April 7, 2004

Expertise, anyone?

Jill Walker has a post today about signing up to serve as an expert EU advisor, for reviewing proposals, programs, et al., and it put me in mind of another of my pet peeves with respect to our own organization here in rhetcompville.

One of the persistent themes of my discontent is the tendency to think of our field/discipline/organization as being smaller than it actually is. This shows up most often, I suppose, in the way that we abuse the term community to speak of ourselves. More concretely, I think that our organization is of a size that we often fail to appreciate the implications of the choices we make. The overuse of conference themes in papers and panels that have little to nothing to do with said themes is but one example. Jill's thoughts raise another for me, and that's the process by which proposals are selected and/or rejected.

My understanding of this process may not be entirely accurate, but that in itself only serves to prove my point--it shouldn't be opaque to someone who has been in the field for more than a decade. Anyhow, my understanding is that the Chair in a given year selects proposal reviewers, period. How is this done? As far as I can tell, the criteria for selecting proposal reviewers are two: the Chair knows you (or knows someone who knows you); and/or, you reviewed proposals in a given area the year before.

My guess is that if you were to study the qualifications of these reviewers over a ten-year period, you would actually not find that they weren't qualified. But you probably would discover that the vast majority of them have connections (either positions at or degrees from) a small percentage of schools. And back in the day, when this handful was pretty much all there was, that made some sense. The conference was smaller, the range of topics narrower, and it was conceivable for a Chair to come to the position with a pretty good idea of who was qualified.

This is no longer possible, however, and in a field where so much emphasis is placed on our flagship conference, it would be nice to see some effort expended to adapt the proposal process to the actual size and composition of the field, rather than an outdated, utopian, who-you-know network.

And yes, there are some sour grapes operating here--insides and outsides abound, and the closest I've come to being inside was to take a position in a department where a CCCC Chair once worked (although he was gone by the time I arrived). The answer to this insider problem, though, isn't for me to simply figure out a way to get inside--it's to open the process up to the kind of system that Jill describes. If I'm a qualified scholar, and I'm interested, there should be an easy self-nomination process whereby I might be (at least) considered. There are plenty more qualified than I, but certainly not all of them, unless we stick to the FOAF criteria that currently operate.

After a certain point, the size of a network prohibits any one person (or even program) from being able to stay abreast of all the network's members and their various expertises. It is no longer possible to assume that if one hasn't heard of someone, then that person isn't very important or qualified. When the network hits a particular size, that assumption tips, and unless changes are made, importance and qualification end up depending on whether or not someone at the core has heard of you.

In case you're not feeling me here, that's the process by which A-Lists are made, and the rest of us grumble. We're goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, to quote KB, even as we claim to resist it. And I could easily imagine solving this issue with a small change in policy and a database.

April 26, 2004

Singularly moronic

There was an article and a colloquy last week about "Singular Mistreatment," which recounts research by someone named Bella DePaulo about how academia privileges married academics at the expense of singles. A number of my regular reads are talking about it, and so...

I'm going to leave aside the obvious distortion of including 15-year olds in the graphic so as to make the statistics seem more dramatic, since someone in the Colloquy already called them on it. I'm also going to set aside a lot of what's already been said on the topic, particularly the "children are our future" arguments about why we all should care about other people's children. Most of us, I suspect, already do to the degree that we can set aside our selfishness. Also, having never been set up on a date by a colleague, I'm not going to comment on the "single male colleague fetish."

Two things. One, I hope that everyone reads and thinks about Samantha's question, which went unanswered in the Colloquy, about the implications of describing single people as an "underrepresented minority," particularly at a time when an actual minority is struggling for the right to do what I could do tomorrow if I so chose. The most shocking line for me from Wilson's article:

While her proposal does not offer lots of detailed solutions, Ms. DePaulo believes that colleges should stop treating single professors like second-class citizens. "I don't just think about this as identity politics," she says, "it's about human rights."

This is perhaps the most misinformed, narcissistic nonsense I've ever had the pleasure of coming across in the Chronicle. She doesn't just think about this as identity politics, but I suppose that's because she doesn't seem to have gotten the memo about what identity politics actually is. And then to go on, and claim that it's a human rights issue? Please.

Second, this is off-topic, but bear with me:

"I was no longer content to try to squeeze this passionate interest into the crevices of my professional life," she wrote in a proposal for a book -- called "Singled Out" -- that she began sending to publishers in January.

So let me get this straight. The Chronicle of Higher Education, which refuses to acknowledge rhetoric/composition as a discipline (despite sending representatives to our conferences, taking our money for job ads, and the presence of dozens of grad programs, journals, conferences, and thousands of practitioners), is happy to acknowledge a one-person discipline, one whose "formative text" hasn't even gone through a peer-review process?

My point here isn't to bemoan our ill treatment at the hands of the Chronicle, though. It's simply to point out that it seems like their chronicling has become increasingly provocative in the past few years. I don't mean provocative-good, either. I mean that it seems like they are trying harder and harder to simply provoke response, and this feels to me like a great example. This kind of anecdotal stuff has no business being in the Chronicle, and I doubt it would be, if it weren't riling people up. Maybe DePaulo's book is better, with some sort of actual work that allows for local context but identifies some statistically relevant patterns nationally (ones that don't include 15-year olds in her stats about married people in the U.S.). Let's hope so, because stories about being asked to teach night classes or being set up on dates don't tell us a whole lot.

May 3, 2004

saturday (part 1)

One of the things that kept me pretty well tied up for the day on Saturday was a symposium that we hosted here at SU. We invited faculty and grad students from RPI, UMass, and Penn State to join us in thinking about the future of the field and to do a little bit of regional networking.

One of the things that I'm hoping to accomplish over the next few years is more of this kind of activity. Next year, I'll be taking over our dept's PhD program, and I'd like to see us develop some kind of regional consortium of such programs. I hope that we'll share some resources, connect more often as colleagues, etc. For my part, I had really nice conversations with Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Zappen of RPI, and had a chance to chat about my network rhetoric course. And due to some no-shows, I had a chance to give what I hope was productive feedback to a couple of students from other programs.

Another one of the things that we did at this program that differed from most, as you'll note in the schedule, is that it was set up with two "plenary" sessions with several colleagues delivering short, more informal pieces on graduate education, the future of rhetoric and composition, etc. We did have a Friday night keynote (Elaine Richardson), but I liked the move away from "keynotes" towards shorter, more intentionally provocative talks (mini-manifestos).

I'm fairly sure that there's an underlying logic (beyond my own ADD) to my preferences for both shorter talks and regional (as opposed to national) networking, but I need to think through it a little more carefully first. More weekend recaps as the evening progresses...

May 27, 2004

academicky discourse

Steven Shaviro's got a nice entry about Lindsay Waters' new book Enemies of Promise, which SS describes as "a jeremiad about troubles in the world of academia and academic publishing. Waters says that too many academic books are being published, books that sell poorly for the most part, and that this situation is not sustainable either economically or intellectually." Waters is the humanities editor at Harvard UP, so presumably he knows whereof he speaks.

I haven't read the book, but I probably will now. What's unfortunate about it, if Shaviro's description is accurate, is that it offers no real solution to a huge problem that stretches throughout the academy at large, one that can probably be linked in any number of ways to the University of Excellence. As curmudgeonly as we seem to be about grade inflation, it would be refreshing to hear my senior colleagues (and I'm casting that net as broadly as it will fly, not critiquing my immediate ones) admit some culpability in what I think of as "grind inflation," the assumption that tenure requirements must grow over time, to the point where junior faculty are held to far higher standards than those who judge us are themselves capable of meeting.

Like Shaviro, I'm lucky, but for a different reason. I didn't waive any years towards tenure when I moved up here from Virginia, and the result (I hope) will be a far better first book than I could have written otherwise. Rather than flipping my dissertation around, I've reworked it almost entirely, and framed it as a project with much broader implications. In that way, I can identify with the one "solution" Waters offers:

At the end of the book, Waters praises silence; "it is possible to be a great thinker and not publish anything" (78), he writes, citing the obvious example of Socrates. Water urges scholars and critics to hold back, to publish less, to give their ideas more breathing space to develop.

At the same time, this strikes me as woefully naive, because it simply ignores the realities that face junior faculty, who have been taught for years, both in and out of graduate school, that "breathing space" is a luxury reserved for the tenured, and fenced off by tenure committees. That's part of what I take Shaviro to mean when he says that "the way we train graduate students is the main culprit in creating this situation." I don't know that I'd agree that there is a "main culprit," because I'm as complicit as anyone when it comes to trying to prepare graduate students to compete for positions and to succeed in them once they arrive. But I'm equally loathe to fall back into a lame defense of "the market made me do it." Seems to me that it's a vicious cycle with multiple factors, and the only answer is to intervene at some point to keep it from feeding back and accelerating.

Shaviro says that Waters rejects the Internet as an option, which is disappointing, but not wholly unexpected. Intellectual sustainability is one thing (and a big thing), but I continue to believe that projects like Parlor Press and print-on-demand are a powerful answer to the question of economic sustainability. If Dave Blakesley's experience is any indication, I think that most of the UP's in our field will have to move in that direction, one way or another, over the next ten years. That's not the Internet per se, but it does offer one way out of the cycle, and a far better one than, say, widespread adjunctification.

At any rate, I'll put Enemies of Promise on my fall reading list, which I'll tackle once I've--what else?--finished up that first book manuscript...

May 28, 2004

Go, Fish

How did I miss this? Last Friday, the New York Times published Stanley Fish's farewell to academia:

I exit with a three-part piece of wisdom for those who work in higher education: do your job; don't try to do someone else's job, as you are unlikely to be qualified; and don't let anyone else do your job.

There's not a whole lot in his farewell that will come as much of a surprise to anyone who's had cause to read All in the Game, the column that he's done for the Chronicle of Higher Education for the past couple of academic years. Fish's basic point, if I'm allowed to boil it down, is that academics tend to bite off more than they're qualified to chew, and they should stop. Whether it's couched in terms of overestimating the relevance of theory, faux interdisciplinarity, or more recently, the insistence on politicizing the academy, it seems like Fish has been engaged in a broad campaign to convince us all (in the academy, at least) that we're not as smart as we think we are. And thus, his conclusion,

Performing academic work responsibly and at the highest level is a job big enough for any scholar and for any institution. And, as I look around, it does not seem to me that we academics do that job so well that we can now take it upon ourselves to do everyone else's job too. We should look to the practices in our own shop, narrowly conceived, before we set out to alter the entire world by forming moral character, or fashioning democratic citizens, or combating globalization, or embracing globalization, or anything else.

One would like to think that even the exaggerated sense of virtue that is so much a part of the academic mentality has its limits. If we aim low and stick to the tasks we are paid to perform, we might actually get something done.

It's always been hard to argue with Fish--if there's ever been a writer who's as successful as he is at defining an argument in such a way as to rule disagreements out-of-bounds, I have yet to read that person. It's hard to resist the seductive simplicity of the idea that "the true task of academic work [is] the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching." Of course, it would be a lot harder to resist if he could honestly describe his own career that way, a career that ends with generous space on the Op-Ed page of arguably the leading newspaper in the country, a space not normally provided to those who have sought truth and disseminated it through teaching. Here's how Slate described his career when he was hired on at UIC:

He is receiving such a princely sum from the University of Illinois not just because he's famous--or notorious--but because he was the chief architect of two of the most well-thought-of (though controversial) American academic programs in the 1980s and '90s, Johns Hopkins University's Humanities Center and Duke University's English department. His success as an administrator rested on two insights that are now commonplace: first, that the academic star system could be used to create departments with high-profile brand names, and second, that the longing of academic couples to live in the same place represents an administrative opportunity, not a headache. Fish built both the Humanities Center and Duke's English department by hiring celebrity couples and finding room for both, rather than wooing one member of the couple and banishing the other to a lesser department, or condemning husband and wife to a commuter marriage. That both departments are now falling apart can be chalked up either to his considerable skill at maintaining allies or to his cynical lack of concern with long-term stability.

Ahh, yes. The $tar $y$tem, faithful underwriter of the $earch for truth. I should be so lucky, when one day my job is to be a $tar. I promise I won't let someone else do it for me...

Converging on Austin

A whole bunch of rhetoric folk have converged on Austin this weekend for the biennial Rhetoric Society of America conference, and while I don't wish that I'd spent the last week finalizing a paper, I wouldn't mind being there. RSA (pronounced like RZA with a hard S in the middle) is always a good conference.

Jenny and I were chatting the other night, bc she's on a panel about bridging the gap between rhet/comp and rhet/comm, and what the benefits of doing so are. One of the central points she'll be raising, and a reason why RSA is a good conference in the first place, is that communications studies doesn't suffer under the same pedagogical imperative that composition seems to. It's something that almost every rhetoric scholar in rhet/comp ends up struggling with, the overwhelming pressure in our field to translate everything we do for the classroom. And that comes in part from our schools' failure to understand the difference between teaching a subject and teaching practice, as Alex has been observing. In rhet/comp, what began as a shortcut, a way to work on both pedagogy and scholarship simultaneously, has normed to the point where scholarship that isn't pedagogical (or whose applications in that direction aren't immediately apparent) is frowned upon.

And despite the best attempts of some, this isn't really a theory/practice issue. Some of the panels at RSA will be theoretical, others historical, others analytical, and others cultural/critical. And these conversations, I suspect, will suffer much less for the absence of the old "Monday morning" trump card that is deployed far too often at other conferences I attend.

So, yeah, wish I was there.

Update: Mike is blogging some of RSA, and has a couple of entries on the sessions he's attending.

June 2, 2004

Back 2 Front

Clay Shirky's got a post over at Many2Many about Planetwork, a conference that's engaging in an interesting experiment. They've set some themes, programmed some sessions, and set aside some slots. They're allowing conference attendees to propose and vote for sessions they want to see, with the idea being that the sessions that receive the highest ratings will be added to the program when the conference happens later this week.

It's an interesting experiment in emergent scheduling, although I'm not sure I'm 100% on board with Shirky's characterization of it or enthusiasm for it. He places this in the context of the debate that took place a couple of months ago about the creation of backchannels during conference presentations. The comment of his that stuck with me back then:

From my experience of professional conferences, almost all such meetings have the same characteristic — the hallway conversations are better than the contents of the talks.

Well, yes, but....

Shirky's more recent post builds on this by considering "the conference form" in terms of "social loss," an argument ultimately in favor of moving the backchannel to the front. Now, I know that academic conferences (and the economy thereof) are much different from the kinds of professional conferences that he's speaking of, and perhaps some of my difference of opinion is rooted in that. But part of it is also rooted in the certainty that it's impossible to formalize the kinds of energy and value that Shirky sees in the "groupness" of such gatherings, and not just bc there's no way that the academic economy would bear it. In other words, there is some value to be had in the "excuse" of the formal conference--hallway conversations (and backchannels) derive a fair amount of their juice from the fact that they're not formal, front, and center.

Part of why I've been thinking about this is that Derek just blogged about Robert Brooke's 87 article about "underlife." While I don't remember the article as well as I thought I did, I do remember thinking that there's always a certain amount of underlife that's simply in excess. No matter how engaging a speaker/teacher, there are some who are slower, some who are faster, some who have to pose for their classmates/colleagues, etc. I'm not sure I'm ready to skip ahead to the point where I'd label that excess in terms of social loss, though, or see it as purely competitive with mainchannel activity. The idea that hallway conversations are better than plenaries is something I hear at almost every conference I've ever been to, and the few times I've seen attempts to abandon plenaries in favor of those conversation, they've failed miserably.

I've got other qualms as well, ones more clearly rooted in the difference between professional conferences and academic ones, but I'll leave off. First time I tried to talk about them, I spiralled out into the ether.

One more quick note, and that's every form of social loss Shirky mentions (with one exception) could easily be describing most classrooms. That's another thing that made me think about this...

June 10, 2004


The Media Ecology Association conference began today over in Rochester, which is notable for me bc I'll be driving over there tomorrow to catch a few panels, do a little networking, etc. The object of my affection?

Session 5-A Weblogs and Cross-Disciplinary Communication
Moderator: Elizabeth Lane Lawley — Rochester Institute of Technology
Panelists: Alexander Halavais — SUNY Buffalo
Sébastien Paquet — National Research Council of Canada
Clay Shirky — New York University
Jill Walker — University of Bergen

Should be a grrrreat panel, and it's bracketed on either side by plenaries, so I'll try to get up there early and stay into the evening. And I'll see if I can't have the panels blogged by tomorrow night as well...

June 18, 2004


I'm going to slide off on a tangent here. For me, the questions raised about blogs & communities and/or email v. RSS have gotten me to thinking about push & pull. And that, in turn, has connected for me with the discussion about citation that Alex, Seb, and David Brake have been holding.

When I think about push & pull, one of the first places that my brain travels to is this little section from Steven Johnson's first book, Interface Culture. Among a number of (I think) unappreciated ideas in that book, there's a spot where Steven tries to redescribe links as stylistic devices, using the example of Suck:

Suck's great rhetorical sleight of hand was this: whereas every other Web site conceived hypertext as a way of augmenting the reader experience, Suck saw it as an opportunity to withhold information, to keep the reader at bay (132).

Johnson labels the normal way of web linking (the click for additional info) as centrifugal, pushing readers to other sites, or other pages within the site. The links on Suck, on the other hand, encouraged readers to go to other pages but to return--other pages were used as a means of adding various dimensions to the page you happened to be reading. Compare this idea (of directional, or centripetal/centrifugal linking) with a lot of the other early hypertext theories and you'll find that for most writers, links are immaterial conduits. (There are some smart exceptions to this, of course.)

Okay. What does this have to do with importing academic citation index models into the blogosphere? Academic citation does a little bit of both push and pull. On the one hand, I select certain scholars and integrate their work into my own as a means of building my credibility, locating my work within a particular tradition, name-dropping, whatever. I pull their work into my own. But I also push my readers to these scholars--if I find them valuable enough to cite, then a reader who finds my work compelling may trace out my bibliographic network and read these other writers. Duh. Obvious enough.

Print bibliographies, however, blur these two different directions and various functions. In fact, they blur a lot of stuff. I've always thought it would be interesting to try and weight bibliographic entries according to how central they are to a given book, maybe just by messing with the alpha channel so that parenthetical mentions or footnotes are light grey while crucial texts get bold faced. But that's neither here nor there. For all of the imperfection of your run-of-the-mill bibliography, these different motives for citation all legitimately feed into the purpose of a citation index (unless they encounter widescale gaming, I suppose).

One of the wrenches that gets thrown into the mix with weblogs, though, is the fact that there is no generic "link." The links that I'm building into this entry are different from the links to the right in my blogroll, and those are different from the links when I visit Bloglines. Right now, I'm pushpulling with citation links, but I think of the blogroll as centrifugal and of Bloglines as centripetal. And that's to say nothing of comments or trackbacks. An "accurate" citation index would be able to weigh each of these appropriately, I suppose, but for me, one of the real advantages of that variety (contrasted with the flatness of the bibliography), is precisely that it doesn't lend itself to one-size-fits-all accounting. One example. More and more, I'm using BL as a filter for my roll, as a way of trying out sites and writers. If I stick with them, I move them to my roll, bc I understand that it's only there that they "show up." But I manage the roll by hand, so those changes tend to be rarer and slower.

And for me, those various weights attached to my links are important. They're not all equal for me. Mycology is more dynamic for the fact that I can decide how much pushing, pulling, and pushpulling to do. There is value in flattening out those categories, and treating them all simply as links--the interesting work that Alex is doing re Scholarati is evidence of that. And when Seb borrows Guédon's core-fringe metaphor to advocate for the margins, I can't argue. But I think David hits on it when he says, "Unfortunately, counting such links does not (usually) tell you anything about why the link was made (was it criticism? how significant is the linkee to the linker or vice versa?)"

The why of linking matters a heck of a lot less in academic citation, Erdos numbers nonwithstanding. But out here, as a variety of link types develop, the idea of an index is of limited usefulness, I suspect, and at worst, it would lead to even more gaming, and impose upon a dynamic, general economy of links the kind of scarcity that Guédon describes in relation to the ISI citation index.

August 8, 2004

Dissertation advice?

I've got a question for some of my regulars. I'm feeling pretty exhausted lately, as I'm nearing my 3rd dissertation defense in 12 days. One of the things I'm convinced we need to do a better job of, probably in the field as well as individual programs, is helping our students understand what to expect from the process. I'm close to this topic for a variety of reasons: I'm trying to finish up my first book manuscript and recalling the lessons I learned back in the day, I'm on several committees here, and of course, I'll be taking over the position of grad director in my department next spring.

While there are some pretty good sites on the web that give advice, the problem I'm finding is that each person's experience is different, enough so that generalizing to the level of advice is a tricky proposition. Like writing itself, it's rare that there are hard-and-fast rules for actually accomplishing the dissertation. Here are some of the things I'm thinking about (below the fold), but I'm especially interested in hearing from some of you who have gone through the process--what advice made a difference, and what do you wish you had known (or simply taken more seriously) when you were dissertating?

Continue reading "Dissertation advice?" »

August 10, 2004

Staying out of the kitchen

A couple of quick thoughts, before I turn in, on the flurry of posts that have been happening over at Steven's blog (and elsewhere), that connect back to the discussion that was going on a few days back, re anonymous/pseudonymous blogging.

I don't claim to have the last word, certainly, but it seems to me that at least a couple of the comments raise what for me is an important distinction, one that I first started thinking about in response to AlexH's talk at MEA: the distinction between academic blogging and blogging by academics.

I should be clear that I don't find one necessarily better than the other, nor do I see them as mutually exclusive. I think I do a little of both, although I think of myself primarily as someone who does academic blogging. In part, that's because technology is my primary area, and that means I should be doing, not just studying. But I've also got a stake in building a rep and attaching it to my name, the same name that'll be the byline for an article or two (on blogging and/or networks) in the next couple of years. I also believe strongly that, eventually, blogging will come to be seen as a legitimate form of academic activity; but just like electronic publication, part of the momentum for this must come from recognizable scholars offering either explicit or implicit endorsement. Unlike profgrrrrl, I probably will offer selected portions of my blog for my tenure case in a few years, both as an example of technoscholarly innovation and as a way of pushing at the kinds of evidence allowed. I won't use it instead of more traditional evidence, but I currently plan to use it. (maybe not the ass-grabbing story, though.)

However, and this is a big however, not only is academic blogging a tiny, tiny subset of blogs in general (as AlexH has also noted), it's a subset of the number of academics who blog. And I think it's important to recognize that occupying that subset means that our (academic bloggers') goals are pretty narrowly defined. By no means does this mean that we've got all the answers, esp to the big life questions, but it does offer us the freedom of setting those issues aside. And it does so at the cost of the freedom of confronting those issues in one place where we can build a community to help us with them. My point is stupidly simple, I suppose. Different isn't worse, once you accept that the relationship between the terms "blogging" and "academic" can be configured in a range of ways.

Okay. One more. Steven asks: "When did the tables turn on this idea of 'not my real name' equals credibility and authenticity?" I've actually got a half-baked essay on this. Credibility isn't just one thing. We're used to seeing it work top-down: I know this writer is good, therefore I will read her article. But it works the other way, too: This article is good, therefore I will remember her name the next time I see it. It's not so much that pseudonyms themselves grant instant credibility, so much as it is that, when a body invests time and energy and care into developing a pseudonym, it functions with no less credibility and authenticity than does a "real" name. (Which is the point that Rana makes.)

To be fair, though, I should note that pseudonyms are basically anonymous, if an audience isn't party to that investment. The distinction there is not as hard and fast as I think some are assuming. The first time I read a blog, whether the person blogs under their "real" name or not, for me it's anonymous. I think that the problem comes when someone has invested in their anonym to turn it into a pseudonym, only to have it treated like an anonym (decontextualized, generalized, etc.), if that makes any sense. But I don't really think that the process of developing a pseudonym is markedly different from developing a nym. In both cases, credibility is something that ends up emerging over time.

And no, I don't really think I'm saying anything here that isn't raised in one form or another in the comments to the posts listed above. I'm just thinking through them for myself....

August 11, 2004

Will Blog for Cred


All right. I'm exhausted, but that hasn't stopped me from spending the last hour or two following out all of the threads. One in particular I want to reply to, since it's an indirect response to one of the issues I raised last night/morning. Rana has a really smart post that flips one of the assumptions behind much of this discussion, thinking instead about how those of us who post under our names might defend that practice. I defended what I called "academic blogging" under my own name for a couple of different reasons last night. Rana's reply I'll quote in full here:

Getting Credit for One's Blogging Here's another one, one that Stephen raises. I can see the general idea, but for me, this doesn't work all that well. (Again, your mileage may vary.) Let us say I choose to blog about my research, and hope to gain some scholarly cred by doing so. Well, first off, anything I post here is unlikely to be of the quality of my more formal works. It's a heck of a lot of work doing good historical work, and it takes time and space. So anything here would either be (a) incomplete, in which case I can't see it being any more beneficial to my career than sharing a rough draft with a colleague or two, or (b) good enough to publish, in which case why post it here? If it's good enough to survive a peer review process, I'd rather have it published. (Not to mention it would be 30+ pages long, plus endnotes -- not exactly blog-friendly.) In my (admittedly limited) experience, it seems to me that a journal publication would count for far more in any sort of professional assessment than something self-published on some personal site. This may change in the future, but at present, blogging about one's research and claiming it as publishing is about as effective as xeroxing a bunch of copies and passing them out at conferences and claiming that that constituted publishing.

I've got plenty to say, but first let me that I don't really disagree. I'm more interested in clarifying my remarks, and I don't think my position necessarily clashes with Rana's. Here's why:

(1)Big difference in disciplines. Like Steve, my field is rhetoric and my speciality is technology. Rana notes that the kind of painstaking work history requires doesn't really lend itself to blogging, and I understand that. But in my field, part of the work I must do (part of the work I was explicitly hired to do, in fact) is to stay abreast of communications technologies. For me, to write about blogging or to incorporate it into my courses without actually practicing it myself would be (I think) close to the equivalent of claiming to write an authoritative or definite historical work without consulting the available primary texts. Blogging does garner me credibility, perhaps not as an academic in general, but almost certainly as a member of my particular sub-field. (For a more eloquent take on the issue of the ethics of blog research, check Liz's post from a month or so ago at M2M.)

(2) I want to suggest that peer review works in more than one way. If I'm working out an idea that isn't ready for "prime time," my blog is a node in an informal peer network that may help me get it to that point. The difference here is between "anonymous" and "official" peer review, one that serves to certify a piece of writing at the end of the process, and the more informal review that can take place here. I've done this informal review with writers' groups, over email, and to a more limited extent, in the blogosphere, and each brings a set of advantages. Again, this may not be the case for historians (and others), where what counts as knowledge and evidence differs from what counts in my field.

(3) If I post the transcript of a talk, or an informal paper, here, and it gets picked up and distributed favorably (yes, wishful thinking abounds here), I can provide hard data about its value, both qualitative (comments, reviews) and quantitative (number of hits, trackbacks, etc.). On the cv that I submit for my tenure case, on the other hand, there is no difference between a conference paper delivered in front of an audience of 5 people or one that galvanizes a standing-room-only audience--for those reading the vita itself, the effects of those papers are completely invisible. I've had both kinds of experiences (the latter a result of much more famous co-presenters, to be sure), but neither shows up. If one of the assumptions behind quality scholarly work is that it makes an impact on the field, then I'd argue that this impact is at least as demonstrable in a blog as it is from being delivered at a conference. In other words, if the ideas are good ones, and I can track their effect to an extent, I think a case can be made that legitimate academic work is going on. (Again with the folk who say it better than I, and with more credibility. Mark Sargent, in this case.)

(4)Finally, one of the labor issues in my particular field is that those of us who identify as technology people are often called upon (or elect) to do work that ranges outside of the traditional boundaries policed by T&P committees. Like I said yesterday, I don't plan on substituting my blogging for those more traditional forms. Compared to published work, blogging isn't even close. But the argument I'd suggest (and again, it's one that may be more relevant to my field than to others') is that blogging doesn't aspire towards those standards. It's a different practice from publication, and no, it's not accepted as legitimate academic work. Yet. But the most telling example here is Invisible Adjunct. When we consider all of the praise and credibility she earned, from people who "knew" her solely through the practice of blogging, I don't think we can question that there are plenty of us out here who see scholarly value in an activity that doesn't show up yet in our tenure cases.

Yeah, that's all I got right now. It wouldn't surprise me to find that I end up clarifying even more tomorrow. As Rana notes at the very beginning, mileage may vary, and I hope that what I've offered is some clarification about why that's the case. My comments above are no less context-dependent than hers, and I think some of the disagreements over the past few have resulted from incomplete acknowledgement of what can be huge differences in context. I don't really know what constraints Rana operates under, and so what I'm writing here isn't meant as a direct refutation so much as it is an attempt to identify and clarify how "academic blogging" might operate for me given my constraints.

Finally: thanks, Rana, for a really thought-provoking post, one that challenged me to improve (one hopes) on my ideas from yesterday...

August 22, 2004

On the cusp

Have been thinking recently about the rhythms of academic life, and I'm not the only one. Here at SU, we're hitting the second week of orientation for incoming TA's, with the start of the semester just a week away. I don't think it's just me--the tail end of August means that summer's over, and while we all giggle a bit at the cliché of writing on "What I Did Over Summer Vacation," there is pressure to account for one's self, to accomplish things that "count."

Coming to the end of the summer means facing up to the various grinds and pressures of the regular season, and doing so from a position that's relatively distant. Even though I've taught during the summer for 8 out of the last 10 years, and do a fair share of my research and writing during those times, there's a feeling that summer is "off," even though it's not for most of us. And that feeling, I think, requires me (at least) to sort of psych myself up, to remind myself of what I'm doing and why. There's a bunch of meta-academic posting going on, and I see that as part of this process. In addition to the links above, George Williams has embarked on an ambitious project, an attempt to talk about "how we are organized, what our responsibilities are, how we get hired, how we are evaluated, etc," specifically for people who don't have much idea (or, often enough, the wrong idea) of what it is that people in English departments do. Chuck just posted about the tenure process, and both his entry and the comments are worth reading.

I'm a little ambivalent--on the one hand, one of the rules that I try to follow is to avoid situations where I have to "educate" my audience about what I do. More often than not, that kind of rhetorical stance ends up either (a) sounding like a desperate attempt to justify myself, hence begging the question, or (b) implying that said audience is ignorant, sometimes willfully so. There's a lot of conversation in rhetoric & composition about how our colleagues, or administrators, or the public, etc., "just don't understand us," and that what we need to do is to "educate" them. The implication here is that if they understood us, they'd agree with us, and there's an arrogance underlying that position that I find really disturbing, even though I find myself falling into it more often than I'd like.

Now that being said (and this is the other hand), Timothy Burke has a review of the new book The Rule of Four, and one of the points I took away from his review was that ROF relies on some pretty well-worn, outdated, and inaccurate archetypes about academic life:

Now some of this is just part of the general clumsiness of this particular book. But I do think that this is still what a lot of Americans think academics arebasically a combination of the Nutty Professor, Professor Kingley from The Paper Chase, Dr. Frankenstein, and various and sundry novelistic alcoholic and lechers. People with secrets, people with strange and monastic passions, people with eccentric manners and esoteric knowledge, people who are sometimes horribly unprincipled but usually in an ethereal and otherwordly way. Its not utterly wrong, but its not especially true either.

I'm still optimistic enough to believe that what George is doing might make a difference in this regard. I don't get the impression from his post (or the subsequent comments) that this is about proving to some faceless audience that what we do is worthwhile. I'm projecting, perhaps, but I'd like to think that his project is about making what we do less of a blackbox operation, not because we need to justify it, but because much of our profession is invisible to the general public, but also sometimes to our employers, our colleagues, and our graduate students. I'm not sure that even we always understand what it is that we do, and if George's site helps in that regard, it'll be worth it.

And so, if it's worth doing, it's worth it for me to contribute. That's my next post...

Academic Publishing and Peer Review

I don't know that I'm necessarily the best person to write about academic publishing, but I do have experience with it from various angles, and if I say something patently wrong, I'll trust to the comments. Probably the most fundamental unit of academic publishing, at least for those of us in English studies, is the research article, and so that's where I'll focus most of this entry.

What's the point of the research article? There are several:

  • For researchers, publication provides us with the chance to share our knowledge, to participate in scholarly conversations, and to receive feedback on our scholarship.
  • Since many of us teach courses in the areas where we do research, publication provides an incentive for work that will enrich our understanding of the material we teach, ideally making us better teachers. At the graduate level, scholarship often comprises a significant portion of course readings, becoming in part the material we teach.
  • Publications operate as tangible evidence of our research, and for our tenure and promotion committees, that evidence plays an important role in those decisions
  • however minimally, publications also serve some function as a recruitment tool for graduate programs--I've encouraged MA students to look at the whos and wheres of published scholarship to help them decide where to apply.
  • ideally, and perhaps debatably, from the reader's perspective, the research article sheds light on a particular text, idea, or phenomenon, and provides some lasting insight. In other words, I'd argue that one of the ideals of research is that it contributes to our knowledge and/or understanding.

In other words, the research article plays a number of different roles, in various contexts, and I suspect that the relationships among these roles vary quite widely from person to person, from specialty to specialty, and even within one person's own career. I've held two different tenure-track positions, and in each, I was expected to publish 1-2 articles a year. Some of the articles I've published have taken me a couple of years to develop; some were conceived and executed much more quickly.

In my opinion, at the core of the research article is the fact that it is a contribution to at least one conversation, and sometimes several. As in KB's parlor, it's a conversation that has begun before you arrived, and will continue after you leave. When tenure committees count one's publications, what they are doing is basically verifying that you're participating and contributing to these conversations. The article itself is the tip of a fairly daunting iceberg, though. In order to publish an article in a journal, you must be familiar with what can sometimes be a long-developed, insular, and/or jargon-laden tradition that precedes you. One of the points of graduate school is to assist students with building familiarity in the scholarship of their chosen areas of inquiry. Specific journals (and editorial boards) may also have well-defined perspectives or expectations that scholars must familiarize themselves with--some journal boards see their audience as specialists, or adhere to particular theoretical perspectives, for example. In short, the "research" part of the research article requires not only knowledge of a particular subject, but also familiarity with how that subject has been handled previously and knowledge of the particular audience that one is targeting.

When one sends a draft of an essay to a journal, typically that essay undergoes what is known as peer review. The article is read by several people (usually at least a member of the editorial board and 2-3 outside readers with specific expertise in the subject), so-called "peers" in one's field. When the peer review is "blind," this means that all language that might identify the author is removed so as not to influence the readers' decision about whether or not to accept the submission. Most journals will either accept a submission, accept it conditionally (i.e., with some amount of revision), or reject it. Some journals will provide extensive feeback, and some will not. The turnaround time from submission to decision also varies widely from journal to journal.

Typically, the research article does not result in direct compensation. In other words, we don't make money directly through publishing our scholarship. Some universities will award merit raises based on publication, and one may benefit monetarily through name recognition, but for the most part, academic publishing is a prestige economy, one that operates almost exclusively within one's own field or specialty.

That's probably enough for now. Feel free to suggest corrections, additions, subtractions, etc.

August 26, 2004

The Chronicle of Higher Evil

I make no secrets about my feelings for the Chronicle of Higher Education. There are times when the articles they publish make academia a little more transparent, and that can be a good thing. But there are other times when their interest is clearly motivated by the bottom line--in fact, I'd say that that's all the time, and that what benefits we get from them are a side effect.

Over at Rhubarb, where I first saw this, I've commented, but I ended up feeling strongly enough about it to add something here. There's a CHE article called Stuck in Transition, by and about a woman (psuedonymmed Eleanor Robinson) who was going through 3rd year review in her department, and miscarried. The story is a sad one, and made all the worse by the fact that Robinson doesn't tell any of her colleagues about the miscarriage, for fear of damaging her review:

I needed to compartmentalize my emotions in order to get my work done....

In the end, that was the simplest reason that I did not say anything about my miscarriage: I could not talk about the loss without crying. And justified or not, I could not get past the thought that women who cry at work cannot easily, in the next breath (or on the next page), describe themselves as competent professionals.

What really takes my sadness to the point of anger here is that "the thought" comes from the Chronicle itself, which has delighted in publishing "research" about how various people are treated or mistreated in the academy. Robinson writes about how she has internalized all of the Chronicle articles about women and mothers in the academy, and how she and her partner planned out her pregnancy accordingly. Robinson does compartmentalize her emotions, and gets a glowing review, after taking a week-long extension because of "family problems," as she tells the chair of her review committee.

But that's not what makes me angry. What really irks me here is the lack of self-consciousness with which the Chronicle is publishing an article that is partly about how the ideas published in the Chronicle led this woman to keep her miscarriage a secret, to isolate herself emotionally from her friends and colleagues, to prevent her from receiving support at a place and at a time where she obviously needed it. The Chronicle's answer to that would, of course, be that Robinson made her own choice, and she did, but she made it based on information from a source that frequently publishes opinion and provocation masquerading as facts, trends, and customs. It's certainly not true of everything they do, but their first responsibility is not to helping reader understand academia--it's to their own bottom line.

I don't know how else to explain the presence, in this heart-wrenching story, of a link to the story about mothers in the academy, the very one that led Robinson to deny who she was and what she was going through as a person so that she could shine as a "competent professional." It's cynical enough that the Chronicle would publish this piece, but for them to add a link to the original feature in the middle of a story about the pain that it caused, is evil.

Pure. Evil.

September 4, 2004

San Francisco, March 2005

That's where the Conference on College Composition and Communication will be next year, and my co-presenters and I were officially informed yesterday that we'll be part of the program. Notification is always something of an odd season around grad programs--on the one hand, CCCC is selective enough that you expect a little bit of congratulations; on the other, no one really asks anyone else, for fear that they didn't get accepted. Weird. Last year, since I hadn't proposed, I was fearless about asking--I didn't have to worry about being accepted when someone else wasn't.

So anyway, here's the proposal that we put together. Bear in mind both that we were predicting our interests (proposal due May 2004, presentation delivered March 2005) and that we were limited to 500 words (ours came in at around 440, I think.)

The Aftermath of Access: From Critical to Creative Computer Literacies

Access is a crucial topic for anyone who works with information technologies, as many scholars in rhetoric and composition have pointed out (e.g., Selfe, Moran). While it is certainly vital that we continue to work as a field to provide technology access, it is equally important that we avoid the trap of thinking of access as a purely material or economic issue. Despite our tendency to nominalize the term, "access" is a verb, one that raises questions about what is being accessed, how it is being accessed, and what the consequences of that access are.

Technology scholars frequently make a distinction between functional and critical computer literacies; in fact, our preoccupation with the issue of access is a result of the latter. This panel will argue that it is time that we add a third term to the first two: creative computer literacy. Following Adrian Miles and Jeremy Yuille, authors of the 2004 "Manifesto For Responsible Creative Computing," this panel will argue that we need to see technology as more than another site for critique, that information networks are new sites of cultural production as well. Miles’s and Yuille’s “Manifesto,� with its emphasis on network literacies, provides an intriguing set of topoi from which to rethink our discipline’s approach to computer literacies and access. The individual speakers will each respond to one or more of the "Manifesto" planks, exploring their implications for both scholars and pedagogues in rhetoric and composition.

Speaker 1 will assert that network literacy is based on the explorations, endeavors, and satisfactions emerging from amateur computing, rather than professional practices and standards. Network literacy involves the revaluation of “professional/amateur,� and this in turn forces us to rethink how we approach the literacy skills we attempt to instill in our students. Speaker 2 will focus specifically on the ways we represent ourselves on and engage with networks, examining the phenomenon of weblog "A-lists." Often the object of scorn and/or critique, A-lists also provide us with invaluable insight into how networks function, insight that can help writers rethink their approaches to online audiences. Speaker 3 will focus on the ways that computer programming languages extend our opportunities to teach writing in networked environments. Specifically, loops, conditional statements, and object-based methods or functions will be discussed as the basis for recognizing how code is writing. Speaker 4 will argue that, while we often valorize our ability to multitask, the “back channels� and underlife provided by networks may overwhelm our ability to engage in so-called “central� tasks. This paper raises the question of when the convenience of networks tips over into interference.

That's me checking in as Speaker #2, by the way.

September 11, 2004

The Usual is Suspect

As I wrote a few days ago, it's the season to be hearing about whether or not our proposals for our field's flagship conference (CCCC) have been accepted or rejected. Jeff and Jenny submitted a panel that wasn't accepted, and there's been a little grousing about the rejection. Like Jeff, I've had very good luck with proposals--I've only been rejected twice, I think, out of 11 or 12 proposals. And yet, every year, I know of very good people who have proposed interesting panels who don't get accepted. I know that this is probably the case for most people--we all think that our friends are the ones getting overlooked unfairly--but I thought that I might take a crack at explaining just what I find suspect in the whole CCCC process.

I'm not a disciplinary historian, but I know a few things. CCCC has grown subtantially in the past 20 or so years, and as a result, certain steps have been taken to insure fairness in the selection process, namely:

  • "No Multiple Submissions" - thousands of people submit proposals, and restricting them to a single proposal gives each person an equal shot at acceptance

  • Blind review - again with the equality. Insofar as a review process can ever be blind, proposals are ranked on merit rather than brand name recognition

So far, so good, or okay at least. Both of these measures exist for defensible rationales. What I find to be a lot less defensible, however, is the opaque process by which the reviewing takes place. Each year, the process is overseen by a new person (the CCCC chair), and that person is responsible for assembling the team of reviewers who make decisions about acceptance or rejection. As far as I can tell, though, there are three major ways of meeting that responsibility, i.e., choosing reviewers:

  • Knowing someone who has expertise in the necessary area

  • Knowing someone who knows someone who has expertise in the necessary area.

  • Finding a person from a previous year in an area and asking that person to repeat.

The problem here is that, in basically each case, reviewers are ultimately chosen because they know someone. I don't dispute their qualifications, but I dispute the idea that this process results in a team of reviewers that is representative of the field. More likely is that it represents a given Chair's socio-professional network. And it rewards those people who "know someone." The system we've got carries a great deal of "insider inertia," and inevitably, that inertia is reflected in the program each year. I haven't done this research yet, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that there are certain graduate programs disproportionately represented among the reviewers. I know for a fact that there are certain schools that are underrepresented, believe me. And this has an effect on the kinds of scholarship that are more or less likely to be accepted.

Whether this effect can be demonstrated or not, I don't know, because the materials necessary to do so are not made available for research. I know how I'd do it, though. More to the point here, though, is that the inside/outside quality of the review network means that the "fairness" they've achieved in the process is more limited than most people think. Reviewers may be "blind" to individual proposers' names, but they are not blind to the rhetoric of the proposals themselves, which is influenced by the training those proposers have received. And as a result, I've ended up doing well by retraining myself to write CCCC proposals in a certain way, by not appearing to come from a particular school. I've learned to perform my proposals in a way that's proven pretty successful.

Unquestionably, it's an ideal to say that I shouldn't have to do that. But there are ways that this situation could be made fairer. First, the process itself could be more transparent. I work to make it as transparent for our graduate students as I can, but there are certain policies that work against me here. Second, the selection process should be opened up to the membership--at the very least, as someone with 10 years of experience in computers and writing, regular participation at the conference, and fairly frequent publications, I should have the option of reviewing proposals, an option I won't have until I "know someone" who's Chair. And that's not right. There are lots of people who have the expertise, but lack the connections, and those people (myself included) are shut out of the process. No mechanism exists by which we might volunteer to be reviewers. It would cost very little to assemble a database, a qualified pool of potential reviewers from which Chairs might draw each year for given topics. It will ultimately be their choice, of course, but the rationale for those choices should be available for scrutiny, and should be based on more than acquaintance.

I'm not criticizing specific Chairs here, but rather the system. Since CCCC has grown to its current size, the fact of the matter is that there is no single person who can know the entire field. Reviewers are shortcuts in this regard. Without any kind of formal process, those shortcuts are based on the best available information. So why not make that information genuinely the best available? Rather than assuming that a Chair is omniscient upon election, provide that person with the data from which s/he can make informed selections. There was a time when the current process made sense, when it was possible for a Chair to "know" the field well enough to select reviewers. That time, however, is past--and it's time our processes caught up with our disciplinary realities.

September 16, 2004

4C's the day

I know that the discussion is pretty well over by this point, but like Jenny, I found myself today with a couple more thoughts that I wanted to throw up here. Jenny's right, I think, to ask what's going to happen when the organization moves up from what I think is its current plateau. There have been a number of recent initiatives designed to get the organization growing again, but not a lot of reflection (that I've seen, anyway) about what's going to happen if those initiatives succeed. If the conference doesn't grow (or change), I don't think they will, but at the very least, the issues are closely related.

I also wanted to shout out to John, whose replies (esp. over at Clancy's) were remarkably measured, fair, and informative. It would have been really easy for John to take offense at all of our bitching, or to take it personally, and he didn't. Instead, he provided some really good background on the organization and encouraged us to turn our critiques into positive contributions. The problems I have with CCCC are problems with the system, and problems with an organization that began as a tight-knit community, grew to become much larger, without changing its policies to match that growth.

Anyhow. Jenny asks:

And here's the big question that I wish someone would actually say publicly (and not just in the bars): When was the last time you went to a panel--NOT because you knew the folks or you wanted to see a star--and actually walked away with some seriously valuable ideas? When was the last time you went to a panel and walked away feeling like it was a waste of time? Which one happens to you more often? (I'm going on a limb here and saying that the first one isn't the more frequent.)

Isn't this a problem?

Oh yes, yes it is. The problem, and forgive me if this sounds too harsh or cynical, is that our flagship conference is not about valuable ideas. It's about "getting on the program," so that our home departments will underwrite a trip for us. That's not to say that people don't try (myself included), and it's not to say that there are no valuable ideas being circulated, but the fact of the matter is that, and I said this in a CCCC presentation a couple of years ago, the scholarship that most of us produce for the conference is disposable. I can't count the number of times I've been to sessions where presenters bragged about writing it on the plane or changed their topic entirely. The problem is that I'm at the point where it's not worth the potential waste of my time to go to a session on the off chance that it'll be valuable--I've lost that bet almost every time I've gone to one.

Lest I be accused of complete pessimism, though, here are three modest proposals for addressing that problem, for potentially improving the quality of the conference:

Book of the Year: Every year, several books in our field are nominated for a book of the year award (and one or two receive it). Plan a series of sessions, each of which focuses on one of the BOTY nominees. Allow the author to hand-pick 2-3 people to give presentations about the book and then the author would be a respondent. Participants in the BOTY series would be allowed to do a second presentation (assuming that their proposal had been accepted).

CCCC Yearbook: Publish the best conference papers, say 3-4 from each major area, annually as a conference proceedings. Make the deadline for submission a month before the conference itself. The review process for this wouldn't have to begin until after the conference, but my guess is that the desire for publication would result in far fewer people willing to write it on the plane.

Graduate Student Awards: This isn't too different from the proceedings idea. Create a handful of awards for best graduate student papers. Put the deadline at the tail end of the fall semester, and for each area, award one full ride to CCCC: travel, hotel, meals. And label the award winners within the body of the program (i.e., not just a list at the beginning).

None of these are earth-shattering ideas. But they have one thing in common to my mind. If we're all sick of a system that seems to be getting more and more cynical and less and less valuable, then let's rethink some of what we do, and imagine ways to reward the people who don't waste our time. But we're not stupid. We put effort into our presentations commensurate to the perceived return on that investment, and perhaps a little more, but that's it. If the only "return" is a slot on the program, then small wonder that people don't take the presentations seriously. If we hope to change that, there need to be incentives to do so.

September 30, 2004

Plain ketchup

Or rather, playing catch up, which is what I've been doing over the last couple of days. And now, ta-daaa, my Bloglines feeds are back at a manageable state, I did a little blogroll updating, and I'm feeling like I should be able to balance the travelogging with a little bit of your regularly scheduled programming.

I'm probably the last person on Planet Blog who (a) cares about this Guardian article from last week and (b) hasn't yet posted on it, but that's okay. The article mentions several of the people in my 'roll, and that's worth a post if nothing else.

Like Clancy, I thought that the portrayal of a resistance to blogging that somewhat missed the mark. McClellan writes

But many more traditional academics are suspicious of taking their ideas public in this way. For some, the blogging academic is the latest incarnation of the media don, ready to simplify complex ideas in return for a few minutes of fame. Others are wary of sharing ideas before they are ready - or of seeing original theories stolen before they are published.

Well, yes, there's a little of that, but far more important, I suspect, is the fact that daily writing is difficult. It requires a pretty deep commitment to a process that carries no guarantee of reward in a profession whose members are hyper-conscious of what meager rewards there are to be had.

I guess I'd put it like this: academia has operated for centuries according to a particular ratio between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and that ratio has its own rhythm. We are self-motivated to the degree that we sacrifice various portions of our lives to the pursuit of knowledge--no one enters academia believing it to be a fast track to any sort of "success" as society defines it. Our extrinsic motivation comes in the form of publications and/or presentations, recognition from a small circle of colleagues perhaps a couple of times a year. We internalize this model: writing is something we do "behind the scenes" and every once in a while, we derive some small bit of recognition for that work.

Blogging changes that ratio and that rhythm, period. It has changed the way I write, the frequency with which I write, and the reasons for which I write. Some of those changes are positive ones, while the jury's still out on others. Asking members of a highly conservative profession to simply chuck their customs and take up blogging is to fight against a great deal of inertia, both personal and professional. That's not to say that I don't see some benefit, particularly when it comes to abandoning some of academia's more absurd customs. But still...

To McClellan's credit, much more of the article discusses what is being done with weblogs rather than focusing on the faux-binary, and even that section is a pretty mild nod to the constraints of the genre. All in all, it was nice to see an article, even if it was written on another continent, that attempts to make some sense of just what it is that we do.

October 13, 2004

Putting up

As Jeff will find out soon, either here or as part of the review process, I've just submitted an application (vita + vision statement) for the position of Associate/Online editor of CCC, the flagship journal of our discipline.

When I have a little more time to sit down and actually write out a clear post about this, I'll go into a little more detail about that "vision" of mine. For now, though, a quick note. I don't really need more to do in my life, but I'm mindful of the responses that some of our discussions , about CCCC and the like, have provoked from Kathi, John, and Doug. And one of the things that I take away from their responses is that change can begin with positions like this. And so, if I want to see change, it's sort of a put-up-or-shut-up situation. So this is me putting up. More on this later.

November 5, 2004

Convergences, Day 1

Here's my rundown of Day 1 of Convergences. Keep in mind that my note-taking varies in intensity from session to session--it's hard to pay close blogging attention all day. Next time round, I'm going to suggest that we each volunteer to take notes (and/or blog) for one other session. When I post my day 2 rundown, you'll see why I say that...

David Rieder started off day 1 for us with "Placeless Rhetorics and Writing: Post-Alphabetic Explorations of Non-Places." The central claim of Dave's talk was that, rather than working against the conditions that make our classrooms non-places (Augé), we should be investigating those forms of writing (potentially post- or extra-alphabetic) that might provide us with new models. He discussed the works of Franck Scurti and Teri Rueb, and encouraged us to interrogate the place-based models that ground the composition classroom.

Tim Mayers went next, and presented material from his book, which is currently (I think) in press at Pittsburgh: "Reviving the Discourses of 'Craft': Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of English Studies." I may be projecting here, but I think Tim was working from the premise that writing studies is constrained by its long association with literary studies. His attempt to work out of that constraint was to suggest a partnership between creative writing and composition, one grounded in an expanded notion of "craft," one that extends craft beyond its current scope as technique. Such a partnership, he argued, would bring social concerns to creative writing and return a concern with aesthetics to composition.

The third session of the day was a 3-person panel on the topic of affect. In "Affect and the Times and Spaces of Change," Dan Smith argued that social transformation requires more than proofs, that critique often works through affective dispositions. Critical pedagogy fails to acknowledge its own investment in what Dan described as a "conversion ethos," one that treats the classroom as the only possible time and space for change, and places undue emphasis on our own desires to "witness" such change. More a critique of strategy than of aims, he argued that we need to think in terms of broader spaces and times--what he called ecologies of affective disposition--and come to terms with the possibility that the payoff for our pedagogical work may not always be visible.

Jenny Edbauer presented work from the second chapter of her dissertation, "Rhetorical Theory and the Affective Field of Culture." Her presentation was also a call for broadening our scope to include affective issues, but she focused on the site-based presumptions of Bitzer's rhetorical situation. She argued that rhetorical situations are located in the interactions (often affective interactions) among the so-called "elements" of the rhetorical situation, rather than in the elements themselves.

Christa Albrecht-Crane closed the panel with "Affect, Bodies, Interruption, Fear." She discussed teaching literary theory to conservative students, which caused her to reflect on the trouble that progressive educators have understanding how conservatism operates. In this case, she discussed a paper where the energy of the student's response exceeded his abilities to fully account for it in his writing.

In the interests of time, on a day where we were running a bit long, Judy Isaksen offered to forgo much of the oral portion of her session, "Worrying the Rhetorics of Whiteness." She played a DVD for us, inspired by DJ Spooky's remix of D. H. Wallace's Birth of a Nation. Judy's mix spliced together scenes from Birth, quotes from contemporary race theorists, and a wide range of African-American music.

The final panel of the day--on the place and places of theory--was a little less formal, not the least reason for which was that we were all, I think, getting a little punchy. Jeff Rice began by interrogating what he described as our field's pedagogical conservatism, the unwillingness to see ourselves implicated in the theories that we study. Particularly when it comes to new media and technology, he argued, we remain in a mode of explanation and story-telling rather than performance. Digital culture is unclear, elusive, speculative, and pedagogy (or theory) preoccupied with the clear explanations of its success makes for a problematic fit.

John Muckelbauer talked about the strategies necessary for theoretical work in a field that doesn't seem to make much room for it, one of which was the conference itself. The branding of theoretical writers and ideas has resulted in the bad habit of going to these theorists already knowing what we'll find, and then--surprise--finding what we thought we would. John advocated a strategy of non-recognition, where we draw on rhetorical vocabulary to do theoretical work, thereby enriching both.

Thomas Rickert raised several questions for discussion, related in part to the other two presentations. He suggested that perhaps we have moved from an age of theory to an age of invention or rhetoric, that perhaps the currency of capital-T theory has indeed passed. Rather than indulge in nostalgia for some golden age, though, he suggested that instead we think of the particularity of our own theoretical work as something that has yet to be discovered.

I hope that I haven't misrepresented anyone here too badly. After our first day, we went back to the Clarion and psyched up for dinner, which took quite a while at a restaurant whose name I've already forgotten. Some of us went afterwards to the Flying Saucer, but it was cold, we were tired, and it was a relatively early evening.

November 6, 2004

Convergences, Day 2

See, here's my problem. I hate speaking in public. And so I go through 3 distinct phases when I have to do so. First, I get really antsy, and having trouble focusing. Then, when I have to speak, my conscious mind goes mostly on autopilot, allowing me to slide into some lizard-brain zone where I remember very little of what actually happens. Finally, I slowly climb back out of it, fueled mainly by relief that my time is over. And none of these phases is especially effective for note-taking. Keep that in mind.

Kevin Mahoney and Rachel Riedner began day 2 with a tag-team presentation, "Cultural Studies Pedagogy and the Corporate University," whose first couple of minutes I missed, thus depriving myself of the frame for their talk. As best as I can tell from my notes, Kevin and Rachel argued for a deeper understanding of pedagogy as a site of political engagement. What we have taken to calling empire is, in their words, a public pedagogy of neoliberalism and globalization, one that's especially effective at deflecting resistance. It does so by producing individuals who compete for their own personal gain, to the detriment of public participation. They argued that traditional leftist discourse has begun to interfere with our ability to form counterpedagogies and to sustain horizontal relations, and these were two of the strategies they suggested given current conditions in higher education.

Bradley Dilger talked about "The Logic of Default," riffing on a section from Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media. Manovich suggests that using defaults when it comes to interfaces is one way of resisting the lure of customization that drives technology consumption. Bradley complicated this notion, however, noting that Manovich's default-ism, even if it's relevant at the scale of interface, happens at multiple scales, and as a result, we're always already choosing, whether or not we go with defaults.

Then some nit talked about networks.

And after that, I stopped typing notes. This was bad. The panel after mine featured Jenny Bay, Sarah Arroyo, and Thomas Peele, and I listened rather than typing. They raised various questions about new media, and because they were taken up in the discussion that followed, I actually remember the conversations more than the panel per se. Perhaps someone else will contribute notes?

The final panel of the conference began with Byron Hawk, who presented portions of his book on vitalism. He traced a lineage of vitalism from Aristotle to Burke to Deleuze, one centered on Aristotle's conception of entelechy. Chuck Tryon discussed his study of the film Capturing the Friedmans, focusing on the way that this documentary complicates the separation of public and private spheres in its nostalgia for the nuclear family. Finally, Karen Kopelson presented some of the results for a qualitative study she conducted, asking graduate students about their expectations and experiences in rhetoric and composition.

I can't help but feel that this rundown is woefully unfair, because the two panels that followed mine were both quite good. By that point, though, I was tired of taking notes--the fact that I participated more frequently in the conversations was one sign of that, I suspect. Oh well. Maybe someone else can fill this gap...

Day 2 ended with a trip to Moonlight Pizza (long time to sit, but good food to eat), and then to Lizzie's, where we closed the joint, drank our fair share, and pledged to keep this conference going...

November 10, 2004

Convergences redux


If you scroll down, you'll find my (decent) Day 1 and (less than adequate) Day 2 rundowns of the conference I was at this past weekend. Also, I've posted some pix from the final, alcohol-soaked gathering of the conference, at a bar called Lizzie's, I think. A few of us had already left, so not everyone is represented there. Sorry bout that.

November 11, 2004

improperly biased

I don't recall where I caught the second-hand link, but wherever it was led me to Erin O'Connor's citation of this article by Mark Bauerlein in the Chronicle Review, called "Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual." Three guesses what it's about...

In fact, it's a pretty measured and temperate piece, even if it falls back unproblematically into the equation of diversity with so-called "intellectual diversity" of the sort that David Horowitz has been pushing for the past several years. And the slide from surveying "humanities and social science scholars" for their political affiliations to making claims about campuses, colleges, and universities (which, as we know, don't teach the hard sciences, business, engineering, or technology) goes unexamined as well. Nevertheless, Bauerlein's root claim, that there are various fields where conservative thought is basically unwelcome, is fairly accurate.

The secondary claim, however, that there is "an indirect filtering process that runs from graduate school to tenure and beyond," is one that I'd dispute to a degree. The trick at work here is to accuse leftists of being anti-discrimination in theory and discriminatory in practice--fair enough. I'm not so naive as to believe that this doesn't happen, or that there aren't "several conservative intellectuals in the last year who would love an academic post but have given up after years of trying."

Bauerlein cites a Chronicle survey, though, which found that roughly half of those surveyed agreed with the statement that "campuses are havens for left-leaning activists," that "colleges improperly introduce a liberal bias into what they teach." Okay. Setting aside the colossal hubris required to make a statement of that magnitude--which I myself couldn't comfortably make about any school that I've ever studied or taught at--I want to raise a chicken/egg question. Bauerlein, Horowitz, and others who make this argument suggest/assume that universities are a place from which conservatives have been expelled, but I guess I'd suggest that it's at least as relevant to consider campuses as places, as havens, to which these dreaded left-leaners aspire.

Why is this an important point? Because, contra Bauerlein, this process doesn't begin in graduate school. By the time students arrive in my courses, they're adults, albeit young adults, but they have a full set of values that steer them towards particular fields--they've been raised in a society where the hierarchy of values is pretty clear, and they don't need to see the comparative salaries of assistant professors to know which departments, programs, or careers are most compatible with their value set. I'm not arguing that those of us who are less than economically rational about our career choices are any more noble, or any better for that matter, than anyone else, but I think it safe to surmise that I may hold values more similar to those of my immediate colleagues than they are to, say, those of the faculty in the business school. I suspect that someone with my beliefs would feel just as out of place there as someone with conservative beliefs might feel in an English department. But then, that's hard to say, because Horowitz didn't include them in his survey.

I don't disagree with all that much of this essay in one sense. I do think it's important for students at every level to be party to asking questions rather than assuming answers, and I do acknowledge that there are fields where the latter happens more often than perhaps it should. But to paraphrase O'Connor's prior post, "I won't deny that such schools and such attitudes exist--but I will say that it's wrong to stereotype [higher education] and the [faculty] who [populate it] in such narrowly rigid ways." And to do so in the name of diversity is to misunderstand intentionally that particular ideal, in a way that elevates the stereotypes of conservatism and liberalism to the level of knowledge, an elevation that Bauerlein rightly, I think, recognizes as anti-intellectual.

December 4, 2004

groupthink revisited

Few weeks back, I offered some thoughts on the whole "intellectual diversity" thing, and specifically on Mark Bauerlein's Chronicle article on the same. Well, Timothy Burke has weighed in, and quite nicely:

The critique of groupthink in academia has already gone badly astray when it begins by counting up voter registrations and assuming that this is both evidence and cause of the problem. Political partisanship as we conventionally think about it and practice it in the public sphere is only an epiphenomenal dimension of the groupthink issue in academic life. It is telling that those who perceive the issue largely as a matter of Democrats vs. Republicans or liberals vs. conservatives operate either as pundits or as think-tank intellectuals, contexts where those oppositions really do clearly structure how an intellectual operates.

Academics are not motivated to groupthink out of a loyalty to liberal causes, left-wing politics or registration in the Democratic Party, though in many disciplines at the moment, they may end up predominantly having those affiliations in a smug, uninterrogated manner. They’re motivated to groupthink by the institutional organization of academic life. The same forces that help academics to produce knowledge and scholarship are the forces which produce unwholesome close-mindedness and inbred self-satisfied attitudes. These forces would act on conservatives as well were we to magically remove the current professoriate and replace them with registered Republicans. They do act already on academics who operate in disciplines where certain kinds of political conservatism are more orthodox, or in institutional contexts, like religious universities, where conservative values are expressly connected to institutional missions.

I highly recommend going to Burke's site to read the rest of this, because he's spot on. There are serious problems with academia (not the least of which is this month's Demotivator), but to believe that those problems are solvable with an influx of registered Republicans is no less smug or uninterrogated. Instead, Burke argues, "The question is how to reconstruct the everyday working of scholarly business, to open up the ways in which we legitimate, value and authenticate scholarly work, to change the entire infrastructure of publication, presentation and pedagogy." If only there were genuine interest in doing this, as opposed to the thinly veiled, partisan perpetuation of the "one state, two state, red state, blue state" nonsense...

Anyhow, good stuff over yonder.

December 7, 2004

It's alive!

Tonight, I've finally gotten off my ass and started working on the course weblog for next semester's CCR 711: Network(ed) Rhetorics. Over the next week or so, I'll be posting a number of entries on course logistics. Feel free to take a look, make suggestions, etc.

That is all.

January 29, 2005


Can we put to rest now all the speculation about whether or not a body's weblog runs the risk of damaging one's job prospects? Okay, so maybe not. But a big congratulations to Jenny, who's been haunting the Stupid Undergrounds for a couple of years now, won an award for doing so, and has just received and accepted an offer from Penn State.

Coincidence? I think not.

But it was by coincidence that I happened across a new add for my blogroll: her colleague-to-be, Stuart Selber, is up and blogging now. Give him some traffic, and you can still catch a whiff of New Blog smell.

February 3, 2005

A Very Big Day, Part 2

Just how big, you ask?

Well, until my colleague Becky has had a chance to recover, I've offered to step in and sub for her graduate course. With proper planning, and by proper I mean largely "not at 3 AM the night before," this isn't much of an issue. It is a little bit of a stretch, though, because the course meets on the same day as my other course.

To be fair, several of the students in my class are also in her class, and so they get to go back-to-back every week. Not exactly a walk in the park. To be fair to me, though, preparing for a course involves a different level of engagement with the material. I tend to be a pretty non-interventionist teacher, but I pride myself on being able to adapt a discussion to student concerns and issues without losing sight of the things I want to accomplish as well. It sounds a little fortune cookie, I suppose, but I prepare very carefully in order to be able to listen as a teacher.

So anyway, today was Week 1 of my temporary stint in back-to-back 3-hour classes. And let me tell you: anyone who thinks that this means that I "only" worked for 6 hours today needs a reverse spinning back kick to the jaw. As rewarding as teaching can be, it's hard work intellectually, psychologically, and yes, physically. Especially when preparation involved working from only a few hours of sleep last night. I'm zonked.

At the risk of patting myself on the back, I think both classes went fairly well today. At least, I hope so, because I'm about to reward myself with 10-12 hours of sleep.

That is all.

A Very Big Day, Part 3

And on top of all that, I learned today that I've been officially confirmed as the new Associate/Online Editor of our discipline's flagship journal, College Composition and Communication. It's been in the works now since some time last fall, but we're now at the stage of crossing eyes, dotting t's, etc.

Even though I've known about it for a while, I'm still a little awestruck by the whole thing. I'm looking forward to working with Deborah Holdstein--she and I have only spoken a little about it, but there's one thing I know for sure. We're bringing ideas. Lots and lots of ideas. I'm only being a little immodest when I say that I think we can help change the way that our field thinks about the online components of our journals.

So yeah. Not so much with the spare time for me. You'll hear plenty more about this as the days march on.

February 18, 2005

When you stare into the abyss...

Chuck has an entry from last night that talks about his current blog block. He mentions in the comments that part of the reason for this is job-search stress, which got me to thinking...

One of the things that's really difficult to explain to those who aren't in academia (or more specifically, perhaps, the humanities) is the stress of the job search. I was lucky myself, partly because I found a position before I'd finished my dissertation, thanks to a good friend. However, because they hadn't done a full search, it was a one-year gig, during which I could apply to turn it into a full-time, tenure-track position. So far, so good.

This meant, however, that I was half a continent away from my support network, at a time when I was teaching 3 courses (2 of them over-ambitiously writing-intensive), revising my 250-page dissertation, and also embarking on a job search for the first time. Each of the three of those is really a full-time pursuit. Through a combination of hubris and compromise, I sent applications to the top 35 programs on my list, and got 2 interviews at MLA, plus a phone "interview" with my home institution. (By way of contrast, 3 years later, when I was qualified to apply to top schools, I had 5 interviews from 9 applications, and took my position at Syracuse before MLA.). MLA interviews are in December and, for the top 2-4 candidates, result in visits to the campuses. Neither of my f2f interviews bore fruit, although I was moved to the next stage at my home institution, and my "visit" took place in March, I think.

Keep in mind, though, that this process begins in the summer and can often push on until April or May. From January to March, I went to school and taught and came home almost every single night, lied in bed, and wondered about what in the world I would do if my home institution didn't pan out. Thankfully, luckily, it did. But over the space of a couple of months, every. single. night. Fear, anxiety, depression--when you've spent anywhere from 6 to 10 years preparing for a single, specialized profession, and have to face the possibility that it's all been a waste of time, that's not a happy place. The interviews, the visits--they're exceptionally high-stakes performances, a version of hazing that's only gotten harder and more cruel as the market for academics has gotten worse.

It's one of the reasons why many people will tell you that persistence is a more important factor for success in academia than intelligence. There are lots of smart people (and maybe this is evidence?) who will not be able (or choose) to put themselves through the emotionally and psychologically crushing process of the job search. When that process works best, it's a little less crushing, I suppose, but there are still too many cases where it's all but a crapshoot, where (unintentionally, I hope) it's unnecessarily hellish.

I know that Chuck doesn't want to blog about it, which is cool. I don't know what his process has been like, but I can say that job searches, particularly the ones where you're trying to "break through" to a tenure-track position, are a time of enormous anxiety and self-doubt. I wish I could say that they make us stronger, but mostly, they leave us more neurotic than we were when we started, and perhaps a little relieved if it ends well. Those of us who have done well tend to block out the pain and anxiety, and so sometimes we forget how tough it is.

All of which is simply to say that I'm pulling for you, Chuck. Good luck.

That is all.

March 9, 2005

Off the script

As time Marches along, and the CCCC gets closer, it's been a little surprising to me that I haven't heard more of our annual refrain: reading papers is so boring. Usually it's followed with a verse about the irony of academics (whose job it is to study and practice rhetoric in the case of CCCC) being so very bad at the very thing they study. Verily. Donna tips us over to Sean Carroll's Preposterous Universe where, among other things, you'll discover

Here's a simple way that academia could be greatly improved: humanities professors should stop reading their papers out loud, and start talking from notes like normal people. I will never understand why they do this in the first place. There is no reason why humanists, trained in the arts of rhetoric and communication, should be even worse at giving talks than scientists are.

I hadn't originally planned on responding to this, nor to some of the gems buried among the comments:

I think the reading-out-loud method is just objectively worse than extemporizing from notes.

but then I came across Scott McLemee's latest IHE column, about the dying art of the lecture. McLemee closes the column with an extended story about one of his professors at UT who was an engrossing lecturer, and while it's possible, I suppose, to blast the lecture as authoritarian, obsolete, blah blah blah, sage stage guide side, etc., I want to take a different tack here.

First, about understanding "why they do this in the first place." I was trained (and this was 15 years ago now) to believe that discussion was superior to lecture as a mode of instruction, and there were all sorts of arguments (about the social construction of knowledge, the empowerment of students, etc.) to support this move.

There is also the fact that teaching a writing class is substantially different from, say, a class in many other disciplines. There is no body of knowledge to impart. Writing is a practice that improves with writing and that depends so heavily on context that lectures are wildly out of place. When the decision was made on campuses across this country to make writing an official course, it was a category error. The traditional classroom is really not a very good space for learning to write, but insofar as that's what we've got, moving away from the lecture is one of the strategies we've used to make it marginally better.

Also, I taught my first class when I was 20. 20. I could. not. lecture. And this is where McLemee's essay comes in. The successful lecture is, in some ways, no different than the successful novel, play, or poem. It takes a lot of work, skill, and talent. The move in this country to deprofessionalize the academy and the turn towards non-tenureable, contingent faculty (including 20 year old grad students) makes it less likely that a given instructor will possess the confidence or experience to be able to lecture well.

Finally, follow the money. What are we rewarded for in our field? Publication. Writing. Not speaking. There's not a big market for 8-page papers, but double its length and send it out--that's what we tell our graduate students. We write seminar papers, comprehensive examinations, dissertations, journal articles, book chapters, and book manuscripts. At no point in our careers do we ever experience any sort of (a) training in how to speak well, (b) incentives for doing so, or (c) incentives against not doing so.

Now, having said all of that, I hate reading. But I experience tremendous stage fright, far more often and of far more intensity than anyone who's not me realizes. When I give a "talk," I'm scared to death. And so the presence of a script, something I can anchor myself to, is something of a relief. I like to think that I'm pretty good at writing in such a fashion that, when I read, it's not mind-numbing or sleep-inducing. I do asides sometimes, and I write for "talks" in short declarative sentences, signposting frequently and avoiding long quotes or excessive jargon. I like to think that I'm a pretty decent reader/talker, and I've heard from a lot of people that this is the case. And some of them weren't actually friends trying to make me feel better. Heh.

Having said that, though, this fall, when I went to that conference in NC, I didn't script my talk. It was more of an interactive session than a talk, and I did prep some slides to keep me organized, but no script. And somehow, I didn't die, not of fright nor of collision with hurled fruit.

And so, at CCCC this year, my plan is to speak from notes. Not read. And I'll still be nervous as all get out. And my hope is that my talk will be entertaining in the right way. But I'm "comfortable" doing this partly because I'm confident in my subject matter, and perhaps more confident in myself. We'll see.

Leaving aside the word "objectively," I guess I'd agree with Carroll to the degree that the upsides for giving an actual talk (that it can be as engrossing and energetic as the lectures that McLemee remembers) are indeed greater than the upsides for most papers that are read out loud. But they can both be done really poorly. Really. Enough so that I wouldn't say that one is necessarily better than the other, except maybe in the abstract.

Regardless of which option a body chooses, there's little question in my mind that the majority of "talks" I'll see in San Francisco will be underprepared, underpracticed, or both. And to my mind, that's more important than talking vs. reading...and why I've been working on my talk this week pretty steadily.

That is all. Get to work.

Addendum: Apropos of Mike's comments below, I found the following over at In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood:

I've heard others say that the Army makes equivalent efforts at molding how its officers perform in front of a classroom -- the press briefings we see from Generals in Iraq suggest these efforts pay off; I would bet an Army officer's presentation skills are better evaluated in his promotion process than any professor's.

In this area, as in others like conflict of interest rules on nepotism or office love-affairs, it seems to me that private industry, and even the military, are far ahead of the academic world, even in an area, teaching, where we ought to expect the academic world to have something to tell the rest of us. Apparently it doesn't. And a big reason, in my opinion, is that the academic world is intent on avoiding merit-based hiring and promotion to any extent it can get away with.

I'd say: right diagnosis, wrong conclusions. I realize that I'm blurring the boundaries here between teaching and speaking, but John Bruce doesn't quite have it right. Academic hiring is extremely merit-based in its hiring and promotion, if and only if you define merit in terms almost exclusively focused on research. And despite a national trend towards an emphasis on teaching (often melded with crappy "customer service" styled rhetoric), the fact of the matter is still that having a book and mediocre speaking/teaching skills will get you tenure while being a great speaker/teacher who's not published will get you gone.

I'm not talking about my institution here--I'm talking about the entire profession. And it will take a tectonic shift for it to be otherwise. Me, I just want to give an actual talk...

April 17, 2005


I would have blogged this yesterday, if I hadn't had to wake up before the sun to hitch a ride to Albany with Derek and Madeline in order to provide audiential support for their appearance at a regional conference. As it was, and as you'll note if you visit the site, the organizers failed to include one crucial piece of information: the actual, physical location of the conference. This was not good. We:

  1. Checked the Humanities building, since the English department was one of the hosts
  2. Checked the Library, after being sent there by someone in the Humanities building
  3. Checked the Arts and Sciences building, after failing to acquire any information in the library (with the exception of the fact that there is no weekend switchboard)
  4. Checked the bizarre subterranean area
  5. Checked the student center, whereupon a poster outside the GSO office tipped us to the location of the keynote address
  6. Determined that the Life Sciences building was best accessible through the Biology building
  7. Felt like lab rats, until
  8. Finally locating the conference, with approximately 10 minutes to spare before their panel was set to start

All of which leads me to offer Rule #1 of Conference Hospitality:

Rule #1: Design all materials for an audience that includes at least one person who has never been there before.

In a small fit of revenge, I didn't register for the conference (which goes against my general rule supporting these kinds of conferences) and went ahead and ate lunch anyway, so as to recoup some of the caloric debt they incurred by not telling us where the thing was happening.

And as tends to be the case with small conferences, I was one of two people who stayed for the entire session, not counting the moderator and panelists. It brought back fond memories for me of all the tiny conferences I've attended where I presented more for the practice of presenting than anything else.

Oh, and I finally got to inter-f2f with Alex, whose talk--you guessed it--was scheduled directly opposite Derek and Madeline. At least he's got a transcript of his talk available...

And I would have blogged all this yesterday, had I not fallen asleep at 6 pm. That is all.

May 29, 2005

squeaky wheel?

I don't know if there was any relationship between the fact that I rant and rave on occasion about some of the less sensible (in my opinion) policies and procedures related to CCCC -and- the fact that this year, I was a Stage I Reviewer for said conference. But there you have it. For what it's worth, I still believe that there should be some of kind of database for potential reviewers--the system for selecting reviewers could be a great deal fairer with the application of a few basic heuristics.

The system for reviewing, though, is awfully darn efficient. I reviewed around 25 proposals, and I won't say what area except to note that there was no conflict of interest between my proposal and my reviewing, which is as it should be. The review system is entirely online, but I printed out (and have since shredded) my proposals, and read through them a few times. First time through, I did kind of a holistic read, scoring them pretty quickly. Then I put them in ranked order, and read straight through them, making various adjustments to their ranking. Then I set them aside for a day, and did another ranked reading. Finally, I went through them in order one more time, this time with the 4-point reviewer scale in order to separate them out into 4 piles. The piles ended up being pretty even, but skewing a bit towards acceptance.

One thing I'd note, and that's that there's not a huge gap between the proposals that I thought were best and those that I thought weren't. As you might gather, all of the proposals are pretty good, with a few standouts in each direction. Without going into too much detail, I do have a few thoughts about what made an excellent proposal, and what advice I'd give (and have given) to proposers:

First, I can't recommend enough Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin's chapter from Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication called "Gatekeeping at an Academic Convention." I wish that it was possible to update that study, in fact, because I think it offers tremendously valuable insight into this process. There's a bit of chicken/egg here, I guess, because I give this chapter to every graduate student at SU, so there's undoubtedly a fair amount of influence that it had on my reviewing.

Second, in any situation where you are likely to be competing on a level field, details matter. I didn't downgrade proposals that had spelling errors (and I intentionally pluralize both words there), but in almost every case, mechanical errors accompanied thought that was not as crisp as in other proposals. There were proposals that appeared not to have been edited at all, and it showed.

Third, I strongly recommend having at least one reader/editor who knows next to nothing about what you're doing. I don't know for sure that this is the right solution to this problem, but I encountered proposals that were too sparse in their accounts of their session, and others that were downright verbose. It seems obvious to me, but bottom line is that a proposal should accomplish two primary goals: they should explain what you plan on saying/doing/accomplishing, and they should explain why it's significant/important. What are you doing and why? There are plenty of different ways to achieve that balance, but too often, I saw proposals that were all one or the other.

Finally, one of the things that B & H talk about is the "insider ethos" that a successful proposal will often have, accomplished through references to trends in the field, specific texts, conversations, etc., and that was one of the places where there were real differences among the proposals I read. Again, no specifics, except to say that on some occasions, I encountered some fairly sweeping claims about the field, clearly attempts to strike that insider pose but which had the opposite effect. I can suspend my own positions to a degree, and I can see how certain topics/panels might interest others even if I'm not interested in them myself, but I can't ignore disciplinary claims that are flat-out incorrect.

I don't know that these points are specific enough to be of any real help, nor do I really think I've said anything here that hasn't been said before and in more detail, but there you have it. One thing that reviewing proposals has done for me is to confirm my own practices both as a submitter and as someone who reads and responds to a fair number of colleagues' proposals each year.

Now watch as my own proposal gets rejected this year. Jinx!

That is all.

June 18, 2005

Best Academic Weblog

It's official.

cgbvb was honored last night, at the Awards banquet at Computers and Writing 2005, as the 2005 Kairos Best Academic Weblog. And as Mike notes in his announcement, not more than an hour later, Andrea Lunsford cited me in her keynote address. That qualifies as a doubleshot of academic goodness, guaranteed to perk up my day, and it does/did. Now, of course, I'm dying to hear/see what Andrea had to say about me...

I'm not looking to wax all "lifetime achievement" or anything, but I did want to thank the judges, both (obviously) for recognizing me but also for what must have been a great deal of reading and a difficult decision. Our little corner of the (academic) blogosphere has grown a lot in the last year, so don't think it false modesty if I say that part of doing this successfully is having people to talk with and ideas to work with. The claim, which still makes the rounds from time to time, that blogging is just self-indulgent, public diary-writing fails to take into account how important it is to each of us to have readers, fellow writers, comments, trackbacks, etc. So thanks also to the folks in my blogroll, and really to anyone who's taken to stopping by on a regular basis, whether you've left traces or not.

In my graduate course this summer, one of the issues that's emerged occasionally is the relationship between academic conversations and privilege, and one of the things that I'm slowly coming to realize is that this site has had a profound influence on the ways I think about academia and publication. It's hard not to be (sometimes more than) a little cynical about the economy that we academics find ourselves thrown into, and yet, for me, blogging operates outside of that system, and productively so. While the publication process can sometimes feel like an esoteric brand of hazing that rewards little more than raw persistence, whatever privilege and status I've earned here I've earned because of an ongoing commitment to writing and to the topics that interest me. And I like that there's a space where that's enough. I also appreciate those spaces where it takes more than that--I appreciate the quality of research and writing that occurs in those spaces. But I think that (for me, at least) blogging allows my writing a balance that I've only discovered in the past year or two, a balance between the event/performance and the dailyness that most of my writing embraces. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: we teach our students that their products should emerge from an ongoing process, but we're really bad at practicing what we preach.

And so that's maybe what I'm proudest of when it comes to being recognized as best academic weblog. It feels like I'm being rewarded specifically for practicing what we preach, for being both a teacher of writing and teacher who writes. Nothing wrong with that. Heh.


August 20, 2005

Whine not?

I'm going to break from tradition here, and fail to bemoan the fact that summer's over. When I gaze back fondly on that time so quaintly misidentified as "summer break," I find that I

  • Presented at both Computers and Writing Online and the Penn State Conference;
  • Drafted and submitted one essay and drafted another for publication;
  • Got seriously moving on my manuscript revisions;
  • Prepared and taught a graduate seminar that was, by all accounts, a pretty good course.

I managed to visit with lots of friends and family also, so it wasn't all work and no play. I'm sure I'll miss the summer, because among other things, it gave me the occasional excuse to ignore work-related requests and plenty of opportunity to sleep in. But by and large, I can't say that there was work to be accomplished this summer that wasn't. And that's a pretty good feeling.

Monday is our program's orientation day, aka Community Day. We plan a short day with a couple of formal-ish panels around a particular theme, some orientation for the grad students, capped by a potluck in the evening. Seeing everyone refreshed after the summer and raring to go? That'll be nice. Having to be in charge? Yeah, not so much. At some point in my administrative career, I'm going to have to develop a certain level of comfort with speaking at and planning public events. We're still working on that part of things, though.

Either that, or I'm going to have to hire myself a figurehead.

That's all.

August 26, 2005

Reverse Psychology

This can't be news to anyone who works in academia, but it's rapidly reached the point where I'm anxious for the semester to begin, if only because that way, I can be sure that all the week before events will be over.

This week has been graduate program orientation, advising, advising, department orientation, and a dissertation defense (congratulations, Dr. Baca!). I'm running on minimal sleep, even less energy, and I don't have much blogging to show for it.

And honestly, not much more to say until I get some rest. Look for me this weekend.

September 4, 2005


Ahh, yes. Ivan "Not his real name" Tribble is back for Round 2, and one might gather from his extensive and defensive fisking of Round 1 that perhaps his tenured, pseudonymous feelings were hurt. Oh, but in "They Shoot Messengers, Don't They?" IT stands by his basic point. Well, he stands by his basic point if you strip it out of its context and allow him to back away from the claims that he made.

His "basic point" has become, simply, be careful what sort of image you project when you apply for jobs:

If "be careful what you say," is good general advice for the job seeker, why is it so controversial to add the word "online"?

Here's the thing, Ivan. It's not controversial at all. It's redundant. "Be careful what you say" is such a vanilla banality that it applies equally well to each and every single thing that you do in graduate school, from blogging to delivering conference papers to choosing shoes for your interviews to spilling a drink on somebody to whatever. Your original essay was the place where blogs as a medium were identified as something necessarily harmful and controversial. Back when that was your basic point, you were singling out a particular activity and suggesting categorically that, rather than being places where we might exercise care and/or judgment, blogs were necessarily detrimental to the academic job applicant.

The heated response prompted by your column came from those of us who believe that blogs, and the networks they engender, suggest the possibility of a much more open academia, a place where we don't have to spend our lives striving for the goal of becoming inocuous brains on sticks. To those of us who actually practice this type of networking, offering the advice to "be careful what you say" is to treat us as idiots, pouring our lives onto the screen in public without any thought of the consequences. And while there may be those of us who do precisely that, there are plenty of us who have thought carefully about how our blogs construct our identities, and who continue to believe that they do so productively.

As tempting as it would be to fisk your rejoinder, and to point out all of the places where you deserved precisely the range of reactions you received, let me just single out this one:

But of course our committee didn't use blogs as a disqualifier, as my column made clear. Lots of bloggers still misread that and assumed we had.

I stated that several committee members had reservations about hiring a blogger, which many respondents dismissed as irrational. I can't speak for every committee member's reasons, or every blogger's good judgment.

Either you can speak for every committee member's reasons (i.e., can say with certainty that blogs weren't a disqualifier) or you cannot. You don't get to have it both ways. You can't defend the integrity of the search process (blogs weren't a deciding factor) and the integrity of your original argument (blogs may be a deciding factor) at the same time.

The fact of the matter is that you can't really speak to the search process beyond your own experience of it, beyond your own impressions. You can't know whether blogs played much of a factor or not, and as a result, we can't really know whether there's anything to be learned from your original essay, other than your own antipathy--a largely and admittedly uneducated antipathy--towards blogs themselves. But I suspect that CHE isn't paying a whole of money these days to folks writing essays about "How I Hate Blogs." So you've dressed it up as market advice, a column "to help some people land tenure-track jobs." And if your point was "Don't blog; it'll get you in trouble" then even though I disagree, at least there was some point to your essay. Of course, that point, as you seem aware, requires more evidence than a "trend" (?!) identified from a single search in a single discipline at a single school. Originally, you seemed more than willing to make that particular leap in the interests of poking at the blogosphere.

If your basic point is "Be careful what you say," then I'm looking forward to seeing whether or not CHE bothers to pay you for a third column. Because that's not a warning that will help people land jobs--it's a bumper sticker.

That is all.

Except to mention that I refuse to offer IT even the implicit endorsement that comes with a link. Instead, go to The Little Professor and follow the link there. Also with the hat tip to Clancy.

September 20, 2005

If only

If only I had realized which holiday we'd scheduled our various faculty meetings on yesterday. Can't say that it would have made things more productive, but as you might imagine, it would have been infinitely more entertaining.

Update: And speaking of if onlies...

November 6, 2005

While I was symposing...

My normal strategy is to have a mental category of "bloggables," a place where I store all of the things I might write here. It's a pretty Darwinian spot, and when I have the time to do a little sharing, the item from that place that feels most pressing is the one that shows up here. A fair number of bloggables fade and vanish, a few stick around for what feels like ages, and the rest eventually pop up here.

Anyhow, I've been holding onto this one for a few days now. One of our field's listservs has been particularly active as of late, and my reaction to it, most likely, is a rough approximation of the reaction that prompted Donna's recent post, esp the part comparing listservs to telemarketing. My own gut reaction to the discussion there is that there are a couple of trolls stirring things up intentionally, but that's really besides the point. A couple of questions/comments were raised that provoked me a little more than than they perhaps should have, and so...

The basic argument is this: future employers and associates could be on the list, and if you offend them, you are damaging future employment attempts.

Still others encourage me to post what i will and let the chips fall where they man [sic].

As an open question to the list, I ask:

As a potential employer or person in a position to influence a job decision, which opinion would you endorse and why?

This question comes up every once in a while on various listservs. Since I've achieved more than enough distance from the events in question, let me say this: Any public, professional statement is fair game for consideration, period. The problem here is that, when several people email you or talk to you off-list about your future employers, what they're really saying is that you're making an ass of yourself. But they're doing it indirectly, by suggesting that you tone it down as a matter of self-interest. There's something a little insincere about doing it this way, but I've done it myself on plenty of occasions, so there you are.

Now, I'd fight for your right to make an ass of yourself on a listserv, just as hard as I would for those who do it on their weblogs. That's your right. But it's no less of a right on the part of prospective employers to weigh the relevant evidence in their deliberations, and a statement made on a clearly identified professional listserv, in my opinion, qualifies.

Case in point. A long time ago, I was on a different listserv where one of the members engaged in a fairly protracted discussion about how a particular area of the field just wasn't that relevant or useful. I was a little miffed, given that I was on a search committee for a position that included said area. Imagine my surprise when this person's application appeared on my desk for that position. Actually, don't imagine my surprise. Imagine instead my laughter. The application didn't make it particularly far, as you might additionally imagine. I'm being purposefully vague here, to protect both the applicant and the process in general, but the fact is that applicants' behavior in professional contexts, even when it's not the pages of a journal, has an effect on how I view their applications. And anyone who believes that listservs don't have that effect is hopelessly naive.

(You won't be surprised to learn that no one, however, offered the suggestion in this conversation that graduate students shouldn't participate in/on disciplinary listservs.)

Of course, there's a lot of grey, particularly in contexts that mix personal and professional, and those contexts are far more the norm than the exception. Should a drunken comment in a hotel bar at a conference submarine your job prospects? Probably not, but it's probably happened to someone. Does a garish homepage design have anything to do with someone's ability to teach a course in whatever? Probably not, but the two have undoubtedly been linked together in some search committee member's mind. Is it fair for committees to try and imagine, on the basis of selected and incomplete information, what a body is likely to be like as a colleague? Nope, but it happens all the time.

Fact is, not everyone will want you. But to imagine that you don't have some measure of control (not to mention some measure of responsibility) over how you are perceived is absurd. The message quoted above ends with the following paragraph:

If one is not being true to oneself, does it benefit one to act in such a way that moderates or diminishes argument to a level that is more socially acceptable within the list, or should one instead be "loud and proud"?

Setting aside the really poor writing, what irked me the most about this question was the false dichotomy. Either one is "true" or one is acting. And of course, buried in this question-that-isn't-really-a-question is an indictment of anyone who is "socially acceptable" because of course, to be "true" is to just let it all out and damn the consequences. This is bunk. But it led to the second of the things that really pissed me off, and that was the series of snide comments about the academic "game."

Maybe I'm just particularly attuned to what I take to be a cynical, dismissive attitude lately because I'm in a position to have an influence on some of the "rules." My experience, though, has been there's very little outside the "game"--no profession that doesn't have rules that seem unnecessary, arbitrary, and capricious from the outside. But the rhetorical strategy here is to treat academia as a game, as though there's some other mythical place where we can all be "true" to ourselves, where we don't have to play well with others, and where there's perfect transparency.

The people who speak knowledgably about the "game" of academia, though, are the ones who understand that it's a game like any other (profession), one with often real consequences, and one that differs from other professions not in essence but in practice. It's "performative" not in opposition to the real, but performative at the root of what we take to be real. And the fact of the matter is that your "real" identity is often going to be based on a limited set of "performances." The job application is onesuch, but by no means the only way that the discipline gathers information about you.

So, yes, by all means, make an ass of yourself. Just don't complain when you apply for a position, and someone on the committee thinks of you as an ass.

That is all.

November 25, 2005


Not much going on in my neck of the 'sphere here in the wake of Turkey Day. For the umpteenth year in a row, I did all I could to avoid Bleak Friday, the inevitably depressing reminder of all that is commercial and cynical about the upcoming holidays.

And so, looking to restore my faith and optimism, what should I come across (tip: Chuck) but a link to an NYT interview with Jean Baudrillard? Okay, if you don't know who JB is, then you wouldn't recognize that as irony. Trust me, though. It is.

There was a time when I was really into JB's work, when it felt like he was on the front edge of what was going on in culture and society. Of course, this was a while ago, and since then, I must admit that it's felt like the world passed him by. In part, I think it's a generational thing--had he been a fair bit younger, I think he would have embraced the Net and drifted with the flow a little more. Now, he just sounds cantankerous:

Q: Some here feel that the study of the humanities at our universities has been damaged by the incursion of deconstruction and other French theories.

A: That was the gift of the French. They gave Americans a language they did not need. It was like the Statue of Liberty. Nobody needs French theory.

That's the close of the piece. Ah, well. If he had bothered to lead with this bon mot, then perhaps Deborah Solomon's time could have been better spent with someone whose only relevance to the NYT is his status as "one of France's most celebrated philosophers." I can't help but sense the parallel between JB here and the other theory wonks who have delighted in crowing about the demise of theory, their last gasp attempt at keeping control over the industry from which they've derived a great deal of benefit but for which they're no longer as relevant. The irony of JB trying to keep it real in the NYT, after years of arguing precisely against such a strategy, is almost enough to make me laugh.

Almost. That is all.

January 12, 2006

You don't have to read everything, just my work

I forgot to mention that my 6-pack mustard gift box arrived today!

Which makes it doubly strange that I'm still at my office at 8:00 pm writing a second blog entry when instead I could be enjoying a sandwich. Perhaps not so strange, though, when I explain that I'm consciously getting myself back into a writing habit, and slowly (ever sooooo) trying to re-engage myself with academic work.

Anyhow, was browsing the IHE 'Round the Web, and came across an entry over at Wanna Be PhD about reading for dissertation work, wherein the writer takes issue with the advice that

When you write a dissertation, you have to prove to your readers that you have found and addressed every piece of scholarship ever written on anything possibly relevant in any way to your subject.

This isn't so much advice, I suppose, as it is hazing, and while WBP's anecdote about 2 years of reading followed by complete blockage is compelling enough, another angle on the issue suggests itself to me, particularly as I've been reading along with the Moretti fest (which you should be reading, all of it, right now, get over there).

It seems to me that, particularly in reading-intensive disciplines, we do to our graduate students the same disservice done unto most of us. Specifically, I would assume that many if not most of us loved reading--I certainly did, and part of my declaration of English as a major and my selection of Writing as a vocation related to that love. If you loved reading as a teen or college student, there's a good chance that you were fully capable of reading everything for all your classes, and then some. But that kind of binge reading, particularly at the doctoral level, just isn't possible and it's less so if you manage to complete a doctorate and profess.

So the disservice is this: because we love to read, and we do it a lot, we're slow to realize that there are different kinds of reading (this is the Moretti link for me, btw), and that different tasks require those various kinds. For example, here are four approaches that I might have taken to Latour's book:

  • read the thing cover-to-cover, as I'm doing now
  • do a power skim, reading 1st and last pages of each chapter, and topic sentences
  • read a review or two of it from relevant journals
  • wait for Clay to read it, and to review it on his site

I don't know how many of us would describe all four activities as reading, but I think I would. I might have to resort to air quotes on a couple of them, but I don't necessarily believe that close, word-by-word reading is the only kind of reading you must do when your director tells you to "read everything." In the same way that you might "read" people or "read" a conversational dynamic, for the sake of sanity, you have to "read" your field.

In a less quotey way, I'd put it like this: if you account for a 2002 essay in your project, and that essay has accounted for several articles from the mid-90s, you are accounting for the whole bunch. You have "read" them to the degree that you probably should in order to contribute to the conversation. Now, of course there is some critical faculty to be exercised as to the credibility of our 2002 author, but that's true of every single thing we read.

In a more colloquial way, I'd put it like this: just as you need to address the various "so what?" moments that inevitably arise in a project of some breadth and length, you must make sure that your project isn't vulnerable to the "what about...?" moments. This is not as much of a deal-breaker as we assume, but it is risky, especially when the "what about...?" comes from someone outside of your speciality. If I'm going to write an essay on ANT, I don't want someone to read it and ask "What about Latour?" I had better use Latour, or make sure that there isn't something there that I need to address either citationally or substantially in my argument.

But there are lots of ways to do this, and only one of them involves me rounding out the Latour section on my shelf with those books I haven't yet gotten and a stack of those essays not yet translated or bound. There are other ways, and I'd argue that they're still ways of reading, but I think each of us struggles to learn them, and we don't do such a good job of passing them on.

That is all.

January 29, 2006


As Mike notes, albeit from a different perspective from mine, visit season is upon many of us in Rhetoria. The tail end of this past week saw one visit to the SU Writing Program, and we'll have 3 more over the next couple of weeks.

There are times when I simply don't write here, and times when I basically can't, and visit season is one of the latter. It's an odd process, in part because there are all sorts of confidentiality considerations. Less so for a junior search, I guess, since at some point, we all leave the nest. But still. It's a process where differences among candidates are magnified and hierarchized to a degree entirely incommensurate with reality. For better or worse, every department I've ever been in has engaged in what I can only describe as the process of measuring prospective hires against a highly idealized, and in cases fantasized, image of itself.

Believe it or not, that's not bitterness or anything. Quite the contrary. I think that this is an entirely normal reaction, and while we all might wish for a process where candidates weren't being held to standards that we ourselves might struggle to meet, the length and intensity of the hiring process makes this a tough wish to grant. And even as I recognize some of its absurdities, it's tough to imagine it working differently. I've been an applicant, a member of several search committees (and a co-chair this year), and I've helped prepare our own graduates for 5 years now, and there are elements of the process that frustrate me in each of those roles: hard decisions, lots of rejection, subterranean motivations, etc.

One of the things that no visitor to Syracuse will have to endure this year is something that I myself really dislike: the fake teaching performance. There are many places where, on a visit, you will be asked to "take over" a faculty member's class for a day, and somehow accomplish something productive (and of course, persuasive to the several lurkers who watch you). I've never liked this requirement, and I'm pleased to be able to say that we don't do it here. The artificiality of the guest appearance completely runs counter to my own pedagogical beliefs and styles, which involve at their base a distinction between "teaching to" and "teaching at." Even "teaching to" is a little top-down a formulation for my tastes, but "teaching with" isn't quite right, either. I spend a fair amount of energy at the beginning of the semester getting my classes beyond the point where I feel as though I'm speaking to a room full of strangers--asking a candidate to do so (with a job offer potentially riding on the result) is misleading at best and damaging at worst.

So yeah, that's my mini-rant for the week. Good luck to all those who'll be heading out on visits this semester, and good judgment to all those (myself included) who'll be hosting them.

That is all.

February 6, 2006

Friends Like These

I have less to say about today's IHE article, "Reading, Writing and Representing," than you might imagine. Frank Gaughan and Peter Khost, both grad students at CUNY and instructors elsewhere, suggest that

While the public grows increasingly skeptical of the nature and purposes of liberal arts education, academics generally, and we suspect English scholars particularly, have not been as effective as they could, should, and must be when representing the value of their work, especially teaching.

Their solution is not a particularly new one--it is that we must stop writing primarily (or exclusively) to each other, and to make some effort to stage ourselves more effectively for the public, "[b]ecause the value of work in English studies is so poorly understood."

I don't really object to this, although I would take some issue with their unwillingness to acknowledge, for instance, not Michael Bérubé the scholar who presented at MLA on this very topic, but Michael Bérubé the blogger, who does more on his blog on a weekly basis to meet the goals the authors lay out here than a lifetime of MLA addresses is likely to accomplish. But that's just me. I believe that blogging, and technology in general, will ultimately not "communicate more effectively the value of English studies" but encourage some of us to revalue that discipline altogether. That's just me too.

I reserve a little grudge, though, for the dismissive treatment of composition and rhetoric:

While jobs in composition, tenure-tenure track and otherwise, have proven more available than those in, say, 19th century American literature, such jobs often consist of administrative positions, or what both critics and reformers are now calling the middle-management class of faculty, wherein one or two tenured faculty are charged with supervising a large and shifting class of part-time faculty.

I could be wrong about this, but more and more I hear this argument, coming primarily from people self-identified with literature: sure, there are more comp jobs, but they're middle manager jobs, service positions. Which, of course, is crap. It's crap mostly because even if some of us are called upon to administer programs (and I would dispute "often" in the absence of evidence), the fact remains that the same burden of scholarship and teaching is laid upon us as is laid upon our literary colleagues. So even more than the often, I react strongly to the notion that my job "consists" of administration, given that I will be evaluated next year according to the same criteria (rightly or wrongly) as any other faculty member.

In other words, this argument is rapidly become the flavor-of-the-month way to avoid acknowledging that real scholarship might be taking place within English Studies other than literary/cultural studies. One of the real joys of working in a freestanding program is the fact of colleagues who do not need to be convinced, cajoled, and reminded that rhet/comp has an important role to play in the "value of English Studies" too.

I don't believe that Gaughan and Khost believe the strong version of this line of reasoning, but it's hard to overlook, in an article about responsible and effective public representation, the way that their piece falls back into the same old snobbery when it comes to rhet/comp.

Apparently, I had more to say than I might have imagined. That is all.

March 5, 2006

A talk in search of a stage

Those of you who follow my scholarly career as closely and in as much painstaking detail as I myself do will notice that one particular vector that I've followed with some consistency is the exploration, experimentation (with), and implementation (PPT) of various visual/spatial tools for writing. In other words, I find myself drawn, time and again, to different ways of writing, different means of expressing the kind of thinking that I do as a scholar.

Funny thing about this is that I didn't realize this myself until fairly recently. I've been working first with hypertexts and webtexts and later with new media more broadly conceived for over 10 years now, and I think that one of the things that drives that work is an underlying conviction on my part that electracy allows me to write in ways that feel more comfortable to me than do those supported by pencils, typewriters, and word processors. It's early in the morning, so forgive me for waxing a little philosophical here.

Anyhow, over the past year or so, I've been using Keynote as a composing tool, mostly for talks that I've given, but as a means of visually and spatially writing before I commit my ideas to sentences and paragraphs. When people started screencasting, I was excited about the possibility of being able to do even more with it. But I've had trouble finding the right combination of tools for myself. Enter ProfCast, a $35 app that allows you to simultaneously record voice on top of Keynote or PPT slides, and it preserves the timing of the slides as well. Finally, it allows you to publish the results as podcasts/screencasts (with RSS feeds to boot). The idea behind it is that it's a tool that would allow professors giving PPT-assisted lectures to record both the voice and slides, and package them together for their students.

So what we have linked below is my first crack at a screencast written in Keynote, then scripted, and recorded with ProfCast. It's about 12 minutes long, and runs a little larger than 8 MB (8.1, I think). It's an MPEG-4 file, and I was able to view it on my machine using QuickTime without any trouble. The slides are vector-based for the most part, so you can watch it full-screen without any fuzziness--in fact, it's probably better displayed large than small, so I recommend downloading it to watch it.

It's a little rough around the edges, but not bad for a first try, and the ideas in it are ones that I've been batting around in different forms (and different forums) for the past year. Enjoy.

social bookmarking screencast

March 14, 2006

The lesser of three travels

So I'm getting myself together to leave in the near future for my annual trip to the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Rather than regale you with tales of catching up on my bills or my laundry (both of which have commanded my attention today), I thought I might express my annual regret that I must go to CCCC instead of, say, ETech or SXSW, both of which command the attention of the blogerati this time of year. Not that there's anything wrong per se with CCCC--I always learn a little something, and I see a lot of people with whom I would otherwise fall out of touch. It's a visceral reminder for me of the academic community that I've chosen to join.

And yet. I can't help but feel that my interests and my inspirations would be better served at one of these other conferences. I envy Laura, who is/was down in Austin for SXSW. And I share her sense that "that education needs to catch up a little bit to this world." But I'm also struck by the outsider-ness of her post, because I've experienced that myself on more than a few occasions. I want to feel like there's a middle space, between the mercenary collisions of acronym people and the (at times) oblivious pokiness of the academy when it comes to these things. I think that there are conversations out there that are just waiting to be held, conversations that take the potential of these ideas as their jumping off point rather than the painstaking objective of endless wheel-reinventing presentations.

This is how you can tell that it's late, and I'm a little frustrated. I start stacking words and phrases as high as I can until they start wobbling.

At any rate, some of my frustration has its source in the fact that, unless I somehow move to CA or TX, I won't ever be a regular attendee at either of those conferences. As a humanities scholar, I'm basically priced out of those venues before I even start. The humanities don't get grants, they don't get corporate sponsors, and they don't include lavish travel budgets among the necessities. I can afford to go to Chicago for 4 days, but only because I applied to my college to cover the difference between cost and my normal travel funding allotment. They do so only because I'm giving a presentation--there is no argument I could make for putting a trip to SXSW on the university dime.

It's frustrating to me because I know where Laura's coming from when she despairs of "fighting the fight" of getting our colleagues to see technology and getting the technologists to see us as something other than a cottage industry ripe for takeover.

No grand conclusions or solutions to be found here. I know that there are those among us who would really welcome rich and complicated conversations, but I don't think it's simply a matter of academics being willing. It's also a matter of patience on the part of industry, some faith on their part that there's some long-term good to be had in engaging with us. Maybe there are already those kinds of spaces that I just don't know about. It's frustrating to me, though, not being able to afford to visit the ones I do know about, even as I suspect that I can't afford not to be there.

If that makes sense.

March 27, 2006

CCCC 06 Roundup

I would have posted this a little sooner, but I've spent the last day or so figuring out how I can cast aspersions on a field that I'm only peripherally involved with, reaching the conclusion that the best way to argue that the field is going in the wrong direction is to "cherry-pick" 5 panel titles, out of hundreds, from their annual conference, and then not going to the conference so as not to complicate my thinnnnnest-slice impression (which I'll describe, of course, as a "fair portion" which provides the double-entendre of both representativity and fairness) of what it is that they're doing.

That's all I have to say on that bit of nitwittery.

It was a good conference this year, although I definitely feel older and less able to keep up than I used to. This year's CCCC had the strange distinction of embodying two strange trends: each night, I got to bed later, and each morning I had to get up earlier. If I had stayed one more day, these trends might have passed each other in the wrong direction--I might have had to wake up before I went to bed. Eek.

As far as sessions went, I only hit a few of them, and they were pretty much superstar caliber. I didn't go to anything before Derek's and my performance at the Computer Connection on Thursday, but afterwards, I saw Jim Porter, Catherine Latterell, Dànielle Devoss, and Stuart Selber (E.28 Why Plagiarism Makes Sense in the Digital Age: Copying, Remixing, and Composing). It was a solid panel, doing some of the work necessary to bridge our disciplinary (and pretty traditionalist) notions of authorship with the implications of new media. Shockingly enough, after a 7 am breakfast meeting, I caught David Blakesley, Thomas Rickert, and Diane Davis all give really intriguing papers revisiting KB's notion of identification (F.15 The Rhetorics of Identification; Or, Me and You and You and Me, So Happy Together?). All three were strong papers, but I was especially interested in Diane's--the idea that mirror neurons suggest an originary, pre-linguistic "togetherness" which is first broken and then imperfectly healed through identification was (a) a really smart take on neurobiology's implications for rhetoric and (b) a very original challenge to some of our cherished disciplinary assumptions. After a brief pause to fill my body with sugar and caffeine, I went to see Becky Howard, David Russell, and Sandra Jamieson (H.15 Authentic Arguments: Information Literacy and Case Studies in FYC). Becky and I chat IL all the time, but I hadn't seen before the work that Russell was doing to track how students use sources in building arguments. Interesting stuff. Having been up at 6-ish, by the end of their session, I was pretty much wiped, so I skipped on the next 2 sessions plus the other general (the awards one).

(I didn't get to see the morning general session on Thursday, either, although I heard vaguely unflattering things about it, or rather that the Address itself had less than flattering things to say about some of the things that I do. Rather than offer a 4th hand response, I'll wait to see/read a version of it...)

Saturday morning, with my sleep and energy quotients approaching zero, I attended my final session of the conference, K.23 From Panel to Gallery: Twelve Digital Writings, One Installation, and no, I won't list the 12, although several are friends. Being able to walk around the room and futz was perfect for me, though, and there were some really sharp pieces. If I can find the URL, I'll post a link to Tim Richardson's thingamajig, which was a Flash interface that positively hypnotized me. It reminded me of the stories I've heard, and pics I've seen, of SIGGRAPH interface galleries. Cool Cool Cool.

Anyhow, that was my formal CCCC. Counting my own, I went to 5 sessions, which is about right, and I met lots and lots of people and strengthened ties with others. Can't ask for much more.

March 31, 2006


Thank you to those of you who added your voices to the request that the annual Kairos Best Academic Weblog award be renamed in honor of John Lovas. It would have been a hard change to argue against, to be sure, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't important to speak up and remember John. Like many others, I felt like CCCC didn't do as much as it could have to honor him at the first meeting since his passing.

And so, my thanks to the editors of Kairos and KNews for making the change. The call for nominations is up now, and I can't help but think that John would be pleased to have his name associated with it.

That is all.

April 13, 2006

Black Swan Blogging

Spencer has a post from near a week ago now where, in part, he talks about the difference between revising and rewriting. I take the former to be much more modest in scope, a tweaking of a basically stable text, while the latter, as Spencer observes, is a lot more messy and transformative. When I think back on the writing that I've done that I've considered successful, I can name the places where I did good work revising and also the ones that required rewriting.

I've been thinking about this distinction lately, because I think there's an analogous distinction to be made when it comes to organizations--perhaps someone's already made it, I don't know. But there's a difference between making tweaks to an organization headed in the "right direction" and trusting in its momentum on the one hand, and making large changes or having to generate that momentum on the other. It's not so much that one is right and one is wrong--I can imagine each is appropriate in particular circumstances, just as I've had pieces of writing whose needs for revision or rewriting have varied widely.

Problems emerge, though, when there's a clash between perceptions, when one person looks at a situation and sees "revision" while another looks at it and sees "rewriting." For the record, I'm neither person in this example, at least initially, but this is an oblique way of getting around to the fact that I've been sitting on my hands for the past week or so. I've been specifically not blogging what I hold to be a fairly important situation occurring in the background right now, and I say this knowing that some of my colleagues who read this may be after me to tell them what I'm talking about. Some of them will already know, and everyone else will just have to trust that I'm being intentionally careful for a reason, both here and in general.

This is sometimes the point where those of us who post under our birth names express a desire for a pseudonymous blog, some place where we can write through our thoughts, but that's not the issue here. There is no way for me to talk about the situation without tipping it off, so ingrained is it in our particular context. Instead, all I can do is not blog about it, but doing so makes it harder for me to post about more inocuous topics. Big changes have a tendency to seep into your spare thoughts, and even as I've started a post or two in the past few days, I find my mind drifting back to the big things, distracting me from my attempt to deflect my attention a little.

We don't talk much about the "not blogging" that we have to do sometimes--the examples we hear about blogging are all Dooce and Tribble--when for every person who missteps online, there are probably dozens who exercise judgment or restraint, or at the very least, think carefully about the implications of what they say and don't say in these spaces. A couple of weeks ago, in his CCCC talk, Thomas Rickert referred to Nassim Taleb's discussion of black swans, events that are by definition rare and unpredictable. I don't mean to suggest that showing restraint or good judgment is rare (!!!), but rather that there's something similar to the logic of black swan events and what I'm talking about here. Here's Taleb on our inability to understand risk:

Our system of rewards is not adapted to black swans. We can set up rewards for activity that reduces the risk of certain measurable events, like cancer rates. But it is more difficult to reward the prevention (or even reduction) of a chain of bad events (war, for instance). Job-performance assessments in these matters are not just tricky, they may be biased in favor of measurable events. Sometimes, as any good manager knows, avoiding a certain outcome is an achievement.

Although it's a little misleading to call it "black swan blogging," I suppose, I've been thinking of it in these terms. My own affective experience of "not blogging" is that it's taken a great deal of effort on my part to hold my tongue or my fingers, and yet, the page itself empties out as older entries fade into archive, and it looks like I'm just not engaged. There's a certain degree of engagement that is necessarily invisible, a threshold past which transparency can do more harm than good, and lately, I've been struck by how hard it is to articulate this idea positively. Harder still to recognize it and its value, when judicious restraint and inactivity look the same. Neither is as sexy as tales out of school about job searches and the danger, danger, danger of blogging.

That's all for the moment. Maybe it will have helped me a little to write about why it's been hard to write. We'll see.

April 17, 2006

News Flash: Yale Cares!

It's hard not to approach this story from today's IHE, Finishing the PhD, with bemused snarkiness. The story is about Yale's current attempt to streamline its doctoral programs:

Currently, Yale does better than most institutions, with humanities doctorates (which in national comparisons tend to take longer than other disciplines) finishing in just under seven years on average, but Butler said he would like to see that figure closer to six.

Reading accounts like this are like watching from afar the inbreeding of European royal families or reality television celebrity for me. It's so distant from my own experience as a grad student at two different schools and a professor at another two. At these schools, 3 of which have doctoral programs, 6 years would have been considered a borderline problem, not an average to work towards. In some ways, this speaks, I suppose, to the implicitly classed nature of the field I'm in, but stories like this, where the Ivies stumble upon stuff that we out here in the sticks have been doing for years, makes me smirk.

Let's see:

  • Students finishing in less than six years (Check)
  • "good adviser-advisee relationships are established in the first two years" (Check)
  • "early on, students...plan an intellectual agenda" (Check)
  • "focus on preparing students for the job market" (Check)
  • "integrate students into professional life sooner" (Check)

And I could go on with all sorts of features that aren't in the article itself, like the ethics of allowing program size to be determined by departmental labor needs or faculty-student ratio, for instance. By no means is our own program perfect, but articles like these, about programs like these, makes me sympathetic to those students who attend institutions like Yale expecting graduate education and receiving instead an education in the corruption of graduate school.

While I'm not a big fan of discussions of accountability, which are too often initiated by people whose motives are less than pure, it's hard not to look at situations like these and to believe that what they need are some standards for program performance and corresponding incentives, both positive and negative, for meeting them.

That is all.

April 18, 2006

Slow to reply? That's why.

I'm making what I consider to be excellent progress on one front this month, and that's the revisions to my manuscript. I'm still planning on having the whole thing new and improved by the end of the month, and with each passing day, that goal seems more and more realistic. I can't tell you how delightful it is to have a writing goal not only seem realistic but to be such. It ends up carrying its own momentum from day to day, and that's the way writing works best for me now.

The downside of this newfound productivity is that I'm being particularly mercenary about the rest of my life, only surfacing occasionally, and really, being pretty unapologetic for this. I trust that those of you reading this, and expecting something from me, will understand. After months of trying to squeeze my writing into a full-to-bursting schedule, and slowly feeling the clouds of an imminent tenure case approaching, I've simply reprioritized for a spell.

The blog, it understands, if begrudgingly.

More to today's point, I resurfaced briefly to attend the awards ceremony for the Graduate Education Award I received. I'll point to the picture when it's up, but I did want to mention that maybe the single most important thing about these kinds of award ceremonies to me is the fruit spread. Not that I can't go out and buy a bunch of fruit, but I tend to buy it one at a time, given that I live by myself. So canteloupe one week, grapes another, etc. Today, I got to load up my plate with a variety.

There's something vaguely unsettling to me about launching into an encomium on the fruit plate, but I'll leave it there. Let it stand as a reminder to anyone whosoever might think about inviting me to give a talk on their campus. A variety of fresh fruit could very well cover for a multitude of sins.

Just don't invite me to do anything this month. That is all.

April 26, 2006

The Vice of Loyalty

I've been meaning to blog this for a few days now. It's been a while since I dialed up the ol' Chronic-what?!-le of Higher Ed, and last week, when I did, I happened across a little ditty by Jason "Not His Real Name" Stone, called "The Price of Loyalty." Therein, the good Prof. Stone bemoans the fact that he now makes less money than a colleague of his who, although hired at the same time as he, tested the market, got a counteroffer, and a significant raise ensued.

Now, being a junior faculty member, I will confess that I am still learning the politics of salary negotiations, counteroffers, and the like. But here is how I see it: My productivity and loyalty to my department are not being rewarded; my salary will stay the same. My colleague, on the other hand, will be making several thousand dollars more than I do simply because he played the game.

In a sense, I'm being punished for loyalty to my department, and he is being rewarded for his lack of same. Ever hear the saying "Nice guys finish last"?

To be fair to Stone, there are probably a lot of people out there unaware of how frequently this happens, how there are certain people far more willing to play this game than others, and how the reward system in academia actually encourages this kind of mercenary-ism. Those people, as Stone notes, are paying the "loyalty tax." It was really driven home for me the first time that I saw an assistant professor being hired at a higher salary than I was currently making, which implied that my years of service were less valuable to me than procrastination would have been. (That's not quite accurate, but from the perspective of a relatively new assistant prof with a mountain of debt, that's how it felt, certainly.)

I've made no secret of the fact that that I'll be on the market in the fall--beginning this summer, I'll be going up for tenure, and considering that it's possible that Syracuse would choose not to renew my contract, searching for another position is the only sensible option. Considering that it's possible that Syracuse will renew my contract, having offers from other schools is the only sensible way to provide myself with negotiation leverage.

It's a little daunting, I suppose, to realize that next year at this time, I will either be leaving the ranks of the untenured, or leaving the ranks of Syracuse altogether, but if there's one thing I don't feel about this whole process, it's disloyal. I'm really a pretty loyal person, but I'm loyal to people more than I am to places, and certainly more than I am to institutions. I am grateful to every institution that's supported me, I suppose, but I don't feel awkward about saying that they probably got the better end of the deal in each case. Honestly, I feel as though I have been loyal in about the same proportion (and often more) than my various institutions have been to me.

Michael Bérubé has a nice reply to the recent DOE "report" blaming rising college costs on tenure, and this despite the fact that the number of full-time faculty has dropped substantially in the past 20 years, and faculty salaries rarely keep pace with inflation from year to year. Worth a glance is his parody of the attitudes that are at play in misleading, nonsensical junk like the DOE report. What's neither nonsensical nor misleading is the fundamental disloyalty involved in that mindset, though. Reading reports like that are what make me scoff just a little at Stone's essay. I don't fault him for his naivete, because I think our institutions benefit from keeping us in the dark about the tenure process, about each other's negotiations, and about just how loyal they actually are or aren't when it comes to our continued employment.

I certainly don't mean for this to sound like I have anything against SU, because I don't. I'll have to weigh my feelings about Syracuse if/when I have to make a decision about where I'll be in 07-08, but choosing to give myself options, to me, isn't an act of disloyalty.

That is all.

May 15, 2006

Minor Brushes with Fame

“I’m excited about digital technology, even as I worry about making a Plato page look like a Wikipedia entry,� said Thomas Mallon, deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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

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

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

That's all.

May 22, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 9, 2006

Party like it's 1996

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

Computer Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 12, 2006

Collin vs. Hoops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 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 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 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.


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 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 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 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.

September 4, 2006

Collections vs Conversations

Derek's citation of an entry over at Paul Matsuda's blog tripped a bit of a switch for me this evening, and the result is probably going to be a sizable post. Buckle your seat belt.

What I want to take issue with, ever so slightly, is the tried and true bit of wisdom that entering academia is a matter of "joining the conversation." We're fond, in rhetcomp, of Kenneth Burke's passage from Philosophy of Literary Form, as a metaphor for disciplinarity:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

There are critiques of the Habermasian character of the Burkean parlor, but that's not my concern. My concern is with the ease with which "putting in one's oar" is translated into the nominalism of "publication." As in, I need a publication, or to get a publication, or I don't have enough publications. I'm being somewhat specific here: I'm objecting to "publication" as a thing you have as opposed to "publishing" as an activity you engage in. And thus my concern is also with how we translate "listen for a while," because I think that's key for publishing (and perhaps less of an emphasis in publication).

For the past couple of years, I've been handing out Paul Matsuda's chapter "Coming to Voice: Publishing as a Graduate Student," from Casanave and Vandrick's Writing for Scholarly Publication (Amazon). In fact, I wrote about it, almost exactly a year ago, in the context of a discussion about the ongoingness of blogging. So it was kind of cool to see Paul repeat some of that essay in a blog entry a couple of weeks back. And it reminded me about why I hand out his chapter in the first place.

I wrote a year ago that "What's important about the essay is that it narrates a process that's not about acquiring disciplinary content so much as it is learning about the conversations, about seeing publication as an ongoing process," but I want to amend that statement slightly. I'm now beginning to wonder if even the metaphor of "conversations" pushes us too quickly towards the "publication" end of things.

As I mentioned early on, over at Rhetwork, the idea of collection has been gathering steam for me for a while. And so I want to contrast collection with conversation as a guiding metaphor for academic/intellectual activity, particularly at its early stages, i.e., in graduate school.

I'll add some citations to this eventually, but this summer, at RSA, I gave a paper where I suggested that collection, as Walter Benjamin describes it in "Unpacking My Library," operates as a hinge between narrative and database, in part based upon our affective investment in it. I may look at my big wall of books and see all the various connections among texts, in terms of their content, chronology, and my own encounters with them. In short, I may perceive it as a big wall of conversations, of disciplinary narratives. Someone else may happen upon it, and simply see a library, a database of rhetoric, critical theory, technology studies, et al.

The value of the collection, of having all these books here, is that I'll never know what's going to be useful. I can't predict, when I begin an essay, what will find its way in and what won't. I have the luxury of being able to work my way through my collection, following up on dimly perceived connections, my own added marginalia, etc. And the wall enacts on a material scale what's going on in my head as I constantly add articles, books, ideas, etc., to the collection of disciplinary knowledge that occupies a certain portion of my mind.

It probably feels like I've wandered from my point. My point is that we tend to think of our disciplines largely in terms of the narratives we construct, stories of the field's progress from point A to B to C or as conversations among certain luminaries occurring in the pages of journals and books. To treat the discipline as a database (where, a la Manovich, it's just "an infinite flat surface where individual texts are placed in no particular order� ) is to foreclose, initially at least, on the narratives that we tell ourselves about our fields.

But of course, disciplines are neither one nor the other; they're both. From the outside, the publications in a given discipline comprise a growing mountain of discourse that no one person could possibly master. From the inside, even a single article may yield all sorts of narrative information about where the writer's from, with whom she studied, to whom she's responding. We become quite adept at reconstructing conversations from a single voice, and the occluded genres of footnotes, citations, and bibliographies can only help us do so.

And when faced with the conceptual metaphor of a discipline as a gathering of conversations, as a parlor, our response is to want to join it, to enter the conversation. The uber-competitive job market only fuels this desire, as if it needed feeding. When faced with a conversation, there aren't a lot of other options.

I want instead to think about collection as an alternative metaphor for what we do, or an earlier stage of a longer process. In part, I'm prompted by Brendan's Katamari Interface and by Jeff's comments about DJs as researchers. When I think of the tools that I use most often, I can see them in terms of collecting:

  • blogs, collecting my thoughts and notes
  •, collecting my bookmarks
  • Library Thing, collecting my books
  • Bloglines, collecting my feeds

and so on. In talking about why it's important to "read it all," Paul explains:

I then scan through [the library] to explore the intertextuality--which sources get mentioned more frequently and how. I then collect more sources if I don't have them handy. Without this process, it wouldn't be possible to come up with viable research questions or to know what questions or concerns reviewers and readers might have.

This is exactly the kind of data mining that we become proficient at as academics, but it's awfully tough to accomplish unless you have that collection to begin with. As we gain experience, we learn how to read articles for their intertextuality, for the differences between primary and secondary sources, etc. But the conversations emerge from collection, not the other way around. And in fact, I want to suggest that the discipline as database also emerges from collection, but that's a different essay.

I'm most certainly not trying to sneak around the back way to saying that "grad students these days are too focused on publication blah blah blah," although there are probably hints of that here. To take a course is to engage in collection, as you read texts and add them either to your active memory or your shelves. It's something we all do, period. To read a journal is to add to your collection.

I'm doing a guest shot in our gateway course this week, and what I'll be talking about, what I'm interested in here, are the logics of thinking as a collector. There are all sorts of tools, not to mention plenty of great examples, for the process of managing your collection, but it's important, I think, to make the figural leap. That is, it's important to understand that what we do in graduate school is to collect.

When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards. And for the first couple of months, I would buy the random packs of cards, always with the assurance that there'd be at least a few cards that I didn't have. As that number began to shrink, I'd start trading my doubles for friends' doubles, of ones that I hadn't gotten yet. And it would get to the point where I'd need only a few to complete a team or even a season, and so I'd go and pay premium prices at the card shop for the one or three that I needed. As a collector, it was important to have the whole set, of course. Reading the journals in a field is a lot like buying store packs, and I don't mean that as an insult. But their output is constrained by their input. Some journals are like being able to buy a store pack with the guarantee that the cards are all from the same team. That's also what taking graduate courses are like, I think. At some point, though, you have to get really specific, and spend your time strategically, to find the key elements missing from your collection, and that means going beyond course work or journals, and tracing bibliographies, asking experts, etc. It means thinking like a collector.

On the one hand, thinking like a collector means just accumulating, rolling your brain/katamari over everything and anything it can pick up. But it also means thinking about how you're going to manage it, how you're going to be able to use, in two years, what you're reading now. I can tell you from experience, "Well of course I'll just remember it" won't work. Seriously. It was just about a year ago that I was coming off of a discussion of note-taking (I taught our gateway course last year), and wrote:

One of the things that I emphasized in class today was the need to develop systems that are sustainable, things you can do (and keep doing) after the initial motivation has passed and the glow has faded.

And that's what I'll end with this year. And probably this week in that course. Use folders, notebooks, blogs, whatever, but build sustainable collection practices that you can engage in tomorrow as well as two years from now. Collect, collect, collect.

Told you it'd be long. That's all.

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September 5, 2006

Keepin on

Paul has a nice reply to my earlier post, Derek's, as well as the comments that Jeff and I left over at his place. A couple of quick things I wanted to mention, maybe to pick up later:

I also feel that reading the professional literature has become much easier. I know what to read carefully (and several times) and what to skim through quickly because I can often predict where I might find certain arguments or pieces of information because of my genre knowledge. Sometimes I can even predict what the text is going to say before reading it based on my knowledge of what's been said and done; in those cases, reading is a matter of confirming my predictions and noting any discrepancies.

That's something that I should have mentioned but didn't, the fact that it does get easier. The advantage of any relatively closed network of texts is that we read for content, yes, but we also read for the strategies and tropes that frame that content. I like "genre knowledge" as a description of it. While it may be somewhat disconcerting to realize that there really aren't all that many ways to say what we have to say, I've always found that it makes my reading easier, too.

And lately, in the past year or two, I've really become interested in the kinds of mental mapping that we inevitably do as scholars. My personal crusade has been to think of ways that this mapping can be aggregated so that we aren't each reinventing the wheel, but on a smaller scale, I've been asking my students (in the last 3 grad courses I've taught) to really think explicitly about mapping as knowledge production.

And that's part of what I mean by managing the collection of academic texts and ideas. I think that there are intermediate steps between reading on the one hand and writing on the other, steps that can, if not shorten the distance between the two, at least allow us to make the transition with more certainty.

The tools that we're using to put together CCC Online are almost all available to anyone with a web browser, and I think they're scalable to the individual user pretty easily. Paul's right to note at the end of his entry that it's crucial to reach a critical mass, though, which is the flip side of the sustainability argument that I make. Any system must be simple enough to accomplish on a regular basis, and done often enough that it achieves critical mass. I look at the tag cloud emerging from our work with, and while it's only a map of 11 or so years of the journal, I feel like it gives me a pretty good idea of that span. And when you add in the fact that the tags themselves link out to specific essays, it's a pretty darn useful little "paragraph." Imagine having a cloud like this for each of several exam lists, for example:

I'm going to be doing some experimenting over the next couple of weeks to try and make our own process even more useful and streamlined. With a little luck, I'll be posting about it soon enough. But this is one of the ways that a collection might be managed to a scholar's advantage, emerging or no...

That's all.

September 18, 2006

So that's how it works!

I have a folder on my desktop that I've been gradually filling for almost two years now. I probably add something once a month or so. Maybe I'll pull something off of a delicious bookmark, or I'll see a link to a pdf through Bloglines, and just dump it in.

So anyway, I didn't have a "next" thing to read about 10 days ago, so I went into that folder and grabbed a pdf. Turns out it was James Moody's "The Structure of a Social Science Collaboration Network: Disciplinary Cohesion from 1963 to 1999." I read it right before I left for Jeff & Jenny's wedding, so I marked it up some with the intent of bookblogging it. Before I could do so, I was browsing my blog stats, and found some visits from a site I hadn't seen before, and followed the link, coincidentally enough, to the page of a grad student who's working with Moody.

Which was enough to send me browsing through the various pages associated with the Sociology department at Ohio State, including Moody's, which took me to the page for his course on Theories of Social Action. And although there are lots of texts both there and on other pages that ended up in that desktop folder of mine, the one that happened to catch my eye was Mustafa Emirbayer's "Manifesto for a Relational Sociology" (JSTOR), which of course I've now read and intend to bookblog as well.

And in the works cited for Emirbayer's essay, I happened to see an entry from David Kaufer, whose Rhetoric and the Arts of Design I'm a fan of. And it turns out that he and Kathleen Carley wrote an essay on semantic connectivity back in 1993, which of course is next on my list and will be bookblogged once I do. But the emphasis on relational sociology (as opposed to sociologies that assume substance) in Emirbayer's essay connects for me with Latour (whom Emirbayer cites), which is close to the top of my brainpile thanks to Jenny's post.

But it's Debbie's post, along with the comment about verbing rhetoric, that reminds me that I need to go back and dig up Michel Serres' stuff about philosophy that would focus primarily not on nouns or verbs, but rather on prepositions. And the appeal for me of the word pre/position, as something both that is relational and that precedes the stasis of positioning, clicks together pretty nicely with Massumi (whom Debbie also mentions) and Jenny both.

That it inches me closer to the things I want to say, by this point, is almost gravy. That's how it works.

September 26, 2006


(Note: I've been sitting on this post for about three days, and gotten to the point where it's keeping me from blogging other stuff. So rather than polish it up, I'm just going to post it.)

Now that the MLA job list has been released, it's been a bit of a challenge for me to turn my thoughts to questions of my upcoming job hunt. After all, this is the first time in six years that I've had to think about searching. I've been solicited for the occasional position, but honestly, not having to assemble materials, worry about MLA, or submit myself to the jaded scrutiny of search committees is in my opinion one of the advantages of the tenure-track. And there are real differences between searching for entry-level positions as an assistant professor and considering more senior positions--I'm only looking at advanced assistant or associate gigs this time round.

Part of it is that there are very specific reasons for requesting senior hires. They require more money, and one of the secret places that colleges balance their budgets is by maxing out the salary differential between retiring faculty and their entry-level replacements. Senior hires screw with that dynamic, and are thus much rarer. Still, there are times where it's warranted, and if you scan the available positions for senior folks in my field, you'll see what I mean. With very few exceptions, you'll find jobs that are explicit about the desire for middle management candidates: established scholar-teachers who can step into a program with minimal fuss and take over the administration of writing centers, writing programs, a large staff of teachers, etc.

Without getting too snarky about it, there are many positions where universities have acknowledged the expertise of rhetcompers, but that acknowledgment has yet to enter into the curricular calculations of the hiring department. And we've all heard the stories about how even search committees haven't really thought through what it means to hire, consider, host, or converse with rhetcomp candidates. I could get specific on either count, but I probably don't need to.

I'm still deciding about where I'm going to apply, but I've basically decided that I'm going to be forthright about it. There are good reasons for me to apply widely (e.g., leverage), but I've been on too many committees to feel good about applying for positions that I have no earthly intention of pursuing. For one thing, I'm not that great a liar. For another, there's a great deal of emotional and intellectual labor that goes into a search, and if someone's going to take the time to read my materials, they deserve some minimal amount of respect from me for doing it. If I'm not willing to go there, then it's disingenuous of me to apply.

And no, that doesn't reduce my list of possible applications to zero.

But what I've been thinking about lately is exactly what I would expect/want/need if I were to move. Some of those things are personal, certainly, and some are matters of taste. But I've had a couple of conversations in the past few days, where I've been thinking out loud about what makes a "good program" in rhetcomp. And I mean this specifically from the perspective of a potential senior hire--what makes a program attractive to people at the stage that I'm at?

So for example, if I were advising a PhD applicant looking at programs, placement would be a big issue. What structures are in place to help their students find positions, and how successful are they at it, both in terms of percentages and in terms of position quality? That stuff matters to me as someone who does a lot of that work locally, but it doesn't fall into the category of "make or break" for me as I look at programs. Make sense?

(I should note from the getgo that I'm only really interested in other PhD programs. I went to a liberal arts school for college, and have taught at a really good MA-granting program, but for me, a doctoral program takes advantage of my greatest strengths as an instructor, in my opinion. At some point in my career, that may change, but not right now.)

So here are some of the things I've come up with. I may add a post or two later on as I think through this stuff, but feel free to add things in the comments as well...

1. A critical mass of faculty

How many rhetcomp faculty are enough to maintain a thriving program? I'm tempted to say at least 8-10, and almost as tempted to go back and change that to say double digits. Does that mean that smaller faculties are somehow less than real? Of course not. But in terms of curricular variety and in terms of sharing exam and dissertation load, it's hard for me to imagine not feeling stretched pretty thin without that many colleagues. I may be relying too heavily on my own experience in a freestanding program without an MA, but if a program is admitting 3-5 PhDs in rhetcomp a year, as we do, and graduating them at the same rate, as we try to do, then 8-10 seems modest enough. Feel free to disagree, though.

2. An articulated rhetcomp curriculum

I don't expect that other programs have the degree of control that we do at SU over graduate curriculum (or undergraduate, for that matter). But still. Rhetcomp students have certain curricular needs (methods, e.g.) that literature students do not, and vice versa (e.g., foreign language requirements, although how much of a need is debatable). I think that a good program is necessarily one where the rhetcomp faculty have some say over how their students are treated curricularly, i.e., not as lit students who take a pedagogy course or two. That definitely means different courses, and it may even mean different procedures, honestly.

3. Sponsored Networking

This may happen in the form of external events (e.g., Watson or the Penn State Conference) or internal (in the form of ongoing Speaker Series, annual symposia, etc.), but good programs set aside the resources to bring in people. (Sending the program's faculty and students outward in the form of travel support is also important, but not quite enough.)

4. The Vision Thing

This can be many different things, and perhaps this is a sign of my quasi-administrative status, but more and more, I find that I'm impatient with programs where the vision is just "keep on keepin on." Y'know? I have my own opinions about what a responsible vision is, and I know that it's not the only one, but having some long-term goals to work towards feels more important to me than it used to, and I think good programs think beyond the immediate semester. Not all the time, and it's not to say that their plans can't change, but some sort of guiding vision is a good thing.

5. Doing unto others

I wish that this went without saying, but I think that part of a program's vision has to include how everyone in the department is treated, not just the TT faculty. If nothing else, everyone in an English department has some sort of stake in the teaching of FYC, and how they account for that stake and support or neglect it institutionally is one of the things I think about.

* * * * *

So those are five things I'll think about this fall as I consider where to apply, and as I go deeper into the process. I could say much more about each of them, but considering that this entry has been clogging up my blogging passages for the last few days, I'm going to post it, and add as I feel like it...

September 29, 2006


It's hard to know how general or specific I'm supposed to be with regard to blogging about tenure, and so my solution in general has been to lay off that particular topic, despite the fact that it occupies more than its fair share of my waking thoughts. (No tenure dreams so far, knock on wood.)

Anyhow, I think I can safely say, without getting into specifics, that I have successfully passed the first stage. (The question isn't whether I've passed, but rather how much to say.)

One of the things that makes me uncomfortable about the process is the degree to which it requires a great deal of work on the parts of many people around me. Not that it didn't require work of me, too, but then, I expect/hope to benefit pretty directly from the work that I did. The fact that I may benefit from other people's work, though, is more humbling.

So although this won't be the last time, let me publicly thank all of my colleagues, both local and extended, whose efforts have gone into my tenure case. There's a fair bit of delay before it'll go through the next stage, but I'm sure that I'll be updating as it does.

That's all.

October 18, 2006

App season

Paul's got some great advice for folks considering applying to PhD programs, advice worth repeating every year round this time, which is about when the cycle begins in earnest. I've already replied to several inquiries, and expect plenty more. I'd add a few things to his list as well, speaking as someone who's been involved in the process from the committee end for a few years now. So in addition to Paul's 10 points:

Writing Sample: This is one that I think gets misunderstood. Sometimes I see applications where a sample is submitted straight from a course. It doesn't occur to some applicants that it's okay to revise a seminar paper, even after it's been submitted for a course. Every applicant should be asking his or her mentors for feedback on a draft of the writing sample, which is one of the single most important parts of the application (for us, at least).

Searching for Mentors: It's important to find good people to work with, but it's almost equally important to find a program that supports that kind of work. One way to figure this out is to look at recent dissertations. Each of those projects required anywhere from 3 to 5 members of the program, and it's a good sign (above and beyond an individual professor's specialty) when dissertations in your areas of interest are coming out of a program.

Strengths and weaknesses: I'm not a big believer in wearing one's weaknesses on one's sleeve, but be honest with yourself about what you're good at and what you need help with. A program that caters to your strengths will do you good, but one that does so while also helping you shore up other areas will do you great. Both this point and the last one speak to the fact that joining a program will almost always mean doing some of your work (coursework, research, etc.) outside of your immediate interests.

Self-promotion: It's worth repeating what Paul says about this:

You don't have to sell yourself too much--this is not a job application. Being a good student and colleague who will successfully and promptly complete the degree and become a successful member of the field is sufficient.

I see a lot of spin, as you might imagine. The thing about that, though, is that it's not that difficult to see who's bluffing and who's not. Be straightforward about what you've done and what you'd like to do, and that's often enough. I feel about this the same way that I feel about "personalizing" job application letters which, despite some folks' advice, I never do myself nor advise others to do. I've served on admissions committees and search committees galore, and I've never been in a situation where an otherwise unqualified applicant was given special consideration for their personalization of a statement or app letter.

Asking questions: I hardly ever tell someone, in reply to a question, to go read the website, but that doesn't mean that I don't get those kinds of questions. And honestly, it affects how I look at a candidate if that person asks something that a quick trip to the website would answer. We don't put everything up there, by any means, but we do try to share as much information as we can for prospective students.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head. I'd double plus bold italic underline Paul's first point, though: be sure that doctoral work is for you. It requires a mix of passion, stubbornness, persistence, and interest that is not everyone's cup of tea. If you're at a PhD program already as an MA student, and looking elsewhere, look at your doctoral-level colleagues, and make sure that you can envision yourself doing what they're doing. There are lots of people who don't feel that the rewards of a doctoral program are worth the personal, psychological, and social costs. Be as honest with yourself as you can about your reasons for applying, and make sure that it's the right decision for you.

That's all. Happilicationalizing.

November 7, 2006

Turnitinica Mars

It was probably only a matter of time, what with Veronica Mars headed to college and all, for plagiarism to find its way into the plot of at least one episode. And tonight it did, as Veronica's paper for her Criminology class is "lit up like a Christmas tree" by the "plagiarism scanner" used at Hearst College to police its students. Don't read on if the episode's sitting on your TiVo...

Continue reading "Turnitinica Mars" »

November 14, 2006

The Ethics of Fit

Like Donna, I've been finding myself blogging in the evening. More to the point, and a point I hope to change, I've been blogging each day in the 24th hour of the day, as the clock hits 11, and I realize that NotADayGoesBy Month will only be satisfied if I blog that very hour. I'm not sure that it's the best of strategies for me. But here I am again.

When I read Nels talking about searches yesterday, something he said stuck with me a bit. To wit,

It's hard to know who really wants to live in this area, who might have family they want to move closer towards (or further from). That's the stuff that really shapes who will fit here, but no one can know what all that stuff is. Even candidates don't always know. I mean, some people move expecting a certain kind of life (spouse finding a job, starting a family, hitting a certain kind of social scene) but finding something else. Some people end up happier in the process than they expected.

I wrote a while back about how I was only applying to places that I would seriously consider, but as I think I mentioned then, that's a luxury that far too few of us can afford. In other words, I think it's no secret that most of us must cast our nets widely in searches. Until academia's stripes change substantially, finding a job must take priority over finding the right job (and that's assuming that the "right job" is any less mythological than finding the "right partner," which I'm not sure about).

The problem with this, though, is that it leads to the kind of speculation that Nels talks about. This isn't a slam on him, because it's speculation that I've engaged in as well, and I presume that my applications at various times have been the object of such thought. But I want to suggest that this is a fine ethical line, one that gets crossed more often than we'd probably like to admit. Most of us harbor few illusions about the relative place of our institutions, and that may lead some to narrow down the mountainous stack of applications by engaging in a little prognostication.

And some forms of prediction have been rationalized approvingly in the field. Applicants to smaller liberal arts schools are advised to downplay their research, lest they be perceived as uninterested in teaching. At some places, "tenurability" is used in the same way that commentators at the NBA draft speak of "upside potential." I'm not sure, though, that these kinds of approaches to applications are all that different from more personal kinds of speculation. And I'm torn about the ethics of thinking in these terms.

I'm not suggesting that we can't bracket such speculation when we're making hiring decisions, or that it would be possible to avoid it altogether--I think it's natural to think in those terms, if we begin from the perspective that we're not hiring brains on sticks. But I also think that this kind of speculation is too far-ranging sometimes, that in the interest of making the "right choice," the concept of departmental "fit" is stretched to the breaking point. A lot of times, you can't know that you've made the right choice until a year or two into a person's time in a particular place.

For me, that's not justification to try and get it right during the search by trying to determine if a particular applicant will fit perfectly, and more importantly, it's not justification for deciding that certain applicants are applying just to be applying rather than out of genuine interest. It's natural to wonder, but impossible to answer. I've been thinking about this recently for reasons other than Nels' entry--I don't think he's crossing any sort of ethical line there. If anything, I think he's right to be honest about the kind of speculating that goes on in every search. I don't think we gain anything by pretending that it doesn't go on, or that we don't take some of these things into account as we make our hiring decisions.

I think it boils down, for me at least, to the conviction that if I'm not qualified for a position, so be it. But I'd just as soon not have strangers deciding that I wouldn't be interested in a position before I've had a chance to consider it. Even when we know that not every application that goes out or comes in is as serious as we might like, I think we're obliged to take it at face value, and to treat it as an expression of genuine interest. Anything less gets into real trouble, really quickly.

And no, I'm not talking here at the end about Nels' entry, about my own apps, or a search that we're doing (since we're not this year). I'm just saying.

November 15, 2006

Idiocy of some sort, yes

Hard to ignore the shot across the bow disguised as an IHE story this morning: Are College Students Techno Idiots?, where among other things, we learn that

A new report released Tuesday by the Educational Testing Service finds that students lack many basic skills in information literacy, which ETS defines as the ability to use technology to solve information problems.

Well, if by "report," they mean a PowerPoint deck that is stuffed with generalizations and bullet points, and atrociously designed in places, then yes, a report happened. I remember taking a little trip over to ETS to see what they were defining as Information Literacy™, and it all came rushing back to me as I revisited their Flash demo. My personal favorite is the task where a body is asking to take an email and to compose a single, persuasive PowerPoint-ish slide to present to a faculty advisor.

A persuasive slide? Umm. A healthy part of information literacy is, in fact, knowing that a single-slide PowerPoint is unlikely to be the best way to persuade one's faculty advisor. And there are similar difficulties all the way through the demo questions that I saw. There are some pretty weak attempts to instantiate "IL principles" that ignore the fact that most of what we do as "literates" is heavily context-based. I'm not sure that generic test scenarios are going to be the best way to assess this. Nor am I convinced that many of these "skills" can be reduced to right/wrong sorts of answers.

And of course, the folk who are supporting this study are those who have direct, vested interest in convincing us that there's some sort of IL crisis. Of course. Doesn't take a great deal of information literacy to suss that out.

Too much of this strikes me as Critical Thinking! With Computers! I suppose. Maybe that explains why it just leaves me feeling sour.

Snip snap snout.

December 27, 2006


As the regular reader will remember, this year's MLA kicked off with a stirring rendition of the second chapter of my book manuscript, with the unusually expository (for me, at least) title "The Rhetorical Canons as an Ecology of (New Media) Practice." Gee, I wonder what the talk was about?

Hee. Today was also the 3rd step in the epic self-transformation that will see me turn from a reader of conference papers to a speaker of conference presentations. I worked from an outline and from the slides, but otherwise, did not script the specifics. I think it went okay, but I do have to confess that the fellow in the 3rd row who used his cameraphone to take snapshots of each of my slides, and whose phone rang not once but twice during our session, was a bit of a distraction.

And yet, it was he who inspired me to go ahead and try out SlideShare, which is basically a YouTube-like service for PP presentations. Keynote exports to pdf, which I can then upload and turn into a shareable Flash doodad.

(Update: The doodad was taking serious download time, so I'm replacing it with a link to the SlideShare page instead. Those readers uninterested in unnarrated PP slides may now breath an appropriately grateful sigh of relief.)

The pdf option, far as I can tell, preserves original layout and font better, and has the virtue of being about 1/10 the size of a PP export. So even though there's no support for a Keynote native presentation, it works out just fine.

The slides themselves are probably a little oblique without commentary, so I'll use ProfCast when I get back to Syracuse and offer a full-service version. In the meantime, suffer in silence. I'm done with my talk, and have a much more leisurely conference ahead of me.

That is all.

January 24, 2007

Letters of Reference

I've spent most of my spare time over the past few working on our graduate admissions process, reading application files. One thing that I've noticed this year, as opposed to others, is the surprising number of applications we received where one of the "letters" of recommendation was little more than a generic paragraph. I'm not going to be specific about how many I've seen, or about the "letters" themselves, obviously, but if I could implant a single command in the minds of all my colleagues (and I use this term in its most global and expansive sense--I'm not talking about my SU colleagues here) simultaneously, it would be:

Endow a Chair for Collin

If I had a second command, though, and I were restricted in my impact to the various application processes surrounding graduate school (and including job searches), it would be this:

It is kinder in the long run to say no than it is to write a crappy letter.

That's less a command, I suppose, than an attitude, but it's one that more than a couple of my colleagues should abide by. As much as some of these paragraphs are offset by the presence of two other, more thoughtful letters, those thoughtful letters are themselves somewhat offset by the third. And while I know that it's de rigeur to talk about how empty and generic letters of reference have become, there are clear and obvious ways to make them engaging, appealing, and revealing. In most cases, I don't read letters of recommendation as a means of making or breaking an application; I'm more interested in finding out as much as I can about the candidates in a more global sense, and a good letter can be far more informative than the even more generic and often more empty formal application documents.

In general, I don't care about the coded language (highly recommended vs. strongly recommended vs. my highest recommendation, etc.). I find it more helpful to know what a student's strengths are in the seminar room, whether or not s/he is prepared to read and write in a fairly intensive program, whether or not s/he is comfortable in the classroom. I even take a pretty fair approach to discussions of those things that a student may still need to work on--we don't expect them to be ready for the tenure-track just yet, and it's better to know up front that a student may need more attention to this aspect of their education rather than that one.

By the time I've made it through multiple statements, and writing samples, and teaching materials, I have a pretty solid sense of each application. And so I'm looking for the letters to round out that impression, to tell me things that the application materials can only imply. And I'm more inclined to trust a letter that can narrate a student's growth (and even struggle) than the generic recitation of buzzwordy synonyms for "good."

I don't fool myself into thinking that anything I have to say on the matter will affect change in this regard. All I can do is to try and internalize the lessons that I learn and relearn annually as part of this process (my 5th year now on the admissions committee), and put them to good use as I write letters for our students.

But the one suggestion I would make, to applicants everywhere who are lining up their own letters, is that it wouldn't hurt to put together a pre-application package for your references, containing a list of the places you're applying, your writing sample, any statement of purpose (this will be your job letter in many cases), and copies of the work that you completed with this person (and/or teaching materials from any classes they have observed). It wouldn't also hurt, and may even be polite, to solicit feedback from your references on these various materials. In other words, do it far enough in advance that you can both solicit and make use of their feedback. They may not read this package, but since you're putting it together eventually anyway, it can help freshen you in their minds.

In my more optimistic moments, I speculate that part of the reason behind some of the paragraph/letters we received was that the applicants' work may have faded out of the short term memory of some of these recommenders. In my more realistic moments, I suppose I have to face up to the fact that not all of my colleagues share my sense of perspective when it comes to these kinds of activities. An extra 30 minutes spent crafting a letter of recommendation, in the long run, costs us very little, but can make a huge difference in the futures of our students. If you're going to say yes when a student asks for a letter, it seems mean and petty to me to turn around and begrudge that student those 30 minutes later on.

I'm just saying.

January 29, 2007

Revisiting "The Footnote, in Theory"

[x-posted at Rhetworks]

It's been too long since I tended to Rhetworks, but one of the first essays I took note of (and took notes on) when I started the site was Anne Stevens' and Jay Williams' "The Footnote, in Theory." My notes on the essay are hardly complete, but I do cite the essay with some approval and interest. At a time when I was exploring the disciplinary implications and applications of Franco Moretti's "distant reading," FIT was for me a nice example of what could be accomplished by aggregating what is a fairly occluded feature of academic prose, the footnote.

Stevens and Williams begin their essay with what I find to be a manageable and worthy set of goals:

We set out to determine, first and most simply, who and what works are most often cited in our pages. Second, we wanted to track trends and fashions, as well as constants. Over the past thirty years, theory has seen any number of upheavals and innovations, so we wanted to see if certain writers remained touchstones for our authors. Third, we wanted to investigate a related question, the question of the status of the footnote in our pages. Elaborating upon Anthony Grafton’s book The Footnote: A Curious History, we sought to investigate how theory is transmitted through notes, what sorts of conversations are held below the main text, and to thus discover in a different sort of way the identity of our journal, a journal that has been identified with theory for so long.

I quote their introduction at length for a reason. My main qualm with this essay is not a methodological one, although I think that their method does have its limits. As I commented in my entry on FIT, my biggest reservation is that there are a lot of visualization possibilities in a data set like the one that Stevens and Williams generate, and their article only scratches the surface of those possibilities. But this is one of those critiques that has its roots more in my interests than in any necessary shortcoming in the essay itself.

Little did I know, back when I was jotting down my thoughts, that Lindsay Waters, he of the Eclipse of Scholarship (Amazon) fame and Executive Editor for the Humanities at Harvard UP, had already provided a pithy, pop-culture-laden putdown of Stevens and Williams, some 3 or 4 months before I even found it, at the Chronicle: The Lure of the List. (I have Scott to thank for pointing it out today.)

The lure of the list refers to the temptation that "klutzes" like Richard Posner and "clowns" like David Letterman yield to, but above which we in the humanities should hold ourselves. Lists are, and I'm quoting variously here, like pornography, bogus social science, hocus pocus, pseudoscience, a Trojan horse, and so forth. I'm not sure "wastage" is a real word, but it's the cost of an article like this apparently, as is our neglect of scholarly "fruit wasting on the vine, whose cultivation might have benefited us all." It's hard for me to recite this giant list of mixed metaphors without rolling my eyes, just a little. It's really over the top.

And I say this as someone who genuinely appreciates the efforts of Waters to shake loose some of the entrenched assumptions about the relationship between the publishing and tenure industries. Even so.

I'll restrict myself to two criticisms and one compliment. The first criticism deals with Stevens' and Williams' introduction, which in Waters' review, becomes the following:

But my heart sank when I saw that the premier egghead journal of the land, Critical Inquiry, published an essay last winter that purported to rank the greatest literary theorists in its pages (and, by implication, the world).

Maybe there's a history here that I'm not privy to, but wow. I'm afraid I take the authors at their word when they say they're interested in charting the trends that occur in the pages of their journal. The master list of citations (and one should add, citation in footnotes) is only one of the charts provided, and the information it provides hardly translates into The Greatest Theorists in the World!!™

Maybe I'm just defensive here, but one of the things that we're trying to do with the CCC Online Archive is to provide this kind of information. We're not trying to generate tenure industry kinds of information, though; rather, we're interested in providing newcomers and veterans alike with new pathways into the scholarship collected in the journal. We're proud of pages like this one, which dynamically tracks the self-citation in the journal. Are these the "most important" articles, and their authors the Greatest Scholars in Our Discipline? Not at all. But it tells you something about the journal that would be hard to glean even from years of reading, unless you're particularly fond of bibliographies and have a particularly mighty memory.

My first criticism, then, is the cavalier way that Waters attributes motives to the Stevens and Williams, thereby doing the work that they actually do a great disservice. My second criticism is related: I'm not sure that Waters actually read the article, or made any effort to understand that work. His description of their method, once you get past the snottiness of "very likely bogus social-science tools," is curious. Why "very likely" in a review that is not exactly notable for the application of kid gloves?

Waters' only real critique of their methods is to smack at them for neglecting the work of sociologists like Robert K. Merton. Now as it turns out, Merton's work is on my Rhetworks list, and in my pile, so I actually have read it. Scott notes that

The casual, condescending quality of his dismissal fails to embody the standards it claims to uphold.

Merton's "Matthew Effect," which Waters cites approvingly, is in part a discussion of the reward structure in the sciences, where famous scientists receive disproportionate attention and reward for their efforts, and non-famous scientists get the shaft. The Matthew Effect is a rich-get-richer notion. But there's more to it than that. Merton also emphasizes the communication system; if attribution is the currency of the reward system, then visibility is the currency of the communication system. Famous scientists, he explains, may receive disproportionate rewards, but they also are able to make their ideas visible and diffuse more quickly, contributing to the development of knowledge.

What's interesting about Merton's original article on the Matthew Effect (.pdf from UPenn) is his interviews with various Nobel Laureates, who are acutely conscious both of their struggle to gain recognition and the privilege that accrued to their position once they did. What's interesting to me are the various strategies that they discuss for using their disproportionate visibility to help younger scholars. In other words, there's an ethical component here to the Matthew Effect, one felt strongly by many of those that Merton interviews.

What I take Scott to mean is that Waters, as the Executive Editor for the Humanities of Harvard Press writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, might himself reflect upon the ethical dimension of the Matthew Effect. Were he to do so, he might rightly conclude that reviewing an essay by misreading its intentions, distorting it, and calling it all sorts of names, is exactly the kind of disservice that Merton might find less than kosher. Whether or not Scott means it, that's my second criticism.

Now for a compliment. There's a legitimate argument lurking beneath all of the verbage and vitriol that characterizes Waters' column here. After recalling the top ten or so (and making note of all on the list who are affiliated with Harvard (??)), Waters writes

[The authors] note that "Benjamin's works are cited nonargumentatively," which I think is a nice way of saying his ideas are just window dressing, not engaged with. That must be why he ranks high as one of the most perfectly citable authors of all, because you can cite him reverently without having to figure out what he said. With Benjamin a citation is the academic equivalent of the purely ritual move, like a ballplayer's sign of the cross.

This is a genuinely interesting thesis, and speaks to the flux located just beneath the smooth surface of any list. At another point, Waters accuses the authors of "substitut[ing] accounting methods for critical judgment," and yet, just a few paragraphs later, Waters demonstrates that it's possible to generate critical judgment out of the evidence provided by these so-called "accounting methods."

And that's the real point here. Our institutions may indeed be on a quest to reduce what we do to numbers, and the tools are out there for them to do that. But in the humanities, we've avoided these kinds of evidence and these methods, out of a misplaced faith that if we simply close our eyes to them, they can't affect us. But the Nobel Laureates that Merton interviews are very conscious of the asymmetries attendant upon their activity, and it is that consciousness that allows them to try and redress them. There's a great deal of knowledge that we could be generating and building upon if we were to turn to information design, visualization, and yes, even some of these "accounting methods," not as ends in themselves, but as starting points for the kinds of critical judgments that Waters advocates.

For me, this kind of knowledge is far more likely to be the fruit that withers on the vine, at least in the field where I work.

That is all.

February 23, 2007

Chains of love

It's one of those weeks where my waking moments are filled with thoughts best left unblogged, for any number of reasons. But I've been meaning for the past couple of days to link to an entry over at Tim's joint. He's speaking mostly about the whole Edwards campaign kerfuffle, but for a paragraph, he references a conversation over at Laura's about whether or not she planned to continue blogging. It motivates some reflection on the double standard operating in some folks' conceptions of blogging. On the one hand, they want what happens in blogspace to matter in the larger world; on the other, they don't always seem to want to be held accountable by that larger world. But I was especially interested in the finally paragraph (gently pruned for your consumption):

This is not just about blogging: it’s about history. The more you write, the more your writing is both burden and expectation, a second self whose permission is required before you do something new–or whose betrayal is necessary should you wish to be free of your shadow....When I write it–even in a blog–it has, and ought to have, some greater weight. If that weight becomes like Marley’s chains, forged in life, it’s up to me to do the hard and complicated work of unlocking, not to complain that what I wrote was read.

I mentioned in the comments thread at Laura's that she'd articulated something that I've been experiencing lately as well. And I think that it's that notion of what I write here as a second self. When I'm feeling especially transparent, the blog doesn't feel all that separate from what I do. I don't feel like I have to police it for polysemy, worrying about whether or not what I say will be taken up in unintended ways. Which isn't to say that it's weightless--I hope that there is some weight to what I write, at least on occasion. But when it becomes a second or a third self--if my private and public meat/selves are the first two--it takes me that much more energy to tend to it. And that much self-maintenance can wear me out after a while. Right now, I'm feeling that fatigue. Part of it's the weather, part of it's the time of the year, and part of it's just the junk that happens.

What prompted this entry tonight was a conversation with D about last night's ep of Lost, which didn't jazz me quite as much as the week before. I'm worried that the writers of that show have decided not to "do the hard and complicated work of unlocking" their narrative, opting instead for more plot, more characters, and more distractions (assuming that Jack's tattoo was one of the "big mysteries" solved last night), and hoping that those of us who loved the show through the first two seasons will simply let it slide. Lost is no longer the must-see it was for me those first two seasons, and while I'm willing to ride it out a while longer, I'm beginning to feel a bit betrayed by the fact that I've watched regularly, closely, and with interest. I wonder how much the writers are longing to be free of the shadows of those first two seasons.

That's not to compare my humble blog to a show like Lost. But I had a much more concrete sense after that conversation of how even a labor of love can begin to feel like a unshakeable shadow. That's all.

And that's really all I have to say tonight.

Teaching Assistantships and Time to Degree

Update 1/19/08: I've updated the list below based on a conversation at WPA-L, and I'd be happy to fill in the 20+ schools listed below that don't currently provide this information to prospective students. I want to stress that the data below lists the number of guaranteed years of funding (assuming satisfactory performance of duties, of course), not "actual" or "possible" years. At Syracuse, for example, a number of students are supported beyond the 4th year, but the 4 years are guaranteed.

Also, I'd like to recommend, as strongly as possible, two things: if you are a faculty member in one of these programs, particularly one for which I couldn't find data, providing this sort of information is an ethical imperative--you owe it to incoming students to tell them, up front, what they're getting into. Seriously. Secondly, I'd love to see us as a field have conversations about these kinds of data, and to provide them in a centralized (online, updatable) location, whether it's attached to the Doctoral Consortium, NCTE, Rhetoric Review, or whatever. It's not the kind of project I have the time or energy to initiate, but clearly I've already contributed my fair share.


In light of Steve's mention of the Consortium list (which was painstakingly mapped by Derek last year), I thought I might share some information that could be of use to those shopping for graduate programs. One of the factors that prospective students should consider is not only the fact of financial support, but its amount and length.

One of the things that we've been working on here at Syracuse is the amount of guaranteed support we can offer to students. Currently we guarantee 4 years (as with most places, that guarantee is contingent upon adequate progress and performance), and as almost anyone who's gone through a PhD can tell you, that places a pretty serious burden on both incoming students and on that 4th year, when the equally full-time activities of the job search and the dissertation coincide. The prospect of being able to uncouple those activities is an appealing one, particularly if we heed Semenza's (Amazon) advice, which suggests no less than 2 publications, in addition to having drafted a substantial chunk of dissertation prior to sending out applications.

One of the questions that's come up in our discussions about funding is a field-related one. Namely, we've asked what other programs in our field guarantee and/or expect of their students. So I did a little digging, and came up with what follows. It's a list of programs and how many years each guarantees. Some caveats:

  • I only looked at assistantships, assuming (rightly, I believe) that this is the most common form of financial support for PhD students
  • Because we only offer a PhD, I restricted myself when possible to information about PhD students only
  • I made a good faith effort to locate the information, but I didn't perform an exhaustive search of each site.
  • "No Data" means that I located information about TAships, but that I couldn't readily infer information about how many years were guaranteed
  • "Couldn't locate" means that I was unable to find any page that provided information about TAships. That may be my fault.

If there is a program missing, let me know, and I'll add it. Likewise, if you know where a page is located that I've missed, please leave the URL in the comments for me. If there's more up-to-date information than can be found on the web, ditto. I've tried in each case to link to the webpage where this information either is or should be (imho) located.

Alabama: No Data
Albany: 3 years
Arizona: 5 years
Arizona State: No Data
Ball State: couldn't locate
Bowling Green: 3+ years (see comments)
Carnegie Mellon: couldn't locate
Case Western Reserve: 5 years
Central Florida:No Data
Clemson: 4 years (specifies length of program, not TAship)
Connecticut: 4 years (Not guaranteed)
East Carolina: No Data
Florida State: No Data
Georgia State: 4 years (apply for 5th)
Illinois: No Data
Illinois (Chicago): 6 years
Illinois State: 4 years (see comments)
Indiana U of Pennsylvania: 4 years max (2 years asst./2 years assoc.)
Iowa State: 5 years
Kent State:4 years (see comments)
Louisiana-Lafayette: 4 years
Louisiana State: 4 years (apply for 5th)
Louisville: No Data (4 years)
Maryland: 3-4 years (Lectureships beyond 4th yr)
Massachusetts-Amherst: 5-6 years (see comments for link)
Miami (OH): 4 years
Michigan: 4 years
Michigan State: 4 years
Michigan Tech: 5 years
Minnesota: 4-5 years
Missouri: 5 years
Nebraska: No Data
Nevada-Reno: 5 years
New Hampshire: 4 years
New Mexico: 5 years
New Mexico State: 5 years
North Carolina: No Data
North Carolina-Greensboro: 4 years
North Carolina State: 4 years (specifies length of program, not TAship)
Northern Illinois: 5 years
Ohio State: 4 years (conditional on progress--see pp. 64-65 of PDF Handbook)
Oklahoma: 5 years
Old Dominion: No Data
Penn State: 6 years (MA/PhD)
Pittsburgh: No Data
Purdue: No Data (5 years)
RPI: No Data
Rhode Island: No Data
South Carolina: 4 years
South Dakota: 4 years
South Florida: 4 years
Southern Illinois: 4 years
Syracuse U: 4 years (Apply for 5th)
Tennessee: 4-5 years
Texas: 4 years (max of 5, if funding is available)
Texas A&M: 5 years
Texas-Arlington: No Data
TCU: 4 years
Texas-El Paso: 4 years
Texas Tech: couldn't locate
Texas Women's: couldn't locate
Utah: 4 years
Virginia Tech: No Data
Washington: No Data (5 years)
Washington State: 4 years (No data on site; personal correspondence)
Wayne State: 4-6 years (6 may include MA)
Wisconsin: No Data

March 1, 2007

The How of Writing Studies

I thought I might return one more time to the carnival and add a couple of more thoughts. Be warned, though. I suspect that this will be more a loose affiliation of thoughts than a careful essay. It was prompted most recently by an entry over on Cara Finnegan's blog, wherein she asks whether method chapters are strictly necessary anymore. Of our own neighborhood in Rhetopia, she writes:

And I could be wrong, but it doesn't seem that my friends on the rhetoric/composition side of things have anxiety about "methods" in quite the same way.

I started a reply over there, but followed the 2 paragraph rule (when a comment gets much longer than a couple of paragraphs, I tend to copy and paste it into an entry here). First things first, I disagree with her observation. Or rather, I agree with it only in a certain way. She describes the work of "rhetorical critics and historians" thusly:

The obligatory methods section feels to me more and more like a prehensile tail, something rhetorical critics evolved at one point because it was institutionally useful (particularly in communication departments concerned with questions of legitimacy in the academy). First of all, does anybody really work that way? Aren't most of us using a variety of "methods" and approaches in our work? Most rhetorical critics and historians approach discourse more or less inductively, and adjust their critical approaches accordingly.

I wouldn't call this "a variety of methods," but rather a variety of perspectives informing a single method. I don't say this to be critical, because I do think that this is a nearly overwhelming default position in rhet/comp as well. So if indeed our field enjoys a lack of anxiety over methodology, that lack itself strikes me as a worthy cause of anxiety. As much as I tease friends for going meta with their neuroses, this is a case where we should be worried about not being worried.

This is not a direct engagement with Trimbur, but I think it's one of those layers that we might add to the questions that he discusses. To the question "Should writing be studied?" then, my gut response is to ask instead, "How should writing be studied?"

In part, my thinking on this is motivated by the fact that I'll be teaching our methods course in the fall, and I'm already thinking about what I want to do there. But it's also motivated by own lack of training in methods beyond the textual (which is what I take Cara to be describing in her entry). And finally, it's motivated by my perception that at one time, rhet/comp engaged passionately with questions of how we might study writing, but now we do a lot less of it. I could be wrong, of course, but here's a little evidence:

First, Chris Anson's talk last year at WPA (discussed by Becky here and here) Follow that second link, and you'll see a list of activities, almost all of which strike me as necessary in order for us to claim the study of writing as our province.

Second, Rich Haswell's essay, which Anson cited in his talk, on the "NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship." Although there's a part of that essay that I've critiqued, the essay overall is an important one. The consistent devaluation of replicable, aggregable, and data-driven scholarship in our field is interesting to me, as it supports the emergence of celebritocratic, reading virtuosity as the coin of the realm.

Third, I'd point out a couple of interesting projects, neither of which was "published" in our field, but both of which strike me as just the sort of thing that scholars in writing studies could and should be doing. The first is Joseph Williams' "Problems into PROBLEMS: A Rhetoric of Introductions," (PDF) which is one of those 'tweeners, too long for an essay, too short for a book. "Problems" attempts a structural account of introductions (as opposed to the inductive work of Swales and others), supported with several small-scale studies. (I've gushed about it before) I'd also point out one of the winners of last year's Ig Nobel prizes, Daniel Oppenheimer's "Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly" (Wiley), an essay that combines various small-scale studies about whether using longer words makes a text more effective. It's a little statisticklish, but nevertheless understsandable, and worth the read.

The thing about projects like these is that I can see them functioning as dissertation topics, but I could also easily imagine tailoring the studies so that they could be conducted in a graduate classroom, or even an undergraduate classroom. Another thing about them is that they take writing seriously, which strikes me as the sine qua non of answering the question of writing studies affirmatively.

This is to say nothing of my own methods, which increasingly take new media both as object and as an influence on method. And there are plenty of other methods I'm passing over here, from ethnography to activity theory to case studies, that might be more appropriate for writing-as-verb rather than writing-as-noun.

And finally, I should note that I started drafting this a couple of days ago, but only just got around to looking it over and touching it up. In the interim, I got a copy in the mail of Raul Sanchez's The Function of Theory in Composition Studies (Amazon). It's a fast read, but a good one, wherein he writes, among other things:

Globalization and the proliferation of technology make it imperative that compositionists develop a new kind of composition theory, one that understands its object of study very broadly and is conscious of its methodologies (72).

I couldn't have said it better myself, but have tried to say it somewhat longer here, I guess. My answer to the question "Should writing be studied?" depends in large part on what we mean both by the word "writing" and the word "studied." Not all our answers would be the same, I suspect.

That is all, except for the brief postscript that I've started brainstorming texts for the methods course (and am already at 25 books at the time I post this). Feel free to take a look--I'm using an Amazon Listmania list to do it, but may switch over to Library Thing if the list grows too big. You'll find it listed as CCR 691. Feel free also to suggest additions.

Now that is all.

March 26, 2007

4 Cs, 4 days, 16 panels

Inspired in part by Donna's theme review of CCCC:

CCCC 07 summed up in 16 panels

There was more to it than that, to be sure, but as far as my presentation went, at the risk of sounding like I'm fishing for sympathy, having a featured presentation on Saturday afternoon was a lot like being called up to the big leagues the day after one's team is knocked out of competing for the playoffs. Hard to know when or if I'll be back.

I continue to be grateful to Cheryl Glenn for the opportunity, grateful to those good people who did come, and grateful to Derek and Deb, whose presentations were excellent. And I'll go ahead and screencast my talk this week, for all of those who couldn't make it.

I may post a little more about the conference over the next couple of days as well. What won't I post about? The squawking that Alex references that's going on right now over whether or not it's better to read or speak.

That's all, except to note that I did this with Stripgenerator 1.0.1)

Update: You can find both my slides and Derek's at We'll both have screencasts soon as well.

April 8, 2007


I need to get a-typing, if I'm going to meet my goal of reaching the 1000-entry plateau this summer. These entries won't write themselves. It's been a light first week, for various reasons. One of the biggies, though, is that I think I'm getting a little touch of arthritis in my right hand, which suggests to me that I need to rethink my current approach to mouse usage. It hurts when I type as well, but I think that my mice are curving my hand in a way that my knuckles aren't pleased with.

Anyhow, enough of the whine. One thing I wanted to note this week was Donna's entry about Jason Jones' interview with Steven Johnson. I'm a big fan of all of SBJ's books, but Ghost Map is one that I keep meaning to review (and in more detail than my discussion of it here). But the funny thing about Donna's entry was that I felt a little exposed. Not in any dramatic fashion or anything. But when she notes

Ah ha! I thought. So now I get the connection among many of the things Collin blogs about: Moretti, Johnson, and Latour, too.

I feel a little like I've had a secret made public. I'm not ashamed of my influences--far from it, in fact--nor of the fact that I have influences. We all do. But it's strange to have them named like that, the texts that recently have resonated with me and with each other. One of the things we do as academics is to assemble our own private bibliographic networks, and inevitably, the texts we value most highly drift towards the center of our network, and become the default frames that we bring with us both to subsequent reading and our own writing.

And interestingly enough, we don't always pay attention to each other's networks. Sure, every couple of years or so, there's a thread on a discussion list about the disciplinary desert island books, but even those threads ask us to represent the discipline. I would guess that most of those books/articles have very little to do with us personally. Moretti, Johnson, Latour, and others affect the way I see the world academically, but none of their works are rooted primarily in my discipline. I wonder from time to time about my colleagues' networks, and about what it would tell us about each other if we could generate and share an honest "cloud" of our influences.

It makes me curious to go back and assemble all of my bibliographies (the way that Derek did with coursework a ways back) and to see if there are patterns that I can detect. Are there thinkers I rely upon unconsciously? Probably. But for the moment, I'm going to pursue the various angles that writers like Moretti, Latour, and Johnson supply me, because I'm not close to done with them yet.

That is all.

May 5, 2007

Is it really so complicated?

Tonight's entry is prompted by the arrival today of several entries in Google Reader, the most recent entries fed there and published at the Kenneth Burke Journal:

KB Journal feed

The KB Journal is, unfortunately, one of the only journals in our field that is (a) using RSS feeds, and (b) using them correctly. Exhibit A in how not to use them comes from the Project MUSE journals. I was excited to see that their journals had feeds, until the first one arrived. Basically, they feed a link to the table of contents page for new issues. This is okay, I suppose, but differs little from sending announcements to email lists.

What the KB Journal does (and Written Communication and CCC also do) is to create entries for each article, with more information than the fact of its existence. Hell, even the author and title would be an improvement. I use a reader to skim a lot of sites, and to make decisions about whether to follow up. Using them to draw readers to their site, as MUSE does, is to make a bunch of Web 1.0 assumptions about eyeballs, traffic, stickiness, etc. With the MUSE journals:

  • I don't know what I'm getting until I've loaded their page
  • Unless I have an immediate need, I'm likely to forget their content, since there's little point in bookmarking random TOCs
  • I can't bookmark an article to return to it when I have time
  • I can't bookmark one to download to my office machine, where my access to MUSE is automatic
  • I can't look back through recent articles
  • I can't use the journal in any way other than I'd use it if I saw it on a colleague's shelf

But you know what? At least they HAVE. A. FEED. Even if MUSE is doing it wrong, at least they're trying to do it. There are so many journals in our field that haven't even bothered to create feeds that it should be embarrassing to us. And we all know who they are, including some pretty unlikely suspects, journals that should be at the forefront of providing this kind of access.

Here's what it takes to provide a feed of recent articles for a journal:

  • A free account with a blog provider like Blogger or Wordpress

  • The ability, for each article, to:
    • copy and paste relevant information into a textbox

    • Click on "save" or "publish"

That's it. You don't need crazy designs, blogrolls, any modification whatsoever. It doesn't have to be integrated into a larger site or do anything fancy. For pretty much any journal, with readable files for the articles, I could post a new issue in roughly 15 minutes. Four issues a year? Maybe an hour total. One hour. Per year.

You can't tell me that the resulting increase in circulation, were our field to cotton eventually to the notion of RSS readers, wouldn't be worth it. And the benefits to us?

Here's what I see when I go to List View for my Written Communication feed:

Written Communication feed

Not only am I notified when new articles are published, but I have access to the last three or four issues of the journal at all times, from any computer. And I can star them for future reference. Want to follow up on a title? They're expandable:

WC feed, expanded entry

This functionality currently exists for a mere handful of our journals. If the time spent gnashing our teeth about the overwhelming amount of stuff to read were spent instead putting together feeds for all of our journals, you know what? All of a sudden, we'd be able to manage that load much more easily. And I'm not kidding when I suggest that it's really that easy. It is. There's a lot more that could be done, but if our journals would take the tiny step of being responsible for RSS feeds at the point of production/publication, the resulting benefits would be colossal. And that's not me being hyperbolic. Imagine being able to open a browser window and being able to search, read, and bookmark abstracts from the last year or two's worth of journals in our field. Seriously, how much easier would that make our academic lives?

And yes, we have been doing this at the CCC Online Archive for the past 2+ years: But my point isn't to gloat--it's to ask instead why the heck our editors, including many for whom this should be obvious, haven't followed suit.

And that's all. I could get a lot snarkier about this, and I could name names, but let me instead close with an offer. On the off-chance that someone's reading this who wants help setting a feed up, please let me know. Honestly. I'd be happy to show someone just how easy this is.

May 14, 2007

It is my pleasure to be informed...

It gives my provost enormous pleasure to inform me that, with the concurrence of Chancellor Nancy Cantor and the Board of Trustees, I have been granted continuous appointment with tenure at Syracuse University.

That sound you just heard was the pop of about two years worth of tension leaving my shoulders. And/or a cork.

Lots of congratulations to spread around, actually, but I'm thinking I'll wait until tomorrow. That is all.

August 26, 2007


In less than 24 hours, my first course of the new semester and year will be complete. I'm teaching our methods course this fall, and it's been something of a struggle trying to pare down first what I wanted to do into what I needed to do and then that into what I will actually do.

At last count, I'm trying to do the work of roughly 6 courses in one. I've had an itch to teach this course for a couple of years now, mainly because I think I'm only now beginning to appreciate its usefulness (never having had a methods course myself). But it has been frustrating trying to work it down into something manageable, at the same time that it's been fun to reacquaint myself with a bunch of work I don't normally rely upon in my own scholarship.

Once I have the syllabus webified, I'll post the link, and you can tell me how much is missing.

See ya.

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 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.

October 16, 2007

Best. Re-Visions. Ev0r.

One of the cool things that Deb Holdstein has been doing with CCC (our flagship journal here in Rhetcompia) is a new, periodic feature called "Re-Visions." Re-Visions takes an essay from back in the day, and asks a couple of people to revisit it in a new context. The first two essays to be treated thusly were Maxine Hairston's "Breaking Our Bonds and Reaffirming Our Connections" from 1985 and Nancy Sommers' 1982 essay "Responding to Student Writing."

The third essay is a little more recent--the next issue will feature a Re-Vision of Joseph Janangelo's "Joseph Cornell and the Artistry of Composing Persuasive Hypertexts," which appeared in 1998. I know this because I'm actually responsible for getting it together. It features pieces from Anne, me, and Jeff, and closes with Janangelo's thoughts on our thoughts. I just got the proofs yesterday, so I even know what pages it'll be on.

Needless to say, it is highly recommended reading. And you may be pleased to note that between Jeff and I, we may very well have singlehandedly doubled or tripled the number of times that Bruno Latour's name appears in the pages of CCC. I'll have to check on that to be sure.

That's all.

January 24, 2008


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 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.

February 8, 2008

Welsh Rhetoric and the Plectics of Research

Okay. Don't blame me if this wasn't worth the wait.

I'm subbed to the ACRLog, and this came across the other day, a piece by "StevenB" about Why Students Want Simplicity And Why It Fails Them When It Comes To Research. The question of how to move students from "I'll just Google it" to a more nuanced, complex understanding both of research and of how to go about doing research is a topic near and dear to my heart. So I read with interest.

Two tangents. First, in the piece itself focuses on simplicity and complexity when it comes to research:

A defining quality of a complex problem is that right answers are not easily obtainable. Excepting those students who are passionate about the study matter and research project, most students would prefer to simplify their research as much as possible. The problem, as a new article points out, is that applying simple problem solving approaches to complex problems is a contextual error that will lead to failure.

For a long time, as I was working on my book manuscript, I had in mind something that I called my secret 6th chapter, the first 5 being revisions of the classical canons of rhetoric (and all beginning with the letter P, but that's even more tangential). The 6th chapter was going to be an exploration of another P word: plectics. I mistakenly believed that the word was mine all mine. Yeah, not so much. But anyhow, I'd planned on talking about how plectics might give us a spectrum along which to locate texts without recourse to the print/screen distinction. I've always been a fan of Deleuze's The Fold, and I'd never been happy with the assumption that even the most intricate and complicated print texts were simply linear compared with digital texts.

But alas, such a chapter was not to be. And that's the end of the first tangent.

Tangent #2 is a little shorter, and the reference in my title. StevenB draws on something called "Cynefin," which according to Wikipedia is a concept from Welsh:

The name Cynefin is a Welsh word which is commonly translated into English as 'habitat' or 'place', although that fails to convey the full meaning. A fuller translation would be that it convey the sense that we all have multiple pasts of which we are only partly aware: cultural, religious, geographic, tribal etc. The multiple elements of this definition and the inherent uncertainty implied were the reasons for the selection of the name.

The name seeks to remind us that all human interactions are strongly influenced and frequently determined by our experiences, both through the direct influence of personal experience, and through collective experience, such as stories or music.

What's really interesting to me here is the parallel between Cynefin and ethos, specifically as it's defined as "haunt" as both a location and something that affects us. It reminds me a little of Diane's writing--here's a little taste of "Finitude’s Clamor; Or, Notes toward a Communitarian Literacy" from CCC, for example:

You (writing-being) are a limit-cruiser, so even when you’re alone, you are not alone. You are (already) heavily populated with encounters, with others whom you have welcomed and who continue to work you over—to live on in you, haunting you and making demands of you—even in your solitude.

Someone with more experience than I in Wales will have to decide how many times removed cynefin is from ethos, but they sure sound related.

What's uninteresting to me about cynefin is its appropriation for the system that apparently bears its name. Maybe I need to do some background reading, but I have a tough time understanding how the term itself translates into a "decision-making framework" other than to serve as a reminder that not everything can be reduced to conscious decision-making frameworks. But oh well.

Back (finally!) to the entry itself. StevenB restricts himself in his discussion to 2 of the 5 "domains," simplicity and complexity, which runs the danger, it seems to me, of inscribing a binary between them. One of the things that I think we try to get at with the notion of inquiry is the habit of allowing "simple" to become "complex" through what this framework calls "emergent practices" (and perhaps even complicated). The ability to take complex questions and to simplify them is (to my mind) the difference that turns research into research writing.

But neither of these moves, simple->complex or complex->simple, is (a) easy, (b) frictionless, or (c) naturally acquired through osmosis. StevenB's suggestion is

that we add “identify and understand the context of the research problem and choose a decision-making style that matches that context� to that long list of information literacy skills that many of us list in some planning document.

And that's all well and good. But I guess I feel like that just identifies what is for many of us (and I presume, our students) the black box of academic research. I can come up with 407 examples of good writers (and designers) taking complicated questions, issues, and ideas, and helping to return them to simplicity (which is one effect of much writing that is good), but examples of moving in the other direction are few, in part because we tend to box up that part of things ourselves. And part of that is because, in academic prose, making the complex simple is one of the few near-universal justifications for the work that we do. Figuring out and articulating how we arrive at those complex problems is one of the things that a course focused on research writing could usefully accomplish.

That's all.