there'd be "some guys" coming by to "help me." Already I'm a little suspicious, because my understanding was that "helping me" had originally been defined as "moving my stuff for me, considering the colossal disruption that this process will have already had on my life." Alas. "Some guys" ended up being the property manager. I recruited Derek, and the three of us moved me from one building to the next.

So, anyway, I'm moved, and if I'm lucky, the ache in my body will vanish sometime in the next week. If I'm luckier, I'll find a comparably priced place to move to, since I'm boxed up anyway and less than pleased at the phantom "some guys" that may never have existed in the first place.

Why might I dance around my office, you might ask?

Well, I just picked up Nouvelle Vague, which bills as an album of bossa nova covers of new wave music. Think smoky French lounge covers of the Clash, Joy Division, XTC, Modern English, the Cure, Sisters of Mercy, etc. Très intéressant, si vous me demandez.

Ok. It's not really dance-around-your-office music, but it's kind of fun.

June 22, 2005

"None of us is promised tomorrow."

John wrote that exactly a month ago, in a post on the occasion of the 2-year anniversary of his blog, where he reflected on what he had accomplished over those two years:

In looking back, I think I've pretty well accomplished my central purpose, to document my work as a writing teacher in a large two-year college. I write from the context of 40 years of full-time teaching, with an annual course load of 8 classes, typically loaded this way: 5 first-year comp (150 students), 1 developmental comp (25 students), 2 elective courses, one in literature, one in linguistics (90 students), for an annual total of 265 students. Over that time, I also taught summer session about 80% of the years. What I have tried to do here is describe some of the day-to-day realities of teaching, service and professional development work that fits most of the people who teach college composition full-time, namely my community college colleagues.

I've also tried to address issues of theory and practice as they have been articulated by leaders in our profession through journals and conferences. And, frankly, I count myself as one of those leaders.

That post also made reference to the health problems that claimed his life yesterday, problems that kept him, over the last month or so, from posting at the prolific rate that he had established for himself over the last two years. This should have been a sign, I suppose, but John was also adamant about his blog as "a public place, not one where I will go into personal and private matters," and so I had no idea that his health was so precarious.

I can't say that I really knew John all that well, having only met him face to face in March in San Francisco, but of course I knew him better than that. Anytime I posted something critical of the field (and granted, it's not all that often), I could rely on the fact that he'd leave me a comment, not out of a desire to defend the field so much as to let me know that "the field" was listening. There are some people who do that, who listen so well, that it ceases to matter so much whether or not they agree. A lot of the time, it's enough to know that you're taken seriously.

And it was important to me (to many of us, I suspect) that John, whose experiences were vastly different from my own, took me/us seriously. Maybe that's why, even though I would be hard pressed to demonstrate that he and I were anything more than acquaintances, I feel like I've lost a good friend today. I feel like we've all lost a good friend today.

June 21, 2005

The Great Wiki Disaster of 2005

Yeah, whatever.

The absolute best line I've seen in relation to the L.A. Times' wiki "failure" has to come from Jeff Jarvis:

This is like hearing Kathie Lee Gifford try to rap and then, upon hearing the results, declaring hip hop dead.

Pure gold. And the rest of the entry is worth reading as well. Jeff also excerpts the L.A. Times post-mortem on the experience, which includes

"As long as we can hit a high standard and have no risk of vandalism, then it is worth having a try at it again," said Rob Barrett, general manager of Los Angeles Times Interactive....

Or, in other words, over Rob's dead body. Neither of those conditions is especially realistic. Vandalism--or more precisely, spam--is the risk of doing business out here, I'm afraid. And there is absolutely no guarantee that a high standard can be "hit"; crap is another of the risks you run. I haven't written at all about the LAT's grand wiki experiment--other things have demanded my attention--but I would say that it's getting harder to admire the boldness of that experiment when the people who were apparently in charge of it demonstrate so little understanding of what it is that they were doing.

That's all.

Our relentless storkist logic

I just liked the phrase, although TMW is always worth a read.

June 20, 2005

Stand and Deliver

Thanks everyone for the kind words about the Kairos award...

Today was presentation day in my graduate class, which meant that all of the students showed off the concept maps that I asked them to complete as part of the reqs for the course, as explained a few weeks back. Not to gush or anything, but I was really happy with the results. Derek used Flickr to port his map, so you can take a look at one example, and I'll link to others if and when they show up online.

One of the things that I hadn't really anticipated was the degree to which the maps would vary depending on where in their projects each of the students was. I should have figured on this, because it makes perfect sense that the assignment could be used to accomplish different things depending on context, but it was still a smack-me-in-the-forehead moment for me. Some of the maps were fairly well-defined because they were drawing on a bounded set of texts, and the mappers were using the project to define/determine patterns among their sources. The more open-ended maps tended to emerge from projects that weren't perhaps as far along, and so they functioned in a more exploratory fashion, helping the mapper(s) locate the various scholarly conversations (and their own positions within it). Neither type is necessarily good or bad--I thought that they were, to a person, appropriate given the stage of the mapper's research and writing. And so the range of maps corresponded, I'm guessing, to the range of essays that we'll be reading and workshopping over the next three class sessions.

Anyhow, I'm happy enough with this assignment that I'll probably adapt it for the course that I'm teaching in the fall, which is our "Intro to the Field" course for our incoming cohort of graduate students. This may be me projecting my optimism a little, but I feel like this assignment really helped each student develop a better sense of their project and where it might enter into academic conversations. If I use it this fall, it'll be a more exploratory kind of assignment, but I'm convinced that it's worthwhile...

June 18, 2005

Best Academic Weblog

It's official.

cgbvb was honored last night, at the Awards banquet at Computers and Writing 2005, as the 2005 Kairos Best Academic Weblog. And as Mike notes in his announcement, not more than an hour later, Andrea Lunsford cited me in her keynote address. That qualifies as a doubleshot of academic goodness, guaranteed to perk up my day, and it does/did. Now, of course, I'm dying to hear/see what Andrea had to say about me...

I'm not looking to wax all "lifetime achievement" or anything, but I did want to thank the judges, both (obviously) for recognizing me but also for what must have been a great deal of reading and a difficult decision. Our little corner of the (academic) blogosphere has grown a lot in the last year, so don't think it false modesty if I say that part of doing this successfully is having people to talk with and ideas to work with. The claim, which still makes the rounds from time to time, that blogging is just self-indulgent, public diary-writing fails to take into account how important it is to each of us to have readers, fellow writers, comments, trackbacks, etc. So thanks also to the folks in my blogroll, and really to anyone who's taken to stopping by on a regular basis, whether you've left traces or not.

In my graduate course this summer, one of the issues that's emerged occasionally is the relationship between academic conversations and privilege, and one of the things that I'm slowly coming to realize is that this site has had a profound influence on the ways I think about academia and publication. It's hard not to be (sometimes more than) a little cynical about the economy that we academics find ourselves thrown into, and yet, for me, blogging operates outside of that system, and productively so. While the publication process can sometimes feel like an esoteric brand of hazing that rewards little more than raw persistence, whatever privilege and status I've earned here I've earned because of an ongoing commitment to writing and to the topics that interest me. And I like that there's a space where that's enough. I also appreciate those spaces where it takes more than that--I appreciate the quality of research and writing that occurs in those spaces. But I think that (for me, at least) blogging allows my writing a balance that I've only discovered in the past year or two, a balance between the event/performance and the dailyness that most of my writing embraces. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: we teach our students that their products should emerge from an ongoing process, but we're really bad at practicing what we preach.

And so that's maybe what I'm proudest of when it comes to being recognized as best academic weblog. It feels like I'm being rewarded specifically for practicing what we preach, for being both a teacher of writing and teacher who writes. Nothing wrong with that. Heh.


June 14, 2005

Meet the new coach, same as the old coach

I think it no accident that today, the day of the most important game of the Pistons' and Spurs' seasons, that Jerry Buss decided to announce the hiring of perhaps the most expensive coaching staff in all of pro sports, Phil Jackson. After all, the Pistons and Spurs were responsible, in 04 and 03 respectively, for knocking the Lakers off of their annually destined march to the NBA Championship. If only, as Buss was wrenching the spotlight from two much more deserving teams, he had had the presence of mind to remember who knocked them out of the 2005 playoffs. And likely the 2006 playoffs, truth be told.

The Lakers are a pretty crappy team right now, and hiring Jackson is desperation in a box. On the one hand, it's kind of cool, because Jackson will actually have to build a team, which is something that hasn't preceded a single one of his 9 rings. He's presided over fine-tuning, to be sure, but he's never had to take a lottery team and turn them into a contender. On the other, though, whatever sincerity I once attributed to Jackson has pretty much vanished. Less than a year after blasting Kobe Bryant in print and saying that he was through with him, he's back as his coach? He's got ten million reasons, I suppose, to take the helm of a team that doesn't have a single top-15-at-his-position player outside of Bryant, but Jackson's schtick has always been that he's above that kind of grubby.

Ah well. I just hope that all of the talking heads who think that Jackson's some sort of answer will admit how wrong they were about the actual question. A year from now, even if the Lake squeaks in as a 7 or 8 seed, the Suns or the Spurs will sweep them to oblivion, despite Jackson's incredible playoff coaching record. And Buss will face the same questions then that he should be facing right now, only he won't be able to lure his daughter's boyfriend out of retirement to disguise the fact that they're bigger questions than whether or not Phil and Kobe can coexist.

That's all. I'm gonna go watch the Pistons close out Game 3.

June 13, 2005


For a brief spell tonight, the weather finally broke. For the past week or so, and I can testify to this based on first-hand experience, the temperature failed to dip below the low 80s, even at, say, 2 in the morning. For the past week or so, I've managed to get to sleep only on the combination of sheer exhaustion, the heavy rotation of ice packs from freezer to pillows, and what I've come to recognize as fan chill (where the temperature doesn't really drop, but the sheer number of fans convinces your lizard brain that it's cooler than it actually is).

Tonight, however, rain glorious rain! And it dropped as low as 71, according to weather.com. It's still warmer than I like when it comes to sleep, but I'll take it.

Also a couple of miscellaneous links that have refused to disconnect from one another: From the Department of Words that I Wish I'd Made Up, I'll refer you to Bill Tozier's discussion of crackpots, and particularly for "psychoceramics," which is the term for the study of crackpots. There's a psychoceramics mailing list, and a LJ community, but it was the first time I'd seen the word itself. Genius. Now if someone would just write a spot-on Asimov parody (Confoundation?) substituting psychoceramics for psychohistory.

Anyhow, I thought it was quite a hoot, and I appreciate the sentiment behind Bill's psychoceramica:

I think we should pay attention to and catalog kooks and crackpots and religious fanatics for the same reason we pay attention to people with genetic diseases that result in biochemical anomalies. Because by looking at the exceptions and cataloging them, we will learn far more about the underlying “wild type? cognointellectual framework of science and thought. By seeing what’s broken, and the consequences thereof, we can gather data with which we might piece together the normal complex dynamics of learning, discourse, and thought.

Now, lest you think there's no place for kooks and crackpots in the world, I would refer you to a link I picked up from Cool Hunting for a Dutch design studio called OOOMS. At OOOMS, you will find such products as Hairhats, made 100% from human hair, or Hollow Land earthenware, which reproduces exactly a hole from "somewhere in the Netherlands." By far, though, my fave is the Anti-Gravity machine, which looks a little like a rolling trebuchet, and which, once attached, allows you to "get the feeling of walking on the moon."

Genius. The Quicktime demo made me want it even more.

That is all. Except for the fact that I'll probably dream tonight of building my own rebellious cabinet.

June 10, 2005

Getting Things Done

I haven't gotten around to buying David Allen's book of that name just yet, but I have been trying to organize my life a little better. I'm thinking long and hard about requiring all of our students, in the year before they go on the market, to subscribe to Merlin Mann's 43 Folders, if for no other reason to add a relentlessly practical voice to all the other voices they have to deal with as they write dissertations, apply for jobs, etc.

I myself have been making personal use lately of Ta-Da lists, and we're using Basecamp as a way of keeping track (keeping us on track) of what we're doing with CCC Online. I'm even thinking about trying out Backpack as a way of keeping track of the various writing projects I'm always engaged in.

The point isn't so much that there's a single answer for each person's needs, and in fact, my engagement with these various tools waxes and wanes. But I've been thinking a lot lately about how I might manage my workflow better--right now, my operative metaphor is an ice cream on a hot summer day, where I have to keep licking around the edges to keep it from dripping and running all over my hand, without ever sizably decreasing the amount of ice cream. My organizational habits have been learned tacitly, from colleagues and professors, and even then, I never really asked about them or gave mine much conscious thought. They just sort of happened, and I always figured that, as long as I didn't piss too many people off or let too much slide, I was doing fine.

That's pretty weak stuff, though, and it doesn't really put me in a position to give advice to our graduate students, most of whom would benefit from an organizational overhaul about as much as I would, I'm guessing. In fact, I'm wondering if something like Basecamp wouldn't actually be a really interesting way of organizing the various exam and dissertation committees I'm on: I could open up a project page for each student that she or he and I would have access to, and we could collaborate on to-do lists and deadlines and use it to keep notes of meetings as well as chart progress. Hmmm.

That's all for now.

June 9, 2005

A Case of Spuriosities

I told Jenny that she had to repost this, but after that, I went looking to see if I still had it on my machine. A little more than a year ago, she sent me a link to a site called "A Case of Curiosities," which offers such "fine art taxidermy" services as you'll find on the "Grotesque Beauties" page. I still can't really type this without cringing.

Anyhow, if I remember correctly, Jenny was krushing on Manu Ginobli, whose Spurs face off tonight against the Pistons for the NBA Championship, and so, entirely unsolicited, I made Jenny this little picture combining her interests in Manu and Grotesque Beauties. It still makes me laugh, this:

grotesque manu-ty

And yes, this may very well be the single creepiest thing I've ever done with Photoshop. (Here's the original.)

June 8, 2005

All of Malaysia was agog

I'm teaching a course right now, a graduate seminar on genre theory and academic writing, which I haven't really blogged at all, partly for a lack of time and partly because Derek and Mike are doing a nice job of it as far as I'm concerned. Anyhow, about the course: in large part, it was offered in response to some concern on the parts of our students (and I'm paraphrasing roughly here) that they weren't receiving enough attention in our curriculum as writers, as emerging professionals who were expected to be writing publishable prose in a matter of a few years. I'm a big fan of programmatic support for writing at the graduate level (I'm also supervising a writers' group for our dissertators this summer), and so I offered to teach this course partly as a publication workshop.

But it's a graduate seminar as well, and let's just say that I have strong opinions about the importance of providing instruction in both declarative and procedural knowledge in our graduate courses. And so, I decided to start the course with some reading in genre theory. It's a solid mix of readings, I think, and we're making a turn from more theoretical perspectives to some of the work in our field that brings genre theory to bear upon academic writing. For tomorrow, the class is reading a chapter (and the postscript) from Berkenkotter and Huckin's Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication, the book whose chapter on CCCC proposals I swear by. We're reading a different chapter, though, the one about "Nate," the first-year PhD student whom B&H followed through his first year at Carnegie Mellon, and whose essays are analyzed in no small detail over the course of the chapter.

Anyhow, this chapter has got me thinking. In their conclusions, B&H discuss Nate's tendency to do extracurricular writing, more informal writing alongside the academic assignments he completed:

In Nate's case, it appears that the kind of advanced literacy associated with learning a field of knowledge, or with entering a discipline or vocation, hinged on the learner's ability to integrate subject matter knowledge with a knowledge of situationally appropriate linguistic and rhetorical conventions. Nate appears to have developed the former from reading and coursework more readily than the latter. His use of informal writing as a learning tool seems to have served him well in the former respect, but it may have slowed his progress as an academic writer....Although informal expressive writing appears to help writers explore new ideas, it also may deter them from expressing these ideas in the highly explicit, cohesive, hierarchical style expected in formal expository prose (141-2).

This really sent my wheels spinning, because it's potentially the best argument I've heard, even though it's obviously not pointed in that direction, against encouraging graduate students to keep weblogs. There are certainly other reasons as well, I suppose, but they tend to be anecdotal (that person got fired! what if i do too?) rather than grounded in any sort of semi-objective evaluation.

And I'm fully aware that this isn't exactly an airtight argument, either. B&H have been critiqued from a range of positions, not the least of which is the fact that CMU faculty at the time probably defined things like register and formality in pretty strict fashion. And that suggests that formal academic prose and writing on a weblog need not be as diametrically opposed as B&H's presentation of Nate's two styles of writing.

The implication here is that Nate may have sacrificed some procedural facility (how to write appropriately) in the interests of his declarative knowledge (what he was writing about), and for me, that's a pretty important question, one that lies at the heart (or should, imho) of a graduate curriculum. It's interesting (to me, at least) to think about the sum total of degree requirements and to interrogate the ratio between declarative and procedural knowledges. I wouldn't want to overgeneralize, but I suspect, for example, that most programs list requirements in specific areas of declarative knowledge (composition pedagogy, classical rhetoric, e.g.) than they do procedural ones (how to build a webpage, e.g.). Research courses are one exception to this, but foreign language requirements? Not so much.

And this leads me to thinking about where blogging lies on that spectrum. Were someone to transpose B&H to blogging, they'd still have to grant the potential for blogging to assist a student with assimilating declarative knowledge. But I think I'd be tempted to make the case for blogging on procedural grounds as well. Rather than arguing (as I think we probably could) that academic register in our field has become more informal, I'd go in the other direction and argue something like what Jay Parini writes in his Chronicle piece "The Considerable Satisfaction of 2 Pages a Day."

It's something that I've harped on for a few years now: it's hard to write every day, but it's also the surest path to success as an academic writer, and I say that as someone who's only ever been capable of intermittent bursts of daily writing. The problem with most graduate curricula, from the standpoint of training our students as writers, is that they treat writing according to the thresholds of deadlines, and up until the dissertation, it's possible for students to wait and wait and read and wait, until a few days before something is due, and then crank it out. We even invest that strategy with higher stakes when it comes to comprehensive examinations. And then that strategy, reinforced and encouraged throughout 3-4 years of a program, fails utterly and completely when it comes to the capstone of the PhD, the dissertation.

I don't know that I'd go so far as to say that bloggers write better dissertations, but I do think that there's a case to be made that weblogs can provide an opportunity for daily writing, an opportunity that will serve a blogger well when it comes to a larger project. Keeping a weblog may help students develop the kind of procedural knowledge that receives so little attention in the formal venues of academia. I think of the last-ish paragraph of Parini's article:

Having a grand idea, and setting up to accomplish something in a grand way, has always been, for me, a hopeless notion. I once had a good friend, a poetry editor and teacher, who always hoped to write a novel. One day the first sentence of the novel swam into his head: "All of Malaysia was agog." He didn't know why Malaysians were agog, or even where on earth Malaysia was. But he applied for a grant, got it, and set himself up in a foreign country with a huge sheaf of paper and a typewriter. He typed with reverence the great first sentence. He waited. He waited for much of a year, but nothing ever came.

If he'd been blogging, he would have just saved it as a draft, and on day 2, started another post that was completely unrelated. Or not. It's harder to learn how to do that than people think, and so I wonder if B&H unfairly discount the "outside" writing that Nate ends up doing. Do I even need to add the parallel sentence here, about discounting blogging? Probably not.

June 7, 2005

Late night television

"It's time that y'all had the chance to find out what it's like being Bobby Brown," or something moronic like that. Apparently, I jinxed Bravo last week, so that they felt obliged to announce, as part of their summer lineup, the new reality show called "Being Bobby Brown." There are so many bad jokes buried in there that I don't even know where to begin.

On the plus side, though, I got home just in time tonight to flip over to the Daily Show and see Jon Stewart interview Steven Johnson, which brings to a grand total now of 1 the number of people I've ever met personally who have appeared on the Daily Show. The trick for us bookish folk is that Jon has a rhythm to his banter that can make a body appear stilted. I was pleased to see, though, that Steven managed the interview well. Serious without being too serious, ya know?

Deictic Systems?

One of the projects that I've been slowly working on has reached a stage where it's ready to receive some critical attention. Those of you who were at my CCCC presentation will have heard some of this before--I took part of my talk and expanded it quite a bit, and it's scheduled to go "live" at Computers and Writing Online next week. However, it's been tough for me to make time to read the presentations daily, much less respond to them, so I thought I'd make mine available over a slightly longer stretch.

It's called "Weblogs as Deictic Systems," which may be the most direct title I've ever placed on a piece of writing of mine. It's still kind of drafty, but you're welcome to take a look. I went ahead and published it via MT, so that you could comment on individual sections, so please do. My ultimate goal is to work it up into something publishable, so any feedback (positive or negative) is welcome in that regard...

That's all.

June 6, 2005


I know. It's hard to argue that I'm "back" from hiatus if I'm only posting once a week.

I've got tons of stuff going on right now, though, and much of it isn't especially bloggable, I suppose. One of the background processes that's taking up a lot of spare time is my upcoming pseudo-move. They're going to be working on my building in a month or so, and so my rental company is going to move me to another building for a month and then back (they'll be working on that other building after they're done with mine). And that means that I have to spend the next couple of weeks slowly dis-embedding myself from the space I've occupied for four years now. Ugh. And I don't even have a supernewbiggerbetter place lined up to provide a light at the end of the packing tunnel. I'm going to end up in the same damn place.

I will probably make some decisions, though, about how embedded I want to be upon my return. I've filled up about a dozen boxes so far with books that I'm mentally filing into long-term storage, and I'm doing what I can to be a little more willing to pitch the junk.

As happy as I am about that, it hasn't helped for this to be going on while I'm teaching another grad seminar, working on dissertations, getting CCC Online going, revising my book manuscript, etc. I assumed that my schedule would lighten up after the semester ended, and if anything, it's been even worse.

And the blog, it suffers as a result.

June 2, 2005

I am woman

I don't know if this qualifies as a late night confession, but I must admit that, in the past year or so, I've become much more of a Bravo watcher. A big part of it is their tendency to air multiple episodes of the West Wing on a daily basis, not to mention the occasional marathon. I haven't really gotten into their "Moms and Dads" series of shows, mostly because that stuff just sends me into a rage.

Lately, and often during Monday's Memorial Day WW Marathon, they've been advertising the heck out of a concert special that they aired tonight, a show by the Dan Band:

Imagine a guy sporting a gas station attendant's shirt, a backward baseball cap and sneakers strutting and swaggering around the stage, flush with attitude as he pours his soul into painfully earnest and oddly appealing covers of "Total Eclipse of the Heart," "Ring My Bell," "Muskrat Love," Janet Jackson's "Nasty" and Britney Spears' "Slave 4 U." That's [Dan] Finnerty, who adds to the lyrics a healthy number of self-created expletives for emphasis (lots of "fuck" and "shit" and "muthafucker" to confirm just how emotionally connected to this music he is). It leads here to a demented encore serenading a "sweat-rag girl" (don't ask) onstage in a show-stopping rendition of "I've Never Been to Me."

It was high-larious. If you have the chance, I highly recommend catching a re-air, and I'm sure there'll be plenty (Bravo's not overflowing with programming). Anyhow, the one thing that I didn't see mentioned in the reviews I've found was that the concert is chock full of mashups (imagine Morrisette's "You Oughtta Know" laced with a bit of "Que Sera Sera" and New Edition's "Cool it Now."). Maybe over at Crooked Timber, somebody mentioned that the problem with mashups is that once you get past the novelty, all you're left with is bad music. This may be bad music, but it's a hell of a lot of fun regardless. And while I don't know that I'll ever feel like listening to Night at the HipHopera or Revolved over and over, I'm actually thinking about shelling out either for the CD or the DVD of the concert. And the July concert dates are tempting, too...

Fun stuff. That is all. Oh, and "I Am Woman" was the name of the special.

June 1, 2005

Fish in a Barrel, Take 2

Okay, Exhibit B. While I found several links to the Fish piece as I scanned my feeds this morning, over at the Blogora, Jim links to an article by Jethro Leiberman, an Associate Dean at the New York Law School, called "Bad Writing: Some Thoughts on the Abuse of Scholarly Rhetoric, available through that school's Law Review. A more appropriate exhibit, given my title, as Leiberman takes careful aim at the dead horse (or the barrel-bound fish) we know and love as the "difficulty" of academic writing.

From the abstract for this paper, we are given a glimpse of what is to come: "Bloated, foggy, and enigmatic prose masquerades as profundity that escapes conventional mental grooves. In fact it is useless, unethical, and taken far enough, evil." Well, it's a glimpse only if you count the appearance of the word "evil" in the final sentence of the article, and treat this melodramatic hyperbole as a serious claim, which you might be able to do as long as you're willing to ignore the absolute lack of evidence offered in its support. Oh wait, there's logic: understanding is good, I can't understand what they're saying, so they must be evil. Ahh yes.

Leiberman's article is more sophisticated than this when he tones down the enigmatic prose and sticks to the question of difficulty. He's right, I think, to question the defense of difficulty that's taken place in recent years, although I'd argue that you only earn the right to question it by taking it seriously in the first place. More on that soon.

The article begins with a Sokal-esque parody of difficult writing (and what critique of academic writing would be complete without a nod to the patron saint of academic schadenfreude?), containing such gems as:

This familiar defamiliarization of the conventional Ordinary problematizes much of the turn to the ornate Interpretive. In this sense, the enactment comes, if at all, with foudroyant force, an irresistible tsunami of hypercathexis toward concretized Law.

No, it's not meant to make any sort of sense, although it makes a fair amount of smugness in the first couple of pages. And apparently, this smugness (is it too late, almost 10 years later now, to coin the term Sokality to refer to anti-academic performative smirking?) is called for nowadays:

In fact, I think, something else is new: of late certain academic scholars have sought to justify bad writing. It is necessary, the claim runs, to write mysterious, impenetrable, foggy prose, to embed words in a style inaccessible not merely to the lay reader but to most academic readers as well.

Well, in fact, the claim doesn't quite run thusly, but Leiberman isn't really interested in understanding the claim so much as he is in rounding up the usual tropes to array against some Platonic ideal of clarity. Sokal is one, and of course, the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing contest is another. Lacan appears in a footnote as particularly inscrutable, of course, and Orwell is trotted out so that Leiberman can write, in sufficiently dramatic fashion, that "Euphemism allows us to gloss over the repugnant thought and avoid the evil deed that it masks." Yeah, that's not an Orwell quote. Evil deeds, indeed.

Leiberman is a dean at a law school, and the essay appears in a law review, so while you and I might think it appropriate that more than one example appear from legal writing, Leiberman satisfies himself with a single passage from a 1952 decision rendered by Justice Felix Frankfurter:

The faculties of the Due Process Clause may be indefinite and vague, but the mode of their ascertainment is not self-willed. In each case “due process of law? requires an evaluation based on a disinterested inquiry pursued in the spirit of science, on a balanced order of facts exactly and fairly stated, on the detached consideration of conflicting claims, on a judgment not ad hoc and episodic but duly mindful of reconciling the needs both of continuity and of change in a progressive society.

Oh. My. God. Impenetrable, right? Well, no. I don't know what the Due Process Clause is, although I can certainly guess. Leiberman asks "How can such language be defended?" in all apparent seriousness. I don't know the Clause or the case, but it seems pretty obvious to me that Frankfurter is suggesting that interpretation of the clause is not an individual decision, but one that should be weighed against the competing forces of the stable precedents of the law and the changing nature of social circumstance. In the footnote to the passage, Leiberman explains, "This passage is not necessarily difficult writing, but it is bad writing nonetheless; it purports to describe a method of ascertaining due process, but its oracular quality denudes it of meaning."

Its oracular quality denudes it of meaning? Oh my pots and kettles. It's hard for me to imagine that anyone reading that decision has a right to expect that a single sentence is going to "describe a method of ascertaining due process," but hey, that's just me. On the other hand, I can easily imagine this sentence appearing either at the beginning or the end of a decision that goes into far greater detail attempting to perform the method alluded to in the passage. And my point, if I may make it without overly denuding it of meaning, is that we can't really know whether or not this is "bad writing" without seeing the context for it. Leiberman describes this as "ennobled, pretty language," but I just don't see it. Perhaps it is indeed vacuous, but not on its own, and certainly not because someone says it is.

Let me say it more bluntly. There is no such thing as "bad writing" or "difficult writing," independent of a particular context. There is writing that I find bad or difficult, but that speaks to my own taste and preference and background, not to some intrinsic quality of the text itself. And that's the largest problem with this article, and indeed, this whole genre of academic anti-academicism. It's also the problem with collections that defend difficult writing, mostly because they've already given away the most obvious point: difficulty is not a textual feature, but rather a ratio that involves a host of factors, including vocabulary, register, sentence length, reader background, and textual context. A text is not difficult; it is difficult for somebody: me, you, us, them, whoever.

So to insist that writing should be difficult is to exclude most of humankind from understanding whatever it is that the difficult writers think the difficult writing purports to be saying. It is to build walls around the purveyors of such prose, not to goad outsiders into thinking anew. It dampens the spirit of inquiry for all except the initiate, and the more difficult the writing the smaller the inner circle. It mocks humanity’s hard-fought battle to think its way out of the jungle, to articulate a life worth living, to aspire through language, thought made manifest, to a richer, warmer, fairer life. Writing that is opaque, obscure, tortured — difficult writing — is humbug. Its purveyors condescend toward their audiences and are contemptuous of their readers.

By the end of this essay, it's just too easy to poke at. So let me close with a couple of final thoughts. First, there's a weird sort of entitlement operating here: I don't understand your writing, therefore you must be writing it in such a way so as to keep from understanding it. This is humbug. I don't defend difficult prose, but I defend our right to write to our audience. Yes, "the smaller the inner circle," but to think that this is a result of complicated prose, and has nothing to do with the downsizing of the humanities, is precisely the kind of euphemistic thinking that this article appears to condemn. To attribute these qualities (opacity, obscurity, torture) to a given text is to decontextualize it in a way that ignores the conditions of its production and its circulation.

And it's striking to me, and this is perhaps my second closing point, that in his swirl of metaphors for bad writing, Leiberman never once pauses to ask whether or not he's examining cause or effect. He marches forward, as any number of similar critics do, and accuses so-called difficult writers, by implication at least, of evil, never once stopping to think about why scholars might write in such a fashion. And the fact of the matter is that for most of us who toil away in the humanities, our audience will never be more than a couple of hundred readers, and guess what? That's not the result of "difficult" writing, but one of the preconditions. Most academic writing is produced for a fairly select audience, an audience that shares vocabularies and references that are going to appear opaque to the person who doesn't share them. Difficult writing is as much the result of the absence of a broader audience for academic work as it is a cause.

But then, testing that claim would require one to take even "difficult" writing seriously, rather than presenting decontextualized examples of it for our collective derision. Ah well. If nothing else, this essay provides ample evidence for the claim that writing that is clear, transparent, and obvious — easy writing — is no less capable of humbug.

That is all. Happy June.