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January 31, 2008

As Tsar of Rhetnation, I vow...

This semester, I'm supervising an independent study on visual rhetoric, an area that I've always had a passing interest in, but one where I wouldn't consider myself an expert. As a result, I'll be doing a lot more reading than is typical for me in an IS. I'm not complaining--I'd like to get a little more up to speed, and this is a good way to do it.

So anyhow, the first book we chose is James Elkins' Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction (Amazon), both for its general overview of what is a fairly nebulous field (WJTMitchell calls it an "indiscipline") and for the skeptic part of it. I've read several of Elkins' books--he, along with Mitchell, Barbara Stafford, and a couple of others, is much of the basis for whatever expertise in visual theory I might lay claim to--and have always found him both accessible without being too evangelistic.

There's a section in VS:SI called "Ten Ways to Make Visual Studies More Difficult," and I found myself wondering what it would look like to try an analogous exercise for composition, rhetoric, and/or writing studies. "At the moment," Elkins writes, "visual studies is, to put it directly, too easy." His ideal?

I would like to see a visual studies that is denser with theories and strategies, more reflective about its own history, warier of existing visual theories, more attentive to neighboring and distant disciplines, more vigilant about its own sense of visuality, less predictable in its politics, and less routine in its choice of subjects....What matters most is the ease: visual studies is too easy to learn, too easy to practice, too easy on itself. I would like to see the field become so difficult that it can do justice to the immeasurable importance of visuality, which is still slighted throughout the university (65).

Substitute "writing" for "visuality" and all of a sudden, it sounds pretty familiar and (for me, at least) desirable.

Among various "cases" posed to his colleagues, Elkins closes with "The Case of the Writing Itself: The Challenge of Writing Ambitiously," wherein he urges his colleagues to know the field as completely as possible, to go beyond the name drop and to "do [their] sources the favor of a concerted encounter," and to write as well as they can. It reminded me in no small measure of what Latour says about writing sociology. It's easy enough advice to give out, but much harder to actually follow, but when I find writers from other disciplines convinced of how incredibly important writing is, I find it inspiring. Discussions like these make me want to be a better reader and a better writer.

And they make me want to write an article detailing ten ways to make writing studies more difficult, if for no other reason than my discipline's tendency to swing wildly towards inclusion as a solution for every perceived problem. Actually, as I write this, I think I need to distinguish between inclusion/exclusion, which is a pretty easy binary to resolve (i.e., one is good, one bad), and easy/difficult, which is less so. I don't think difficult necessitates exclusion, nor do I think Elkins is advocating that. I do think, though, that there are times where we make our field "easier" because we think it will thusly become more "inclusive." (And misguidedly so, on occasion, methinks.)

I think that's all I have for today. Although I will say that, if you have a passing interest in visuality, and want a decent overview of the "field"--and one that's well written--you could do far worse than Elkins. And I mean that literally--there is some real crap out there.

Okay. That's all.

January 30, 2008

Hacking the Debtorsphere

This is one of those posts that I've had brewing for a bit. In some ways, I feel like I've hit a milestone that's even more important than receiving tenure (!!) was for me last spring.

As of this month, I am no longer carrying any debt. No loans, no rotating balances on the credit cards. I am debt-free.

To provide a little context, let me repeat something I said the other night at dinner: I have been in debt for longer than I've been in academia. Yep. My entire adult life. And it's one of the things that grieves me mightily when I hear people talk about the cushy lives we lead. In preparation for a life in the professoriate, I spent 5+ years (and I was fast) earning less than 10,000 dollars a year. In Texas, the big perk I got for my TAship? In-state tuition. I made less than 10K, and had to pay for tuition out of that. Lucky me.

(A side-note: When I completed my dissertation, I had already taken my job at Old Dominion. I no longer had a TAship, and was living outside the state, and had to enroll for a mandatory 9 credits to complete my degree--I didn't need the credits, it was just a rule--and so I had to pay out-of-state tuition for them. I ended up having to pay something like $3500 to graduate. And as I told the representative from UTArlington who called me last night looking for donations, until I get a check for $3500 from UTA, UTA will not be seeing a check from me.)

Now, I'm not great with money. I overtip, I prefer to own the books I read and use in my research, and I generally subscribe to a philosophy of dinner karma, where the meals I buy for friends will roughly equal the number of meals they buy for me. I'd taken pretty solid control of my finances in the time I've been at Syracuse, gradually working my debt down (and correspondingly restoring my dismal credit rating) without feeling too put upon in terms of quality of life. I probably could have done it faster, if I'd really cracked down.

Anyhow, cushy lives. I guess I want to challenge the idea that our earning power offsets the financial hardships we have to endure to get to where we are, as is often the case for other professionals (lawyers, doctors, e.g.). It does eventually, but not nearly as quickly. Many of my friends still struggle with massive amounts of debt that for graduate students in the humanities is all but inevitable. We have the same taboos about talking about it that we do for all matters financial, but most of us still go through it, I suspect. And if their lives are anything like mine has been, graduate school debt is a dark cloud that hangs over each of us for a lot longer than it probably should. It's been a source of some personal shame for me, when in fact, it should be a source of shame for our institutions, who are more than content to exploit graduate student labor without even the mitigating factor of a living wage.

I don't have any grand solution to go with my personal celebration, although I wish I did. I can say that I spent part of this afternoon helping someone figure out some funding strategies for next year that don't involve loans, and I felt pretty good about that. I wish that I were in a position to be able to effect more change than I can right now--when I think of all the anxiety and stress that I experienced over my finances, I can't help but wonder how much more I could have done in their absence.

Guess I'm ready to start finding out. That is all.

What in Tar Nation?

I do have a small request.

The other night, I happened to see a bit of the George Mason/VCU game on ESPN, and more power to the Sports Leader for broadcasting it (a) on something other than ESPN U, and (b) in a primetime slot. Seriously, good on them.

But at both ends of the floor on the GMU court, in big letters, was written "Mason Nation." You might recall a few years back that "X Nation" gained some popularity as the Red Sox finally reversed their curse. And honestly, I have no issue with the idea of Red Sox Nation, given how many fans of the BoSox live in other places than Boston. Ditto for Yankees and Cubs. Being myself a member of Cubs Nation, Nation is no exaggeration.

But lately, nation is used to describe the fan base of every team at every level. Did I say "used"? I mean to say overused and abused. Unless we're comparing them to small Caribbean islands, I'm afraid there is no Mason Nation. Nor would it even occur to me to talk about Hawkeye Nation, Bear Nation, Syracuse Nation, Bull Nation, etc.

And actually, given how loosely the term is used now, I'll be stopping with the Cubs Nation after this post. I'm pretty sick of seeing it. Almost as sick as I am of hearing the Dallas Cowboys referred to as "America's Team" 30 years now after the nickname was accurate and/or relevant.

So yeah, you can fill a small arena. This does not you a nation make. Quit it.

January 28, 2008

All I can bear to say about Mark Bauerlein

How your mouth feels after eating too much sugary junk?

When I read this just a few weeks after MB admonished someone to "do some homework before passing opinions on matters out of [his] depth,? my soul suffers from a similar overload, one of irony, that almost leaves me nauseous.

Apparently, we can now define "homework" as "skimming a 3-year-old conference program."

And that is all I can bear to say. Except maybe for a quick thanks to Trish Jenkins for being the first commenter.

January 24, 2008

Necrophilology

Those of you who subscribe to a particular disciplinary listserv may have caught the conversation last week wherein certain of my own efforts towards making graduate admissions a little more transparent were cited (Thanks, Nels!). It cost me a little bit of fuse (that is short enough when eavesdropping on said discussion list) to allow the final word in that conversation to stand, particularly as it implied both a misunderstanding of my own efforts and a poorly constructed defense for program opacity, but let it stand I did. And that's neither here nor there.

Another conversation occurred while that one was going on, tagged with the creepy subject line, "celebrating the deserving before they die," itself embedded in a post from another conversation. Among various points raised was the imminent publication of this volume, the unfortunately and strangely titled CompBiblio, which apparently offers just the sort of hagiography folks in my field are interested in, with 47 chapters on "Leaders in Composition."

You might think that this would lead to discussions about exactly what a "Leader in Composition" does, or how 47 was the magic number (only someone who didn't watch Alias or Lost could ask this sincerely), or just what role such volumes are supposed to play in the field, beyond reinforcing the canon-we-pretend-we-don't-have. Well, my friend, that's where you'd be wrong. We're more likely to celebrate the celebrations of the deserving before they die, I fear.

I don't really know what to say about this phenomenon, other than it felt like a perfect example for why I don't always feel especially comfortable with my discipline. I was reading around a bit in some organizational studies last night, following up a link to a piece about how weak paradigm development in that field makes it difficult for new scholars, and almost every avowedly depressing fact about that field was double-true for mine. Of course, we're "humanities," and so that's to be expected apparently. Would that it were not so, I suppose, but beyond that? I guess I feel like if books like these are responses to a widespread perception of fragmentation in the discipline (i.e., weak paradigms), then there are more fruitful ways of adding a bit of centripetality to the field. I've talked about some of them here over the years, and performed them both as a writer and a resource designer, but often feel like those efforts fall on mostly deaf ears.

I'm pretty sure, though, that amping up our "lives of the saints" output is more a gesture in the direction of the problem than an actual solution. And I know that that may be an unfair characterization of the books themselves (apparently, there's more than 1 scheduled for publication this year), but I'd give the field a shiny new quarter if even half of the hagiographies in our field were actually acknowledged as such.

And let me apologize half-heartedly for loving the word hagiography (From the late Latin usage, "that which is written about the saints": the type and also the body of literature and knowledge based on written sources and relating to the lives, sufferings, and miracles of the saints.). Blame DeCerteau.

That is all.

January 23, 2008

10 things that would make "Southwest Airlines" and "productivity enhancement" a little less oxymoronic for me

1. Less than 2 hours waiting in terminal
2. Seats wide enough to accomodate typists whose arms don't originate in their rib cages
3. Tray tables capable of holding more than 1.6 lbs.
4. Leg room enough to lower said trays
5. Outlets, outlets, outlets
6. Sad bags of peanuts replaced with free office supplies
7. Spill-proof beverages
8. Replace in-flight advert-zine with copies of Getting Things Done or bound archives of 43 Folders
9. Merlin Mann is my co-pilot
10. Enough with the stupid commercials

January 20, 2008

Holiday loot, part 2

You'll recall that part 1 of my holiday loot recollections actually began some time between the two December birthdays that I celebrate every year. Therefore, part 2, subtitled "Comics," and featuring an interesting triangulation of my tastes:

Exhibit A: The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories (Amazon). You would be well within your rights to ask me why I got a book the content of which is already entirely online. You would be well within my rights, however, to remember that the book has been out for less than 3 months, received more than 27,000 pre-orders, and is heading for a 3rd print run already. I'm a big believer in supporting webcomic artists by picking up their books even if (and even because) their work is available online. Also, PBF is high-larious and utterly incorrect in the process. It makes me laugh and wince at the same time. Also? Here's from an interview with Nicholas Gurewitch:

I encountered a letter to a newspaper that questioned how I could make light of Jesus comically. She wondered, in her letter, whether I had any fear of God. Reading her question, I did have fear of her.


The Invention of Hugo CabretExhibit B: The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Amazon) is a graphic novel in the sense that it's a story told at least partly through images, but the illustrations and the prose alternate pages and sometimes sets of pages. Invention is a much more earnest story, and the drawings are (intentionally) much more cinematic. It won the Caldecott medal this year, and is in that sense a children's book, but honestly, it's a little more all ages than that. The rhythm of the illustration, and that the book features automata and references the birth of cinema, are part of its appeal for me.

Apropos of nothing, the author is the first cousin, once removed, of legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick.


The Nightly NewsExhibit C: The Nightly News (Amazon) was the one book I saw over the holidays that made me cheer inside when I saw it. A lot of folks are putting it on their Best of 97 lists, and with good reason. Take one part V for Vendetta, update it by about 20 years, and add in equal parts of media fatigue, contemporary graphic design and infographics, and you've got the makings for TNN. Seriously, it's the kind of book that, 20 years from now, will either mark a milestone in the industry or a missed opportunity. It's that interesting, and that different from anything else being published. Hickman's working on several new projects right now, and it will be equally interesting to see how his style persists, changes, etc.

Interesting to me, at least. That's all for now.

January 18, 2008

All your Scrabbles are belong to us

Another head shaker from the land of old media:

If you're on Facebook, there's a good chance that you've come across Scrabulous, which is a Facebook module that allows you effectively to play Scrabble with other Facebook users. According to the Motley Fool, Scrabulous has upwards of 600,000 users a day. This popularity has unfortunately attracted the attention of Mattel and Hasbro, who own the rights to Scrabble. Their response? Cease and desist, of course.

What should happen? The two guys (count em: one...two) who created this insanely popular version of the game should be rewarded, licensed, franchised, and lauded for doing what the dinosaurs who own Scrabble haven't: produce a high-quality, online version.

What will happen? Scrabulous will probably get retired, and there will be tens of thousands of new, brand-hostile customers.

But it's less about avoiding hostility and more about understanding that "in an edgeconomy, people sharing/hacking/using/etc your goods can actually create massive amounts of value for you." That's from Umair Haque, writing about something else entirely and yet the exact same thing. Company after company walks down this path, and it seems like, to a person, all of the stiffs in charge make the wrong decision. Maybe this will go down differently, given that all the public clamor, from individuals to techonomics blogs, weighs in on the side of "opportunity." But somehow, I doubt it.

That's all.

January 15, 2008

new year = new mix

With the timely demise of MMVII, I figured it was time to tidy up my playlist of songs from the last year, and burn them to a disc. As you may recall, this is an annual ritual of mine, where I trot my increasingly-it-seems-more-inclined-towards-indiepop musical tastes for friends and enemies alike to see. This year's mix went on a test drive with me to Iowa over the holidays, and after a few tweaks, I have deemed it suitable for sharing:

the playlist for my 2007 mix

Officially, I'd like to encourage everyone to go out and purchase each of the CDs upon which these songs appear, to assemble your own parallel playlist in a legally acquired copy of iTunes, and to burn it on a blank CD for private use only. Or you could just leave a comment and/or drop me an email.

As in past years, these aren't all songs released over the past calendar year--that's just when I happened to start listening to them. And no apologies for the fact that my tastes are different from yours--that's the risk you run. And just so's we're clear:

a panel from Cat & Girl

That's all.

January 11, 2008

Zen and the Art of Powerpoint Maintenance

Cover to Garr Reynolds' Presentation ZenAs is the case with each holiday season, I have lots of new books to read, and perhaps one or two of them to review here. It's also the season, in our field at least, for the ubiquitous and much dreaded campus visit, where finalists visit campuses in droves to vie for those elusive tenure-track positions. Most of those visits involve the "research talk," another of those genres for which we have no equivalent elsewhere in the field. Research talks are usually longer than a typical conference presentation, but shorter than a keynote, and our motivation in giving them is never having to give them ever again. Ever.

And so, in the interest of the intersection of these seasons, allow me to recommend to you Garr Reynolds's Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (Amazon). Loyal readers will recognize Reynolds from the blog of the same name, which I read regularly and recommend nearly as often. In fact, it's possible to glean most of what appears in the book from the blog, but it's also easier to pass around the book, and I've already started my copy on its path of local circulation.

So I'm working a bit from memory here. It's a quick read, and an engaging one, as the book itself is designed, both physically and discursively, according to the same principles that it advocates, but a few things stuck with me. First, it may not do so in quite these terms, but PZ emphasizes the fact that a good presentation is a combination of visuals, orals, and verbals (or slides, script, and handouts), and that each of these elements deserves full treatment. The most attention is paid in the book to PowerPoint, and Reynolds takes great pains to separate the idea of a visual presentation from the (often really poor) ways it is executed. The supplemental approach to PP (e.g. pasting a handful of visuals into a tired PP template and cramming em full of bullet points) is not his approach. At. All.

His approach is much more Zen-like, emphasizing simplicity, clarity, elegance, and a small handful of basic design principles, and the results are instructive. There are good examples, a number of interesting voices included, and the result is a very readable book that nonetheless registers some really important points about presentation. And believe me: there are very few academic presentations out there that wouldn't be improved mightily by the advice therein.

I'm sorry not to be more specific, but as I said, I've already started circulating my copy, less than a week after it came in the mail. Take that as a good sign.

That is all.

January 10, 2008

StaphyloCaucus

Some miscellaneous reflections upon the occasion of the Iowa Caucuses, during which I had the misfortune of being in Iowa:

It is INSANE to me that we would continue to employ what is basically a 19th century system for choosing our leaders in this the 21st century. Iowa and New Hampshire have, as many many many have pointed out, an incredibly disproportionate effect on the process, and it is a process that is highly susceptible, as a result, to media manipulation.

Nowhere was this more clear to me than at ground zero, where I stopped answering the phone after my second or third day in town. Got to the point where I stopped answering the door as well. Got to the point where I would multiple television shows at once, so I could switch channels when the 5 minute spin breaks interrupted my viewing. There was a tremendous amount of money being thrown at the Iowa voters, and it put me in mind of what Baudrillard said a long time ago about information devouring communication. It was pure white noise after a while.

And yet, it should be said that Iowans take the process about as seriously as anyone could in those circumstances. We/they take an odd sort of pride in their caucus, and in their willingness to talk to anyone who's willing to talk to them. They don't take the national spin (Clinton is unstoppable, e.g.) as gospel, and most of the folks I saw and talked to made every effort to meet and/or see as many candidates as they could. They studied the issues, made their decisions, and as best as I could tell (having not caucused myself), did the best that they could. They turned out in record numbers on a bitterly cold night, showed up in uncomfortable spaces (school gyms, town halls, living rooms, etc.), and participated.

Sure, the bigger states are more important, but Iowa and New Hampshire, for their flaws, are manageable for candidates who don't have all the money of the frontrunners. And until there's a system which doesn't exert a subtle class pressure on the candidates, it could be worse.

And yet, the night before the Caucus, one of our local stations spent 2-3 minutes of the first 10 of its broadcast (you know, the actual "news" part) detailing the travels and thoughts of an area college junior who decided to bring a Mr. Potato-Head with him to meet the candidates, and had each one pose with it for a picture. The only one who refused? Joe Biden.

(That sound you hear is Biden earning my respect.)

The flip side of the pride and gravitas with which many Iowans approach the process is the Potato-Head of it all--the countless number of kooks and jackasses who ask these men and women to humiliate themselves in front of their Iowa audiences for a handful of votes. We don't see much of this in the coverage, because the media is too busy trying to earn their own keep by offering up grave pronouncements and exaggerations. (I refer you to Chris Matthews' WTF Lawrence of Arabia analogy. Nuff said.) They're far too busy trying to influence the process to be able to accurately describe it, unfortunately.

So those are my reflections. I didn't actually attend the Caucus, since I'm registered in NY. But it is all but impossible to be in Iowa during Caucus season and not to be bombarded by the spam that the process generates.

That is all.

January 6, 2008

Imminence

I shall return. Soon.