May 16, 2004

"like a weed in a field of flowers"

No, not this blog.

According to Telegraph: publication of first-ever novel without verbs (verb as weed, in quote above), "The Train from Nowhere." A French author (Michel Thaler), of course. Necessarily, a great deal of interior monologue and framgentary sentences--"Instead of action, lengthy passages [of] florid adjectives in a series of vitriolic portraits of dislikeable passengers on a train" (Telegraph). An interesting thought experiment, if nothing else. Given pedagogical goals of attention to language, even a potentially useful or productive experiment for a FY composition course?

Tough to say. Fine lines among implicit verbs, nominalizations, gerunds, etc.--worth the trouble? And on top of that, an annoyingly pompous author:

"I am like a car driver who has smashed the windscreen so he cannot see into the future, smashed the rear-view mirror so he cannot see the past, and is travelling in the present."

Ummm, yeah. "A revolution in the history of literature," or imminent 6-car pile-up? Tomato, to-mah-to. Bon chance, Michel!

[via kottke]

May 19, 2004

Signed, sealed, delivering

This won't be a shock to many of you since you've already probably heard, but I can say now that it's official. As of today (yesterday, really), I am now officially contracted with Hampton Press for my first book, Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media. It was accepted into Cindy Selfe's and Gail Hawisher's series on "New Dimensions in Computers and Composition Studies," the same series that's publishing Johndan's Datacloud.

I heard from Gail and Cindy a couple of weeks ago, but figured I should wait to say anything "official" until I actually put pen to paper.

And now to put fingers to keyboard...

February 13, 2005

"But the sparrow still falls."

Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. (Matthew 10:29)

No one who knows me would mistake me for a particularly religious person, and perhaps that explains why I missed Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow the first time around. It was first published almost 10 years ago, and has been re-released in trade paperback to coincide with the publication of Russell's latest book. It was one of those books that I picked up at Borders to fill up a gift card, a serendipitous grab based on little more than the cover art.

I finished it a couple of weeks ago, and had been meaning to blog it ever since, because I found it to be one of the better books I've read in recent months. It's sort of science fiction, but only in the sense that it takes place in the near future and involves first contact with an alien culture. Believe me, though, when I say that this is actually a minor, backdrop kind of element. The first two chapters introduce us, in parallel fashion, to a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz. One thread of the story connects us to Sandoz as he gathers around him a network of close friends who eventually form the core crew of a mission to another planet; the second finds Sandoz the physically and psychologically broken, sole survivor of that mission, surrounded by other Jesuits trying to figure out what went wrong. The two threads proceed in parallel, drawing closer and closer until the middle of the story is finally filled in by the end of the book.

Sandoz is of course the sparrow referenced in the title, and really, the sci-fi is a backdrop for fairly detailed characterization, conceptualization of first contact, and perhaps most importantly, speculation on the varied roles that religion plays in the lives of the characters. It's a contemplative sort of book, both in terms of pace and theme, and that worked for me really well. Not all of the other characters are drawn in as much detail, and there were times where the fact that they had been expended made them a little expendable--this wasn't too big of a flaw, although there comes a point where to be "noticed" in the narrative is not a good thing for most of them.

It's hard not to read the book in the shadow of Star Trek, of course, but there are some nice details that point out the narrative convenience of technology like universal translators (Sandoz is a linguistic savant), and their absence here. All in all, it was an excellent read. There's a sequel that I'll be picking up one of these days, once I actually have a spare couple of hours to rub together. In the meantime, if you're looking for a book to add to your bedside table, you could do much worse than The Sparrow.

February 18, 2005


This is the strange effect of getting lost. You become aware not so much of what is absent--all that is familiar and safe--but rather of what that familiarity has been keeping at bay: a world of strange shadows and cruel laughter, of odious companions just waiting for you to come out and play. And they know you will.

I have a crush on that paragraph.

Wednesday, I went up to Borders to catch a cup of coffee, and to drain a little credit from a gift card. As you might gather, this was a week where my mood dictated that I buy a book to which I have no obligation whatsoever, a book about which I could not say, under any circumstances, that I should read it. Typically, in these cases, I go with "quick fic," short books with snappy titles, or interesting authors' names, or intriguing cover art. And so Symptomatic it was, by Danzy Senna.

Our narrator is bi-racial, never named in the novel, and occupies a number of border spaces (race and class are two of the most persistent). Raised in California, she's in New York on a journalism fellowship, working for an upscale magazine. She's maybe a little hypochondriac, and she has a lot of trouble connecting with other people, including her own family. She meets one of her co-workers, Greta, who's much older but is also bi-racial. For the most part, the book traces the arc of their relationship, and I suppose I shouldn't say much more than that.

The writing is fairly minimalist, appropriately enough, for it's told from the perspective of a narrator who doesn't find much in the world or in other people to resonate with. At the same time, while the prose is somewhat surface-y, there's a lot of depth in unexpected moments. I found myself thinking a lot about the title itself, and its reference to the narrator's real and imagined illnesses, as well as the way that she sees the other characters in terms of the symptoms of incompatibility they present to her. Greta is the one character who asserts a connection, even when the narrator doesn't really feel it herself, and there's an interesting line of thought to be traced about whether or not Greta and the narrator are doubles of one another. Greta insists on the narrator doing what she does, liking what she likes. When Greta loses patience with the narrator, she expresses it by mimicking her speech or posture. And a symptom is the external reflection of an internal condition, which raises the question of whether the narrator herself is symptomatic of Greta, or vice versa.

From the get-go, Greta is a little creepy and the narrator a little too passive in their friendship, but both of these "flaws" are written very well. Even when it gets to the point, as one secondary character notes, where "There was only one way that story was gonna end," there's some really interesting characterization taking place. Greta's perhaps not the most sympathetic character around, but she's damn interesting.

The book made me think more than I'd planned, but that's not really a negative (or all that hard to do, truth be told). And it was quick, which was my plan. I should probably come up with a ratings system for books, if I'm going to pop up reviews, yes? Let's see: for movies, I use a 6-point scale: see it twice, full price, matinee, pay per view, HBO, and network tv (with special dispensation occasionally awarded truly horrific movies, usually in the form of "not if you paid me"). Hmm. I'll have to think on an analogous scale for books. Meanwhile, this book, had it been a movie, would have been a solid matinee, I think, which is pretty good.

March 24, 2005

The Long Awaited Sequel...

This is my gripe, apropos of nothing I've been blogging about for the last week or so. I paid a visit to Borders tonight, and on three separate occasions, I found a book that looked interesting to me, only to discover that it was either a sequel or the second book in a series, and in none of the cases had Borders stocked the first book.

It is no coincidence that I bought none of these books.

Ahh, you say, but you could have just bought the book, and come home, and ordered the first one of the series through Amazon. Well, yes. But why wouldn't I just go ahead and order both of them, since I likely wouldn't want to read #2 until after #1. If I have to wait for the mail, I might as well just wait for both.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. This may happen more often to me than others, I suppose, since usually I don't pay attention to an author (and I'm talking sci-fi here) until they've got a couple of books out. But still. If I have my wallet with me, and I'm in a bookstore, I'm a sale waiting to happen. By stocking only sequels, they're not only losing the sale on that book, but they're losing a chance to sell the first one as well. If you're going to place a product whose consumption requires another product, why in the world wouldn't you stock them both?

That is all.

October 31, 2005

Appearing on a Shelf Near You

Culture Shock and the Practice of ProfessionIt's always kind of fun to see your name in print, particularly when it doesn't require any additional work on your part. Culture Shock and the Practice of Profession: Training the Next Wave in Rhetoric and Composition (Amazon) has finally been released, and lucky chapter #13 was written by myself and Paul Bender, with a fairly expository title: "Isolation, Adoption, Diffusion: Mapping the Relationship Between Technology and Graduate Programs in Rhetoric and Composition." Hmmm....I wonder what it's about....

Seriously, we wrote the essay at a time when Nardi and O'Day's Information Ecologies was just hitting people's radar screens, and we were trying to articulate a model for measuring programs that involved more than just "How new are your computers?" or "How many do you have?" We came up with three spectra along which programs might locate themselves--Responsibility, Representation, and Role (demonstrating once more my alliteration fetish). We argue that if you were to map these spectra as axes on a three-dimensional graph (and yes, I actually drew such a graph for the article), and then plot our various programs, that we'd end up with something like a bell curve rotated along its horizontal axis. Isolation, adoption, and diffusion are our terms for the low end, middle, and high end of that 3-D bell curve. Finally, we close with some concrete recommendations for moving from one end of the graph to the other.

It's not the most ambitious piece of writing I've ever undertaken, but it stands up well enough considering that I worked on it with Paul when I first got to Syracuse a few years ago. It's not as elaborate as, say, the recent piece in CCC on new media infrastructure, but in fact, it's not a bad complement to that essay. Our essay takes a more generalist tack, and a generous read of it would say that what we do is to try and establish some vocabulary that might be used in describing what DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill call infrastructure.

And hey, I'm in a generous mood. I'm proudest, though, of the fact that it's hard to write technology essays that hold up for more than a year or two, and I think ours does. That's not bad.

Also, just by way of observation, there are 2 chapters in the book co-written by professors and graduate students at Syracuse. So, 4 authors, 2 chapters, including me and mine, and of the four of us, I'm the only one who's still at Syracuse.

And p.s., Alex has a chapter in it, too...

November 11, 2005


There's only one occasional reader of this site (that I know of) who will be as excited about this piece of news as I was: I visited B&N last night, and bought the last copy of this off the shelves:

Feast of Crows

It's been 5 years since the last installment of Martin's series, and if you're a fan of the epic fantasy like me, your patience has just about run thin. Word on the street was that this installment grew so huge that they ended up having to split it into two books (the fact that this one is 700+ pages should give you an idea of why that might have been necessary), necessitating another delay and another layer of editing onto what has been a grueling wait by industry standards.

Martin's one of only a couple of writers in the genre, though, who's probably worth it. Unlike some epic writers who've lost juice as they've gotten successful (e.g. Jordan, Goodkind, Brooks), Martin has been consistently excellent. Over at Amazon, there are already 49 reviews of the book, and the buzz seems to be that this one introduces a lot of new without orienting the reader enough. Having read volumes 1-3 this summer, though, I'm not too worried. And it's hard to imagine Martin not introducing new characters--one of the things that really distinguishes his work from almost anyone else's in fantasy is that he's willing to knock off any character at any time. There's probably only 4 or 5 characters that are "indispensable," and (a) they're not always who you think, and (b) that doesn't mean that they make it through the plot unscathed.

Of course, all of this means that I'm going to have to hold this book at bay while I try and get other things done--rewarding myself with a chapter or two once I've done what I'm supposed to do (instead of what I want to do, which is to hop myself up on caffeine and read Feast of Crows until I pass out, then wake up and finish it. Don't think I can't still do that.)

Sigh. That is all.

January 12, 2006

This was going to be an entry about ducks

Before I press on for the next entry in my Things I Got for Christmas series, I did want to make note of two recent Gifts That Aren't Really Gifts But For Which I Am Nonetheless Grateful, both drawn from the world of sports. First, I feel a little bad about not jumping up to add my voice to those praising the selection of Bruce Sutter for the MLB Hall of Fame. Every time you hear about a pitcher throwing a split-finger fastball, you should remember that, more than perhaps anyone else, Sutter was the guy who made that pitch a household one. I don't know which cap he'll wear upon being inducted, but I'll always remember watching him on WGN, cuz when I saw him, that meant that the game was over and the Cubs were going to win (at least until he left).

Second, I was happy to hear today that Kirk Ferentz, head football coach at Iowa, had withdrawn his name from consideration for various NFL positions. It's entirely selfish of me, and of all Iowa fans I'm sure, but Ferentz took a team that, four years ago, was predicted to go 0-11, and over the last three seasons has gone 31-7. He's been a godsend for that program, and speculation was, with his son graduating, that he might return to the NFL, where he was an assistant coach for several years. Iowa was lucky to get him, and they remain lucky to keep him. It's refreshing to see a successful college coach who's happy to be where he's at, and not looking to parlay that success into a "better" gig.

latour.jpgNow, let's return to talking about me and my gifts. Lest you think that my life is all mustard and defunct TV series, I should hasten to note that much of my wishlist features academic books. Often, it's as much the case that these are books I wish I had time to read as it is that I wish I owned them. And today's feature certainly falls into that category. Right now, I'm reading Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, and I'm about halfway through, so it's not really fair of me to claim any kind of comprehensive account of the book. Besides which, there are definitely people out there whose opinions of this work you should heed before you heed mine.

That being said, let me offer two observations. First, while I wouldn't call myself a Latour groupie, I've read a fair amount of his work, including Science in Action, Aramis, Pandora's Hope, and We Have Never Been Modern. In fact that last book is one that I'd recommend to anyone looking for a way out of the various postmodernisms that seem to crowd out any other option. I'm not a groupie, so I don't always completely buy into Latour, but I will say this--more than anything else I've read by him, this new book (without explicitly doing so) really makes his entire intellectual trajectory cohere for me. I now feel like I understand how all those other books fit together for him in a coherent way. And part of that is that RS is an extended meditation on the core concepts and vocabulary that underlie Latour's method. I feel like the implicit assumptions of the rest of his work are laid fairly bare in this latest book, and that's really made it interesting to me. I don't think that there a lot of folk in my field who read Latour, and I don't read many people from other disciplines who work more closely with him, so this may simply be an epiphany for me. And that's cool.

The second thing that I want to point out about RS, though, is something that has relevance more broadly. This is a book on method, and while I'm sure that there are others equally as committed, I'm not sure I've read a book on method that is so insistent on the importance of writing, and for that reason alone, this is a book worth reading in our field. Two passages:

Since we are all aware that fabrication and artificiality are not the opposite of truth and objectivity, we have no hesitation in highlighting the text itself as mediator. Bur for this very same reason, we don't have to abandon the traditional goal of reaching objectivity simply because we consider with great care the heavy textual machinery (124).

(It's worth mentioning that "mediator" for Latour implies an actor, transformation, production, change, while its opposite term "intermediary" implies transmission, conduit, passivity, etc. One of his critiques of what he calls the "sociology of the social" is that it reduces the multiplicitous, varied world to a collection of intermediaries transmitting a vague, nebulous force called "the social.")

What's been interesting to me is that I wrote an essay 5 years ago for JAC that took up (in part) Latour's WHNBModern, and (again in part) addressed the problem of imagining rhetoric's place in a space where "natural" and "artificial" were opposite poles. By no means do I want to suggest that my account comes close to the detail or scope of Latour's here, but I think this is part of why it's resonating for me--I think I came fairly close in that article, responding to/building on Latour, to the position that he arrives at in this chapter. I don't mean to suggest here that I'm excited about this because "it proves I was right!" or anything. It's more of a "Wow, this is what I wish I'd said!" kind of vibe.

it seems that too often sociologists the social are simply trying to 'fix a world on paper' as if this activity was never in risk of failing. If that is the case, there is no way they can succeed, since the world they wish to capture remains invisible because the mediating constraints of writing are either ignored or denied (127-8).

There's a larger issue in this passage, about the fact that we are writing in the world and producing texts in the world that themselves are inseparable from the world, but let me focus my enthusiasm on the even simpler, more fundamental point that writing is mediating, because I think that it's worth saying over and over and over, particularly in my field, where I think we teach it to our students without ever fully believing it ourselves. Whatever I have to say, from blog entry to journal article to book chapter, is changed by the "simple" act of writing it. Since it's job season, and since I've been cracking the whip a little with some of our later-stage students, let me make it concrete:

There is a qualitative difference between the projects in our heads (the ones we're going to write) and the projects on the pages and screens (the ones we've written), and that difference leaves traces in our ability to explain those projects in letters, in conversations, and in interviews.

Nine times out of ten, being able to talk about the project you have done is going to be far better than being able to guess about the project you might do. And in a very practical sense, that's part of why, as a director of a graduate program, I'm pushing our students to have multiple chapters before they start talking about their projects to potential employers. Because

Writing. Changes. Everything.

That should be the tag line for the great collaborative-weblog-in-the-sky that is sometimes my/our discipline. That, and maybe something about spinning off into marginally relevant tangents like I've done here. I suppose that's all right, though: I'll never be anything but an amateur sociologist, and I'm certainly wouldn't bill myself as any kind of expert in ANT. But I did get this book for Christmas, and I'm looking forward to the second half.

That's all.

January 19, 2006

Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social

I started talking about Bruno Latour's latest book, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, last week, and having finished it last night, thought I would add a few more comments. In that prior entry, I talked about it really helped me synthesize that work of Latour's that I've read, and I was positively gushing over the importance that Latour places upon writing.

So let me start this next entry on the book by suggesting that it probably deserves an even wider audience than it's likely to receive. In other words, there are a lot of people in my own field who would benefit from having to work through these ideas and to reflect on the degree to which they rely upon what Latour calls "sociology of the social." Don't get me wrong, though. This isn't meant to be snarky--I think I've already derived some benefit from it as it's helped me to think about the shortcuts I take in my own work. The one thing I will say that is kind of a euphemistic snark is that this book would be harder to read for some than for others.

The book is intentionally polemical, a counter-statement to more than a century of sociology as well as the persistent misreadings of Latour's work (and the work of STS scholars more generally). But it's also instructive for those of us who have borrowed the work and/or language of social science to describe phenomena in our own fields, and that "us" is a lot larger than you might think, whether the borrowing is conscious or not. The bottom line is that Latour denies the existence of something called "the social," but in a very specific sense. The default position of social theory, as he describes it, includes among its tenets:

  • there exists a social "context" in which non-social activities take place
  • the social is a specific domain of reality
  • the social can be used as a specific type of causality
  • the full effect of the social is only visible to the social scientists' more disciplined eyes

There are others (on pp. 3-4), but you get the idea. One of the crucial distinctions that carries throughout the book is the difference between "mediators" and "intermediaries." Intermediaries are effectively conduits, simply transmitting the force of whatever stands behind or above them. Mediators, on the other hand, are transformative: "Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry" (39). I think that it's fair to say, and Latour does (I think), that is the central question at play in this book. Sociology of the social (bad) treats the world as intermediaries transmitting pre-defined social forces, while "sociology of associations" (Latour's alternative) treats the world as mediators who/that produce those social forces or, at the very least, transform the forces that they encounter (even if it is to reinforce them).

The book itself is laid out in a very outline-friendly format. Part 1 focuses on reopening the questions that sociology of the social has foreclosed on (Latour labels them "sources of uncertainty"), and each of these questions occupies a chapter:

  • What are groups? (" aggregates are not the oject of an ostensive definition--like mugs and cats and chairs that can be pointed at by the index finger--but only of a performative definition" (34).)
  • What is action? ("...the interesting question at this point is not to decide who is acting and how but to shift from a certainty about action to an uncertainty about action--but to decide what is acting and how" (60).)
  • What are objects? ("...these implements [hammers, kettles, baskets, clothes, remote controls, et al.], according to our definition, are actors, or more precisely, participants in the course of action waiting to be given a figuration" (71).)
  • What's the relationship between Nature and Society? ("The discussion begins to shift for good when one introduces not matters of fact, but what I now call matters of concern...the mapping of scientific controversies about matters of concern should allow us to renew from top to bottom the very scene of empiricism--and hence the divide between 'natural' and 'social'" (114).)
  • What does it mean to write? ("...a good account will perform the social in the precise sense that some of the participants in the action--through the controversial agency of the author--will be assembled in such a way that they can collected together (138).)

The first half of the book ends with a little interlude written in the form of a dialogue between Latour and a graduate student who has come to him thinking that perhaps actor-network-theory will provide a "frame" for a dissertation. It's a little self-satisfiedly Socratic, but helps to crystallize some of the controversies Latour talks about. As does the following passage from the end of the first part:

This is exactly what the five uncertainties added together might help to reveal: What is the social made up of? What is acting when we are acting? What sort of grouping do we pertain to? What do we want? What sort of world are we ready to share?...The fact is that no one has the answers--this is why they have to be collectively staged, stabilized, and revised. This is why the social sciences are so indispensable to the reassembling of the social (138).

In the second part of the book, Latour tackles the problem of oscillating between local and global in social theory, and he does this by effectively denying the existence of either. He describes the second part pretty concisely as follows:

The aim of this second part is to practice a sort of corrective calisthenics. I will proceed in three steps: we will first relocate the global so as to break down the automatism that leads from interaction to 'Context'; we will then redistribute the local so as to understand why interaction is such an abstraction; and finally, we will connect the sites revealed by the two former moves, highlighting the various vehicles that make up the definition of the social understood as association (172).

Part of what's interesting in the second half is his effort to come up with new terms for these processes. For example, we need clamps as part of relocalizing the global to keep ourselves from spinning out to global answers for happens in the local. Part of redistributing the local is accomplished through plug-ins, patches, and applets, a fairly literal adaptation of these technological bits of code: "To be a realistic whole is not an undisputed starting point but the provisional achievement of a composite assemblage" (208).

The book closes with a defense of actor-network-theory against the charge that, as a primarily descriptive method, it is insufficiently political. Again, though, Latour turns that charge upside down--he argues that what has been defined as political relevance is determined by adherence to pre-set categories, and that given ANT's refusal to acknowledge them, it can't be politically relevant in that fashion. ("...the definition of what it is for a social science to have political relevance has also to be modified" (253) and "So, to study is always to do politics in the sense that it collects or composes what the common world is made of" (256).)

Where this book strikes me as most disciplinarily relevant is its emphasis on production rather than reception. It's possible, I suspect, to read it (esp the last chapter) as an implicit endorsement of academic work--Latour clearly believes that what we do is important, and not only amongst ourselves as audience--but the work that we have to do to "trace the associations" is substantial. I don't think he'd disagree with the statement that his endorsement comes at a high price. In fact, all the way through, he emphasizes the economic metaphors of price and investment to describe the effort required to perform his brand of sociology.

In some ways it reminds me here of the sometimes blithe way that I assume that rhetoric is multi/trans/inter/supra/post-disciplinary, and I'm not the only one to have ever made such a claim, believe me. There's a certain arrogance in assuming that we study the "true" phenomenon "behind" all the other things that our colleagues study, without having earned that right. I think that there are striking parallels to be drawn behind the method that Latour describes here and the ways we go about our own work in our field. Enough so, in fact, that I've already recommended this book to several of our graduate students, and that I'll continue to do so. Enough so that I've been thinking about the work that I'm doing right now, and whether I'd fall afoul of some of the criticism that Latour raises.

Like I said last week, I'm no expert in ANT, and so a lot of what this book had to say was pretty new to me, although it certainly resonated in any number of places with things I've thought about. Perhaps, for someone more versed than I, it's old news. If nothing else, though, it provided me with a way into a very different way of thinking about method and an alternative to some of the default positions of my own discipline.

Good stuff. Thanks, Santa.

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.

May 19, 2006

Kevin Kelly, "Scan This Book!"

I have to admit that I was all ready to read Kevin Kelly's piece for the NYT Magazine ("Scan This Book!") and to dislike it. I was ready to dismiss it as this decade's version of Robert Coover's "classic," "The End of Books." A number of blogs that I follow have been moderately aflutter in the wake of Kelly's article, which is normally a good sign, but then there's that exclamation point in the title. Never been fond of the exclamation point.

And predictably enough, it's precisely those places that warrant the exclamation point that I have the most trouble with. (for a nice critique of Kelly's hyperbole, along with a comment thread where Kelly himself makes an appearance, try Nicholas Carr.)On balance, though, the article was a good one. So here's the deal (this is Carr's summary):

By scanning, digitizing, and uploading the words printed on the pages of the dusty volumes caged in libraries, he says, we will free those words of their literal and figurative bindings. They will merge, on the web, into a greater whole providing a greater good:
The static world of book knowledge is about to be transformed by the same elevation of relationships [that we find in hyperlinked web sites], as each page in a book discovers other pages and other books. Once text is digital, books seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together. The collective intelligence of a [digital] library allows us to see things we can't see in a single, isolated book ... All the books in the world [will] become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas.

You will no longer have to read books piecemeal, one by one. Instead, says Kelly, you'll be able to surf from book to book "in the same way we hop through Web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things."

I think that Kelly underestimates the amount of power and cultural inertia that books, and specifically book publishers, have for us, almost as much as Coover did. Telling for me is the comment from the CEO of HarperCollins, who doesn't "expect this suit to be resolved in my lifetime." I think that the front-end of Kelly's vision will ultimately prove to be a lot more problematic than any of us could possibly imagine.

But for me, that's not the biggest issue, although I can see how it would be for many people. Kelly's essay is less like Coover's and more like Vannevar Bush's As We May Think, now more than 60 years old. In fact, it would be instructive, I imagine, to place the two side-by-side in a course, and, barring references to the technologies of the time, see how closely they resemble one another. Bush's Memex runs on microfilm because that's what he's got technology-wise, but otherwise, there's a similarity in the vision offered by the two articles despite their temporal distance.

One important difference, though, is that Bush is fairly specific about the utility of the Memex--he begins his essay by highlighting a crisis in research that has certainly not abated in the past 60 years:

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. (Bush)

In other words, the Memex (and by extension here, Kelly's "liquid") is most useful for people who use books in a more extensive and varied sense than mere consumption. This is not to say that consumption is somehow "less than"--goodness knows, I do my fair share of consuming books--but I use books in a different way than most of my non-academic friends. Lots of different ways.

The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages. (Kelly)

Setting aside the hyperbole of this passage, what I see is a pretty fair description of some of the things that I do when I do research and write scholarship, although I can't speak for how deeply I weave my words into the culture. But my point is that this is a particularly "academic" list of goals for the vision that Kelly offers. His attempts to tie this universal library to other pop phenomena, though, is less persuasive for me:

Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or "playlists," as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual "bookshelves" — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. (Kelly)

Well, sort of. I think Kelly's right to note that this model will work for reference books (e.g., cookbooks, travel guides), because those are pop genres that are specifically built for use in a way that most other books are not. But I'm less convinced that short story anthologies, say, are going to take in the same way that iTunes playlists do, except among more esoteric subcultures. Like academia. Because to have a library shelf's worth of specialized information means, presumably, having to read that shelf's worth of information, whether front-to-back or side-to-skipping-side.

Despite some skepticism in my tone here, though, I like this essay. At the same time, I don't think that the vision offered by Kelly is quite as universal as he imagines, regardless of whether we're able to achieve it. I do, however, fervently believe that this vision will transform academic work (and other fields where research is a core element). I don't think that it's immodest of me to suggest that what we're doing with CCC Online represents baby steps in the directions that Kelly suggests, and so I'm particularly conscious of all the compromises and difficulties that even a single step in this direction entails. Like Steven, I believe that what's most interesting about this article are the hints towards "what kinds of writing and reading practices will emerge as all these books take on new digital lives," but I think that those will take even more time to sort out.

That is all for now.

July 31, 2006

Rhythm and Bass

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

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

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

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

That is all. Happy Monday.

my 2006 mix

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.

technorati tags:

October 31, 2006

Clifford Geertz, 1926-2006

Just heard that Clifford Geertz passed away yesterday. The Institute for Advanced Study has a full rundown of his career.

Noting that human beings are "symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animals," Geertz acknowledged and explored the innate desire of humanity to "make sense out of experience, to give it form and order."

Sound like anyone else we rhetoricians might be familiar with? I certainly don't claim exhaustive knowledge of Geertz's work, but The Interpretation of Cultures was part of my foundational coursework in rhetoric, and we could do worse as a field than to acknowledge that connection more explicitly. From Gary Olson's 1991 interview with Geertz for JAC:

Clifford Geertz says it all in one crisp, succinct sentence: "I'm probably a closet rhetorician, although I'm coming out of the closet a bit." For over three decades, Geertz has been attempting to steer anthropological scholarship away from a rigidly scientific model and toward a humanistic, interpretive, hermeneutic model--apparently with great success. Perhaps it is Geertz's preoccupation with seeing science and scholarship as rhetorical, as socially constructed, that makes his work so eminently appealing to many of us in rhetoric and composition. Geertz sees rhetoric as central to his own life and work.

Take a look at the interview--it's worth it, and not just for those of us engaged in what Geertz first called "thick description."

Update: More links over at Savage Minds

November 8, 2006

Money I don't have & books I can't read

Spending the former on the latter, although to be fair, it's not that I can't read them, but rather that I simply don't have the time right now.

But for whatever reason, all of the books I'd ordered over the last while saw fit to arrive in the last day or two. Thus, freshly unwrapped on my office table you will find:

1. Thomas Sloane's Oxford UP Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, which normally I wouldn't have bought, but for the fact that Oxford lists the book at $150 and had it on sale for $40 through November 1st.

2. Lisa Gitelman's new book from MIT, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture

3. Mark Hansen's new book from Routledge, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media

4. Anna Munster's Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (the 3rd or 4th book in Dartmouth's relatively new visual culture series)

5. Rob Cross, Andrew Parker, and Lisa Sasson's Networks in the Knowledge Economy

6. A relatively fresh reprint of Manuel DeLanda's Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy

The last two I caught at about 1/3 their normal price on sale through Labyrinth, but the others (2-4) are just new and relevant to what I do. And their relevance will mock me, from my office table, in the weeks to come, I am sure.

Happy New Book Wednesday!! and/or Happy Unopened Book November!!

That's all. I'm saving all my clever for the Lost "Fall Finale" tonight. Whatever the Finale that actually means.

March 5, 2007

Raúl Sánchez, The Function of Theory in Composition Studies

Allow me, if you will, to counteract last entry's high snark quotient with a bit of referential reverence. Or reverential reference. Or re(f/v)erence. Whatevs. I thought that, since I've been talking a fair bit lately about this book, both here and in conversation, I might go ahead and put together a bit of a description/review for those of you who haven't tracked it down. So,

Sánchez, Raúl. The Function of Theory in Composition Studies. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005.

I should start by noting that this is a short, short book. It's a set of theoretical provocations that only runs about 100 pages, and so it reads deceptively quickly. Deceptive because the position that it takes is one that I hope we take up in our field in much more depth. Its thesis is pretty easily gleaned on the first page:

The function of theory in composition studies is to provide generalized accounts of what writing is and how writing works....Contrary to the beliefs of some composition theorists, it is possible, and, more importantly, necessary for composition studies to have an agenda for inquiry comprised of theory and empirical research in a mutually informing relationship (1).

Easy enough, right? Well, not quite. Sánchez promises an analysis of our current "theoretical disposition" with an eye towards effecting a shift in our field, one that makes more room for the empirical study of writing than currently exists. And a little more controversially, he argues that "the period of composition theory's ascendance coincides with its having stopped making trenchant theoretical statements about writing" (3).

The problem, he explains, is hermeneutics, which is "a major obstacle to the study of writing." Hermeneutics reduces writing to a mere "technology of representation," rendering it secondary to whatever something else it is called upon to represent. Sánchez returns on several occasions to the theme that a model of writing that depends on hermeneutics is insufficient to the task of coping with the proliferation and circulation of language in an increasingly networked world. (You will begin to sense some of this book's appeal for me.)

You want a little proof? Okay. Here's David Smit, in The End of Composition Studies, describing our current state of scholarly affairs with respect to writing: "At the heart of these current paradigms, models, and theories is the fundamental assumption that the way we understand one another through language is primarily interpretive, a matter of hermeneutics" (9). According to Smit, this is as close as we have to fact in our field.

So anyhow, you may also begin to sense this book's appeal when I tell you that Sánchez quickly turns to Derrida, criticizing our field for adopting (adapting, more likely) a certain version of deconstruction as a reading practice, while ignoring grammatology as a productive method. What's kind of odd about this adoption, of course, is that so much of Derrida's emphasis, early on at least, is on resisting the model of naive hermeneutics that our field has claimed in his name. Sánchez rightly observes that often, what passes for "deconstruction" is usually a modernist debunking, designed to move us closer to ultimate signifieds, freedom from ideology, pure knowledge, authentic subjectivity, etc.

One of my favorite lines? "The field has been working at theory for too long to have gotten so little out of it" (12). Nice.

I should probably speed up a little, and that's possible in part because the subsequent three chapters mount parallel arguments about the relationship between writing and knowledge (ch 2), ideology (ch 3), and culture (ch 4). One of the most consistent threads throughout is that too much of our theorizing has presumed that each of these concepts precedes writing, and is reflected with more or less accuracy in/through writing. Instead, Sánchez argues in each chapter that these concepts are themselves the consequences of writing rather than its causes. In the final chapter, he argues that two of our most cherished concepts for thinking about writing--rhetoric and the subject--have been so completely shot through with representationalism that we should work rather at setting them aside.

As Mark Noe notes in his less enthusiastic review, there is a sense in which this book could run for another 100 pages, and turn from a manifesto to an example of the kind of writing theory that the first 100 call for. And there's something to this critique of FTCS. What's interesting to me about the review, though, is the way that it focuses exclusively on the theory end of Sánchez's equation, accusing/diagnosing him of seeking "a purer, pre-Berlin, post-structuralism." It's a move that I find kind of curious, because while Berlin's work is taken to task in the book, Berlin's influence on the field and on our reception of theory almost demands that focus. Is Berlin "silenced" in the attempt? I don't know, but Noe's avowed desire ("I would dearly love for Sánchez to read Berlin’s writing as fluid, situated, open to revision/ revoicing") strikes me as exactly the kind of move that Sánchez critiques, the attempt to make everything fit together at the deepest level of our disciplinary hermeneutics, by sanding down the rough edges until everyone has a place at the theory buffet. Maybe I'm projecting.

What I notice, though, is despite the prominent place that empirical study has for Sánchez, Noe's review doesn't mention it at all. Literally. The word "empirical" is absent. for me, that's one of the things that distinguishes this book from other calls for "breaking from" theory, Theory, or theories. It's not one of many in that regard, and it's not simply the latest "exercise in one-upmanship" that Noe seems to claim it is.

Where Sánchez's book succeeds for me is what I talked about in the comments from my "how" entry of a couple of days ago. If writing is a "technology of representation," then it is ancillary to the real stuff, whatever that stuff might be. Its value is referential--either it faithfully reflects that something else, or it obscures it to varying degrees. Writing is a veil in this model, an obstacle that must be overcome, in order to arrive at some deeper truth of subjectivity, ideology, knowledge, culture, et al.

If we can somehow work ourselves away from this ubiquitous model of representation, what we will be doing in part is (re?)turning to a model of writing and/or theories of writing where writing itself matters. "The most salient feature of writing," Sánchez writes, "is therefore not its representational function, but its ability to proceed as if it has a representational function." When we forget the "as if," language becomes invisible, representational, referential. But language proceeds in other ways as well--the critical refrain of much of Derrida's early work is that language matters, that it matters as much if not more than the logos it signifies.

I don't know that I have that much more to say. I'll most likely be teaching this book in the fall, and pairing it with Latour's Reassembling the Social, which provides more detail, I think, about what a turn away from hermeneutics might look like and how we might get there. At the very least, you could say that I recommend this book. I think it opens some new spaces for inquiry, not only challenging us to think outside of hermeneutics but prompting us to rethink our engagements within the tradition of hermeneutics as well. They're discussions that I hope we'll begin to have in our field, and I think of worse places to begin those discussions than Sánchez's book.

That is all.

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.

January 11, 2008

Zen and the Art of Powerpoint Maintenance

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

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

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

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

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

That is all.