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May 30, 2006

Collin vs. RSA

From all accounts, this year's Rhetoric Society of America conference was quite good. Alas. I was not.

First, a stunning blow was dealt to my internal sense of geography, as I learned, quite the hard way, that Memphis was a good deal further away from Syracuse than I had thought. How could I tell, you ask? Every time I mentioned having driven: "You drove?!?!" Yes, yes I did.

And as a result, I spent the first half of the conference on the road, arriving not until Saturday night. And for various reasons, I had not prepared my presentation. So, that night, and much of the next day, I ended up writing my talk. I went to a single session on Saturday morning, and spent most of Sunday writing. I did finish in time to be able to go out Sunday night. Sunday night turned into Monday morning, and didn't "end" until roughly 3:30.

Did I mention that my talk was scheduled for 8:00 am Monday morning? Oh yes.

I should also mention that I wasn't in the conference hotel, having made my reservation too late. I got up at 6 am Monday morning, and hoofed it to my hotel, showered, caffeinated, etc., and managed to wobble my way through a presentation that was assisted greatly by the smart papers that followed it.

I had a nice time, but the long drive, the dislocation, and the lack of responsible preparation on my part all left me feeling like my conference could have been a lot better. Ah well. Nobody's fault but mine.

That is all.

May 22, 2006


For the second year in a row, in our program, I'm supervising our Summer Dissertation Writing Group, a group that meets every other week over the summer to give our dissertators a little more community, a place to bring drafts, and most importantly, some structure for their summer. Speaking as someone who does this almost annually, I know that it's easy to let most of the summer slip by, particularly when there's a big project looming. Gradually, this group is becoming a program event, as I encourage students not yet dissertating to join us as readers, in part to give them some idea of what to expect when it comes to their capstone project.

One byproduct of this is that I spend some time in the early summer every year thinking specifically about dissertations. I almost left this as a comment over there, but Parts-n-Pieces has a post today about reading a disappointing dissertation. To wit,

Yesterday afternoon I read a dissertation-- all 120 pages of it-- and it was crap. Really. Crap. And a few times I was quite horrified by what I was reading. Really. Horrified. Offended, even.

Now, it wouldn't be exactly ethical for me to talk about dissertations, given that I've only been sitting on committees for a few years now. I don't want to say something about them, and have colleagues worried that I'm talking about their work in this way. So let me say a couple of things about my own dissertation, instead.

One thing that I don't think I understood at the time is that the dissertation is to the book much like the seminar paper is to the journal article. In an ideal world, I would have made a living wage as a grad student, and I wouldn't have felt pressured to find a job so quickly (I finished in 3 and a half years), and this pressure wouldn't have transferred in part to my committee. In an ideal world, a dissertation would be approved only when it was at least good. Mine wasn't. It was good enough, and while there are still parts of it that don't embarrass me, they are only parts of it. The only way that external factors don't enter into the process is if the student can afford (economically, psychologically) to take enough time, and if that time is used really well. This was not the case for me, and speaking as someone who's witnessed (up close or at a distance) dozens of these processes, I can say that it's pretty rare. Just as it's pretty rare that you would simply send out a seminar paper for publication (although I've read a few such as a reviewer), I think it's rare to find dissertations that are "book-quality."

In itself, though, this is not a horrible thing. I'm nearing the end of my first manuscript, and honestly, I'm glad that it's taken me as long as it has. I feel as though I'm ready now, almost ten years out from graduate school, to say something book-length to my colleagues. I know for a fact that I was not ready to do so when I was writing my dissertation.

As I've written this book, I have no question, however, about my ability to write a book-length project. I'm not saying that it's been easy, but I don't doubt that I'm capable of doing it. That's no small advantage.

Dissertations also are a great source of practice for the student in terms of working with a group of readers, responding to multiple sets of comments, and even having to negotiate multiple perspectives, each of which is a common feature of the manuscript review process. The important difference, of course, is that your diss committee has a stake in your success and will want to see you succeed, ultimately. I understand that this is not everyone's experience with the process, but I think it common enough that this is the case.

You might have guessed this was coming: the dissertation is also training for the rhythm of the scholarly writing life, which is much different than writing seminar papers (read, read, read, read, purge) or comprehensive exams (an even more extreme version of the event model). I've written before about how graduate faculty aren't perhaps as good about explicitly teaching this different rhythm as we could be, but I am also somewhat embarrassed to admit that, as a student of writing studies who had spent 6-7 years teaching people to write, I was kind of stupid when it came to my own dissertation writing. All of the things that I had taught my students about the writing process? It took me way too long to figure out that those things also applied to my own writing.

And really, none of these things speak to the quality of a given dissertation (or lack thereof). It's tempting, I think, to go into the process thinking that this is your great contribution, and that by now, you've acquired the skills you need to in order to "join the profession." For me, this attitude resulted in a vast overestimation of what I needed to accomplish in my dissertation--the fact of the matter was and is that my dissertation did not "change the discipline," except in very indirect ways (and then only probably once my first book is finished).

In short, I think that the dissertation was an incredibly important stage for me as a scholar, writer, and colleague, but honestly, it wasn't for any of the reasons that I thought it would be at the time. I don't think any of us try to do mediocre work in our dissertations--I know that that wasn't my goal. But I also know that at the time, that dissertation, mediocre as it seems to me now, was what I was capable of at the time. And that's true, I think, for most of us.

When I teach courses on technology, I usually employ a standard that I think of as T+1. That is, regardless of where each student starts, I want them to push themselves to the next stage. I think that this is what the dissertation accomplishes as well; it pushes the student and gets them closer to being able to write a book-length work, B+1. For some rare students, B+1 is enough to get them to the point of being able to send out a manuscript. For most of us, though, it takes longer, B+5 or B+10.

Yeah, that's me hanging out there at around B+29. But that first +1 helped me get started on the journey to 29, and so, as weak as my dissertation was/is, I'm as grateful for that part of my education as I am for anything else about grad school.

That is all. Good luck to all you summer dissertators...

May 21, 2006

LeBron reminds me a little...

As we approach halftime of today's Eastern Conference Finals, it occurred to me that the near-orgasmic coverage of LeBron James by the sports media provides the casual NBA fan with ideal drinking game fare. Here are the rules:

Best played with a fair-sized group of spectators. Each time a television commentator explicitly compares LeBron to one of the NBA's all-time greats, one of the group must make an absurd LeBron comparison--if it "works," everyone else drinks; if not, the person him/herself must drink. Turns proceed clockwise.

Here are a few, just to get the juices flowing:

You know, LeBron reminds me a little of a young Casanova, the way he can pretty much score at will.

You know, LeBron reminds me a little of a young Moses, the way he's able to part the sea of Pistons defenders.

You know, LeBron reminds me a little of the artist who created Foghorn Leghorn, the way he's able to draw a fowl.

And so on. The only downside to this drinking game, of course, is having to find out the next day what the score of the game was, since everyone will be pass-out drunk by the midpoint of the first quarter. Life's full of little trade-offs, though.

That is all.

Cutting off your nose to spite your fa(n ba)ce

Yeah, I know base is spelled wrong, but I was a little too pleased with the clever.

I'm not an expert in copyright, even though I think it's of vital importance these days. In part, this is because academic work is characterized time and again as worth less (if not worthless), and since that's the focus of my creative and critical effort, I don't have as much stake in those discussions. My enlightenment in that regard is slow and gradual.

Helping me along, though, are the kinds of shameful displays of police power like the one in Detroit this weeked. In their attempt to show the country that they're just as assholic as the RIAA, who did after all sue a 12-year old for thousands of dollars, the MPAA staged a raid at a comics convention this weekend. And like everyone else, I'm sure, I got a little chuckle out of this line from Sean Frost:

Comic Book Guy from The SimpsonsPeople spoke of a large group of sad fat men in handcuffs and a bus waiting to take them away.

Ugly stereotypes aside, what drives me bananas about this is that gun shows are somehow beyond the abilities of the authorities to regulate, but by God! if you're selling a bootleg copy of the collected Thundarr the Barbarian, you've just bought yourself a one-way ticket to the slammer, fat boy!

Okay, I'm a little calmer now. It's instructive to see how the comments fall on either side of this particular debate. Many of the comments I've seen are sympathetic, but not all. Speaking of Thundarr, our old pal (who used to run with Ookla the Mok, a character who was absolutely, positively, and with complete certainty not a Chewbacca knock-off, although he was directly responsible for my inability to correctly pronounce/spell out UCLA when talking college basketball), one of the writers for that series (among others) has made clear his approval for the crackdown. Although "in a very small way, [he] feel[s] sorry for some of the guys who got busted yesterday," he trots out some legitimate arguments for the crackdown. What he doesn't mention, of course, is that the reason people will go out and buy a DVD of Thundarr (if only!!) or the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon (from 20 yrs ago and scheduled for DVD release later this year, allegedly) is the demand created by bootlegs and comicons. I'm sympathetic to arguments about writers and voice actors (and small presses, studios, producers, et al) and the idea that royalties make a much bigger difference to them, but the desire to create a blanket, black&white policy that will protect the latest Disney blockbuster as well as Thundarr is just misguided in my opinion. And it's the problem that I have with any of the pro-crackdown artists--there's a strange denial of reality in such arguments, both in terms of the privilege of corporate production and distribution, which allows them to jack prices (because as we all know, it costs twice as much to produce a CD as it does a vinyl disc or cassette), for example, and in terms of the different economies of circulation. Is a bootleg copy of Thundarr taking money out of someone's pocket? I doubt it. On the contrary, I suspect that a quality DVD, with some decent extras, is going to be of serious interest to most of the people who buy and sell the bootlegs.

Comicons, fan clubs, and other events like them (inc academic conferences, btw) are Long Tail distribution in action. The people who haunt these events are collectors, which means that they want bootlegs, perhaps, but they'll also want the figures, the official DVD, the posters, the lunchboxes, and every other piece of junk ever associated with the original. You crack down on these people, and basically, you're earning their lifetime enmity--you're pissing off the very people who are likely to form the core of your fan base. I don't know about you, but that just seems dumb to me.

Finally, no, I'm not especially nostalgic for Thundarr. I just remember watching it as a kid, and I vaguely recall that it was the first cartoon I watched that seemed really poorly made. You know how there's a point in your consumer life cycle where you realize that you can tell the difference between something decent and something crappy? I think Thundarr was it for me. And now I've used that name enough that it'll appear in my blogcloud for the next month or so.

That is all.

Memphis v. Lubbock

I'm not going to Computers and Writing this year, having opted instead to attend the Rhetoric Society of America conference that's going on in Memphis next week (and that I would be able to link to, were they running a slightly friendlier system for internal links--go to the RSA page and select Conferences.). If I remember, I'll bring a mic along so I can record my talk--I'll be doing a riff on the "database and/or narrative" thingamajig, read across disciplinary self-knowledge. I've been rereading my abstract, and reacting with mild surprise at how much I promised to talk about in 15 minutes, so I've been working on figuring out what 2 or 3 main points I want to make.

Anyhow, I mention all this, because Dan's got a "trailer" up for his C&W presentation, which is really quite clever. Similarly clever, imho, is the format that he created it for: C&W this year is holding an opening session called @get info, where literally dozens of presenters will have 1 minute each to preview their presentations. The idea being, of course, that people will have a better idea of what presentations and sessions are more likely to suit their interests and needs. Makes eminent sense, and even sounds fun.

Maybe if it works well, they'll do it again next year in Detroit (which will be my next visit to C&W)...

(hint, hint)

That's all.

May 19, 2006

Kevin Kelly, "Scan This Book!"

I have to admit that I was all ready to read Kevin Kelly's piece for the NYT Magazine ("Scan This Book!") and to dislike it. I was ready to dismiss it as this decade's version of Robert Coover's "classic," "The End of Books." A number of blogs that I follow have been moderately aflutter in the wake of Kelly's article, which is normally a good sign, but then there's that exclamation point in the title. Never been fond of the exclamation point.

And predictably enough, it's precisely those places that warrant the exclamation point that I have the most trouble with. (for a nice critique of Kelly's hyperbole, along with a comment thread where Kelly himself makes an appearance, try Nicholas Carr.)On balance, though, the article was a good one. So here's the deal (this is Carr's summary):

By scanning, digitizing, and uploading the words printed on the pages of the dusty volumes caged in libraries, he says, we will free those words of their literal and figurative bindings. They will merge, on the web, into a greater whole providing a greater good:
The static world of book knowledge is about to be transformed by the same elevation of relationships [that we find in hyperlinked web sites], as each page in a book discovers other pages and other books. Once text is digital, books seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together. The collective intelligence of a [digital] library allows us to see things we can't see in a single, isolated book ... All the books in the world [will] become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas.

You will no longer have to read books piecemeal, one by one. Instead, says Kelly, you'll be able to surf from book to book "in the same way we hop through Web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things."

I think that Kelly underestimates the amount of power and cultural inertia that books, and specifically book publishers, have for us, almost as much as Coover did. Telling for me is the comment from the CEO of HarperCollins, who doesn't "expect this suit to be resolved in my lifetime." I think that the front-end of Kelly's vision will ultimately prove to be a lot more problematic than any of us could possibly imagine.

But for me, that's not the biggest issue, although I can see how it would be for many people. Kelly's essay is less like Coover's and more like Vannevar Bush's As We May Think, now more than 60 years old. In fact, it would be instructive, I imagine, to place the two side-by-side in a course, and, barring references to the technologies of the time, see how closely they resemble one another. Bush's Memex runs on microfilm because that's what he's got technology-wise, but otherwise, there's a similarity in the vision offered by the two articles despite their temporal distance.

One important difference, though, is that Bush is fairly specific about the utility of the Memex--he begins his essay by highlighting a crisis in research that has certainly not abated in the past 60 years:

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. (Bush)

In other words, the Memex (and by extension here, Kelly's "liquid") is most useful for people who use books in a more extensive and varied sense than mere consumption. This is not to say that consumption is somehow "less than"--goodness knows, I do my fair share of consuming books--but I use books in a different way than most of my non-academic friends. Lots of different ways.

The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages. (Kelly)

Setting aside the hyperbole of this passage, what I see is a pretty fair description of some of the things that I do when I do research and write scholarship, although I can't speak for how deeply I weave my words into the culture. But my point is that this is a particularly "academic" list of goals for the vision that Kelly offers. His attempts to tie this universal library to other pop phenomena, though, is less persuasive for me:

Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or "playlists," as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual "bookshelves" ā€” a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. (Kelly)

Well, sort of. I think Kelly's right to note that this model will work for reference books (e.g., cookbooks, travel guides), because those are pop genres that are specifically built for use in a way that most other books are not. But I'm less convinced that short story anthologies, say, are going to take in the same way that iTunes playlists do, except among more esoteric subcultures. Like academia. Because to have a library shelf's worth of specialized information means, presumably, having to read that shelf's worth of information, whether front-to-back or side-to-skipping-side.

Despite some skepticism in my tone here, though, I like this essay. At the same time, I don't think that the vision offered by Kelly is quite as universal as he imagines, regardless of whether we're able to achieve it. I do, however, fervently believe that this vision will transform academic work (and other fields where research is a core element). I don't think that it's immodest of me to suggest that what we're doing with CCC Online represents baby steps in the directions that Kelly suggests, and so I'm particularly conscious of all the compromises and difficulties that even a single step in this direction entails. Like Steven, I believe that what's most interesting about this article are the hints towards "what kinds of writing and reading practices will emerge as all these books take on new digital lives," but I think that those will take even more time to sort out.

That is all for now.

May 15, 2006

Minor Brushes with Fame

ā€œIā€™m excited about digital technology, even as I worry about making a Plato page look like a Wikipedia entry,ā€? said Thomas Mallon, deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Needless to say, I wasn't at this particular Meeting of Humanistic Minds (IHE), anymore than I was at SCS or the NextText shindig, although I suppose I can say for myself that I knew people at each. You see, if you read the IHE account of the AAU/ACLS meeting, you'll find, towards the bottom, a couple of mentions of Jim Leach, who was my congressman back in the day. He and my dad went to school together, and while I don't flatter myself to imagine that he remembers me, it's not an impossibility. Hey, it's even possible that he'll have a staffer running Technorati searches on him, and turn up this entry. Who knows?

I don't have much beyond this "brush with fame" mention, although I did want to point out that we have a ways to go in the humanities when one of the attempts at humor is a cheap jab at Wikipedia. There are plenty of sensible suggestions in the IHE account of the meeting, but they all leave me feeling a little flat. There's already plenty of good thinking coming out of the humanities, or at least from people who began their careers there (Steven Johnson, David Weinberger, et al.), and there's plenty of interesting stuff going on already. Figuring out how to disguise what we do as cost-effective (i.e., critical thinking), for example, feels like giving up to me.

I'm not sure that events like the one in Philly are really going to accomplish much in the long term for folks in the humanities, until the people like the ones at that meeting are genuinely interested in reversing the attitudes that work against the humanities. And that means undoing a couple of decades of corporatization, which I'm not sure is a realistic prospect. I suppose we'll see.

That's all.

May 14, 2006

Happy Mother's Day (and a question)

Somewhat unconsciouly, I've been saving up my bloggables lately. I think part of it is the residual myth that if I spend my words here, I'll be taking words away from the revision process. I know that that's not how it works, but doesn't mean I don't sometimes fall under the spell of the myth.

Anyways, I thought I'd emerge from my accidental exile to wish all mothers, both current and impending, a happy day. And to ask a question...

Last week, I met with one of the many whose dissertation committees I'm serving on, and we had a rollicking conversation about all sorts of things. One of the issues that came up was Burkean identification, and over the course of our conversation, we ended up at a place where it was less than useful to speak of identification as a general category.

So my question to you is this: are there writers out there who have done any sort of differentiation among identifications? For example, there's a difference between I took to calling lateral identification (the kind that you might share with a neighbor or a colleague, for example) and vertical identification (the kind where you attach to a larger entity, like a state or country).

At the root of my question is the conviction that there is a difference when identifications cross various scales. Or perhaps I want to say that there's a scalar quality to identification itself--I'm tempted to suggest that the more vertical (and no, I'm not really happy with this term) the identification, the more uncomplicated it needs to be, if I can say this without implying that complication is somehow superior to the alternative.

I'm 99% sure that I can't be the only person to have ever asked this question, but I'm even surer that I don't really know where to look to remove that final 1%. Any suggestions?

May 8, 2006

The Dreams They Have Told Me...

I woke up this morning at about 5 am, with what I can only assume was a caffeine headache. Dream-wise, I explained the pain in my head by imagining that I had gotten into a car accident. My fault, of course. But I also, for some reason, dreamed the first paragraph of a novel or short story, vividly imprinted on my brain, and written down at 5:01 for your personal edification:

Upon hearing of my presumed death, the good people of Laredo, Texas slaughtered several cattle in my honor. As they later explained to me, the thinking was that either the spirits would keep me company on my journey, or the smell of barbecue ribs would bring me round if I was still alive.

I have absolutely no explanation for these sentences. I don't know why I am presumed dead, I've never been to Laredo, and I have no especial fondness for the smell of ribs. All I know is that, at 5 am, this is what I wrote down.

That is all.

May 5, 2006

Happy Birthsday

A comic wherein I wish KB a HB

Is it just me, or is Kenny B a little snippy today? Oh well. Please join me in wishing a fine, fine day to both Derek and Donna as well...

That's all.

May 4, 2006

Quadruple Take

Which I suppose is what two double-takes add up to:

DT#1: It wasn't until after tonight's episode that I discovered that I should have been watching the Hanso Foundation commercial for their "call center" number. And then, it was too late. It was only luck that I saw the commercial itself in the first place, since I was flipping to TNT during the commercials to catch the score. I'm assuming that the number will be on the boards pretty soon. (Visit the Hanso Foundation site, and sign up for the newsletter, and you'll see what I mean.)

DT#2, of course, was Michael getting all Manchurian on their asses. Now that I know that I have at least a couple of laggers reading, I don't want to spoil Season #1 stuff that I know they haven't gotten to yet. So I won't. Except to say that (a) it's starting to feel like some things are sliding into place, and (b) that didn't stop tonight's ending from causing my jaw to drop.

That is all. Good ep.

May 2, 2006


I forgot, yesterday, to throw up a link to last year's Mayday post, wherein I contemplate the origins of the word Mayday. Not exactly an anniversary on a par with the birthday of the blog or anything, but Mayday is the time of the academic year for panicked exclamations.

And unapologetically light blogging.