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September 29, 2007

Theory as Method, Part 2

Always more to say...

Okay, so this week, I asked the class to read three "theoretical" articles, each of which dealt at some length with Foucault's work (MF being a fairly safe bet in terms of familiarity): Hayden White's review of The Order of Things from Tropics of Discourse (Amazon), Amanda Anderson's chapter on Foucault and Habermas from The Way We Argue Now (Amazon), and Gail Stygall's "Resisting Privilege: Basic Writing and Foucault's Author Function." (CCCOA) My thought was to provide a range of disciplinary backgrounds, textual strategies, and genres associated with Theory.

One thing that I didn't really realize until I got into them was that, according to North's taxonomy of research, each of the three represents a different "method." It's possible to argue that White is functioning in his review as a Critic, discussing OT's suitability for an unspoken canon. Stygall treats the author function as a (Formalist) model that she applies to the circumstances of basic writing. And Anderson operates in her chapter as a Philosopher. And that's really the trouble with relating Theory to Method--it cuts across all of the categories in North's book, and it would be silly to suggest that the other methods we look at in my class are somehow atheoretical.

And yet. There is something specific to what I tend to think of as "conceptual work" (as opposed to theoretical) that keeps it from simply being a matter of treating it as transmethodical. For me, there are a couple of specific values that matter to me in the work that I do and the manuscripts that I read that aspire to this kind of work. The first comes from D&G's What is Philosophy? and remains one of my all-time faves:

Philosophy does not consist in knowing and is not inspired by truth. Rather, it is categories like Interesting, Remarkable, or Important that determine success of failure. Now, this cannot be known before being constructed. We will not say of many books of philosophy that they are false, for that is to say nothing, but rather that they lack importance or interest, precisely because they do not create any concept or contribute an image of thought or beget a persona worth the effort (82).

Which is not to say that other methods aren't also held up to those kinds of standards, but I can find value in projects that to me are not particularly interesting or remarkable or (one of my fave words) compelling. If conceptual work doesn't strike me as compelling, then it's going to be tough to convince me of its value.

The other value that I tend to promote (and try to abide by) is precision. There's a passage in North that I admire quite a bit. It comes right after he's ripped apart the introduction to a Braddock Award winning essay (ouch). He writes:

Nonetheless, my original question stands: By what sort of logic are these studies being strung together? Witte seems to handle the results of these methodologically diverse investigations as if they were so many Lego blocks: standardized bits and pieces of 'knowledge' which, whatever their origins, sizes, or shapes, can be coupled together to form a paradigmatic frame within which his own exploratory Experimental study will fit" (346).

I'm sure that there are times where I don't meet my own standards, but there are an awful lot of times where I see conceptual work turned into interchangeable Lego blocks, and to me that's a failure to be precise about how writers are using language. It's tricky, because I don't always think that "original authors" have their own ideas lined up correctly, nor am I opposed to the occasional twist or nudge of an idea or concept. But still. There are times where I've seen thinkers yoked together because they use the same word, even when they mean radically different things by it. And there are times where I see complex systems of thought reduced to shorthand phrases, and then the shorthand phrases reinflated to stand for the whole of that person's thought. There are times.

And I don't mean to come off sounding like the Theory Thought Police here. But I think that we lose sight sometimes of the fact that what gets called Theory is writing, done by other folk, done in particular times and places, for particular purposes beyond the Legonomous nominalization of the academy, y'know? The distancing that comes with the capital T tends to warrant a great deal of abuse, and I'm sure that I myself have been guilty of some of it. I know that a certain amount of decontextualization is at once the benefit and the cost of the increased circulation that the capital T provides, but still.

I'm not sure that being precise and/or compelling necessarily qualifies conceptual work for the status of method, and it's not like other methods necessarily produce results that are sloppy or unremarkable, but there's something to this activity that sets it apart, even if only slightly, from some of the other methods that populate Writing Studies.

I've got more to say, but also other things to do today. So that's all for the moment. Stay tuned for part 3.

Go Cubs Go!

Yeah, I don't really like that dopey song, but I can agree with the sentiment...


September 24, 2007

I'm going nukulur!!

Apropos of nothing in particular, I thought that I'd let you know that my sports viewing over the past couple of weeks have inspired a couple more moratoria (you might recall my rant, which remains woefully disobeyed, on doing the math):

First, I would appreciate it eversomuch if people would just get over the fact that (a) they're in the background during a baseball game, and (b) they can call home on their mobiles, and wave at someone while they're in the background. I mean, seriously. Is being on TV such a big freakin deal nowadays that every shot of every batter in every game has to have 2-3 morons yapping on mobiles and waving at the camera? Really? It's distracting and it's pathetic. Stop.

And second, I am pleased to announce that sportscasters (looking at you, Madden) who pronounce peripheral as though it were actually "periphial" have achieved for me the same level of displeasure that I register whenever I hear someone talk about "nucular weapons."

And yes, I take this stuff far more seriously than I should.

September 23, 2007

Theory as Method

One of the things I've been thinking about lately is the rather poor fit between what has come to be known as Theory (with the capital T, of course) and a course on research methods, like the one I'm teaching now. As I've told my students, we could easily spend a couple of courses on theory, not just a couple of weeks. And I'm struck by how difficult it is to reduce theoretical work to a formula that actually functions fairly well for the various methods I'm covering this semester--most weeks involve 1-2 "how-to" sorts of readings and 1-2 examples, and occasionally an "issues in/with" sort of piece. I don't think I'm being especially innovative when I say that I want them to see these methods from both ends, and in most cases, I think the readings I've chosen work well in that regard.

(Yes, I know I have yet to post the syllabus, as I promised to do. Patience.)

Complication #1 is of course the fact that so much of what we do is gathered under the heading of theory. It's a gigantic catch-all for scholarship that is not-the-other-stuff. And there's a case to be made that most of the other stuff is itself theoretical in certain ways. There have been attempts (and I appreciate many of them) to try and delimit our terms in various ways, but it doesn't ever feel like they've stuck. To my mind, for example, there are vast differences between theories of writing, theories of teaching writing, and theories of discourse. When I taught my network course a few years back, I really resisted calling it "network theory," because to my mind, the studies collected under that rubric hadn't really achieved anything that I would call a theory per se. So one problem is that we have no idea what we mean when we use the word, and we use it often.

Complication #2 is local, and that's that, in a freestanding writing program, we don't have the context of "literary theory" to assist us. Literary theory is no less problematic, I know, but at the same time, there's a facility with names, terms, and traditions that circulates in most/many/some English departments that does not here. It's not that we don't read, write, and teach theoretically informed work in our program, but there's no intro or survey in the department that might support that activity. I know that there are some who would count that a good thing, but I think it places an additional burden on our students to "catch up" on their own at times. Some of our students come fairly well prepared from their MA programs, but those who don't are largely left to their own devices.

The question for me becomes, how much of a methods course in our discipline should be given over to theory, and assuming that the answer is somewhere between zero and all, how do we go about doing it?

I know what I'm doing, although I have my doubts about what I can accomplish this way. I need to stop here, though, and work on some other stuff. More on this question in the next few days.

September 22, 2007

Why they play the game

Syracuse, Games 1-3: 32 points
Syracuse, Game 4: 38 points

Andrew Robinson, Games 1-3: 486 passing yards, 1 touchdown
Andrew Robinson, Game 4: 423 passing yards, 4 touchdowns (previous high: 208 passing yards)

And here I thought that Miami of Ohio was going to be their best chance at getting off the snide. Unless there's a whole lot of upsets goin on today, we can wave at least a temporary farewell to the Bottom 10, too.

(Oh, and thank goodness they were on the road, too. The road whites are at least unoffensive to the eyes.)


There's an interesting discussion going on over on orgtheory.net about the appropriateness of blogging public lectures, and by interesting, I mean both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

One of that site's contributors blogged a talk delivered by a guest lecturer at the MIT-Harvard Economic Sociology Seminar, and both the guest in question and the person in charge of organizing the Seminar have responded in a discussion about whether or not talks like this should be blogged. It's an interesting question that ends up becoming more complicated once one considers the range of activities that are gathered together under the umbrella of "talk," from paid keynotes by academic celebrities to job talks by graduate students.

Complicating it even further are the range of approaches that a given academic community might take to a particular venue. One could argue that CCCC is an opportunity to present in-progress work and to receive feedback, and in fact, that's how it's often portrayed. At the same time, it's one of the most recognizable "official" indices of scholarly activity that appear on our cv's, and is peer-reviewed (of a sort) and public. My own sense is that we overuse (and rarely adhere to) the idea that something is a "safe space" to get feedback on one's work. A bad impression in a conference presentation is not likely to be mitigated by disclaimers of in-progress.

I tend to agree with Jeremy Freese, who offers up the CV test for bloggability: if you can list it on your vita, I can discuss it on my blog. And that seems fair to me. I think it's likewise fair, though, to ask ourselves what we're looking to accomplish in such discussions. Most of the blogging of public talks that I've done has been summary-response, and heavy on the summary. I think there's value in making our work more public, but I think it raises additional issues of accountability when the original object of blogging isn't available, and so I tend to err on the side of accuracy rather than opinion. Or rather, I try.

Anyhow, go check it out.

September 21, 2007

You Gotta Be In It to Win It

Or so the New York State Lottery would have me believe.

Two days later, I still enjoy a lightly stunned amazement over the fact that Dale is one of the four finalists on Top Chef. I wasn't particularly surprised that he and SaraM were the bottom two, and I don't really think that she deserved to stay any more than he did, but still. Hard to believe he's going to Aspen.

My theory on Hung (whom I still believe will be in the finale with a decent shot at winning) is that he's got enough technique to do well if others fail, but not really enough creativity or vision to outright win it. Sort of the culinary equivalent of book smarts, I suppose, which is why last week's challenge was tailored perfectly for him. I think Casey and even Brian have more upside, but Hung has been steady. And yes, steadily annoying. It was almost more than I could take watching him break out the "root for me, the poor immigrant who wants nothing more than to make good on his American dream" goofiness. On the plus side, though, I was a little surprised that Dale took umbrage at the fact that Hung wasn't willing to help the others in the Quickfire by telling them how he did it. Evs.

Ah well. The other "in it" I've had my eye on is of course my Cubs, who have somehow both stayed on top and magically, inexplicably, become the team with the largest lead over their 2nd place contender. I want to personally thank both the Mets and Sawx for performing some of the most epic chokes in the history of MLB, because it's taken all the attention off of the Cubs' own penchant for air flow restriction. No one cares whether the Cubs might choke when the Mets and Sawx are doing it in such style.

That's it for now.

September 14, 2007

NBC's love for me is begrudgingly requited

You have to understand that, for whatever reason, I think of NBC as my "home" channel. When I go back to Iowa to visit, we still watch the NBC affiliate for local news. KWQC cares for me, after all.

Anyhow, I don't know that they're necessarily any denser when it comes to dealing with cable and net than the other biggies, but I seem to notice it more quickly. And so, when they do something right, it's only fair that I point that out too. To my surprise this week, I discovered that the pilots for all of NBC's new fall shows were being offered for free on one of our OnDemand channels. So I've already seen the first episodes of Bionic Woman, Chuck, and Life, and I'll probably give Journeyman a try this weekend.

The only one I was guaranteed to watch was BW, which is done by the same folks who brought us the BSG reboot, but after having seen the others, I might give one or two of them a try as well. And that's how it's supposed to work, I think.

September 13, 2007

So long, Miami

I neglected to mention last week that I had a Top Chef dream. I don't remember much of it anymore, except to note that I was a Season 3 contestant, but somehow got bailed out of totally misunderstanding a challenge by Season 2's Elia.

Anyhow, my top picks keep losing. At the beginning of the season, if I had had to pick who I thought would make it to the final 4, I would have chosen CJ, Tre, Lia, and Hung. And as I mentioned to Derek today, if you gave me Tre, Lia, and CJ, I'd put that team up against any combo of the folk who are left.

It's been a weird season, and no one's rise to "success" has been more symptomatic of that than Brian, I think. You'll recall that, during the after-party challenge, he spent most of his time grabbing customers. During the 2 weeks of restaurant wars, he was in the front. And on the boat, he was coordinating most of the time. What saved him last night from elimination was the Dread Broccolini. By my count, that's like 4 or 5 episodes in a row where he hasn't exactly earned the right to stay on the show. And now he's one elim away from the final 4? Hmm. It's not that I don't like him or anything, but I'd have a tough time arguing that he's a better chef than those who've packed up their knives and gone.

We'll see, I suppose.

September 4, 2007

Rules for Restaurants

As luck would have it, there was a mini-marathon of Ramsay's show on BBC America on Monday, and so I put it on in the background for a few hours as I read. And as a result, I am now prepared to offer to you the 5 Golden Gordon Rules of Resuscitating Restaurants:

1. A restaurant is a business, not a family, a hobby, a lounge, a home, or anything other than a business.

2. Quality is far more important than novelty (I suspect that Ramsay wants to kill the person who coined the phrase "Wow factor").

3. Traffic, traffic, traffic, traffic. Oh, and traffic.

4. Five adjectives that should describe the food: local, organic, rustic, clean, honest.

5. Finally, in a bad situation, there is almost inevitably one or more persons whose talent is going unexploited, and one or more persons whose talents are wildly overestimated. Kitchen nightmares are made, not born.

That comes close to summing up most of the episodes I've seen, only with a lot more swearing and bleeping, although BBC America doesn't, apparently, find "shithole" a necessary bleep. More than one episode demonstrates this fact.

That is all.

September 2, 2007

Pricing one's self out of the market

Lately, for some odd reason, I've been watching BBC America, and in particular, among other shows, I've been watching episodes of Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares." It's a lot more palatable than his FOX show, Hell's Kitchen, which is a show that seems designed to determine just how much foul-mouthed abuse aspiring cooks are willing to endure to make their dreams come true.

Nightmares, on the other hand, involves Ramsay visiting various restaurants all over the UK, and attempting to help them reverse their bad fortunes. There's still plenty of swearing, but Ramsay shows a softer side as well, as he really goes out of his way to encourage young chefs even as he's chewing out the idiots.

Anyhow, one of the changes he inevitably suggests to almost every restaurant owner is to lower prices. Lower prices gets people in the door and sets up traffic flow, customer loyalty, repeat customers, and a chance to sell them luxury items like appetizers, desserts, and drinks. Makes sense, but it is sometimes surprising how many restauranteurs fear the lower prices.

I was thinking about this when I saw the announcement that NBC is no longer going to be selling on iTunes, and that includes some of my current fetishes like Heroes and BSG. Or rather, I should phrase it differently: iTunes is no longer selling NBC content, because NBC wanted to more than double their per episode price, bumping it from $1.99 to $4.99, and this despite the fact that everyone else has stuck with the $2/episode price.

As unfortunate as it'll be not to be able to download the occasional episode when I miss them, I'm actually happy to see Apple take a stand in this instance. It seems like every time I hear about a network missing the point of digital downloading, that network is NBC. Maybe the loss of revenue will prompt them to spend a little money on hiring someone with a clue.

Heck, I'd even pitch in $4.99 to see that happen.

September 1, 2007

72 days til basketball season

It's been a little difficult to swallow all the hype that's been circulating this week on the ESPN family of media surrounding the arrival of college football season. Part of it is that the BCS encourages the top teams to treat the opening weeks of the season as a variation of the NFL preseason--where college football is worse is that, rather than seeing first-string vs first-string, second vs second, and so on, we get to see the big guns play teams that would probably struggle against their walk-ons. The 4 ranked teams who premiered on Thursday night won their games by a collective score of 212-20. Woooo!

And unfortunately, Syracuse has sunk to the status of nonconference cupcake, so it's hard to get fired up locally. They made the mistake of scheduling last night's debacle vs Washington at a time when there were no other games, so that the entire nation could share in our sadness--the increasingly frequent pans of dejected Syracuse fans were particularly lovely.

I don't know what the answer to SU's current football woes is, but if last night's game was any indication, we'll have a tough time equalling last year's four wins. Ugh.

Update: Cupcakes 34, Wolverines 32. Mwahahahahaha!