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August 26, 2006

We'll see how this flies

I've spent the past few days finishing up the overview document for my tenure case, known affectionately across the campus as "Form A." The form closes by asking for "additional information" that might be helpful in evaluating one's work. Here's what I put:

In a conversation with one of the members of the search committee that recommended my appointment at Syracuse, after I arrived in the Writing Program, I learned that this particular committee member had three criteria for each of the candidates. This person explained that each candidate was expected to make technology their primary area of scholarly inquiry, to be able to apply it in and to their pedagogy, and, just as importantly, to be a practicing user of technologies. While I believe that this form documents my achievements in the first two areas, I want to discuss that third area briefly.

In the field of rhetoric and composition, a field devoted to the study and teaching of writing, there is a sense in which we are practitioners of that which we study. But for those of us who choose to specialize further in the study of information and communication technologies as they impact writing, practice is not only essential, but it brings added pressures as well. In addition to staying abreast of developments in our field, we are obligated to remain familiar with developments outside of academia, to be practicing technologists as well as scholars, pedagogues, and colleagues. However, the criteria by which tenure and promotion are determined do not easily admit this fourth category, partly because it is a difficult one to measure. The proficient use of technologies does not fit into any of the three categories, but it is not entirely separable from them, either. I have spent hours learning software in order to write multimedia essays, familiarized myself with various research and productivity tools in order to help students become more proficient at online research, and drawn on my understanding of spread sheets, databases, and web design in order to improve the performance of the graduate office. But I also engage in activities that cannot easily be reduced to scholarship, teaching, and service.

It is in this context that I wish to call attention to my activity as an academic blogger. I started a weblog (Collin vs. Blog) in August of 2003, and in the three years I have spent writing and maintaining it, it has become an integral part of my academic practice. I use it as a place to work through ideas that will eventually be turned into published scholarship, to reflect upon teaching practices, and to connect with colleagues both local and distant. In roughly 20 months of tracking site traffic, my site has received close to 75,000 unique visits and over 100,000 pageviews, averaging 144 visits and 199 views daily since January of 2005. In the summer of 2005, I received my discipline’s award for Best Academic Weblog. In short, maintaining a weblog has raised my profile, both within my discipline and beyond it, far more than any course I might teach or article I might publish. And in doing so, it raises the profile of Syracuse and of the Writing Program in a fashion that I believe to be positive.

In recent years, there have been high-profile tenure cases where applicants have offered their technological work in lieu of activity more easily categorized in traditional terms; that is not my intent here. I feel that my scholarship, teaching, and service stand on their own. But in a year where Syracuse is actively pursuing and promoting the idea of “scholarship in action,? it strikes me as particularly important to include this form of public writing as part of my activity as a member of the Syracuse University faculty. At a time where much of the discussion surrounding academic weblogs focuses on the risks of representing one’s self publicly as anything more than the sum total of items on a vita, I feel that it’s important to acknowledge the positive, productive impact that blogging has had upon my academic career. My weblog is not a strictly academic space, any more than my life is consumed with purely academic concerns. But it adds a dimension to my contributions here at Syracuse, both as a writer and as someone who studies technology, that would be difficult to duplicate within the categories articulated in this form.

* * * * *

I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

August 24, 2006

Sidebarring further complications

See now, this is what I like: blowing a few hours doing a dual-screen tweak to a design. Heh.

Thanks for the comments, all, on yesterday's post. In local news, I've added a new category to the sidebar at the right--I've set it up so that new posts over on my book site will be sidebarred here as well. There's a really wide range of tools for doing that kind of thing--after having looked at 17 or 20 of them, I thought FeedRoll was the best, primarily because it allows you to get their CSS, install it on your own stylesheet, and then match it up to your own. It's not a perfect fit, but it's a lot closer than most of the others could provide.

If'n there's anyone interested in setting something like this up for themselves, but who needs a little assist with the CSS (particularly in the mangle that is MT 3.2 CSS), let me know. I've always thought that something like this would be a good way to manage departmental news on an otherwise static dept homepage, for example, and I can think of other potential uses as well...

Update: I definitely want to add top-level links here to Barbara's entry, which quotes me from yesterday and moves off in all sorts of smart directions, and of course, to Jeff's new book site, Digital Detroit. This all has the feel of something cool to me.

August 23, 2006

Inching, inching

It's easy to come off, and to want to come off, as someone who's already figured it all out--it's a particularly academic attitude that's all but hammered into us, that to "not know" is a sign of weakness. The unfortunately ironic part of it all is that not knowing is always an opportunity, for me at least, and yet I feel like I get caught up in papering over those times where I don't know.

All of which is to say that, as I was thinking more about last night's post, I was reflecting on how often I do the stuff that I was critical of. I've been thinking about doing the bulk of my reading and writing for my 2nd book online, for a variety of reasons. I want the early and immediate feedback on much of what I have to say. Blogging is a lot closer to my ideal writing rhythm. And the tools for managing knowledge available online are just better than anything I might cobble together on a desktop.

And yet, last week, as I was thinking about it, I found myself falling back into the terms that I advocate against. I was worried that people would think it derivative. I was worried about it being written out from under me, as people took up ideas and turned them around faster than I could. I was worried about presses being turned off by it appearing publicly. In short, and let's break out the arrogance checklist for this, I was making the following assumptions:

  • An idea is only good the first time, that is, if you're the one to "discover" it. (check)
  • My ideas are so good that people will steal them. (check)
  • It's better to be first than to write well. (check)
  • I should hoard my good ideas greedily and then spring them all at once, so that people will think my genius is pure, whole, and polished. (check)
  • "My genius" (snort) (check)

It's so unbelievably hard to get out of the habit of policing the borders of "my" ideas that there are times when I don't know where to start. You'd think I'd learn eventually, though. You'd think we'd learn eventually. In his post yesterday, Alex wrote:

So why do we produce scholarship?
  • To get tenure, promoted, a raise, a better job, and other monetary rewards
  • To improve our reputation/standing in the academic community
  • To lay claim to an idea
  • To promote an ideological/disciplinary position and/or to critique another

I'd say those are roughly in descending order and might be followed by more altruistic notions like "advancing knowledge" or some such. If that seems cynical then perhaps you are unaware of the pressures involved in tenure or the pathetic role reputation plays in academia (something Jeff's post addresses).

As I read this, I was saying to myself, "Oh, no, my motives are so much purer than this," and to a degree they are. I really enjoy reading and writing and teaching, and the degree to which they allow me to put togther ideas, and to make sense where perhaps less sense existed previously. And to a degree, they're not. When I think of how hard it seems to be for me sometimes to think outside of that list, even when I know there is epistemological space outside of it that I can occupy, then it seems unfair to me to critique others for what in the end are my own failings.

So at the same time that I try and even out any unfairness from yesterday by calling out my own proclivities, I'm hoping that writing through it here will stop me in my well-worn tracks on occasion from repeating the cycle. I think I'll learn eventually.

Update: Well, the beginnings of a site are there. It'll take a few entries for the layout to fully unfold, and I still have to go in and tweak a bunch of the backup pages, but much of the major style sheet wrasslin' is complete, I think. Take a look. The design was partly cribbed from my grad course site, along with some twists I've been thinking about. Oh, and the colors will be different, most likely. I futzed with stuff mainly so I could find it again, but still have some alterations to make...

August 22, 2006

Coming soon, to a theater near you...!

My reaction has been mixed to the new suite of Geico commercials, although I am forced to admit that they are a serious improvement upon the "meta-gecko" crap they've been serving up. If you haven't seen them, "real Geico customers" are paired up with celebrities like Little Richard, Charo, and Burt Bachrach. Bachrach was just plain weird, but it's actually grown on me.

Anyways, one of the commercials features the guy (or one of them, anyway) who does the voiceovers for movie trailers. The commercial is utterly predictable, as you might imagine, a quasi-emergency headed off by Geico, blah blah blah, all done in the MovieGuy voice.

Which brings me. At the risk of appearing to be piling on when what I sort of hope to do is to pile up, I wanted to pick up a couple of the threads that appear in posts by Jeff and Alex, which themselves respond to an if:book post noting Kairos's 10YA. Are we all linked up? Good.

When I went over to Jim Kalmbach's retrospective in Kairos, my response was fairly similar to Jeff's. As I began to read the piece, though, as I read this:

Undaunted by this mystery, they set out to create an online journal that would explore the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy, or as Michael Salvo (Doherty & Salvo, 2002) put it:

With Kairos, a handful of graduate students in half a dozen states, with no budget and no sense of what was and was not possible (or acceptable), created something that caught (and continues to catch) peoples' attention.

Here's where it comes together. I couldn't read this passage without MovieGuy's voice intoning it: "In a field stagnant and dominated by print ideals....a band of plucky graduate students...with only the clothes on their backs...armed with an idea and the will to change a discipline...."

This may be snotty of me, I admit. I honestly have nothing against Jim, whom I don't know, nor Michael, whom I consider a friend. In a lot of ways, this folds into Jeff's ruminations about recognition, and the way that "epic tales of struggle and triumph" tend to obscure all of the other tales. And I react against it here, in this case, not because this is an especially egregious example, but rather because the overall pattern is one that I see repeated with some frequency. The "call" is one strategy that's part of it--it's a way of "being first" without actually "being first," and I say that as someone who's issued my fair share of calls.

Jeff's right, I think, to note that we could do a better job of understanding the way that we direct attention, and the thing that "hero narratives" like these do is to direct attention squarely and solely upon the hero. This is an attitude that's been critiqued heavily in terms of pedagogy, for the degree to which other factors, often beyond the pedagogue's control, play as great (if not greater) a role in the classroom as the teacher hirself.

Writ disciplinarily larger, and here it's important to note that this Kairos piece is far from singular in this regard, I see calls for the kind of work that is already going on, but perhaps unknown to the caller. I see histories of "the field" that only recognize certain people as belonging to the field. I see "critical overviews" heavily shot through with self-citation. None of these things I find particularly pleasing. Or particularly critical. Or especially productive.

Now, it's going to be easy to read this list and wonder who I'm talking about in "our field." But, and this is part of my point, it's not just "our field" that I'm talking about. Technology cuts across many fields, and in some places, I'm talking about people that aren't even recognized as part of "our field." I bet you think this rant is about you. Don't you?

Similarly easy to think that I'm just sour graping it. Will all my posts from here on out be bitter reflections on my lack of recognition in the field? Well, yes, but that misses the broader point that all of these things, which in an unkind turn of phrase I might call self-promotion as scholarship (rather than self-promotion of scholarship), function to reinforce some of the tendencies that Alex notes in his post. I may print out the following and tape it above my desk:

A new multimedia scholarship that essentially does what we've always done, only with video and links, isn't worth the trouble it takes to create. A new medium means a new epistemology and not a predefined one held out manifesto-style like an ideological holy grail (though those can be fun to write sometimes). At the same time, though experimentation for its own sake is a necessary part of this, ultimately a new multimedia scholarship must respond to some exigency.

Back in the halcyon days of hypertext, end of books and all that, the assumption was that, if we start replacing books with hypertexts, pretty soon the snowball rolls under its own momentum, and voila! cultural paradigm shift. If you think that this is too glib an account, just go back and read some of it. What some of us, I hope, learned was that the book, for its various faults, did certain things well. Also, it had a couple of hundred years to diffuse into the culture, through attitudes towards authorship, commoditization, education, and all of these different spheres of activity, none of which was especially ready to see books wither on the vine. Plug hypertexts into that culture, and nothing much happens. "Books suck" wasn't much of an exigency. Of course, now that we call hypertexts by the various names of blogs, wikis, SNSs, discussion fora, you could argue that they've had a much greater effect, but I can't help but think that would be cheating just a little.

The moral of this little tale is that a lot of that early scholarship believed, in an astoundingly self-assured way, that you could just pluck out one medium, sub in a newer one, and change would radiate outward. So when Alex implies that Kairos is to a degree constrained by its operation within a fairly traditional, academic attention economy, I think he's spot on. Cheryl asks:

Others are doing on the web what Kairos wants to do. We see that. I see that and totally acknowledge it’s happening. So is it wrong to “call? for some of that action within the server space of the journal itself?

Maybe so, even though that's not the answer the question wants. At the very least, it's no less wrong to call for an electronic journal to blur the focus on emulating print, such that that "action" might happen. Years ago, I tried to argue unsuccessfully to push Enculturation away from the "event model" of journal publication, which is grounded in an economy of clerical and print scarcity. Why would an electronic journal need to publish simultaneous issues? thought I. Years later, and my writing has moved well away from event model poetics, enough so that deadlines are mind killers for me these days. I will count my blogwork in my tenure file the way that other performance disciplines count their work--I don't need a journal to validate it. It's led to other things I can count, like interviews with media outlets, invited talks, etc., all (of course) outside "our field," but oh well.

I feel like I've swirled myself around a bit here. I guess I should close by noting that, despite a little pessimism and skepticism, I do believe that we're slowly inching our way outside of the constraints of the academic economy. Like Jeff, I may come off here as critical of particular efforts, but also like him, I think, I find it more a function of a system than any particular agent within the system (and I'm an agent within the system, too). If it sounds like I'm waffling between "breakin on through to the other side" and "working for change from within," that's because I am. More and more, I find myself unsatisfied with either option, mostly because each requires me to think of my work at a scale that I don't find particuarly productive. My attitude is still a work in progress, I fear.

Snip, snap, snout.
This rant's told out. (#)

August 20, 2006

symbolic inaction

I think that I've spent the last three days hoping that, if I just don't post to the blog, time will stop and tomorrow won't be our grad program orientation, followed shortly by our department's fall conference, followed quickly by our first administrative staff meeting, followed by the beginning of classes, in just. about. a. week.

How's that workin out for me? Not so well.

August 16, 2006

Grad-ual progress

Over at Fumbling Towards Geekdom, you'll find a roundup of posts for the 1st Monthly Carnival of GRADual Progress, and I was pleasantly surprised to see my post about dissertations from earlier this summer referenced. I'd planned on leaving a comment, but as I began composing it in my head, it kept getting longer and longer, until it made more sense to simply post here. Well, and that way, too, I can send a little traffic in that direction. Winners, all around. One of the things that I wanted to comment on:

Hunting and gathering the following posts from around the internet, I was struck with how much of what is written about grad student life is extremely depressing. I'm a little concerned that this carnival might send you all off to slit your wrists...

Happily enough, I think, I was one of the neutral, the not-all-that-bad. And as I looked back at my post, I think that's warranted. A lot of my grad schoolish advice tends to try and walk a pragmatic line, avoiding both the idealism that sends plenty of us crashing to earth and the abject misery that is not imo representative. We get in trouble with our estimates of graduate school when we imagine that it's somehow different from or better than life in general. And I like to think that I'm actively doing my part to ensure that it's not the case that "the world has got a whole lot nastier since these people were at grad school." With occasional success, I suspect.

Anyhow, I think one of the reasons for the doom and gloom is that academic work can be intensive, isolating, lonely, and thankless. Woohoo! Don't get me wrong, though--it can also be all of the opposites of those. And we do a lovely job of congratulating ourselves and our colleagues when things go well. When someone's hard work pays off, it's not only a confirmation of the hard work itself, but of the hard work that we do as well. When things don't go as well, though, it can be shaming and can make us feel as though we're the only ones who struggle.

And so sharing stories of struggle, among other things, reassures us that we're not the only ones, that it really isn't easy breezy for everyone but us. My guess is, reading the entries aggregated for the carnival, that the posts may seem dark, but there's probably a lot more balance and encouragement when one includes the comments. That tends to be the pattern. It's often a lot easier to see the crap that we put ourselves through as academics. And it can be easier to get some perspective on one's own troubles when reading about someone else's struggle.

Hmm. That wasn't so long after all. So take all the time you would have spent reading the rest of my entry, and browse the entries over there.

That is all.

August 15, 2006

From the Archives: Rejected Orientation Activities

Rhetorister: the game craze sweeping a nation!!

As many of you, not being members of the CCR program, will not know, next Monday is our annual orientation day for the graduate program. Typically, we schedule a couple of morning panels where faculty and more experienced graduate students speak to program issues. Past themes have included interdisciplinarity, getting started on your research, locating yourself materially and disciplinarily, etc. This year's theme is more of a life-oriented one--we're calling it "Balancing Acts" and asking speakers to talk about how to balance work with life, short-term duties with long-term plans, studenting with parenting, and so forth.

And what better game to go along with the theme of balance than Twister?

Except rather than actually using the names for limbs (left hand, right foot), you have to use epistemology, ontology, axiology, and teleology. And rather than calling out colors--how prosaic!--onlookers will read out passages from one of four rhetoricians. Finding the best position on the board is no longer simply a matter of physical quickness--only the intellectually quick will succeed! Yes, I bring you: Rhetorister!!

Or rather, I would have, had not the Semi-Official Ad-Hoc Subcommittee for Oversight of All Proposed Orientation Acitivity, Including but not Limited to Fun decided that perhaps this would not necessarily supply the rollicking good time that it appears to. Ah well. Back to the drawing board. (You can click for a closer look, though.)

That is all.

August 14, 2006

Achieving Obfuscation

Operation PowerPoint

I don't want to comment on a book I haven't read, but Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen has a nice piece about the prevalence of PowerPoint as a communication tool in the military. He's referencing Thomas Ricks's new book Fiasco, which concludes, among other things, that the current occupation of Iraq represents the "worst war plan in American history."

Part of that plan, apparently, is the slide above, which is an "actual slide that Joint Task Force IV used to show how the occupation would work." In a backasswards kind of way, this actually answers many of my questions.

ps. Anyone who is ever required to do presentations should subscribe to PZ. Reynolds is not anti-PowerPoint so much as he is anti-BadPresentation in all its manifestations. It's a good resource. And who knows? It might help you aim pressure so as to achieve end-state over time. Really.

That's all.

August 13, 2006

Alfred Hitchcock, Fidel Castro, and Collin vs Blog

All 3 have a little something in common that I like to call August 13th. Well, me and the rest of those who adhere to the Gregorian calendar. Anyhow, I am pleased to note that the blog, it has a birthday today. Three long years since I began bee-loggin, and as I thought about this post yesterday, I decided that I didn't feel like trotting out the reflection so much. Not that I might not in the next week or so, but for the moment, I'm not really in the mood to craft a long introspective post.

So instead, what I did was to put together a tagcloud that does a pretty fair job, I think, of visually representing the true and aggregated character of this space as I've maintained it for three years:


Looks about right. That's all. Happy birthday, blog.

August 11, 2006


I've been dropping some serious blogology lately, but today don't much feel like it. Nothing really caught my eye in the 'sphere. Also, I find it mentally exhausting to have so much of my life (as it is currently) driven by concerns that are outside of my control. Not that they aren't consequences of the choices I've made, but they are no longer simply a matter of just doing the work.

This is a little cryptic, I suppose, and will have to remain so, for a while anyway. But I've been told lately that I'm flashing a little more edge on the blog lately, and I think it's related to the mental and emotional stress that I'm experiencing this summer. At some point, you realize that, in the absence of control, there's a degree to which being right or wrong is out of your hands. I can feel my patience wearing thin more quickly, the buffers of politeness and propriety being a little quicker to slip, etc. It's not so much a matter of me "really" being edgy and hiding it better elsewhen--right now, I feel more ragged, and it's showing up in all sorts of venues, not just here.

I expect it to ease up soon, which is some consolation. That is all.

Early Morning Update: Winding down but just caught a column over at IHE by my chancellor, called Multiculturalism, Universalism, and the 21st Century Academy. Maybe something for me to blog later on.

August 10, 2006

CCCO thoughts

Over at if:book, Ray Cha relays and recommends an upcoming chapter from Clifford Lynch, about moving beyond "reader-centric views of scholarly literature." It has much in common with Franco Moretti's work on literary history, and is worth reading for that reason alone.

But I'm also on the lookout for ways to articulate just what it is we're trying to do with CCC Online, and Lynch's piece fits the bill. Namely...

We would also see an explosion in services that provided access to this literature in new and creative ways. Such services would also incorporate specialized vocabulary databases, gazetteers, factual databases, ontologies, and other auxiliary tools to enhance indexing and retrieval. They would rapidly transcend access to address navigation and analysis. One path here leads towards more-customized rehosting of scholarly literatures and underlying evidence into new usage and analysis environments attuned to the specific scholarly practices of various disciplines.

We would also see a move beyond federation and indexing to actual text mining and analysis, to the extraction of hypotheses and correlations that would help to drive ongoing scholarly inquiry. Indeed, the literature would be embedded in a computational context that reorganized and re-evaluated the existing body of knowledge as new literature became available.

That excerpt separates nicely into what I think we're already doing at the site, although not perhaps to the extent that Lynch imagines it, and the second half, which in many ways is the prize that we've got our long-term eyes on. If you don't think we're watching projects like this and this, well, you don't know us very well. Heh.

I'm less worried about the potential objections that Cha raises at the end of his post--"Purists will undoubtedly frown upon the use of computation that cannot be replicated by humans in scholarly research"--than I am about getting to the point where such objections can be raised. In other words, I believe that such work, if it can generate compelling results, will override knee-jerk complaints. I think it's also going to be necessary, in our own field at least, to be very careful to qualify the value of this work appropriately. Not that that's always been enough, especially when it comes to quasi-statistical work, which tends to run afoul of the old "me humanities. me hate math." goofiness.

Two other points. First is one that I'm guessing some people will not appreciate, and that's that, to an extent this work is fairly easily decoupled from the "open access" that appears to drive Lynch's piece. That is, the value of data mining is offered as a consequence of open access, and while that is true at a very large scale, I think it possible to do quite a bit in this area without it, honestly. We're able to work around providing the metadata we wanted without having to open up the journal's content, even if we might have preferred it otherwise. And I think that some pretty entrenched attitudes will need to change for what Lynch describes to be more than a thought experiment. Not that they shouldn't change, but I'm not sure how far they actually need to, for this at least.

Second point is that we use a fairly small, fairly simple suite of tools to do what we're doing now. We had to cobble stuff together, and we've done so fairly successfully, but it shouldn't go unmentioned that a couple of good programmers would go a long way towards making this a lot more doable. Personally, I have enough ability to tweak, and I'm pretty good at making MT modules do what I want them to, but we spent a fair bit of time just cobbling. I'm conscious of how much more efficient our system could be.

And yeah, it's only one journal that we're working on, and all things considered, we really have to pace things more slowly than I'd like. But it's also our flagship journal, and if nothing else, we tackled the biggest job first, in designing and testing it on CCC. There's going to be some real value in what we're doing, even if it doesn't hit the scale that Lynch imagines. And we're a pretty solid model for how to accomplish these goals on both a small scale and approaching it from the bottom up.

That is all.

August 9, 2006

Let me count the ways

From a medieval lit professor, in the comments to this post featured today at IHE:

By the way, if the job market is the big fear, go into Composition -- it is one of the least bookish of the fields, but it offers jobs galore.


In Xandiego did ComiCon...

A while back, I aggregated Henry Jenkins' site, Confessions of an Aca/Fan, but it's taken me too long to add it to the ol' roll, a mistake I have since corrected. One of the grad students in the CMS program at MIT, Ivan Askwith, is guest-blogging some reflections from his trip to ComiCon out in SD. In particular, I'm interested in his discussion of the Long Tail and its appropriateness as a model: "recent entries both here and in the C3 Weblog tempt me to describe what I saw at ComicCon as a living illustration of Chris Anderson's Long Tail." As he ultimately concludes, though:

For all of its strengths, however, I don't think the Long Tail is designed to explain the lesson that I would encourage the entertainment industry to take away from their time at ComicCon: that a small audience of super-committed fans can be worth more, in economic terms, than a massive audience of casual viewers and readers.

I'll discuss that lesson in a bit, but first I want to second Ivan's insight that the LT isn't quite enough to explain things there. For me, one of the biggest lessons of Chris Anderson's LT work is the importance of aggregation, and the ways that the Web has enabled a kind of aggregation previously unavailable to us. In other words, aggregation is largely thought of, still, as geographical, and I mean that both materially and metaphorically. Please to explain?

Niche cultures can't support a material infrastructure, unless the threshold is set significantly lower. The stereotype of poorly lit, ugly comic stores springs to mind, or often somewhat archaic, single-screen art house cinemas. The profit margin on places like these is often just used to keep them afloat, while blockbuster joints can afford stadium seating, big fluffy chairs, big open aisles, lots of employees, etc. You pay money to keep a store/site open, regardless of whether anyone comes, and the more specialized the need you're meeting, the less your potential traffic. There's a certain threshold below which it's just impossible to afford to do this. That's material geographic aggregation of one sort.

Another sort is the con circuit, with CC being perhaps the most conspicuous. But we have em in academia, too, as do a lot of other professions. Unlike retail outlets, cons practice aggregation as event, gathering a whole bevy of like-minded folk in one place for a few days. And if you don't think that we have our own costumes, autograph sessions, celebrities, etc., I invite you to spend a day with me at MLA in December.

There's a third sort of geographic aggregation that's more metaphorical, represented by the finite limits of bandwidth, whether radio, tv, or what have you. I think network tv, for example, with very few exceptions, is one of the most underinnovated wastelands I could imagine. It's as though a bookstore took the top-5 selling books, and then gave over all its space to attempts to imitate them. The near-predictable success of quality alternatives just doesn't seem to sink in, but oh well. It's not geography per se, but it operates according to the same principle: scarcity requires centrist optimization.

The LT businesses that Chris looks at are those that built models on working around the scarcity problem. We can debate about whether it's as revolutionary as he says, but that misses one of the bigger points of the Long Tail, which is a much lower threshold to entry, especially for niche cultures (like academia, for instance). I've written about this a little bit before: Amazon, I think, learned early on that they were both in the book and the loyalty biz. By making academic books available to me, they all but guaranteed that I would make other (less LT) purchases there as well. Features like Amazon Prime and the auto-rec system (which allows me to see forthcoming stuff better than any other single source I consult) only hammer it home.

One of the things that goes unnoticed, though, is that niche stores/sites often exist symbiotically with niche communities. You wanna go where everyone knows your name, and all that. Amazon encourages the illusion that I'm known--I don't fool myself into thinking that the site actually does know me, but its features are the features of being a "member" in addition to a "customer." They don't just aggregate products but people as well. Barney Nubble doesn't have to do that--it's one of two bookstores in town here, and while a couple of the baristas do know what I like, I definitely don't feel at "home" there.

One of the things that the LT doesn't really account for, as it's not intended to, is that loyalty. In the title to his post, Ivan references the "devoted niche," which I think must be distinguished from the niche in general. There's a level of fan devotion surrounding many shows, writers, bands, etc., that is hard to account for in economic models. Ivan mentions "fans [being] ready and willing to pay well in excess of $1000 for an original out-of-print comic featuring their favorite character," and this is a strange combination of the prestige economy of a collector culture (where s/he who has the rarest objects has the most respect) and luxury items (yeah, i have better things to do with a K). Luxury industries drive their products the wrong way down the LT curve, technically, because they make up for scarcity by overpricing. But collector industries can often make up price with artificial, superficial ploys (variant covers, anyone?) to get collectors to buy 5 where normally they'd only buy one.

It's a wonky combination of features, and one that I think that Ivan is right to note that industries like the comics oligopoly don't really understand it. They don't really seem to fully understand their market, and signs are that it's not really getting better. The Big 2 (DC/Marvel) are trotting out Infinocuous Crises on a faster and faster schedule--company-wide Events designed to force readers to buy dozens of cross-over titles that they normally wouldn't. They're taking writers with cult followings and putting them on their mainstream titles, trying to feed their niches back into the head of the curve to boost sales. Joe Queseda has been getting a lot of heat for making some truly moronic remarks about the homogeneity of the inner circle at Marvel, and he doesn't seem to have any idea how to address what are some pretty accurate critiques of the way he's running the company. In a lot of ways, the Big 2 has mistaken the inertia that allowed them to survive the industry implosion in the 90s for validation, and that's only been perpetuated by recent cinema successes, I suspect.

Wow. This has become a Thing, a little out of control.

What I wanted to get to is the idea that companies can aggregate people, but they can also disaggregate them, get them to feel that their loyalty is not only unwarranted, but in many ways taken for granted. It's happened a lot lately on Spiderman titles, for instance (Gwen Stacy affair, cannibalism, unmasking, etc.). As long as the Big 2 are the Big 2, they'll be able to get away with much of it, I suppose, but the counter example of Snakes on a Plane should be instructive. Collector cultures are driven in part by their desire to be part of the thing that they're collecting--the devotion translates into the collecting. In fact, I wonder if it's not accurate to say that the devotion isn't another aggregating force, one that corporations producing for niche cultures ignore at their peril.

Hmm. Lots more to say and think about, but I've let this spiral a bit. Time for me to get along. So that's all for the moment...

August 8, 2006


Okay, so the elections in question aren't actually "special." I just happened to like the way those words fit together. Derek and I were chatting the other day about our annual CCCC elections, and about how possible a blog-driven write-in campaign might be. Anyway, in the process of explaining what we were talking about, I suggested that the CCCC Executive Committee is a lot like the Student Council of the profession. I didn't really mean to make that sound as snarky as it probably did, but the analogy stuck in my head, and was recalled to me again as I perused the ballot (mine was sent to my school address and thus arrived 5-7 days later).

There's certainly one sense in which the analogy holds: I think, for the most part, people vote by name recognition. Maybe I'm woefully underestimating my colleagues across the country, but my guess is that few people read the mini-position statements, and then vote for the person they don't know. Setting aside for the moment the implied damage that my own apparent disciplinary anonymity will have on my upcoming campaign (I still love that entry, btw), I have to wonder what effect this ultimately has.

I'm not going to launch into a line-by-line and guess whether this person belongs there and that person doesn't--I know many many of the folks on the EC, and I don't dispute that they care about the field, etc etc. But in order to win, you must achieve a certain degree of visibility--heck, in order to be nominated, you must be visible. It's worth asking, then, exactly how people are/become visible in the discipline, how it is that certain names in the discipline circulate more widely than others. It's also fair, imho, to ask where it is that they circulate. Like I've argued with respect to conference reviewers, I would be surprised to learn that EC membership isn't in part driven by association with "major programs," or parallel institutions (like the WPA listserv, for instance).

(Which would seem to make a case that, were we r/c bloggers ever to choose, we might actually make for a decent sized bloc of votes)

At the very least, we might argue that if research is one of the routes to disciplinary visibility, then there is something a little centripetal about placing the most visible researchers in charge of decisions that affect the kind/quality of research in the field. I'm thinking here of Rich Haswell's essay on the organization's withdrawal of support for (if not outright abandonment of) a certain kind of research (replicable, aggregable, and data supported). Interestingly enough, Chris Anson made a call for a renewed focus on this kind of work at WPA this summer. For my part, I'm interested in this because it's a turn I'm finding in my own interests, one that goes against the grain of a lot of what gets published in our field.

But back to the EC. It would be hard, I'm guessing, for them to think in the long-term ways that Haswell does in his article. First, their terms are short. Second, I think a certain amount of their time is taken with just getting up to speed. Third, it's volunteer work. Fourth, a lot of their energy is devoted to smaller-scalle and shorter-timeframe issues. None of these are criticisms--it's just the way things are set up. But I have to wonder about stuff like this, from one of the candidate statements:

The EC is filled with hard-working folks who care what the membership thinks, but no mechanism exists to ensure that these good colleagues actually know the wishes of the membership.

Eek. Whether or not this is true, it doesn't make the EC look particularly good. And I think about the work being done by other colleagues of ours on building the visibility of our discipline, and wonder why the heck that isn't/wasn't an issue years and years ago for past ECs. I think about the implications of Haswell's essay, about the way that the highest ranking elected body of representatives in our discipline has, consciously or unconsciously, steered the field away from certain kinds of work.

In these ways alone, the EC has actually had a massive effect on the field, which is where the analogy with student councils doesn't hold, to be sure. At the same time, I don't think that I'm the only one who's mind would jump to the "student council" analogy, and that actually is worrisome to me. I don't see a lot of differences among the "position statements," I see a lot of "name brand" colleagues on the EC, and I don't really hear a lot about what they do, both short-term and long-term. It doesn't make the EC ineffectual, but it also doesn't make them particulary accountable, either.

I guess I'm arriving at the slapdash conclusion that there's something disproportionate to me between the impact of the group and the way it gets assembled. Undoubtedly, there's a lot more to this committee and the process than I'm aware of, but still, I can't help but feel like this is an "election" where my vote doesn't make much difference. Not that that stopped me from voting. But still.

That is all.

August 7, 2006

Behold: the mighty comma

(via MeFi) Next time you hear someone complain about the pointlessness of commas, drop this little piece of knowledge on them: because of a single misplaced comma, a Canadian company will end up paying $2.13 million. The sentence in question?

Page 7 of the contract states: The agreement “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.?

The second one is the million dollar comma, allowing that final clause to modify the original agreement when it was intended, by one of the parties, to modify only the "thereafter" portion of the contract. Not a bad little cautionary tale for those of who ignore and/or overuse the comma...

That's all.

August 6, 2006

Secret no more

I almost posted about this a couple of weeks ago, but I managed to rein it in long enough for other things to take over my brainspace. So much for that:

In the last month or so, IHE's Around the Web, Crooked Timber, Sivacracy, and BlogHer have all shown the linklove to, and in some cases positively fawned over, a new site called Academic Secret. You can follow any of these links to see what I mean. The premise behind AS is simple. It tropes on PostSecret, the project that made its way from art installation to blog to nationally marketed book.

Here's the thing, though. PostSecret, although it's since jumped the shark into a little bit shock-fest and a little bit Photoshopping contest, was actually an interesting project at the time. There's something profound, cathartic, and occasionally touching about telling "everyone" the things that you can't tell anyone. There's something kind of cool about the inversion of public and personal/private that PS accomplishes.

It will probably not surprise you to learn that I find nothing of the sort over at AS. I don't discount the possibility of interesting discussions in the comments, but the site itself just feels really banal to me. Let's go to the tape:

Secret #3? "I enjoy reading academicsecret more than the blogs of people I know."
Secret #4? "Sometimes I exaggerate a bit on academicsecret."
Secret #12? "I devote more time to coming up with publishable a.secrets than I do to coming up with publishable research ideas."

Ah yes. Pretty heady stuff. We also learn "secrets" like academic writing is boring (#1), academics don't always like their jobs (#13), academics sometimes fantasize about leaving academia (#17), academics sometimes feel lonely (#2), academics sometimes lie to appear more attractive (#19), and so on.

It's hard not to get sarcastic here. One of the differences between PS and AS, it seems to me, is that PS solicited those secrets that themselves couldn't be spoken or told. There are some heartbreaking things about that site. The only real secrets at AS, on the other hand, are the identities of the people themselves. Their "secrets" in most of these cases (are ineffectual panel moderators at conferences not anyone's pet peeve? (#21)) aren't. It might hurt a few people's feelings to learn that their trusted colleague wants to leave, or that the article they submitted was thought boring, or that their workout buddy would rather listen to music than chat (#6), but these "stealthy moles inside the grove of academe" aren't exactly turning the academic world on its ear.

If the people posting there are getting something from the community that they don't otherwise get from their more immediate social networks, then more power to em. Goodness knows, if there are audiences for Fear Factor and America's Funniest Home Videos, there's an audience for this stuff, too. I'm just not among them.

The site itself leaves me pretty indifferent, but the fact that it's getting attention from all these high-profile portal blogs is a little bothersome. I felt the same way about the Rate My Students nonsense, which was another of those banal parody sites that (a) sounds great over beers at a conference, (b) was impossible to actually execute, and (c) makes us all look a little worse than we actually are. Every time I see a link to sites like these, a tiny part of my belief in the possibilities of blogspace dies. So, no, I don't think they're "great."

That is all.

August 5, 2006

Not a creature was stirring

It has been an exceptionally quiet day in the blogosphere. In the almost-three years that I've been blogging, I'm not sure that I've ever seen so few entries come across Bloglines. I zeroed out this morning at around 4 am, and have maybe seen 10 posts come across my 100+ feeds. Very strange. Theories?

1. Bloglines is semi-broken, allowing a few to squeeze through, but little else.

2. Someone forgot to forward to me the announcement for the National Bloglessness Day celebration.

3. Good weather, which is never to be underestimated in the effect it can have on blog frequency.

4. The Internets are broken. My staffers, one time, sent me an internet on Friday, and I didn't get it until Monday. Monday! It's not a dump truck, you know.

5. The BATS!!

The most likely answer is some optimal combination of all 5 of these, I suspect. Meanwhile, enjoy your weekend secure in the knowledge that you won't be falling that much further behind on your blog-reading.

That is all.

A superstitious, cowardly lot

Just ran out to the car to grab a book, only to discover that the recent cool-down has apparently also pleased our resident bat population. There's something more than a little spooky in seeing a bat fly at you and swerve at the last minute. It's kind of like trying to dodge an oncoming skateboard or bike when you forget that the best thing you can do is to stand still.

That, but with images of befanged vampire bats from bad horror movies flashing in your brain.

Criminals aren't the only ones creeped out by the bats. The BATS!!

That is all.

August 4, 2006


This is what my day looked like yesterday:

I was at the office overnight, writing, and left at around 5:30 am.
Came home, went to sleep around 6 or 6:30 am.
Woke up at 11:30 am, left the apt by around 12:15 pm.
Met with one of my RAs (I get 2 for CCCO) for the upcoming year at 1 pm.
Met with dissertation group at 2 pm.
Met with placement group at 3:30.
Worked with one student on homepage design at around 4:30.
Had my 6:30 appointment postponed, so
Went over to Derek's, where we waited for Ph to get home and showered after practice
Went for thai food at around 8, got back around 9:30.
Went back to the office and spent about 90 mintues cleaning up inbox, Bloglines, etc.
Got home just before midnight.

I want you to know that I described this day thusly, as I was deciding what to do after dinner: "You know, I think I'm going to take today off." The next time that someone tells you how lucky faculty have it, because they get summers off, I want you to remember this entry. My days are so chock full of workity goodness that a day with 5 appointments, a day where I don't get home until midnight, counts in my mind as "off."

So the next time someone talks about the lives of leisure that we lead, I'd appreciate it if you would wait until they're distracted, and then deliver a vampire-slaying, wrath-of-God headbutt for me. Really. I'd appreciate it.

That is all.

August 2, 2006


If it's good enough for Steve's son Dean, it's good enough for Isabel, too.


August 1, 2006

Academies & Publics

One of the very best thing for me about reading blogs, particularly those from separate contexts, is what Frans Johansson calls the Medici Effect (Amazon), the sometimes productive insights that come when you bang together ideas from different domains. It's also what Greg Ulmer calls conduction. But anyways, I was tidying up Bloglines this morning, and each of the following entries struck me for longer than usual. They're speaking to different issues, but in obvious ways, they started speaking to each other in my head:

First, Ray Cha's discussion of "academics in the role of public intellectual" at if:book. Cha looks at the recent CHE collection of high-profile academic bloggers commenting on the Juan Cole situation, and among other things, writes

I do not mean to suggest that every professor needs to blog. However, on the whole, university presidents and department heads needs to acknowledge that they do have an obligation to make their scholarship accessible to the public. Scholarship for its own sake or its own isolated community has little or no social value.

And then, over at Easily Distracted, Timothy Burke picks up a thread from some discussion of the Ward Churchill controversy, in a post called "Core Truths":

I think it’s worth trying to figure out how intellectuals can operate in multiple arenas or discourses. [snip, with a big However in between these two excerpts]

Quite aside from the problem of assuming the political virtue of doing so, I think it’s anything but clear that legitimating a distinctly non-scholarly epistemology inside academic discourse empowers those that hold to that epistemology: more likely all it does is slightly change the configuration of turf wars for academic resources within universities.

Often, when my wires are crossed as they were by these two entries, I'll try and sort through my reactions to come up with something more univocal. No such luck today, I fear. There are points I agree with in each, but also, as I think these excerpts demonstrate, a fundamental disagreement when taken together. You might say that the two entries, as well as the conversations that they are responding to, are unified by a concern for epistemologial spaces that differ or depart from the space traditionally demarcated (and thus legitimated) by the institutions of discipline and university.

Now, if I haven't confused these posts enough, I can easily imagine careful arguments to be made in opposition to each as well. And rather than try and sort through them here, I'll leave you to assemble your own conversational knot. Neither represents a discussion that a single blog entry is likely to conclude to anyone's satisfaction.

That is all.

I love you, Greg Maddux!!

My title is only partly tongue-in-cheek. The baseball heroes that I grew up with, like Ryne Sandberg and Bruce Sutter, are getting their calls for the Hall, and so I'm in a more nostalgic mood these days when it comes to my Cubbies--this year's miserable team doesn't provide much competition, and the fog of memory hides the equally miserable records from those bygone years.

And so it was with sadness yesterday that I heard about the trade of Greg Maddux to the Dodgers for a guy who has potential but has demonstrated little other than utility status. Maddux and I are of an age, and so, even when he pitched for the dread ship 'Lanta, I followed his career with interest. And when we signed him 2 years ago, it was my fondest wish that he would end that career where he began it, with the Cubs.

In a game that offers plenty of appeal to the quicker-of-mind-than-feet, Maddux was/is the archetypal smart pitcher. Never overwhelming, he's nevertheless outlasted a lot more talented pitchers and a lot more gifted athletes than he is, and he's done it with pinpoint control and intelligence. More than perhaps any other player that I could name, Maddux is a guy who's maximized what talent he had, and he built a Hall of Fame career on skills and smarts.

I hope that Hendry has the brains and loyalty to sign him back after the season, whether as a 4 or 5 in the rotation or as a pitching coach. At the very very least, after publicly saying that his first priority was helping the Cubs (whether by throwing or going), Maddux deserves it.

That is all.