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July 31, 2006

Hey, I could snoop

I've already forwarded this to a couple of people, but I thought it worth linking more broadly. Timothy Burke has a new entry describing archival work: Historian as Snoop: Experiencing the Archive. It occurred to me that this would be a nice introduction to archival work for either a history course or a methodology course in our own field:

Archives often take you to a juncture like this. You’re rarely without tools that help you decide what to make of a set of documents, but you often still find yourself having to make some basic choices about what happened, what it meant, and whether anyone should care. But even before you get to those choices, there is a kind of secret pleasure that precedes them: a historian in the archives is often a kind of combination of Miss Marple and Mary Worth, a detective, judge and gossip, learning about the complicated art of being human from the traces and fragments of writing that accidentally trail behind individuals and find their way into boxes and files all around the world.

I'm no historian, that's for sure, but then, 5 years ago, I would have laughed at the idea that I might spend some of my time doing empirical/statistical work. And yet, here I am. The older I get, the harder it is for me to dismiss any method--not that I dismissed them per se. But whereas at one time, I would have been interested in applying one framework across many phenomena, now I'm more intrigued by bringing multiple frameworks to bear on the same thing.

Hmm. Writing that out feels right, but it also feels a little more absolute than I intended. Ah well. Go read Tim's piece. That is all.

Rhythm and Bass

Nobody asks me about how one should go about tackling large writing projects (such as the major revision of a book manuscript), and with good reason. I remember when I first began teaching writing, back in the Middle Ages, and one of the things that I talked with students about was the perfectly acceptable idiosyncracy of each person's writing process. Me? It's generally easier for me to write barefoot, for example. And there are certain types of music that I wouldn't otherwise listen to (really fast, fairly monotonous dance, for example) that seems to help.

Even though I advise people not to fall in love with their quirks, to the point where they are unable to write without fulfilling some arcane combination of steps, I must admit that my own romance with my procedural preferences continues unabated this summer. I've undoubtedly mentioned before that I'm best suited for a planet that rotates slower than our own does--for whatever reasons, I am consistently able to be awake for 18 hours and to sleep for 8. Unfortunately, this does not add up to 24, and so my waking/sleeping times slowly cycle through small issues like it being light or dark when I bed down or wake up. Were I able to simply move 2 time zones to the east each day of my life, I would be on a regular schedule. It takes me a little while to rev up my writing, but once I'm on a 26-hour schedule, and up to speed, I'm capable of really grinding it out--roughly 50 pages or so in less than 2 weeks, for example. Not earth-shattering, but bear in mind that I'm also just working for a pace that I can maintain.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that I've managed the latest version of my annual mix disks. Actually, there's a year missing, 2005, that owes its absence to a long ugly story of monitor crashes and stupidity on my part. I may try to recreate 2005, but probably not. I'll just tell people that there was no music released that year.

As I've mentioned before, I often feel compelled to apologize for the limits of my taste when it comes to music. Increasingly, I'm alternapop, with a little world, electronic, and obscure added in. If anyone's interested in having me burn this for them, drop me a note or leave a comment. Trades are encouraged, but certainly not required.

That is all. Happy Monday.

my 2006 mix

July 30, 2006


Having had other things on what I'm coming to think of as my summer plate of misery, I haven't had much time to troll the blogspace. Too bad, because I'm coming in on the tail end of a conversation taking place over at NKotH and Reassigned Time, and I wouldn't have even noticed had it not been for a stop over at Debbie's. Bad blog-reader!

Interesting to me, mostly because (as I've mentioned here before), I'll be on the market once more this fall, and I had the opportunity during my Iowa swing in June to talk about it with family and friends. I'm in a different situation, though, because I'll no longer be applying to junior positions, which leaves me much more at the whim of the market than I was when I left my first position to come to Syracuse. Advanced positions that are neither (a) endowed chairs, nor (b) administrative ladder-rungs, are few and far between, and that's what I'll be looking for. I've also got some personal preferences that will narrow my options even further, most likely.

But I was also conscious, as I was poring over comments, of the fact that I was one of those job-changelings--I left a position after 4 years in order to take my current position. To be fair, though, 1 of those years was a temporary, fill-in gig, after which I was hired (after a full search) to stay in the position. I was similarly conscious of how quickly conversations like these can go south, in part because any time you're mixing generations and disciplines, you're going to have a lot of people speaking from a very limited set of experiences and generalizing those to the "job search," which is common across all disciplines only in the most general of senses.

Which is not to insult anyone participating there. And I'm not going to pontificate as though my generalizations are somehow more accurate than anyone else's. What I will say, though, is that our institutions function in such a way as to encourage us--all of us--to test the market as frequently as is emotionally possible, and none of us should apologize for doing so. The starting salary for assistant professors, at every institution I've been at, has risen faster than the actual salaries. That's the phenomenon known as compression, and what it means is that there are economic incentives to be the new kid as often as possible. I've been on search committees where we hired new assistant professors at a higher salary than I myself was making. Not exactly a morale booster, that.

If for no other reason than that, no one should apologize for going on the market. And that's because "going on the market" means only one thing: if everything goes as planned, then all the applicant will have by springtime are options. Deciding to leave an institution, to me, is a different decision altogether, and involves issues like loyalty, commitment, contentment, etc. And if NK and DC had announced their intentions to leave their home institutions, come hell or high water, then some of the response they got might have been more warranted in my eyes. But it's a mistake to assume that people who are going on the market are necessarily leaving. If I were to choose to leave Syracuse, that would be a long, complicated, difficult decision. Choosing to put myself in a position to have to make that decision, by applying for other positions? That's just smart.

The other point worth raising is that the job search also requires a great of emotional labor, energy, time, and cash. There are people I know who would rather stay in an average situation than go through all the trouble of the job search, and that should say something. Hours and hours of preparing materials, investing attention and hope, the price of attending an annual convention and/or fronting the costs for campus visits, new clothes, submitting one's self to the evaluative gaze of strangers--the job search is often a demoralizing process, without any real guarantee of success. No one deserves anything other than support when engaging in that process.

Yeah, that's all.

July 28, 2006

The Worldwide Leader

Apropos of nothing for the most part, as my nose has been to the grindstone on a daily basis lately, I wanted to pause and celebrate ESPN Radio, which I listen to with some regularity--mostly as I fall asleep or occasionally in the car.

At some point in the last couple of weeks, someone at ESPN made the decision that all of their employees would be required to pronounce Tour de France in a uniform fashion, and of course, they decided that France rightly rhymes with pants and dance. Now, certain of the talking heads had already taken this bold step, and asserted their God-given right to bastardize Americanize the name of this event, but you have to appreciate the uncharacteristic fortitude required to impose this mispronunciation on an entire Sports Entertainment Corporation.

What has really earned my admiration, however, is their decision to inject the Americanization into a French phrase, retaining the French for 2/3 of it, and daringly Americanizing the final 1/3. No sirree, no "France Tour" or "French Tour" for these forward-thinking leaders. It's Frenglish all the way! I can't help but experience a little vicarious joy de vivre when I think about it. Tour de France-rhymed-with-pants just has a certain je ne know quoi about it that makes me proud to be an American, proud to live in a country where, when the pronunciation of a single vowel crosses the line, we know what to do. Because, you know, who cares if it happens in another country? It's an American Sports Entertainment Corporation providing the gossip "coverage," and in America we rhyme France with pants.

That is all.

July 25, 2006

Unbounded idiocy

One of the things we like to do in the graduate program here, especially considering how young we are as a program, is to buy program copies of our alumni's dissertations. This would be a substantial project at a program with the history of a Purdue or Texas or Ohio State, but it's not been so bad here. With a minimal budget, though, and at $63 a pop, we have to be strategic. It's not an automatic thing because we can't always afford it.

With a little money left over this year, and having fallen a bit behind in the stocking of our dissertation shelf, last week I placed an order for 6, 4 fairly recent ones and a couple from the days when we had occasional comprhetters earning degrees through English. So I head over to UMI, which I've used before for this very purpose, and like last time, I struggle a bit with their site, which seems to be designed specifically to prevent people from placing orders.

Finally, I punch through, and place the order. Hooray. But not, apparently, processing the following bit of information, sandwiched between the "secure server" and "delivery whenever we get to you" lines:

Dissertations ordered online are available in unbound shrink-wrapped format only.

Oh. Hooray. We got a box today that was full of reams of unbound paper, just the thing for our shelves. It was my screwup, I know, and it pisses me off that it cost us $250, but then I thought to myself: I can rage at myself anytime. Really: What. The. Hell? Why can I send a piece of paper to them to order bound copies, but they can't handle an order placed over the internet? Honestly, would it cost them that freakin much to offer 2 options instead of 1? And what's with defaulting to unbound reams of paper? And charging a price for it that makes Kinko's look like the bargain bin?

From their crappy website to their prehistoric e-commerce to their unchallenged monopoly, I'd rather save up my rage and extend it, wrapped and ribboned, to our friends at UMI, purveyors of the single-worst commercial experience I may have ever experienced. Thanks, UMI, for all your damn help.

Actually, you know, I'm thinking about how much more effective, both in terms of cost and personal satisfaction, it would be to keep ms. copies of our dissertations, and to go with a POD company like Booksurge. Instead of paying $63 dollars per dissertation through them, if we had .pdfs of our dissertations, a 300 page hardcover book would cost us less than $30, and it'd probably be a better product than we get from UMI anyway.


Update: I've never been happier to eat crow. MB called ProQuest today, and I don't know what she told them, but they've offered to send us bound copies, and rather than making us pay for the full price ($63 per), they're only charging us the difference between the bound and unbound price (about $22 per). The site is still far more of a pain to use than it should be, but I can't complain now about the overall service or their willingness to bail me out of my mistake.

July 23, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

poster for A Scanner DarklyThe centerpiece of this evening's Guys' Night Out, other than an Uno's pizza that left us feeling well and truly stuffed, was Richard Linklater's latest, his rotoscoped adaptation of the PK Dick novel, A Scanner Darkly (IMDB). It's an interesting little movie, and the first sign of that was that our local megaplex tucked it away in one of their three downstairs screens, the ones reserved for smaller audiences a more intimate viewing experience. To be fair, it was larger (slightly) than my 1-bedroom apartment. Anyways.

I can't really talk too much about the movie without spoiling it, so I'll abstain from too many specifics. Like a lot of Linklater's work, SD is a mix of genres--when it works it works, and when it fails, it feels jumbled. There were spots that didn't work as well as they maybe could have, but generally they were places where Linklater was relying on either audience knowledge or sophistication. In some ways, the movie worked a lot like a graphic novel, and specifically the way that you must often fill in the gaps between panels. Particularly with the ending of the movie, there's a fair amount of extrapolation that has to take place, but there are places throughout where this is also true. That's going to be the source of some criticism from expositiophiles, but I didn't find it all that troublesome. And in fact, it was a welcome break from some of the truly crappy, overly expositional dialogue that appears in standard Hollywood fare.

Although you can't really speak of the acting in a movie where there's such heavy direction, Downey and Harrelson (and even Cochrane, although he's a little more caricatured) definitely steal the show from Keanu, who's appropriately cast here (if never approvingly), and Ryder. Downey, for me, after this movie and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has almost become a class of actor unto himself. There aren't a lot of people I'd rather watch on the screen more than him right now.

I've heard that the Dick estate really liked this movie, and I can't blame them. It's a much "smaller" movie than, say, Pirates, which in its second week was being advertised, aggressively, as the "cultural phenomenon of the year." I liked Pirates, but the things about it I didn't like were all of the little Hollywood touches, and that kind of crap is absent from SD. It's a really faithfully executed adaptation of one of Dick's most personal books, and the bar against which future adaptations should be measured. If you're not bothered by scifi or by visual experimentation, then this is a full price movie, I think.

July 22, 2006

The headbutt explained

One thing I didn't really blog about in the aftermath of the World Cup was Zidane's infamous headbutt. I was stunned when it happened, and didn't really feel like I had anything to add. Even as recently as yesterday, I didn't really understand it. That was, until I watched the trailer for Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter! As you can see from the graphic below, it's pretty clear from whence Zidane learned his moves:

Holy Headbutt!

I think that we can all agree, considering how willing the Italians were to bloody up our squad, that Materazzi is most likely a vampire, and so Zidane had little choice but to get Biblical on him.

Case closed. Although I am a little sad to have to put to rest the theory that Z saved Materazzi from a sniper. That was my fave.

And I can only hope that this entry satisfies those of you who were concerned about my recent lack of frivolity, not to mention my tendency to translate said concerns into phrases like "recent lack of frivolity." Anyways. That's all.

July 21, 2006

Searching and hoping and thinking and praying

Last week, when I was young and impetuous, I made a couple of suggestion re the WPA Technology Outcomes Statement. In the interests of positivity, I thought I might revisit one of the suggestions, namely

How about developing an awareness of the variety of search strategies made possible by the combination of physical and electronic information sources?

One of the things that I think is hugely important here is that too many think "search" is simply a single process, delimited by pluses, minuses and quotes. "Strategies" too often refers to the ability to narrow your Google results down from 1 million to 50,000 or so. Problem is that this vision of search is not unlike bobbing for apples. It's a little flip of me to say so, I suppose, but it's true. And at one point, that's what web tech and search tools permitted.

With Google, the tools improved. The strategies? Not so much. For all of the good that Google did, driving out some truly horrid site design and searches so slow you could almost hear the hamster running in the wheel, PageRank was a huge advance that made us pretty darn lazy. There's still plenty of value to be had from Google, but it's still an information retrieval service. I use it on a daily basis, but I use it in a very specific, constrained way that takes advantage of speed and the particular needs I have.

What's happening now is something that Ebrahim Ezzy calls "Search 2.0" over at Richard MacManus's Read/Write Web:

Third-generation search technologies are designed to combine the scalability of existing internet search engines with new and improved relevancy models; they bring into the equation user preferences, collaboration, collective intelligence, a rich user experience, and many other specialized capabilities that make information more productive.

Yeah, yeah, third-gen but 2.0. Where this essay (part 1 of 2) potentially misleads is in the implication of 2.0 as something that will replace 1.0, when it's more likely that they will work in concert. One of the things that these new search engines have in common is their potential use specifically for Long Tail information. (I'll get to a review of that book one of these weeks.) The more specific the object of your search is, the fewer people there are who are likely to want it, and thus the less accessible it will be via Google, barring some arcane system of +this and -that. I'm not going to find a new book in my field via Google, unless it's to look up the web address of a publisher.

One of the things that Search 2.0 is about is not finding X, but finding Y who knows X. Here's an example: a friend asked me how I find new music. Usually, it's a combination of three things: what my friends (with similar tastes) are listening to, what selected reviewers (with similar tastes) are recommending, and what iTunes tells me are the proximate bands, songs, and playlists.

Let me talk about that last for a second, because it can sound counter-intuitive if you think about it. I'm talking about "searching" for something that I already know/have, in order to see what else is in its neighborhood. We do it in the library sometimes, right? If we know one book is useful, we might see what else is on the shelf around it. Now think about a service like del.icio.us as a site where thousands of users are building dynamic shelves or neighborhoods. Bookmark an article that you know you want to work with, and you can use del.icio.us to find all the other users who are bookmarking it, all the other things they've bookmarked beside it, and the terms they've used to categorize it.

Goodness knows, these systems and engines are far from perfect. Nick Carr, for example, observes that sites like Amazon are limited in their usefulness:

Fallows makes one observation that hits home with me. He describes how underwhelming he finds all the automated product recommendations that are always being thrown at you on the web. "In nearly a decade with Amazon," he writes, "I've yet to experience the moment of perfect serendipity when it discovers a book I really like that I wouldn't otherwise have known about." I, too, have been waiting years to experience that moment - with Amazon, with Netflix, with iTunes, with all of 'em.

These are Long Tail companies with Short Head motives, and so this isn't that surprising to me--their market share is built on factors other than specialist searches (like convenience, e.g.). I find Amazon almost completely useless for automated recommendations. But they also enable more specialized, community recommendations, and these I've found useful. If I've liked several of the books on a Listmania list, there's a good chance that I'll add one or more unread ones from it onto my Wish List. And there are a few situations where I've found autorecs useful, like when I'm returning to a particular genre after a hiatus, for instance.

As some of us non-science disciplines start to catch on to the benefits of these kinds of networks (e.g., AnthroSource, MediaCommons, et al.), the tools will exist that allow alot of people to bypass Google altogether. Not that the occasional apple bob isn't necessary, mind you, but it shouldn't be the first and last step.

The other little piece of optimism that I have is this: once we start acknowledging the value of this kind of searching and KM, then perhaps more broad-based support will exist for the construction of resources that take advantage of it. Imagine the iTunes interface, for instance, as a gateway to the scholarship in a discipline, where professors can put together "playlists" of texts in the same way that users now publish mixes, only these playlists are the syllabi for the graduate courses taught in the discipline or the bibliographies of our articles and books.

What I come bumping up against again and again is that we're too accustomed to treating our expertise as disposable. How many hundreds of times a year do we put together carefully thematic and specifically paced syllabi/playlists, only to bury them in desktop folders and wastepaper baskets? We don't collect that information in any systematic fashion because our vision of the web lacks an understanding of the motivation behind links and networks. Google was successful precisely because PageRank algorithmizes that motivation, and if these Search 2.0 tools succeed, it will be by leveraging the networks even further.

I hope we're not still bobbing for apples.

That's about it from me. There's some spots above that probably need filling out, but it's getting late. This is part of what I mean when I say that we need to understand search better, both for ourselves and for our students.

(Almost forgot: Dean)

July 20, 2006

The CCC Top Ten

Okay, not really.

The list below is of the top ten CCC articles as measured by the number of times that they are cited by subsequent CCC articles. It's not exactly the be-all, end-all of bibliometrics, but rather a single dimension of what would have to be a much more extensive data set (if I wanted to start making substantial (and substantiable) claims).

But from my perspective, it's another of those little pieces that makes CCC Online interesting for me to work on. I've set up a page that will update as we add/index more content both forwards and backwards in time.

If I have a little time in the next day or two, I'll add a column in the table with the year that the article was published as well, although rolling over the links will flash their month/year combo. Interesting to note, perhaps, that the most recent article on this list comes from December 1997 (Ball & Lardner). It makes sense that there would be some lag between publication and subsequent citations, but the majority of articles on this list are more than a decade old. I leave it to you to hypothesize what this might mean...

At the very least, I suppose, a list like this would be a place to begin for someone new to the field--there are worse ways of figuring out where to start.

That's all...

July 16, 2006

New Mail Order

You may recall that I wrote a couple of months ago about chipping away at my Inbox, and reducing it below the astronomical and shameful status of more than 1000 messages. Since that time, I've kept the Inbox roughly at 100 or so, shaving it back once it climbs to 150 or 200. (Yes, I get my share of email--this happens at least a couple of times a week.) Although it amounts to stalling other tasks on my part, I finally took a little more control over my email today, in the form of 2 plugins for Mail.app:

1. Letterbox: For the longest time, the vertical default arrangement for Mail was simply invisible to me. Then I saw a link to Letterbox over at 43F, and decided to give it a try. It helps that I have a fairly wide monitor. But now, I can see much more of my inbox than I could previously, and I'm able to set a mail message and its reply side-by-side without thinking about it. It took me all of 10 minutes to realize what I'd been missing from my mail interface.

2. Mail Act-On: A couple of weeks ago, Madeline and I were sitting in my office jawing about whatever and I hit upon the idea of being able to keystroke my incoming mail, so that I could color them according to a deadline threat level, e.g., red for "Do it now!", orange for "Do it today!" and so on. I didn't give it much thought beyond that.

Thank goodness someone else did. Act-On is a plugin that allows you to set up keystroke-handy Rules of the sort that Mail allows you to apply to incoming messages. In other words, when I am reading a message, I can bring up the Act-On menu and slot the message where I choose (or highlight it if I want). So my new mail order now consists of the following process:

Question 1: Does it require action? If so, then it goes into 1 of 6 folders, keyed to #'s 1 through 6 in Act-On, depending on immediacy (1=today, 2=next day or so, 3=this week, 4=this month, 5=this semester, 6 is a catchall for possible action items). I never leave the office with anything in folder 1, and I start each day by moving everything in folder 2 up, and I don't let the weekend pass without emptying folder 3. Them's the rules.

If no action is required, then Question 2: Should I archive it? If so, then I have a streamlined set of folders all gathered into a metafolder called Archive. Department business, student work, digital receipts, travel arrangements, correspondence, etc.--it all goes there.

If not, then delete the damn thing.

Start every day by emptying the inbox into 1 of 7 folders, and end every day by making sure that folder 1 (and sometimes 2 or 3) is empty. This is a plan I think I can live with.

Oh, and btw, Robin Benson maintains a pretty comprehensive page of plugins for Mac Mail users. It's how I found Act-On. For a more detailed description of it, there's an article I looked at from Macworld as well. If you're using Mail.app, this is definitely worth your attention...

That's all.

July 15, 2006

PC2: Dead Man's Chest

My reward for completing round 1 of the tenure process, the compilation of materials for outside reviewers, was to get myself down to the local megaplex to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (IMDB). And get there I did. And see it I did.

The first movie was something of a surprise to me. Basing a movie on a circa 1970s amusement park ride did not strike me as a particularly interesting strategy, I must confess. But I saw the movie, and was really pleasantly surprised by it. It's hard to find the right balance among all the different elements, and the first movie really seemed to manage it nicely.

That said, it was hard not to go to the second one with high expectations. I've seen split reviews--some say it wasn't as good as the first, other say it was better--and I would have to place myself in the former camp. It's enough like the first one that lots and lots of people will enjoy it, but at a number of different places in the movie, I kept getting the feeling that Verbinski was working from a list of characters, situations, and touches that worked in the first movie, and saying to himself, "Now I need to do the same thing, only more!" In other words, it was almost too much like the first movie for me to think that it was as good, since so much of it felt derived from it.

Which isn't to say that there weren't some fun parts, some rollicking action, some Sparrowesque amorality, and killer effects. All of that is as true of this movie as it was of the first. But there are places where the "just like the first only more!" strategy kept me from immersing, and that was unfortunate. For example, the movie is simultaneously more graphically violent and more cartoonish in places--neither is necessarily bad, but both together work against any kind of consistency.

Ah well. It was a strong matinee, and for a lot of people, worth full price, I suspect. It wasn't quite as good as I'd hoped it would be, but that'll teach me to expect so much. I'll still see the third one on the big screen.

That's all.

July 12, 2006

Collin vs. Hoops

It's been interesting to me to read the followups on the outcomes statement stuff, and as I was driving home last night, it occurred to me that part of the reason why I quickly bent myself out of shape over a fairly inocuous us/them comment was the fact that I'm going up for tenure this year.

I'm not going to launch into a grand critique of the process. There are people who believe it's necessary, people who believe it's outlived its usefulness, and probably the majority of us somewhere in between. I've spent the last couple of days doing very little other than preparing a selection of materials (offprints, syllabi, etc.) to go out to a bevy of outside reviewers, each of whom will write a letter more or less on my behalf. For better or worse, the outside review process depends to some degree on whether or not reviewers are familiar with your work.

I'm not worried about whether a discussion list post is going to affect that one way or the other--I don't think that being known by this or that person in the field really matters much in the grand scheme of things. However, I do think about the degree to which social networks impact this process. As I glance over my materials, and look at the choices I've made in the past few years about publication venues, about course topics, and about where I've put my energy, I'm struck by the conservatism of the process, the extent to which it mitigates against innovation and change.

And I guess I'm thinking about social networks in a slightly more embedded sense than you might think. I certainly hope that people have heard of me and think fondly of my work, and that the result is a set of sparkly letters the likes of which my college T&P committee has never seen. Heh. But more to the point, I think about the ways in which certain hub programs prepare their students to do the kind of work more likely to be recognized by such committees. I don't think it's always an intentional thing. Certain programs are more likely to house journals, for example, which gives students a jump start on understanding what can be an opaque process of publishing otherwise. There are programs where the culture of the professoriat has filtered down into graduate study--actually, this is probably true everywhere, but to differing degrees--and so each program's graduates are more like each other in certain ways than they are like their colleagues, at least up to a point.

And there are certain schools where the resources exist to provide a steady ongoing source of networking opportunities--I can think of at least 3 or 4 off the top of my head. I won't name them, because this isn't meant to be a post about whose program is better than the others at the kind of long-term preparation that I'm talking about. I don't really have any complaints in that regard.

What it is instead is a post about the long-term implications of the socio-textual network that we call the discipline, and the degree to which there's an unavoidable amount of insiding and outsiding. I don't know where I stand with respect to the white-hot core of the rhetcomp sun--close enough, I hope, to be able to earn tenure this year. Without in any way apologizing for my chippy mood over the past few days, I felt yesterday as though I understood it a little better. Tenure is, to some extent, a matter of recognition, and at a time when I'm hyperconscious of being recognized, and recognized positively, it was less than pleasing to me to be so dismissively unrecognized.

And that's really all I have to say about it right now.

July 10, 2006

Why I haughtta...

I must confess that, since I saw the following WPA-L post lovingly linked on Jeff's page, it's been a coin flip all morning for me. Do I let it slide or risk putting off other visitors with my haughty tone?

Thanks, Glenn, for the link [to yesterday's post]. I'm really glad to see our discussion picked up by people interested in but outside our community. The haughty tone is offputting but the perspective is valuable.

I think there are two issues here that we have not attended to sufficiently: Just what kinds of technology learning we are prepared to take public responsibility for, and how we are to deal with that responsibility under current circumstances? That is, we must resist merging what students should be able to do with technology with what we can accomplish in fyc. [snip]

I must similarly confess that my first impulse was to send Ed White, whose comments these are, an email asking him to open to the first page of the latest CCC and scan down the first column to the bottom, where he might find some small piece of evidence as to whether or not I deserve to have the last 16 years of my life, 9 of them as a university professor, so casually dismissed as "outside our community." Tempting, tempting.

But instead, allow me to offer a second quote, or rather, a pair:

The arts and letters have not yet outgrown the antipathy to industrial enterprise, the world of stuff, left over from their nineteenth-century delusions of a static, rural, earthly paradise. The world of affairs is still pretty much the enemy. But the arts and letters, in an attention economy, constitute the world of affairs. For those of us who teach in the humanities, that enemy is now us. (14-15)

Information does not come in simple neutral boxes and its distribution is a more complex matter altogether. We need a more capacious conception of human communication, one that can accommodate the full range of human purpose. (para) All the more do we need it because the digital computer has created a new expressive space. The screen works differently from the page. (20-21)

These are both from Richard Lanham's new book, The Economics of Attention (Amazon), and it was interesting to me to read him arguing for the same kind of inventive, networky, rhetorical approach to the study of technology that Jeff does. We're coming up on 15 years since Lanham blasted the instrumentalist Weak Defense approach to rhetoric, and in that time, it's eaten away at me on a regular basis to watch people in "our community" take the very approach that Lanham decries, only to technology.

It boils down to this for me: if you honestly don't get that what we're talking about is more than simply material access, more than empty gestures towards the watchwords of the University of Excellence, and more than "stuff" that will somehow interfere with writing instruction, well, then I'm not sure I feel all that upset by your lack of recognition.

That is all.

July 9, 2006

Party like it's 1996

This is not the rant I alluded to a post or few ago, but it is probably going to be a bit of a rant. Over the past couple of days, there have been a number of appeals in various fora for feedback on the "Technology Section" of the WPA Outcomes document. You can follow the link to look at the comments thus far offered, but allow me to reproduce it here:

Computer Literacy

Multiple problems arise from constructing any set of prescribed first-year outcomes relating to technology. Two problems are foremost:

(1) Schools and students who have access to technology are more likely to have the prescribed knowledge or skills than students who have limited access to technology. By imposing a set of outcomes related to technology, we are making school harder for those who are lower in the socioeconomic spectrum of society and consequently have less access to technology.

(2) Teachers may be encouraging a non-critical approach to incorporating technology into writing classes.

Teachers need to avoid using technology for its own sake (and for the sake of those who sell it); on the other hand, students who have a critical awareness of technology and how to use it when writing are more employable than students who do not. Within those parameters, we propose the following set of outcomes:

By the end of first-year composition, students should have a critical understanding of digital literacy, including:

  • use the computer for drafting, revising, responding, and editing.
  • employ research strategies using electronic databases
  • conduct web-based research and the evaluate online sources
  • understand the difference in rhetorical strategies used in writing traditional and hyper-text prose/graphics.

Okay. I'm going to set aside the strange language of describing this as a "techno-plank," and move straight to the fact that there are 3 big advantages to posting this in blogspace. First, it allows for the posting of comments. Second, given the right platform, it would allow interested parties to subscribe to an RSS feed of the follow-up comments, rather than having to visit the page repeatedly. Third, placing it online allows for links to be placed to the WPA homepage and/or the original Outcomes Statement to which this is intended as an addition.

Color me nitpicky, but this page only manages one of three. On the third point, I tend to remember URLs, but otherwise, I would have had to look it up, and from the homepage, the Outcomes Statement is 2 levels in, and that's if you're lucky enough to guess that it's in the WPA Guide, and then that it can be found among the WPA Position Statements and Resolutions. It's all but buried in the site. Frankly, that's too much work to accomplish what seems to me to be a pretty natural task request--the ability to access the larger document of which this may soon be a part. The page accomplishes the 1st advantage, and I can understand why the 2nd wouldn't be seized upon--it's a fine point and requires more familiarity with blog platforms than most of my colleagues probably possess. The third point, however, is pretty basic and reasonable.

But that's just form, you might argue. At least it's up there. And yes, I agree--it is up there. So let's turn to the statement itself. Some of my exasperation with the statement is mitigated by the purpose of the OS in general: "These statements describe only what we expect to find at the end of first-year composition, at most schools a required general education course or sequence of courses." In other words, I understand the problems that "outcomes" present, having written a few in the course of my own career. And yet.

It says something, I think, that the OS in general strongly asserts the importance of expertise and authority, while this technology statement's overwhelming tone is one of apology and qualification. The OS explains that "th[is] document is not merely a compilation or summary of what currently takes place," but rather an attempt to "regularize" expectations. In other words, the document makes some room for asserting goals rather than simply reflecting a status quo. And if my impressions of how this document is typically deployed are correct, then its primary audience is administrative.

Then why would it begin with a statement about why it should be ignored? This self-refutation takes up nearly 50% of the statement itself, and basically allows an audience to dismiss it. We all know that access is uneven. What we all don't seem to know is that access to literacy is similarly uneven. "[T]hose who are lower in the socioeconomic spectrum of society" are also likely to have more trouble accomplishing the goals of the main OS, but this isn't posed as the sizable obstacle that it is here.

The second objection? I don't really know what that means, although I suppose there are hints below: uncritical appears to involve "using technology for its own sake (and for the sake of those who sell it)." If I wanted to get really snarky about this, I'd talk about how many textbooks (themselves a technology) are assigned for their own sake (and never or rarely used) and/or for the sake of those who sell (and/or write) them. Maybe the parenthetical above is a swipe at the class-in-a-box people, but it's a little ironic that it's just as applicable to the class-in-a-book people.

So how bout we start this statement with the kind of positive, assertive statement that chracterizes the main OS? Something like:

Although writing has a long and varied history, as we enter the 21st century, it is essential that we recognize the crucial connection between writing and information technologies. Computers are no longer (if they ever were) souped-up typewriters; the Web and the Internet more broadly have transformed writing at a fundamental level. As a result, responsibly designed writing courses, at every level, can no longer afford to ignore technology.

I like that a lot better, but then, I'm not a WPA. To my mind, in a document for administrators, the "foremost problem" shouldn't be either of the two offered. I would add a paragraph to the end of the statement explaining that resources and training, for teachers, are a vital part of supporting these outcomes. I would cast this as an ongoing investment for which the outcomes are the reward. But that's me. I'm pretty sure that whatever "uncritical" actually means, it has more to do with a lack of pedagogical support than it does with teachers shilling for companies.

(btw, "on the other hand" students "are more employable"?? That is the only statement of technology's value in this entire document. Wow. That's really really weak. Really. And no, the main OS doesn't "justify" writing, but it also doesn't undercut it.)

The specific outcomes are pretty vanilla, although I would argue that they were no less true back in 1996 than they are today. Is it possible to bring them forward without dipping into specifics that might become obsolete a year or two down the line?

"use the computer for drafting, revising, responding, and editing"--it's hard for me to imagine that this is actually necessary any longer, but oh well. It would have been a goal rather than a baseline minimum back in 1986. I'd prefer to see something about multiple platforms (including word processors) used in the composing process.

"employ research strategies using electronic databases"--odd phrasing. Employ strategies using the databases? How about developing an awareness of the variety of search strategies made possible by the combination of physical and electronic information sources?

"conduct web-based research and the evaluate online sources"--I'm not sure why this and #2 are separate. Far as I can tell, they're the same outcome with different sites. Unless we're going to indulge the assumption that nothing is published and available in a database that needs evaluating with the same "critical" eye. Nope. We're not. Combine these two.

"understand the difference in rhetorical strategies used in writing traditional and hyper-text prose/graphics."--Okay, this is fugly. First of all, false binary. Second of all, "hyper-text"?? Qu'est-ce que c'est? Third of all, "prose/graphics"? How about an awareness of the effect that media have upon rhetorical strategies, preferably achieved through the production of a varied range of texts (look under Processes in the main OS, and you'll see that this is already there, btw.)?

So far, I've just taken what they've offered and revised. Do I have a wishlist? Oh yes:

  • Some appreciation/understanding of the rhetorical impact of design in various media
  • Some introduction to the cultural impact of technology in particular venues
  • Some experience with social software, whether it be email lists, MOOs, MMORPGs, blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, facebook, myspace, etc.

That's top of my head stuff, but I'm sure if pressed I could generate others. There's the problem of outcomes statements, of course, but surely we could be asking a little more than this document currently does. And we could be apologizing for it a little less. Prefacing an outcomes statement with the reasons why it's problematic just strikes me as self-defeating.

And while all this certainly sounds like I don't appreciate the work that undoubtedly went into this statement, that wouldn't be correct. I recognize how tough stuff like this is, but I think it's also important to realize the opportunity that it represents, and that opportunity isn't served well by some of what appears there.

That's all. I hope that the conversation that ensues at the WPAC next week is productive.

Update: the 4th advantage of blogspace is trackbacking, so that long-ass, windy rants like mine can be recorded on the site itself. Oh well. Maybe I'll leave a comment there, pointing.

Update 2: I forgot to link to Jeff's comments about the TOS, which prompted me to look at the thing in the first place. D'oh.

July 5, 2006

Publishers and Bloggers, sittin in a tree

Scott McLemee has a piece up today at IHE based on a talk he gave at last month's AAUPresses confab, and it's worth a look. The bottom line is that academic presses would do themselves a huge favor becoming a little more familiar with blogspace and what it might be able to accomplish for them:

Academic publishers are now more likely to put their catalogs up online than a few years ago. But most seem not to have made the additional commitment of resources necessary to get the word out about their books.

Getting 10 or 20 copies to the right folks at the right blogs might mean the difference in some cases between selling dozens and selling hundreds, a big difference for an academic press's typically small print run.

Compare the typical academic press strategies (send out catalogs, bring boxes to conventions) with what Chris Anderson did. His book on the long tail is a-coming soon, and his publisher gave him 100 copies to give away, so he offered them to the first 100 bloggers willing to review the book. Less than 24 hours later, he had 100 reviewers lined up.

Yes, trade presses vs. academic, but that's part of McLemee's piece as well. It's not about spending lots but spending smart. Chances are, with a little bit of research, you could achieve the same impact with 10 well-placed reviews as you could with 100. You telling me that most academic presses don't give away more than 10 copies of a book as desk copies a year? C'mon.

Anyhow, Scott's dead-on, and whether or not my press does what he suggests, I'll be doing it. Even if I have to buy my own books and give them out myself.

All right already

Okay. Yes, I believe that, as a team, the Italia is more than a collection of flopping divas and the beneficiaries of bad refereeing. At one point, I did indeed think that Italy got to the semifinals due primarily to the softness of their corner of the draw. Even though these 2 beliefs are not entirely exclusive of one another, I am willing to acknowledge now that the Italia has as good a chance as either of the other teams to win the Cup. Much as this acknowledgement does pain me.

July 2, 2006


That last entry read like the turning over of a summer leaf, a transition into much more active bloggity blog blogging, yes?

Problem is, I don't really have much these days. I'm working up to a little bit of a rant that's tangential to some other writing I'm doing, but I would need to stop and mess around with it a bit, and I don't really have the time this week. There are days where it feels like every other thing that happens is bloggable, and then there are those where nothing is.

As a sign of how bad things have gotten, I was contemplating, earlier today, a massive post on how utterly wretched all the commercials are lately. Case in point, the dueling dimwittery that are the chicken sandwich commercials for Burger King and McDonalds. Yeah, that's right. It's gotten that. damn. bad.

Ah well. Here's who I was rooting for the past two days: Ukraine, Brazil, Argentina, and England. Can you spot the feature common to them all? Worst of all, I made the mistake of going against gut and picking three of them to advance. Oops.

That is all.