April 10, 2004

Creative Computing

Adrian Miles and Jeremy Yuille have released "A Manifesto For Responsible Creative Computing v.0.3," and while I'm tempted to reproduce it in its entirety here, Adrian deserves the hits. Here's a smattering:

  • Creative computing is being creative with a computer/network, not being creative on a computer/network.
  • Network literacy is not the same as knowing how to Google.
  • This literacy is demonstrated in the responsible use of computers which understands that the network includes social, ideological, legal, political, ethical and ecological contexts.
  • Breaking, gleaning and assembling is a theory of praxis for these literacies.

There's more, so take a gander. If there's one thing that I would add, it's that there's an analogy to be drawn here between what the Manifesto describes as "creative computing" and the way that "creative writing" has been taken up in the academy here in the States. Creative writing is a misnomer, implying that "other kinds" of writing aren't creative on the one hand, and ghetto-izing many valuable lessons about language on the other.

Miles and Yuille contextualize their manifesto by explaining that "We teach students who work in the creative industries," but I'd like to hope (even as I'm mindful of the impracticality of this) that we don't take the word "creative" to mean something other than what we do here. Ours is a field that still maintains ties to a tradition that spoke of rhetoric as poesis and techne, that still has much to think about with respect to the production of discourse.

Let me put it this way. It feels naive to me to suggest that "all computing is creative," but I'm tempted to say this nevertheless. I think of a couple of conversations I had in San Antonio with David Blakesley--it's important to understand that he's focused on digital production in a way that will have profound implications for our discipline. In fact, I'm coming to believe that he may be one of our best examples of someone who is actively engaged in the production of the discipline. And I'm thinking of Jeff's recent post (and WPAJ article) on producing our own software and systems. And I'm even thinking of blogs in general, where a handful of us are producing language and selves on a daily basis.

The only sad is that manifestos like this are far more likely to come from outside our field than from inside it. In fact, if I'm feeling frisky tomorrow, perhaps I'll do a little close compare-contrast with the Manifesto and the recent CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments (posted by Steve a while ago). Some of the differences, I'm sure, are generic--there's a difference between organizational policy statements and manifestos. Of course. But still.

May 19, 2004

Network pedagogy

Every once in a while, several of the posts from my meanderings come together into a broader stream of thought, and it's happening right now. First, I wanted to acknowledge the weblog that Adrian Miles and Jeremy Yuille put together to support their Creative Computing Manifesto (see my original post). Jeremy dropped a comment here, but since the post has faded to archive, I thought I'd put their link up front for a spell.

In an entry on pedagogy, Adrian cites Ilana Snyder's injunction that we begin to reshape education according to networked technologies rather than doing the reverse, what McLuhan would have described as asking new media to do the work of the old. Charlie just posted the chapter that he and Terra Williams contributed to Into the Blogosphere, "Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the Writing Classroom." Jeff has some interesting end-of-semester thoughts about the plagiarism vultures. And at the Social Software Weblog, Judith Meskill talks about how we might start tracking and visualizing weblog conversations.

All right. Toss it all into the Blog-o-Matic, set to blend, and...

One of the things I've thought most about from the manifesto is the idea that "Network literacy is the ability to engage with and represent yourself within the network." Charlie and Terra talk about this to a certain degree in their chapter:

As two teachers who have used weblogs in our classrooms for the past two years, we have found that by extending the discourse to a large community outside of the classroom, our student bloggers regularly confront "real" rhetorical situations in a very social, supportive setting.

One of the worries I have about claims like this is the tendency to assume that putting something onto the network automatically gives writers access to something called a "public." That's not what I see Charlie and Terra doing, but there are those who make that claim, that putting something online instantly guarantees writers a huge audience, as though public were simply a threshold that could be crossed by assigning one's work a URL. For me, that underestimates drastically the importance of both engaging with the network and representing one's self.

And it doesn't help that we're still really just now working out tools (both technological and conceptual) for engaging the network. According to Mary Hodder, "Technorati can help find conversations across blogs but only if there are links to one another or everyone uses the same key words." The post at SSW, among other things, makes it clear that we have nothing "specifically designed to map and follow weblogging conversations over time and space," which strikes me as one of the more useful pedagogical possibilities for the blogosphere.

I've found it more useful to think of networks as something closer to conversations than to publics, but it can be difficult to explain to people (students) who aren't themselves already conversing in these spaces. And as I think about how we can best engage networks without domesticating them, I'm conscious of Jeff's claim that "The network could care less about citation." That is, I'm not interested in putting together point-by-point "rules" for blog posting (e.g., always use the permalink, trackback whenever possible, etc.), even though I think that these things need to be addressed.

[Aside: one of the lists I'm on had a discussion about citation styles, and why one style used a period where another uses a comma. OMG. I can feel myself falling asleep just thinking about it...]

In other words, the worst kind of domestication would be to translate network engagement into a kind of citation practice, taught the same way that we do MLA or APA style. And yet, these things can't be ignored. Trackback, for example, allowed the flap over the MT3.0 announcement to coalesce into a massive, spontaneous grid blog, in a matter of days. For me, that's what separates it from being a simple matter of citation. It's not just about where we find a source text--this stuff shapes the network itself.

So I guess the question is what sorts of practices do we need to start teaching to tip our students to the network? Last semester, even though almost none of them took me up on it, I talked about Technorati, Google web queries, using aggregators, and following trackbacks as a new set of research practices. What else needs to be there?

And yes, I'm writing an article about this currently, which is part of why it's on my mind...

June 12, 2004

Blogging @ Ruins

It's been a while since I've counted Bill Readings' The University in Ruins among my own personal resonant texts, but there was a time when I read it pretty closely. Small surprise, then, that some of Clay's remarks triggered a synapse or two. I've been glancing back through it for the past hour or so (while listening to Jenny's inaugural show on KVRX), and I've got a couple of thoughts. I should also note that Alex Reid has been throwing down some analysis lately that's also a part of the stew...

So, Readings. There's a two-fold argument that Readings makes in UR that most everyone should recall. First, he argues that the university has gone through a couple of epistemic shifts, from the University of Reason to the University of Culture to, finally, the University of Excellence. The second part of his argument that most people recall is that the emergence of the UofE is characterized by the dereferentialization of everything into the empty category of "excellence" ("What gets taught or researched matters less than the fact that it be excellently taught or researched" (13).) by means of the translation of accountability into accounting, the rendering of everything academic into the jargon of excellence (the USNWR college rankings are the classic example of this). According to Readings, this has ruined the university, period. The question for him then becomes what we as academics might do, other than behaving like villagers at a Renaissance Faire, ignoring the fact that we're practicing a fiction.

Continue reading "Blogging @ Ruins" »

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.

July 25, 2004

The Network Fallacy?

Bopping around this morning, and came across Stanley Fish's latest column in the Chronicle. In it, he cites the conclusion that Mark Taylor arrives at in The Moment of Complexity:

Either argument -- the one that begins, no longer is it possible to maintain the divide [between the academy and society], or the one that begins, there never was a divide in the first place -- leads Taylor to the same conclusions: Let's stop pretending that we can operate in a splendid (but fictional) isolation from everything that enables us; let's accept the fact that we are in, and of, the market and "find new ways to turn market forces to [our] own advantage"; let's prepare "students for life and work changing at warp speed"; let's go beyond the kind of critical analysis that does little more than "promote organizations and institutions whose obsolescence is undeniable"; let's adapt to the real conditions of our existence and eschew "a politics that is merely academic," a politics that is "as sterile as theories that are not put into practice."

As you might imagine, Fish disagrees on a couple of different grounds. The one that I was most intrigued by was what he calls the "system or network mistake":

the argument, more than implicit in Taylor's pages and in the pages of many other theorists of our condition, makes what I would call the "system" or "network" mistake -- the mistake of thinking that because something is embedded in a network that sustains that thing and gives it both value and shape, it is incoherent to speak of its properties, or of the boundaries that separate and distinguish it from other nodal points in the network. Since identity is network-dependent, the reasoning goes, nothing can be spoken of and examined as if it were free standing and discrete.

The trouble with that reasoning is that it operates at a level of generality so high that you can't see the trees for the forest.

Well, yes and no. This is not a new "mistake"--it's been around at least since the heyday of poststructuralism (and it would be easy to trace back through Burke and IA Richards as well). There, it was used as a reductio ad absurdum with which to point out the problem with deconstruction and the like--if it's all "free play of signifiers," then nothing means anything, and we might as well give up, blah, blah, blah. Basically, it involves ignoring one half of KB's "paradox of substance."

Calling it a "network mistake" doesn't quite work for me, because it ignores the degree to which network theory toggles among nodes, links, flows, patterns, et al. And I only buy system as a name for it if we're working with that term circa Jacques Ellul, and Taylor most definitely is not. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only way Fish could have arrived at this characterization is by only reading the final chapter. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but even though it's been a couple of years since I read it, I know that Taylor's discussion of complex adaptive systems is more nuanced than the false dichotomy of forest/tree being offered here.

The "argument" as Fish lays it out sounds no better if the terms are reversed:

the mistake of thinking that because something has boundaries that separate and distinguish it from other nodal points in the network, it is incoherent to speak of the network that sustains that thing and gives it both value and shape. Since nodal points are free standing and discrete, the reasoning goes, nothing can be spoken of and examined as if it were network-dependent.

Network theory, as partially as I may understand it, poises itself between these false alternatives. And from that perspective, it's entirely plausible for Taylor to argue that we need to reconsider the cultural, political, and social flows that connect us to various other points "outside" the university. There are places where I really disagree with Taylor's proposed solutions (many of which are a result of the spectacularly miscalculated keynote he delivered at C&W a few years back), but I also respect the fact that he proposes solutions, and would prefer to see them engaged at that level. Fish has never tired of the strategy whereby he pulls out rugs at a logically prior point, both invalidating the conclusions and removing any need to engage with them. It's certainly a fun tactic to watch, but it rings a bit hollow when it's applied to a writer who's as careful and as skilled as Taylor is. Taylor, quite frankly, deserves better.

The latter half of the column goes on to engage in a longer running crusade of Fish's, the place of morality (or politics or diversity) in academic institutions. While there may indeed be curricular implications to Taylor's position, it differs from the issue of MAC (morality across the curriculum) in ways that Fish doesn't seem to acknowledge. In his February column, he explains that:

The left may have won the curricular battle, but the right won the public-relations war.

While the two are certainly related to one another, Fish has no trouble conceptually separating them in February, and honestly, it's not that tough to see that Taylor's advocating that the public-relations war be reopened. Taylor himself may fall afoul of Fish's arguments re curriculum, but to suggest that this is all Taylor is talking about is to neglect the very distinction with which Fish opens that Feb column. And the result is a July column that paints Taylor in a pretty unflattering fashion, which he almost certainly does not deserve.

And here I thought all I wanted to do was to scold Fish for using the word network without my permission...;-)

August 3, 2004

Testing Meme Propagation in Blogspace: Add Your Blog!

This posting is a community experiment that tests how a meme, represented by this blog posting, spreads across blogspace, physical space and time. It will help to show how ideas travel across blogs in space and time and how blogs are connected. It may also help to show which blogs are most influential in the propagation of memes. The dataset from this experiment will be public, and can be located via Google (or Technorati) by doing a search for the GUID for this meme (below).

The original posting for this experiment is located at: Minding the Planet (Permalink: – results and commentary will appear there in the future.

Please join the test by adding your blog (see instructions, below) and inviting your friends to participate — the more the better. The data from this test will be public and open; others may use it to visualize and study the connectedness of blogspace and the propagation of memes across blogs.

The GUID for this experiment is: as098398298250swg9e98929872525389t9987898tq98wteqtgaq62010920352598gawst (this GUID enables anyone to easily search Google (or Technorati) for all blogs that participate in this experiment). Anyone is free to analyze the data of this experiment. Please publicize your analysis of the data, and/or any comments by adding comments onto the original post (see URL above). (Note: it would be interesting to see a geographic map or a temporal animation, as well as a social network map of the propagation of this meme.)


To add your blog to this experiment, copy this entire posting to your blog, and then answer the questions below, substituting your own information, below, where appropriate. Other than answering the questions below, please do not alter the information, layout or format of this post in order to preserve the integrity of the data in this experiment (this will make it easier for searchers and automated bots to find and analyze the results later).

REQUIRED FIELDS (Note: Replace the answers below with your own answers)

* (1) I found this experiment at URL:
* (2) I found it via “Newsreader Software” or “Browsing the Web” or “Searching the Web” or “An E-Mail Message": Newsreader Software
* (3) I posted this experiment at URL:
* (4) I posted this on date (day, month, year): 03 August 2004
* (5) I posted this at time (24 hour time): 07:00:00 (UTC-5)
* (6) My posting location is (city, state, country): Syracuse, New York, USA

OPTIONAL SURVEY FIELDS (Replace the answers below with your own answers):

* (7) My blog is hosted by: myself (personal MT installation on university server)
* (8) My age is: 35
* (9) My gender is: Male
* (10) My occupation is: university professor, writer
* (11) I use the following RSS/Atom reader software: Bloglines, Shrook
* (12) I use the following software to post to my blog: Moveable Type, Ecto
* (13) I have been blogging since (day, month, year): 13 August 2003
* (14) My web browser is: Safari
* (15) My operating system is: Mac OS X (10.3.4)

August 4, 2004

Testing Meme Propagation in Blogspace, Take Two: Add Your Blog!

Copy This GoMeme From This Line to The End of This Article, and paste into your blog. Then follow the instructions below to fill it out for your site.

Steal this!!!! This is a Gomeme -- a new way to spread an idea along social networks. By adding this GoMeme to your Weblog you can get higher Google rankings for your site, and help your friends get higher Google rankings too. You will also be participating in an experiment to generate a distributed Blog survey and test how memes spread through social networks.

By following the instructions below, your blog will be linked from every other blog that discovers this GoMeme downstream from your blog (from your readers, their readers, and so on). And that will raise your Google rankings in proportion to the number of downstream bloggers that get this GoMeme from you and post it to their blogs.

The dataset from this experiment is public, open and decentralized -- every blog that participates hosts their own data about their own blog. Anyone can then get the whole dataset by just searching Google for this unique string: 98818912959q This code is the "global unique identifier," or GUID for this GoMeme -- it marks every web page that participates in this GoMeme so that it can later be found with all the others. (Note it may take a week or longer before Google indexes your blog, so be patient).

To find out what a GoMeme is, and how this experiment works, or just to see how this GoMeme is growing and discuss it with others, visit the Root Posting and FAQ for this GoMeme at .


This is purely an experiment and is just for fun. We are really just curious to see what will happen and this is not a commercial project. Participation is voluntary. We don't mean to annoy anyone. However, if you don't have much curiosity, or at least a sense of humor, you may find this experiment to be upsetting. In that case, you might try drinking a good strong cup of coffee. If after that you are still unhappy with us, just don't read any further and have a great day! (If you don't want your blog to get better Google rankings, that's purely your choice!) On the other hand, if you are interested in exploring new technologies and pushing the envelope, then keep reading and we look forward to your participation in this experiment. We also request that participants in this experiment refrain from spamming anyone with this GoMeme. To spread it, just put it on your blog; that should be enough.


Step 1 First, to add your site to this experiment, copy the GoMeme to your site from the "Copy This GoMeme From Here" heading above to the End of this article. Please copy this whole article and try not to alter the text so that it is authentic for the people who get it from your blog.

Step 2: Now, fill in your answers to these Required Survey Fields (Note: Replace the answers below with your own answers). These will later be automatically data-mined by bots to compile the survey results.

(1) I found this GoMeme at URL:
(2) I found this GoMeme on date (day/month/year):03 August 2004
(3) I found this GoMeme at time (in GMT format): 06:00:00 (UTC-5)
(4) I foundit via "Newsreader Software" or "Browsing the Web" or "Searching the Web" or "An E-Mail Message": Newsreader Software
(5) I posted this GoMeme at my URL (use a hyperlink):
(6) I posted this on date (day/month/year): 3 August 2004
(7) I posted this at time (in GMT format): 07:00:00
(8) My posting location is (city, state, country): Syracuse, New York, USA

Step 3: If you're feeling very altruistic today, also fill in these optional survery fields (Replace the answers below with your own answers):

(9) My Weblog is hosted by: myself (personal installation on university server)
(10) My age is: 35
(11) My gender is: male
(12) My occupation is: university professor, writer, rhetorician
(13) I use the following RSS/Atom reader software: Bloglines, Shrook
(14) I use the following software to post to my blog: Movable Type, Ecto
(15) I have been blogging since (day, month, year): 13 August 2003
(16) My web browser is: Safari
(17) My operating system is: Mac OS X (10.3.4)

Step 4:Now add an entry for your site after the last entry in the PATH LIST below:
Your entry should be of the form: line number, URL, hyperlink, optional personal GUID for your blog.

(Note: If you would like to track all postings of the Meme that result from your posting of it, once Google has indexed them, you may add your own optional GUID after your hyperlink on your line of the Path List -- just make sure it is short, unique, and doesn't return any results on Google -- for example "mysitename137a2r28". Also note, if the path list gets too long, you should still try to include the whole path in your blog -- even if you have to put the list on a continuation page rather than the excerpt for your posting -- and make sure others copy the whole GoMeme along with your Path List when they get the GoMeme from you -- If they don't copy it, your blog and your upstream blogs won't be linked from their blogs).


1., Minding The Planet, mindingtheplanet14798
2., Collin vs. Blog, cgbvb6733k

The End

You did it! Now spread it! If all goes well and others find this GoMeme from your blog, you should see some interesting results. Please comment back on the original post and tell us how you're doing or what you observe, if anything noteworthy happens.

August 29, 2004

Better to be ignored?

Opened up Bloglines to find that "Syracuse" is showing up across many a radar today. Unfortunately, it's for the wrong reason. Turns out that Al Fasoldt, a staff writer for the Syracuse Post-Standard, has written an article criticizing Wikipedia. Turns out that he had pseudonymously endorsed Wikipedia in another article, and a local librarian called him on it, so he retracted the "column published a few weeks ago by my companion Dr. Gizmo."

There's a lot of buzz, needless to say, so forgive me if I miss a link. I first caught wind of it at Alex's site, where he also details an experiment designed to test the collaborative editing process. Ross Mayfield describes the WeMedia project at Many-to-Many, which will "apply a formal fact checking process to a sample of [Wikipedia] articles to gain a baseline measure of factual accuracy and explore issues of reputation." Mike at TechDirt, Joi Ito, and Shelley at Burningbird take Fasoldt to task for his arguments (and the comments sections are all worth reading as well. Ross also has a better synthesis of the discussion on M2M than I'm offering here.

It's hard for me to imagine that someone who cites 21 years of experience writing about technology wouldn't have heard of wikis, but that's apparently what's happened in this case. Leaving that aside, I was more intrigued by the pathos in Fasoldt's annotation to his article. On his own site, he prints the article, along with a couple of retorts:

Am I just being old fashioned? Or does trustworthiness still matter?

After this column was published, the author received dozens of letters, most of them deploring his stand. Apparently, many people believe an "encyclopedia" that is untrustworthy -- one in which any visitor can alter any page -- is acceptable. Is it? Am I just being old fashioned? Is trustworthy information still important? Maybe it's time we thought about issues such as these before our children get any further along in school. We might be teaching them the wrong thing. -- Al Fasoldt

As someone who teaches research, and specifically online research, it strikes me that the problem here is the false binary that Fasoldt offers. We are indeed teaching our students, in most cases, the wrong thing. Here it is:

Authority/trustworthiness/reputation/credibility is something that pre-exists the research.

Believe me when I say that I've looked, and I have yet to see the writing handbook that doesn't assume that the only valuable information on the Internet is that which mirrors the "real world." Credibility (in this model) is to be validated, through reference to a "real world" identity, rather than tested or explored via multiple sources. There are a gazillion sites for verifying the credibility of web sites, very few of which offer the simple insight that dates back to Aristotle at least: credibility is something you earn and develop, not something you simply have. When we ask our students to do research and to prepare the results in written form, we are teaching them to earn credibility through breadth and depth of research. You don't earn credibility by citing an "authoritative source," whatever that means. You earn it by testing your sources against one another, understanding what the reasons are for differences of opinion, and figuring out how to resolve them or to choose among positions, etc. In other words, authority should be something that each of us assigns to our sources, not the other way around. It is the result of research, not a prerequisite.

The advantage of sites like Wikipedia is that much of this back-and-forth (as Liz explains at Joi's site) is visible and public, and in that sense, Wikipedia offers students a chance to watch credibility-in-action. "Trustworthy information" is indeed important, but perhaps more important is that we offer students a chance to see how trustworthiness is developed, to see the conversations that may ultimately result in Encyclopedia Britannica articles. Rather than asking students to plug "authoritative quotes" into 5-paragraph containers, why not ask them to take a topic on Wikipedia, and research its validity? And if they find that there are pieces missing, why not encourage them to contribute? You telling me that stringing together blockquotes from authorities is going to teach them more about research than participating in a wiki might?

If nothing else, the hue and cry over this piece, I hope, will serve to demonstrate to Fasoldt that the "time we thought about issues such as these" has already been happening. At the close of his article, Fasoldt writes, "If you know of other supposedly authoritative Web sites that are untrustworthy, send a note to and let me know about them." I must admit that it's taken all the restraint I can muster not to send him the url of the Post-Standard.

September 5, 2004


NYT RNC/DNC buzzword visualization

Johndan beat me to this graphic, which is from the NYT (the thumbnail is linked). It's a visualization of keyword frequency from the RNC and DNC speeches, along with a chart that shows mentions and frequencies by various key speakers at each. And it makes for a really nice example of both information visualization and the kind of data that can be achieved through aggregative methods. In a country with only two "viable" parties, the idea of a political party is itself an aggregate, and one that translates incompletely when you move to the levels of region, state, city, neighborhood, household, and individual.

I've been thinking about scaling, which is that process of translation up or down to various levels of organization. I've finally added Piers Young to my blogroll, who, in addition to helping me fill that gap between the M's and S's, blogs about many of the same things that I'm interested in. In other words, it's taken me way too long to add him. Almost a month ago now, he raised the idea of fractals in relation to debates about emergence and personal v. collective KM. It's interesting to me right now, in part, because I've been drafting some of the preface to my book. It's called Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media, and the first part of the title is a triple pun that's the only thing left from my dissertation that will make it to the book.

Triple? Yes. First, there's "lingua franca," a bricolage language cobbled together from a range of sources that allows communication across borders or boundaries, implying connection. And then, there's "fracta," past participle of "frango," which is the Latin verb "to break." And then, there are fractals, which for me, more than anything, spotlight the question of scale. It's not a question that we don't already ask, but we haven't had the vocabulary (at least in comp/rhet) for understanding it as a particular kind of question. "Think globally, act locally" is a slogan that assumes scale, for instance. The classic line in KB's Rhetoric of Motives about the shepherd who cares for sheep at the same time that such care ultimately prepares them for market is an example of behavior that doesn't scale. And more recently, the discussion being held variously at Derek's, John's, and Jeff's blogs raises for me another question of scale: to what degree should the the national range of sites for composition be represented disciplinarily in the form of a canon or locally in a graduate course on composition?

Scale doesn't answer that question, of course, but to my mind, it gives us a slightly different vocabulary from which to think about it. The assumption that composition scholarship scales to insitutions of all sorts without anything being lost in that transposition is one that John questions rightly, I think, and as some people have already observed, there's a parallel between this assumption and the assumption made by many graduate programs about the universality of the positions their students will end up taking.

That's me: I don't have any answers, but by golly, I've got lots of ways to re-ask the questions...

October 2, 2004

my spring course

One of the things I was really looking forward to, as I embarked both on my leave this semester and my trip, was the chance to finally start working seriously on the course I'll be teaching next semester. I started a blog for it last spring, but it fell by the wayside as I worked on the book manuscript, read dissertations chapters, etc. I'm starting to pick the material up again now, working my way through some of the reading, starting to think about how I'll lay the class out, and so on.

I mention this because I've posted an extended course description now for what will be CCR 711: Network(ed) Rhetorics, and anyone who's interested is more than welcome to take a look. I'm hoping to conduct as much of the course online as possible, and likewise hoping that I can recruit some guest bloggers for the course site. I want to try and network the course as much as possible.

I always try and find angles into my courses, ways to make them fresh for myself as well as the students, but this will be a course rooted strongly in my immediate interests, and I'm hoping to share my own process of exploration as part of the course. I place a lot of emphasis on modeling the processes of reading and writing for students, even at the graduate level, and this course should be exemplary in that regard. I'll be asking students to join me at the beginning of a "research program" rather than positioning myself as the final arbiter, or the expert.

Can you tell I'm excited?

October 5, 2004

currently reading

Critical Mass by Philip Ball
I must admit that I'm a little surprised to have not heard more about this book, Philip Ball's Critical Mass. At Amazon, it's paired with Wisdom of Crowds, which I've seen all over the place (and finally bought, I might add). Anyhow, CM is not your typical network book. Ball is a science writer who's done a number of different things, and many of them come together to confront the subtitle of his book, "How One Thing Leads to Another." In other words, like The Tipping Point, Emergence, and others, this is a book about change.

It's not quite as accessible as Johnson or Gladwell, perhaps, but that's because Ball locates network studies in the context of about 400 years worth of science, social science, physics, thermodynamics, economics, statistics, and so on. I'm only about halfway through, so I'll reserve my reviewy comments for when I finally finish it. It's probably not going to be specific enough for me to use it in my course next semester, but if there were a way for me to guarantee that everyone had already read it, I would. It's thick, and as it's only in hardcover, it's a little pricey, but it's also one of those books that really lays out cross-disciplinary connections in a way that's compelling for me.

October 7, 2004

evidence, part 2

Continuing yesterday's thoughts, and following Cameron's addition of the VP debate to his data set, I wanted to talk a little bit about what I see as the significance of this kind of analysis.

This is important for me because one of the basic questions that I find myself asking about network studies is the degree to which this kind of study is merely descriptive. In other words, what benefits are there to having this sort of evidence? What kinds of claims and/or strategies can build on network analysis?

We tend to think of language as something over which we have complete control. But anyone who writes over a fair period of time knows that this isn't the case. In my case, I can no longer remember the specific language of articles that I myself have written any better than I can remember others'. And yet, there are certain features--of style, semantics, vocabulary, etc.--that remain relatively constant, and which I do recognize when I go back and read my writing. "Relatively" because we absorb all those things as we come into contact with others' language, and that contact nudges us in various directions. I may use a word more often because I like it, or avoid certain sentence constructions because I find them confusing. But the deeper the patterns, the slower the change, and the less conscious control we have over them. We may have immediate control over something that we are writing at the present moment, but we don't think about every single word to an equal degree. We take any variety of shortcuts--language use is at heart a vast network of shortcuts and connotations, and we use those shortcuts and patterns as a means of conserving our communicative energies.

And so the virtue of a doing large-scale, statistical analysis of a set of textual data is that it may reveal those shortcuts, those subconscious preoccupations that emerge over the long term in the language we use. As I think I already mentioned, this kind of analysis is limited by small samples, and it's likewise limited by textual performances that are as highly scripted as the debates undoubtedly are. In other words, both things allow for more conscious, deliberate control over text.

And yet, there are things that can be said here. When I see, for example, the prominence of the phrase "hard work," my sense is that W is basically asking for the political equivalent of an "A for effort." Given how quickly they've been to accuse the Dems of "demeaning the sacrifice" of our troops, I think that they realize that, in the face of a very limited amount of success, they have to argue not that we've been successful, but rather that we've tried really, really hard. Of course, my gut response is that they've made a big deal out of the bankruptcy of such a tactic when it comes to teachers that they have no right to rely on it themselves. If teachers are to be judged purely on the basis of their students' test scores (i.e., quantitative results) regardless of how hard teachers work, then they should not shy from the same sort of accountability themselves. If it's not enough for teachers to "work hard" and "fail," then it's hypocritical of them not to abide by the same standard.

Now, a healthy dose of this is partisan interpretation on my part, I know, but the patterns unearthed by analyses like Cameron's, I would argue, give us avenues for that kind of interpretation, avenues that do carry some quantitative justification behind them. This doesn't mean that all language use can simply be reduced to statistical patterns--far from it, in fact--but rather that it is a mix of conscious art and subconscious pattern, and that to date, we've (and that's a disciplinary "we") been less inclined to pursue the latter element. I would say that the work of Don Foster is a notable exception to this, and I'm sure that there are others whose work I have yet to encounter, particularly in linguistics.

October 19, 2004

Belonging to the Long Tail

Okay, so I may be the second- or third-to-last person to post about Chris Anderson's article in WIRED on "The Long Tail," but I'm mindful of what Mary Hodder was saying last week about the lack of blogospheric engagement with it (beyond quotes and points). At the tail end of her post, Mary asks a bunch of good questions that may never find answers, mainly because it would require these various companies to divulge more information than they're typically willing to offer.

She asks "what kinds of sellers exist further down the curve," and my gut answer is that just about all academic presses would qualify here. One of the crucial differences, though, between academic presses and more popular ones is that no one who publishes an academic book expects (or, given the general density of prose, tries) to achieve the kind of success implied by the power law distribution curve. That doesn't disprove Anderson or Pareto, but it does complicate the long tail a bit. There are portions of these industries where "micro-fame" is the goal (Gordon Gould had a post about this, about which I wrote, back in May.), and although an overall power law may still obtain, it flattens some crucial distinctions.

Before Amazon, it was really no more difficult to get a hold of academic press books--in many cases, Amazon still requires a 1-2 week wait for a lot of the titles I order, unless they're brand spanking new. The difference between ordering it there and ordering it at a bookstore, I'd argue, is that Amazon offers the illusion of immediacy that placing an order at a bookstore, waiting two weeks, and then going in to collect and pay for a book does not. Yes, it's marginally more convenient to have the book delivered, and yes, there's collaborative filtering (still secondary to scholarly networks for me, though, in usefulness). But the important difference is this: in a bookstore, I can either buy a book off the shelves or order it. There is a lived, experiential contrast between those two--one is immediately gratifying, the other delays gratification. At Amazon, we don't really experience the difference between one end of the power law curve and the other--in both cases, we order the product, and wait a couple of days to get it.

And because my experience of ordering an academic press book is the same for that of ordering a best-seller, Amazon doesn't make me feel obscure for doing so. Instead, I feel like I'm part of one big, happy market, even though I'm one of maybe a couple hundred (at most) who will buy that book there.

It may be different for other media, but I think that Amazon's success isn't simply a matter of providing access to the long tail of the book market--it's in minimizing the differences between those of us who practically live in the long tail and those who don't. At Amazon, I experience no less convenience than someone who only buys best-sellers. In other words, Amazon makes everyone feel as though they belong equally, and a lot of the "secondary" features of the site (if we assume that sales is the primary feature) are geared to enhancing that sense of belonging. And if I feel like Amazon meets my needs better than other options, that's where I'll spend my money.

I've got more to say, but I'm going to pause here, and come back in a bit.

The Long Tail, part 2

One important exception to the dearth of commentary on Anderson's piece comes from Adina Levin, who builds on and speculates about the essay in important ways. She writes,

The Long Tail article reveals the limitations of the Clay Shirky power law model. Several years ago, Shirky explained how the top of the peer production curve segues into the mass market. The aggregation of interest raises popular bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, and popular open source software projects like Linux far above the tail, to join the ranks of mass market mainstream hits.

The Power Law essay amputates the long tail, and translates the head of the peer production curve into familiar mass market terms -- the creation and packaging of celebrities. By focusing at the top of the curve, where peer production segues into the mass market, the Power Law obscures the the economic and social principles that create profit and value from the Long Tail.

I'm not sure that I agree with the title that precedes this section ("The Power Law Red Herring") so much as I agree with the remark that closes it ("the relationship between the head and the tail is symbiotic instead."). I'm working from memory here, but it seems to me that Clay's essay is a necessary corrective to the idea that the blogosphere is automatically democratic or egalitarian--it's an explanation of the principles by which any network of a certain size will ultimately produce an A-list (whether we call the members of that list celebrities, the literary canon, etc.). The problem isn't so much that power laws themselves "obscure" the value to be found at the other end, though. Rather, I'd argue that this is one of the strategies deployed by the culture industry to protect itself. At its root, a power law is an assertion about the economy of attention. The A-list of bloggers may or may not be better than anyone else, but they receive the most attention. The conflation of "more" with "better" (50 million Britney fans can't be wrong?) is what obscures that value.

And there are mitigating forces as well. If we look at these curves ecologically or symbiotically, as Adina suggests, then we might start identifying various Slashdot effects. Anderson's essay opens with one, explaining how Touching the Void benefitted from Into Thin Air. I would never have read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy had it not been for Harry Potter. And Oprah's practically made an industry out of Slashdotting various books, singers, etc. And every time this happens, it re-shuffles the distribution curve, sometimes more temporarily than others.

This suggests that power law curves get short-circuited every so often, but I'm not sure that this means anything other than exceptions that prove the general rule. Amazon, Netflix, and others may derive more profit from the long tail, but my guess is that this is because long-tailers find those services more to their liking. In other words, the fact that they seem to refute or disprove power laws may be a result of the fact that, in a larger ecology of sellers, they're simply more representative than the mass market outlets of a certain group of consumers.

I'm making more than I'd intended out of this single point. Suffice it to say that I'll be assigning all three of these pieces together next semester.

October 21, 2004

Head v. Tail

Last night, as I watching the Sawx come one step closer, my mom asked me whether I thought that the Internet had made things better. I don't remember the context of the question, but I do recall my ambivalence in answering it. And later on last night, I came across the following story, collected concisely here by Jeff Jarvis:

S., who lives in San Francisco, sends an email to A., a political correspondent for the New York Times. That email contains a particularly injudicious remark wishing harm upon A.'s "kid." D., a colleague of A.'s, is offended, and writes a Sunday column (reg. required), publishing this remark (against the wishes of S.) and naming both S. and identifying his home. S.'s reward for this remark, as a result: hordes of nasty emails, hateful phone calls, and a lasting effect far out of proportion with a private statement, however originally hateful it was:

What won't go away for years, if ever, are the results of the Google search of my name every prospective employer, professional colleague, new friend or potential spouse is likely to conduct in the future. When you search my name now, you learn right away that the Public Editor of the New York Times called me a coward and a despicable person incapable of consideration of others.

That's from the "open letter" that S. has posted to his own site, where you can also find out the names of the principals here. As ugly as his original comment was, S. is right to note that, instead of taking the high road (ostensibly the point of D.'s column), D. has traumatized S.'s children and potentially damaged his reputation, job prospects, and life for a long time to come, a pretty steep price for a private email composed in the heat of anger. S.'s conclusion is worth reading:

Let me close by pledging that, henceforth, I shall write all of my e-mails as though they will be published in the New York Times. I shall write them with the care, consideration and respect for civil discourse that one would expect from the public editor of the nation's leading newspaper. I will write them as though I am writing a respected column that will be read by people around the world, and that will be captured in Google forever. My parting request to you, [D.], should you choose not to do the honorable thing and resign, is that you pledge to never again write a column for the New York Times as though you are writing a private, angry and hostile e-mail to an audience of one.

Jarvis has another post on this as well, one that deplores the fact that incivility simply breeds more incivility. Also of interest is Chris Nolan's reflection on the possibility that there's a marked difference between the ways that people on each coast have taken up communications and connectivity in the past few years. Nolan's conclusions are certainly overgeneralized, but her initial premise, that people in different geographic regions will take up technology in different ways, is a sound one, and one that will be a source of frequent misunderstandings and cautionary tales for years to come, I suspect. If even part of what she suggests is true, it's another example of how our social adoptions of technology trail well behind our ability to produce new technologies themselves.

And the original question? It's going to take any number of stories like S.'s or David Hailey's before the kind of civility that Jarvis asks for will emerge. It's kind of like having to touch the stove and burning a finger before one will really believe that it's hot. We're still very much in the finger-burning stage of development with respect to the Internet, I think, and that can be both good and bad.

January 31, 2005


A few days back, Clancy posted about the mini-seminars (on China Miéville at Crooked Timber and on Gerald Graff at John & Belle, e.g.) that have been popping up around blogspace lately. And she concludes:

I think we should do something like this. People who study communication and, in particular, communication online, are not yet making the most of the affordances provided by weblogs. So let's do this thing! Would you rather do a seminar or a carnival, or do you have other ideas?

She and I have been bouncing it back and forth, and we've chosen a book. In the next month or so, we're going to read Wayne Booth's new book The Rhetoric of Rhetoric. We're going to read it, and we'd like to invite any of you in the neighborhood to join us. The idea is pretty simple: pick up the book, read it in the next month or so, and we'll put together a conversation about it, either distributed among participants or located at one of our blogs.

Any questions?

April 3, 2005

Waiter, there's a long tail in my humble pie!

Clancy, with a quick question regarding celebrity weblogs, reminds just about every one of us who blogs in academia exactly where we land on the food chain:

Total number of comments on the March 21st entry at Zach Braff's weblog: 1296
Total number of entries and comments generated in over a year and a half at my blog: 1292, counting this one

I don't mean to make it sound like Clancy's question was purposefully humbling. I was just struck by the "closeness" of the numbers.

And no, I'm not pinging Braff's site to see if I can inch ahead of his entry. I'm just sayin...

That's all.

April 8, 2005

Must. Not. Post.

I've been fighting the urge to elaborate on my rant for the past couple of days, and I think I've nearly got it beat. In what I'm hoping will be the final nail in the coffin, I wanted to link to a post over at Will's that isn't directly related, but ends up connecting in my head.

Will takes the kernel of James Surowiecki's talk at ETech:

"Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible."

and connects it to the ways that we teach collaboration to our students, namely, the way that we encourage them to seek consensus (and there's a whole horde of evidence, both theoretical and empirical, to suggest that this is the case).

One of the places this resonates for me is at the level of discipline. One of the notions with which I've increasingly lost patience over the years is what I'd call the leap to community, the fact that we don't really have a vocabulary to describe what happens when we go beyond a random network (a crowd, mob, etc.) but before we get to a fairly ordered network of the sort I envision when I hear the word "community."

You could say that I'm a member of the composition & rhetoric community, or the computers & writing community, but that suggests a unity of thought and/or purpose that I'm not sure I'm completely on board with. My ties to the people similarly identified are certainly stronger than the ones that connect me to, say, Anthropology departments, but they're not nearly as strong to the ones that connect me to my colleagues (both faculty and grad students) at Syracuse, or the ones that connect me to my cohort from grad school.

There are literally thousands of people in the comprhet "community" whom I will never meet, which seems to me to stretch casuistically the word itself almost beyond recognition. And certainly, I feel that community far less than I do the one that Will talks about. He and I have never met, and yet, in the past couple of days, each of us has cited and referred to the other's ideas and writings, lending the tie between us much more reality and immediacy than those connecting me to thousands of people who may never even know my name.

And maybe it's because I just came off a good, long conversation with Lori, partly about the topic of virtual collaboration, that I'm thinking that there's something to collaboration that involves working alongside or in parallel that's just as collaborative (and easily as valuable) as the consensus model. Maybe I'm just thinking that community can be a result of collaboration more broadly defined, whereas we tend to think of community as a prerequisite.

There are other dots to connect here, but that is all from me for the moment.

April 26, 2005

Pass it on

Dylan, I think you underestimate the resources that I am capable of bringing to bear upon any attempt at making me feel guilty. But, like a magic trick that loses its luster if performed too often, those resources are for emergencies, and I'm willing to hold them in check in the interests of allowing the meme to spread.

But just this once, mister.

So, lest I be accused of simply taking memes at face value:

Who would be your top 5 people, living or dead or cinematic, that you'd want to see blog?

1. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) from Memento. I don't know that his blog would be all that interesting, but at least he wouldn't have to blog on his skin anymore, right? The big question, then, would be whether you'd need to read a second, black-and-white blog in forward chronological order, just to understand his...

2. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) from The Usual Suspects. But only if he promised to blog from a laptop, and never to blog from the same place twice. Oh, and of course, it would have to be pseudonymous.

3. John Doe (Kevin Spacey) from Se7en. A Spacey double shot? Has there ever been a more accurate portrayal of just how messed up you have to be to write that much every freakin day? And to think that these two performances came in the same year. There's your orality and literacy.

4. The Landlady (Qui Yuen) from Kung Fu Hustle. In blogspace, no one can hear your Lion's Roar.

5. Lola (Franka Potente) from Run Lola Run. I can't think of a better example of someone who could have used a cameraphone, a Flickr account, a GPS tracker, and Googlemaps to better advantage.

So there's your five. And I didn't even have to resort to Star Wars jokes about escape podcasting.

June 26, 2005

Weblog survey

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

August 5, 2005

The velvet rope?

IHE makes note of a study published this month in Academe by Stephen Wu, called "Where do Faculty Receive Their PhD's?." It's notable for me mainly because it's an initial stab at a network analysis of the largely invisible prestige economy that operates in the academy.

The results aren't especially surprising: top schools hire from top schools:

This study shows that graduates from the top-rated PhD programs continue to hold an overwhelming share of faculty positions at leading colleges and universities. Still, there is a fair amount of variation by field as well by institution type. The reasons for these disparities are unclear, but they merit further investigation.

One of the reasons for disparity is the blunt instrument that Wu uses for his data, namely the USNWR rankings. English is one of the "fields" that he looks at, and English departments include all sorts of areas that aren't articulated by those rankings. The presence of comprhet in most departments guarantees, for example, that the percentage of faculty from the Ivies will decrease. The absence of comprhet from USNWR rankings means that our program at SU is basically invisible.

I have more to say, but I wanted to jot down the observation that what "merits further investigation" is the degree to which the USNWR rankings (among other, similar, "objective" tools) function as a velvet rope to keep subdisciplines and interdisciplines marginalized and unrecognized. I like the basic direction of Wu's piece, but there are really fundamental problems with treating English as monolithically as he does, and even though it's the initial fault of USNWR, he perpetuates it here by not inquiring into the powerful ways that those rankings help to produce his results.

August 13, 2005

Coming soon to a screen near you...

We're not quite ready to roll out CCC Online officially yet, but this summer, Derek, Madeline, and I have been laying the groundwork for the site, and experimenting with the kinds of data (and metadata) that the site will provide.

A few weeks ago, I was complaining about having to work from scratch with Perl, but it looks like we're now in business, thanks to D. One of our challenges has been figuring out how we're going to tag articles in the absence of abstracts (which are a relatively recent phenomenon in the journal) and without having to do close readings of 50 years worth of journal articles. Compared to that latter task, Perl sounds like a walk in the park, yes?

Anyhow, we're getting closer to having a workable system for parsing an article, isolating nouns and noun phrases, and applying a relatively systematic set of rules for generating keywords on the fly. It still involves a fair amount of intensive labor, and I may end up having to learn how to write Excel macros to get it working a little better, but I'm feeling comfortable with the results. They won't be absolutely accurate--there will always be problems with synonyms and diverging meanings (for example, "of course" and "writing course" are treated as 2 equal instances of the word "course")--but I'm hoping that as tentative snapshots, some of this data that we're generating will be of use to the field.

For example, here's a keyword list from the latest issue of CCC. I've tried to collapse when possible (e.g., "students" combines both "students" and "student"), and the number in parentheses is the number of appearances. We've stripped out articles, pronouns, prepositions, etc., and tried to stick to "significant" terminology.

Students (604), Writing (265), Courses (245), Papers (208), Composition (163), Portfolios (139), Summer (107), Textbooks (97), Work (78), Teachers (74), Assessment (69), Approaches (67), Authorship (67), Process (65), Studies (65), Essays (64), Class (63), Part (59), College (58), Teaching (57), Classes (55), Time (54), Author (52), Study (50), Writers (50)

These are the top 25 terms of more than 7000 total, and a word count (remember, minus a lot of other words) of around 18,000. And there are some obvious spots where specific articles are skewing the issue's rankings (White's article on assessment accounts for 137 of the 139 appearances of the word portfolio(s), and Ritter's responsible for all but one appearance of the word authorship). In the five articles, "students" is the top noun in 3 of them, and no lower than the seventh most frequent in the other two.

Of course, where this information will become more useful, I think, is when we've gathered data for a broad range of issues. Patterns, I'm hoping, will emerge over time (as the field itself has), perhaps shifting from one editor to the next, with certain terms waxing and waning in the journal as their relative fortunes in the field have. And so on. Over the next couple of months, I'll probably be posting about CCCO more often here, and sharing some of these speculations.

If anyone is interested, we'll most likely be doing a small-scale usability study on the site as well, probably in the first half of the fall semester. Leave me a comment or drop me an email if you'd be interested in participating...

August 22, 2005


Or something like that.

One of two things happened today: either I was better prepared somehow than I thought I was, or I've somehow learned to be a little more comfortable with my intrinsic lack of organization. If I had to lay money, I'd probably bet on the latter. I ended up doing what I could to sort of shrink the scale of my talk a bit, from the Discipline to the textual networks that make up both the discipline(s) as well as our experiences of it. And this segued nicely into a quick show and tell about CCC Online. Most of the work that we've done on the site has been this summer, and so most others in my department haven't seen what we've accomplished, much less heard me make the case for why it's important.

I'm still working the kinks out in terms of my ability to articulate the needs that the site fills and the way that it goes about filling them, but I figure that'll come with practice. So last week-ish, I talked about doing the keyword parsing of each article and each issue. Today, one of the things I showed off was our attempt to provide what we're calling reversible bibliographies, or "works citing" as opposed to "works cited."

Since we're managing the site through Movable Type, one of the things we're doing is to place links in the works cited to other CCC articles. Makes sense, right? Well, MT allows us not only to place links to those cited works, but to make them trackbacks as well. So articles that have been cited will themselves contain links to the essays that cite them. We're only four years deep so far, so we don't have lots of examples of this, but you can see what I mean by looking at the entry for Diana George's From Analysis to Design, which is, in the pages of CCC itself, the most frequently cited CCC article from the past four years. And it's only been twice.

(And that's something that I didn't talk about today, but could have. It's interesting to look at what I'd called insular citation patterns (CCC articles cited in CCC articles). The two most citation-heavy articles from the last three years have both been CCCC Chair's Addresses, for example. There are roughly 61 CCC articles cited in the most recent Volume (4 issues), but half of those are accounted for by Kathi Yancey's Chair's Address (21) and Richard Fulkerson's article (10), with 12 of 20 essays citing either zero or one. That's up from the year before--in Vol. 55, there are only 37 CCC articles cited in 20 essays. These are rough estimates, though, because there are some instances of Cross-Talk citations that I haven't traced out to their origins.)

As we get deeper into the archives, though, the idea of including a Works Citing list as well as Works Cited will become more relevant, I think. It would also be improved if/when the scope of this project expanded beyond CCC. But that's a concern for another year...

August 28, 2005

"Reading" without reading

I asked Lotaria if she has already read some books of mine that I lent her. She said no, because here she doesn't have a computer at her disposal.

She explained to me that a suitably programmed computer can read a novel in a few minutes and record the list of all the words contained in the text, in order of frequency. "That way I can have an already completed reading at hand," Lotaria says, "with an incalculable saving of time. What is the reading of a text, in fact, except the recording of certain thematic recurrences, certain insistences of forms and meanings..."

Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Derek and I have been laying the full-court press on all things related to CCC Online this week, in the hopes of rolling the site out publicly with the release of the first issue of this year's volume (57.1), and we're getting pretty close. Upon its release, the site will have archived the past four years of essays, and while that doesn't sound like a lot, believe me when I say that it has been. There's been a great deal of information to compile, and we've also had to design a workflow in the process, one that will enable us to continue working backwards in time.

Anyhow, one of the major features of the site is ready to roll. In addition to publishing the metadata on each article, we've been generating some additional material in the form of keywords. Beginning with this year, CCC authors will supply a set of keywords for their articles, but as you can imagine, trying to track down the authors of 50-odd years of articles and get keywords didn't strike us as a winning proposition.

And so, like Lotaria above, we looked for technological assistance. Inspired in part by the work of people like Cameron Marlow and Anjo Anjewierden, what we needed was a way to "read" these essays, reducing them to a set of 10-15 keywords, a way that wasn't prohibitive in terms of time or labor. After much searching, despairing, tweaking, and yes, whining, we ended up with a couple of Perl scripts that seem to be doing the trick. You could almost hear the relief, I imagine.

The results of our text parsing are valuable in and of themselves, I think, and they show up for the individual entries on CCC Online, under the heading of Tags. While they can't fully account for a given article's complexity or nuance, we're operating according to a principle a lot like the power law--our attitude is that the majority of an essay's message is concentrated in the handful of words that appear just below the threshhold of articles, pronouns, prepositions, etc. They represent that "thematic recurrence" or the "insistences of meaning."

For instance, in Diana George's essay, which I mentioned a few days ago, we isolated close to 1600 nouns and noun phrases, appearing a total of 3500 times. (These are really rough numbers, for reasons that I could explain if anyone's really interested.) Now, the top 1% of those noun/phrase/s, or about 16 of them, account for around 500 appearances (approx. 15%). Expand the selection to 5% (80 nouns), and the appearances jump to 1200 (almost 33%). 10% of the words (160) gives us a little less than half at 1600 (about 45%). And 20% (320), a magic percentage for power laws, yields 2100 instances, or around 60%. This may not be interesting to anyone but me, but while it doesn't quite match up with the power law, it's close enough to be suggestive. And the roughness of my numbers is rough in the right direction for the claim I could make.

Here's where it gets really cool, though. We've generated lists of keywords for all of the articles published in CCC over the past four years, and placed those keywords on the individual pages themselves. Because we're using MT to publish these entries, though, we've made them available for services like CiteULike and And so, we've established a CCC Online account at (, where we've first bookmarked all of the articles from the last four years, and then used our keywords as tags for the articles themselves. And the keywords on each entry at CCCO are links to our page for that tag.

For those unfamiliar with, I recommend scrolling down and finding Options at the bottom of the right-hand column, and starting with "View as Cloud," "Sort by Alpha," and "Show Bundles." The option that appears in black is the one that's active. The cloud uses color and size to indicate which tags are most frequent, and we've separated out the issues themselves into a separate bundle. We also added tags for CCCC Chair's Addresses and the Braddock Award winners. Spaces aren't permitted, and so you'll notice that we're doing the WikiWord thing for phrases.

Tags at the top and bottom of the frequency list are less than optimal, of course. "Students" appears as one of the top 10 in 69 of the 84 essays we've tagged thus far, for example, which isn't particularly useful except as an example of the kinds of concerns most likely to appear in CCC. And at the bottom are a mix of tags, some of which will probably rise as we expand the range and others which will end up being something like Amazon's statistically improbable phrases (SIPs). The range in the middle, though, we hope will help researchers in our field by seeding their bibliographic work (it is only a single journal, after all).

More importantly, though, I think that provides us with the beginnings of a map of the journal--whether it's extrapolable to the field as a whole I'm reserving judgment about, but I'm excited about the possibility. It's an eminently searchable map, as well as one that permits the kind of exploration that isn't nearly as convenient otherwise. There's plenty more to say about it, I'm sure, but right now, I kind of want to just sit back and feel a little pride.

So, yeah, that's part of what we've been up to.

September 9, 2005

CCC Online goes live

About a year and a half ago (April 04), Ed White started a thread on WPA-L, about the question (and the difficulty) of "keeping up" with all that's published in the discipline. My contribution to the thread was to suggest that any answer to the dispersal of the field was going to need to be equally dispersed, some way to loosely join the small pieces, to paraphrase David Weinberger, that would be sustainable. And I offered a modest proposal in that regard.

Last fall, I decided to put my money where my mouth was, and to apply for the position of CCC Online Editor vacated by Todd Taylor, and the good folk at CCC and NCTE took me up on my offer. The result, as I've talked about a little bit here over the past month, may not compare in scope with a site like, but it's pretty (dare I say?) revolutionary for my field, which has been pretty slow to develop sustainable tools for managing all of the scholarship that we generate.

CCC Online is a small step in that direction, but I think (and hope) that years from now, it will have been an important one. The site uses Movable Type to archive the metadata from every essay published in CCC--we're currently four years deep into the archives, and hope to make steady, "backwards" progress over the course of the next year. Among other things, the site will:

  • make the content of CCC accessible through search engines
  • make the content of CCC available to bookmarking services like, CiteULike, etc.
  • make the works cited of the CCC archives searchable (how many articles have cited X, e.g.)
  • provide easy access to insular citations (the abstracts of CCC articles in the bibliographies will be a link away)
  • allow similarly easy access to what we're calling "works citing"--links to CCC articles that have cited the article in question
  • create annotated table of contents pages for each issue of the journal (using the monthly archive feature on MT, and retroactively timestamping the entries)
  • classify articles according to their various and respective CCCC "area clusters" (each of which will eventually be available as an RSS feed)
  • provide permalinks to the NCTE pages where the pdf's of the articles reside (sorry, subscribers only), tying that portion of the site to a much more focused search engine
  • supply both author-generated and automatically generated keywords for the articles, offering a rough snapshot of each essay
  • link to a account devoted exclusively to building a bottom-up, folksonomic network for describing the journal's content
  • enable different kinds of synoptic, disciplinary research: trends in particular terminologies, vocabularies, and topics, e.g.

Not a bad list of features to start with, if I do say so. I should also add that the space on the front page currently occupied by the "Welcome" message will eventually turn into a rotating "feature" space, providing links to electronic content, relevant discussions in the blogosphere, resources, etc., pretty much whatever we can think of. Also, although it's not yet in place, we'll be housing the electronic content that's already been published in CCC, as well as providing room for such content in the future. My plan, in locating the site externally (from both NCTE and SU), was that, rather than changing the URL for all this stuff every few years, I could simply pass the account on to the next editor, leaving all of the URLs semi-permanent.

I don't have a lot more to add at this point. This has been an exciting project both to envision and to work on, and I think that it'll represent a real contribution to my field, one that carves out a different kind of space from the resources currently available. And given all the work that I've been doing with blogs, networks, social software, KM, etc., it's functioned for me as a concrete application for the more abstract ideas that I tend to focus my attention upon.

I'll be linking to this announcement and putting the word out over listservs in the next few days, but anyone reading this should feel free to beat me to it, or give us a shout out on your blog. And in the meantime, give the site a visit, take a look around, offer us feedback, pass the URL around, etc.

Update: Beth's comment reminds me that, as I should have made clear from the get-go, I wasn't the only person working on this. The team included me, Derek, and Madeline, and we've received timely advice and feedback from several people whom I'll be adding to the "Team" page on the site shortly...

September 13, 2005


CCC Online is featured today on Inside Higher Ed's Around the Web.

Can I get an Amen?

September 23, 2005

The New Is

This is more a placeholder for me than anything else, but if there are those of you out there who want a nice, concise statement of the value of social tagging, you could do far worse than this talk that David Weinberger just posted online, "The New Is." Among other things, including a detour through Aristotle, David offers three guiding principles that make a great deal of sense:

Links, not containers: A page is what it points to.

Multiple tags, not single meanings: A thing gains more meaning by having multiple local meanings.

Messiness, not clean order: The best definitions are ambiguous.

That's all for the moment on this.

November 6, 2005

Slowly resurfacing

Thanks to a day spent almost entirely in a state of hibernation.

Anne Squared

From Wednesday to Saturday, my attention was taken up almost entirely by the aforementioned Fall Symposium on Digital/Visual Rhetorics, and my energy largely consumed by the various responsibilities involved with event planning and execution. I flatter myself sometimes with the belief that I'm pretty good at that stuff, although I could probably be a little better. I was good enough this week that the event went pretty smoothly on the surface, and really, only a few bumps, most of which were invisible to most.

One of the things that we did that I was pretty proud of was that we didn't just do talks. The talks were good in and of themselves, but we also scheduled some hands-on workshops as well. It's not the kind of thing that we normally do for visiting speakers (not even during job visits), but I think it worked out pretty well, even though we probably didn't allot quite enough time for them.

All in all, I was pretty pleased. And I'm pretty pleased that it's over, lovely as it was to see and spend time with Jenny, Jeff, and Anne. There are three of us or so with some pix from the event, and I'll add the links to this entry as they emerge:

January 5, 2006

Moretti Fest '06

And while I'm in the mood to promote good work that others are performing, let me recommend that you pay an hour or two's worth of attention to the discussion/event on Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees that Jonathan is organizing over at the Valve.

The book itself simply collects a three-part series of essays that Moretti did for the New Left Review a few years back, which I read a while ago, but the ideas therein are important enough that I went ahead and bought the book, too. No one who reads it could help (I think) but to see a little of his influence on the work that Derek and I are doing with CCC Online. Scott McLemee has a nice "Brief Guide to Avoid Saying Anything Too Dumb About Franco Moretti" over at IHE this week, if you'd like the thumbnail of what Moretti's talking about.

The only thing I'd add to Scott's account is something that you'll see if you check in periodically over at the nora project (as I do), and that's the crucial role that visualization plays both in Moretti's work and in this kind of work more broadly. Graphs, maps, and trees are three kinds of visualization techniques, and while people are debating the appropriateness of the disciplines from which the techniques are drawn, it may be more productive ultimately to ask whether or not language and culture can be captured visually these ways. (I think so. You may not.)

Moretti's work also connects for me with Gladwell's Blink in the sense that the snap judgments MG discusses are themselves a form of distant reading (one of FM's key terms). That may also be the other way around. But either way, distant reading is something of an occluded technique in the humanities, although it's not entirely absent. Think of our institution's emphasis on the impact factor of journal articles, or of the keywords supplied for an article, or of our (my) habit of scanning works cited and indices to gather a quick impression about whether or not to read a book. These are all different instances of the broader category of activity that Moretti is applying to literary history (I'd actually argue literary sociology, I think, in the way that Randall Collins does the sociology of philosophy, but that's another post that needs more close reading by me.).

Anywho, don't know that I'll have time to participate, but I'll be reading, and you should, too.

February 2, 2006

If only they would feed me

(CCC Online fed through Bloglines)

Here's one of the top items on my wishlist for our field, and here's what we've done to get there. Although there aren't a lot of subscribers yet, one of the things that using MT allows us to do with CCC Online is to publish RSS/Atom feeds of new issues of the journal.

Imagine with me for a minute. Rather than having to subscribe to all the journals, to guess when they're coming out, to borrow them from colleagues, or to hear about a relevant article months after its release when someone else cites it in a paper, imagine being able to just have a folder in Bloglines, or a feed page in Safari, or a bookmark in Firefox, that simply allows you to browse the most recent articles from the various journals in our field. Imagine that, rather than asking our graduate students to figure it out on their own what the journals are, we could just give them an OPML file that contained the feeds of all those journals. Imagine having all of those abstracts at your fingertips, and being able to bookmark them for later, email it to a friend you know would be interested, etc.

This is already possible with CCC Online. And in fact, it's theoretically possible for those journals that are oligopublished, like Computers and Composition or Rhetoric Review--I know that the big kids are slowly moving in a 2.0 direction. To generate a feed of new articles for CCC takes us (and this is including all of the other site features that we build in) maybe an hour or so an issue. Leave off the tagging, and the internal linking/trackbacking, and we'd be talking maybe 15 minutes, 4 times a year.

That's 1 hour. 1 hour per year.

For an hour's worth of work a year, a journal could make that metadata available in a much broader fashion and much more conveniently to the entire field. It really is that simple. Really. Just copy and paste, and a little bit of elementary design on the front end.

Maybe part of it is that I've been living with this idea for the last year or so, because it seems bone-crushingly obvious to me. It requires so little effort, and what effort is required is distributed so broadly that it's negligible. And the benefit is so clear and present--to have the last year's worth of articles in the field at our fingertips? Genius. There's no reason why publishers couldn't hop on to this as well: feeds for various subject areas, including books and chapters from edited collections.

Every once in a while, there are complaints about the flood of information we're faced with, even in a field as relatively small as ours is. We need to poke ourselves in the head, though, with the sharp fact that this is true for every discipline, much less every field of endeavor, and there are solutions out there, solutions that are pretty easy to implement and that could really transform the way we handle that flood.

That is all.

February 10, 2006

Facebook drama at SU

That was fast. In the past couple of weeks, our student newspaper on campus (the Daily Orange) has run a couple of front-page articles on Facebook, one about campus security using it to try and curtail underage drinking and now another that hits a little closer to home, as I'll explain below. What hasn't taken long is that these articles, including Wednesday's, have already made it to the Wikipedia entry on Facebook.

I'm not going to replicate our paper's policy of using names here, or comment too extensively on a situation with which I am only peripherally at best connected, but a couple of issues seemed worthy of mention. The basic story is this: some students in one of our FY courses created a group on Facebook that was basically devoted to disrespecting their instructor. Despite the near-ubiquity of Facebook, much of what goes on there is outside the purview of a lot of us who teach, but I don't think it would surprise many to learn that this is a fairly widespread practice. I've heard myself of several instances of "I hate X" groups on Facebook, where X is either a particular course or a particular professor.

What's different about this process isn't the hurtfulness or the aggressiveness of some of these groups--from time immemorial, students have complained about various professors and classes. Goodness knows I did my share of kvetching in college. What's different about Facebook and other SNS is the degree of speed and transparency they bring to what once was a form of institutional underlife. I might complain to a roommate about the unreasonable policies of a particular professor, and I would certainly do so without fear of being brought before a campus disciplinary committee. And if you read this account from the DO, one of the patterns that emerges is the students' outright shock over the severity of the potential consequences and the response by the university. Their complaints about the length and uncertainty of the process I take simply as an unfamiliarity with procedures that are actually designed to protect them from overreaction, a system that no student familiarizes hirself with until s/he's actually involved with it.

But the Facebook question is a different one. Clearly Facebook accomplishes something that conversation does not, or it wouldn't be successful--students would just keep on talking. We don't have a whole lot of language to describe what Facebook does yet, because it's not something that fits comfortably on the public-private spectrum. By establishing a separate space for social networking, though, Facebook certainly moves away from the private towards some form of publicness. One consequence, as the Wikipedia entry makes fairly obvious, is that what at one time happened primarily as a form of underlife, with Facebook no longer stays underliven.

I think that this is an important change. Part of what's happening is that the transparency that information and communication technologies have brought to faculty (think 24-7 email requests) is now also having some effect on student life on campus. There's one sense in which the students are right to be shocked by the response--not so long ago, administrators couldn't have had access to these kinds of activities. But to imagine that this is somehow a breach of privacy (as one student in the article does) is to misrecognize the situation to a degree. The most obvious change that Facebook makes is this step towards transparency or publicness, but there's a second step as well. There's a difference between expressing an opinion in conversation (where it is likely to be taken as opinion and unlikely to have consequences beyond the immediate conversation) and placing something on a site like Facebook or one of the rating sites, where it takes on both a more public and permanent quality.

It's not just that these kinds of activities are less private on Facebook, in other words. It's that they have potentially greater consequences. Regardless of what the students may intend (and my guess is that there wasn't a lot of intentionality in the first place), the (semi) public suggestion of an instructor's incompetence is an act that has very real consequences for the instructor hirself. This kind of disrespect can be contagious, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and affecting the quality of a course. It can persist beyond the immediate circumstance, poisoning future courses, or in the case of some of the ratings sites, affecting job prospects. While no one would argue that all instructors are equally good, or that constructive criticism is unwarranted, I think it safe to say that many of the comments on these kinds of sites are not primarily motivated by a desire to improve instruction (two words: chili peppers). There's a great deal of aggression being vented, and in fact, many of these sites market themselves specifically on the idea that they provide a place for students to revenge themselves on their teachers--RateMyProfessors specifically promises a space where students can "turn the tables" on faculty. And there's been no shortage of stories about how that particular site has been used to harass particular professors, to provide misleading information, and/or to offer up a pretty bleak account of student values.

[One of the difficulties with any of these sorts of sites is that they are too easily reduced to simple analogies--it's like X, only digital. But that "only" is misleading; most SNS sites combine various features of their analogs. For example, it's possible to argue that Facebook, in some ways, is simply a remediation of note-passing, and it does offer the convenience and immediacy of that proto-genre. But it's useful to me to think of it as well as a remediation of posters or fliers, and there's some indication that it's used in that way as well--as a site for general announcements. Things that we wouldn't think twice about putting in a note we definitely should think twice about putting on a poster or a flier, for instance...]

I guess my point here is ultimately a simple one, and that's that writing has consequences, and for whatever reason, it's been a point that's been slow to sink in on this campus recently. All sorts of behavior has been defended lately on this campus from the perspective that the pain being caused hasn't been intentional ("it was just a joke," e.g.), and yet pain has been the consequence of this behavior, and there's been a lot of shock expressed when the people who have behaved badly have been required to bear some of the consequences of their actions.

I'm not sure that it's ultimately the university's responsibility to warn or prepare students to accept the consequences of their behavior, or that such policies or workshops would even have that kind of effect. I think it's important for all of us to understand how codes of conduct extend to all sorts of venues, Facebook included, but I suspect that, just as being "dooced" entered the parlance of bloggers, it's going to take a critical mass of stories about students being held accountable for their Facebook activity for it to finally sink in. I don't think that this is an issue that can simply be "solved" with a policy or a workshop, and yet it's one that needs to be addressed in its full complexity.

I'm not in the habit of offering disclaimers on my entries here, but it should be mentioned that this is my take on this situation, and doesn't represent my program, college, or university, or the principals involved in the incident.

That's all.

February 14, 2006

When Journalists Attack! (more on Facebook)

I've been telling various people privately that the DO coverage of the Facebook incident here at SU committed at least a couple of serious misrepresentations. One of these was that the comments reported by the story were far less objectionable than others they could have noted. Rather than get into the issue of "how objectionable is too objectionable" or repeat the comments themselves, I made the choice to let that mistake stand.

Unfortunately, other publications don't feel a similar sort of restraint. I won't link to it here, but you can visit Inside Higher Ed and see what the story looks like when journalism works without any consideration for the people involved. As I talked about in the last entry, for me, this is a question less of freedom than it is of consequences. I would never suggest that IHE (or any other outlet) is not "free" to cover the story in any way that they choose. I would suggest, though, that by choosing to include the names of the students and the instructor, and by choosing to include a graphic of the original Facebook page, IHE has effectively piled on.

And it's not in the interests of journalism. It's entirely possible to lay out this argument, to report on this situation, without naming the people involved, without publishing pictures. It's voyeurism, pure and simple, and it's a shitty thing.

Among other things, the story reports on the worries of one of the students:

“I will have a reprimand on my permanent record for seven years,� she added, “so if a grad school inquires into any interactions with judicial affairs or asks on an application if I had any violations that required punishment, this would apply.�

Setting aside the whole "permanent for seven years" thing, what this young woman doesn't seem to realize is that, long after the reprimand vanishes, guess what? she appears in a story accessible in a Google search on her name, one that makes certain, with graphic clarity, that what she did and said will be available to anyone interested.

By publishing their names, IHE has played their part in ensuring that this incident will survive long after all of the people involved have left Syracuse. And in the case of the instructor, who did not volunteer to be treated like this, publicly and offensively, IHE has repeated, and effectively extended, the harassment represented by the original site.

IHE knows this. The unfortunate thing about this is that they will hide behind the shield of saying that they're just covering the story in as much detail as they can. They won't endure the consequences of their choices the way that the people whose names appear in their article will. And I'm not sure what's worse: the idea that they understand the consequences of reposting harassing materials but choose to do so anyway, or the idea that they didn't think it through. Neither option provides me with much comfort.

It provides me with one certainty, though: it's a fucking shameful thing that Inside Higher Ed has done. Fucking shameful. I expect better from them. Here's what you can do: email and ask them to remove the instructor's and students' names from their story and to take down the graphic of the Facebook page. Hell, copy and paste this entry into that email if you want. That's my plan.

I'll update this entry if and when IHE decides to do the right thing.

That's all.

February 15, 2006

A colleague weighs in (Yet more...)

[Note: I've changed the title of this entry, in response to my colleague's objection that his wasn't really an attack. Fair enough. My original title ("when colleagues attack!") was less an accusation than a parallel to the prior day's entry and an allusion to the hyperbolic sensationalism of those old FOX tv shows.]

I was going to settle back down into my routine today, work some more on my manuscript, and keep an occasional eye peeled to see what IHE planned to do. That was before I did a little light Googling to see how much of this had seeped into search engines thus far. That was before I came across this blog entry at, a site maintained by a colleague of mine here at SU in the Philosophy Department. Perhaps my colleague will revise his opinions in light of the information that has come out since last Friday.

For the moment, though, you have the opportunity to see one of the consequences of the misleading information published in our school paper. Based on that information, said colleague offers the following opinion:

Were the remarks absolutely unpleasant? Absolutely. Were the remarks threatening or harassing? Well, not if the remarks were rather like

I would rather eat the hair out of the drain than go to class

We do know because the University is rather silent about the matter. But I can only assume that we have been given an example of the kind comments that were indicative of the remarks that were made against the instructor. And if that is so, then what we have is an institution that is over-stepping the proper boundaries.

Let me save you the suspense of discovering that the payoff of this over-stepping in this entry is the single, hyperbolic sentence with which the entry ends: "Syracuse University is not supposed to be the Taliban."

Ummm....what the...?!?!?!

But really, that's just the cherry on top of the sundae. The flawed analogies begin much earlier. To wit:

I am at a loss as to the difference between this and two other things: (a) These students going on endlessly about [name deleted] to other students on campus and (b) these students filling out anonymous teaching evaluations about [name deleted] in which they say many of the same things.

First of all, by repeated using the instructor's name, and thus further cementing the associations that will turn up routinely in Google searches, my colleague has already demonstrated that he is indeed "at a loss."

Unlike campus conversations, and unlike anonymous course evaluations, Facebook is searchable. That in and of itself is a simple difference that Every. Single. Person. who has used these people's names in their coverage needs to understand. Every time you use one of their names, you are reinforcing an association that has consequences far beyond the immediate circumstances of your usage. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but I do Google searches on job candidates, on graduate program applicants, on people I meet/see at conferences. I do them all the time. These sites are not private. Really.

Oh, but wait. There's more.

There are in fact many black students on campus who are utterly persuaded that I am an Uncle Tom. They are persuaded that I care more about white students than blacks students and that my opposition to affirmative action reflects a deep inferiority complex or some form of self-hatred. Needless to say, there is nothing flattering here, either. But it would not occur to me to think that the University should somehow prohibit them from holding these opinions of me, or that students who posted such opinions of me on a public website should be punished.

I just want to be clear here. The analogy being drawn is between the writer on the one hand--a tenured, male professor who's written several books and had ample opportunity to lay out a position with which his students might disagree--and the instructor he's writing about--a female graduate student about whom students are making public, obscene comments.

If this honestly seems like a fair comparison to anyone, then I don't know what to say.

What I will say is that much of this argument is based upon information that was essentially a lie by omission. As the argument makes pretty clear, the local coverage of this event implied that the comments on Facebook were much milder than they actually were. The odd thing about this, though, even in the absence of revision on the part of my colleague, is that in his very next post he bemoans the work of the ACLU as an organization that can't "wrap its mind around," among other things that,

When the founding fathers advocated free speech, a fundamental part of their thinking was that people could be held accountable for what they said. Indeed, that very idea finds itself in the jury system itself: a person has a right to face her or his accusers. The very idea that a person could say anything he or she damned well please without being answerable to others for her or his remarks was simply unthinkable to the founding fathers.

I don't really have much else to say--it's rare that I read an entry where the author unwittingly publishes a rebuttal to the very things I disagree with.

So let me simply close with the sincere hope that, now that more information has come to light, my colleague sees fit to act on the principle he espouses. In other words, I honestly hope that he reconsiders his hyperbole and his own overreaction to the situation. While he was not responsible for the factual error his entry duplicates, he is responsible for each day that his entry remains unrevised or uncorrected now that the information is available.

That is all.

February 17, 2006


Here's a bit of serious for you, from Nicholas Carr's "The New Narcissism":

As I myself have thought about the watery philosophy and the powerful technology that dovetail so neatly in Web 2.0, I've become convinced that we're building a machine that will, to great and general applause, destroy culture.

More provocation than fully developed thesis, this is what made me think today.

I don't think he's right, and I think there are the Long Tail arguments to support my opinion, but only if you understand that the "pure" LT position isn't that LT automatically equals quality. Rather, it's that LT outlets lower the threshold for sustainability of niche opinions, texts, communities, many of which will be crap, and a few of which we'll have been glad to have. I'm thinking here, for example, of the way that Anderson describes Netflix's ability to sustain a market for documentaries.

But I appreciate Carr's willingness to poke at the near-sacred way that plenty of LT (and Web2.0) arguments simply take for granted that more = better. I guess I feel that the opposite case (more = worse) is no more accurate...

February 24, 2006

Seriometer spike

I hadn't really planned on saying much more about Jeff's IHE article, but then I got pulled in by the furor over it, which you might similarly observe at various places. And I write this fully knowing that there's an easy way to read this entry, which would go something like "oh, he's one of Jeff's friends and one of the 'chosen few' besides, of course he'd jump to Jeff's defense."

If I'm going to be honest about it, then I have to admit that there's a little of that going on here. When I see a friend called out as an asshat, an idiot, a pretentious academic, et al., I don't think anyone would fault me for feeling a little defensive on that person's behalf.

In the comments at one of the sites mentioned above, Jeff's point is paraphrased thusly:

All the anonymous bloggers do it out of fear, which proves Tribble right; they don't do it in order to experiment with forms or personae.

That paraphrase differs so wildly from my own perception of the article that I have to wonder how much of this is hangover from the various "nymous" fights that have broken out at various points in the short history of academic blogging. That is, I can't help but feel that there's a predisposition at work in reading the essay that way. And I'm more than happy to acknowledge that this predisposition is probably justified (and that my own predisposition is to read the article more generously).

And yet. I know for a fact that Jeff finds no merit whatsoever in Tribble. And I know that there are plenty of pseudonymous bloggers who exemplify what Jeff is after in that article. And yet I agree largely with what he says. So let me take a crack at it:

Perhaps his point would have been a little clearer had he included examples beyond pseudonymous blogging. There are those who see that kind of blogging as a form of self-censorship, and to be fair, it is. But it's only fair if we acknowledge (and I do) the degree to which nymous bloggers self-censor as well. There are lots of things that I don't talk about in this space, and while there are plenty of reasons behind those choices, one of them is the same fear that everyone else has. The fact that we have a separate word for being fired for blogging suggests how pervasive that fear is. That's one aspect of this generalized "seriousness."

Another is the tendency to domesticate blogging by using it in classrooms, as some of us have tried. By making it "count" towards a grade, we make it "serious" in ways that can undercut the energy we were hoping to bring to our courses in the first place. Another comes from those of us who include blogs amongst the texts and/or communities we study. Another is the argument that our blogs should be counted in our accounts of our academic activity, an argument that is tantamount to demanding that our colleagues take blogs "seriously." (If that's not a recipe for potential stagnation...)

The Tribble article, and the nerve that it struck (which I took to be Jeff's point in raising it), speaks further to the seriousness that can permeate not just academic blogs, but all blogs by academics. And believe me when I say that I fully understand the reasons why some people might not want to blog under the kind of cloud that Tribble (and our Tribblicious colleagues) represents.

If there's a mistake in Jeff's characterization, it's to emphasize only the fear behind psuedonymous blogging, a fear that most if not all of us must negotiate at one point or another. Blogging with a pseudonym permits many things that a real name does not. What Jeff (rightly) notices is that it's typically those kinds of posts that IHE links to, and so if one's access to those blogs comes through that portal, I can fully see how one would conclude that there's a culture of fear and complaint operating. My own opinion is that this has to do far more with IHE's editorial decisions than with any kind of uniformity on the part of academics who blog, pseudonymous or no. My limited sense of those communities is that they're far more about support than they are about complaint.

And yet, real names also permit certain kinds of posts that pseudonyms do not. My (crusading, serious) entries on the Facebook issue last week held a certain amount of credibility, and (I hope) accomplished a little more because they were tied directly to someone with direct and proximate insight into the situation and someone who actively studies the phenomena in question. Could I have written about the episode pseudonymously? Of course, but I couldn't have written about it in the same way.

And no, I'm not trying to offer a scenario according to which pseudonymous blogs must be somehow considered "less than." My point is merely that each choice offers certain possibilities and certain constraints. The seriousness I take Jeff to be talking about, though, is a constraining force that affects us all. I don't take him to be suggesting, were all pseudonymous bloggers to start blogging under their real names, that the problem he identifies would magically be solved. Because it wouldn't. Because I'd still worry about whether or not to comment about local events, and worry about how what I write might be misread by people who can affect my future. On my best days, I push those worries aside and do what I do. I assume that's true of us all.

Bottom line is that I don't think that the problem Jeff describes is intrinsic to one or another group of bloggers. Rather, it's something that we all struggle with, and could probably all struggle against a little more often. To me, that's the broader issue that's getting lost a little bit.

That's all.

Update: New Kid and Nels have really smart followup posts that are worth looking at.

Also, for some reason, my filters are throttling attempts to leave comments--they just blocked me from posting something, too. If you want to leave a comment here, and are willing to drop it into an email to me, I'll post it. Sorry about that.

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.

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 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 21, 2006

Searching and hoping and thinking and praying

Last week, when I was young and impetuous, I made a couple of suggestion re the WPA Technology Outcomes Statement. In the interests of positivity, I thought I might revisit one of the suggestions, namely

How about developing an awareness of the variety of search strategies made possible by the combination of physical and electronic information sources?

One of the things that I think is hugely important here is that too many think "search" is simply a single process, delimited by pluses, minuses and quotes. "Strategies" too often refers to the ability to narrow your Google results down from 1 million to 50,000 or so. Problem is that this vision of search is not unlike bobbing for apples. It's a little flip of me to say so, I suppose, but it's true. And at one point, that's what web tech and search tools permitted.

With Google, the tools improved. The strategies? Not so much. For all of the good that Google did, driving out some truly horrid site design and searches so slow you could almost hear the hamster running in the wheel, PageRank was a huge advance that made us pretty darn lazy. There's still plenty of value to be had from Google, but it's still an information retrieval service. I use it on a daily basis, but I use it in a very specific, constrained way that takes advantage of speed and the particular needs I have.

What's happening now is something that Ebrahim Ezzy calls "Search 2.0" over at Richard MacManus's Read/Write Web:

Third-generation search technologies are designed to combine the scalability of existing internet search engines with new and improved relevancy models; they bring into the equation user preferences, collaboration, collective intelligence, a rich user experience, and many other specialized capabilities that make information more productive.

Yeah, yeah, third-gen but 2.0. Where this essay (part 1 of 2) potentially misleads is in the implication of 2.0 as something that will replace 1.0, when it's more likely that they will work in concert. One of the things that these new search engines have in common is their potential use specifically for Long Tail information. (I'll get to a review of that book one of these weeks.) The more specific the object of your search is, the fewer people there are who are likely to want it, and thus the less accessible it will be via Google, barring some arcane system of +this and -that. I'm not going to find a new book in my field via Google, unless it's to look up the web address of a publisher.

One of the things that Search 2.0 is about is not finding X, but finding Y who knows X. Here's an example: a friend asked me how I find new music. Usually, it's a combination of three things: what my friends (with similar tastes) are listening to, what selected reviewers (with similar tastes) are recommending, and what iTunes tells me are the proximate bands, songs, and playlists.

Let me talk about that last for a second, because it can sound counter-intuitive if you think about it. I'm talking about "searching" for something that I already know/have, in order to see what else is in its neighborhood. We do it in the library sometimes, right? If we know one book is useful, we might see what else is on the shelf around it. Now think about a service like as a site where thousands of users are building dynamic shelves or neighborhoods. Bookmark an article that you know you want to work with, and you can use to find all the other users who are bookmarking it, all the other things they've bookmarked beside it, and the terms they've used to categorize it.

Goodness knows, these systems and engines are far from perfect. Nick Carr, for example, observes that sites like Amazon are limited in their usefulness:

Fallows makes one observation that hits home with me. He describes how underwhelming he finds all the automated product recommendations that are always being thrown at you on the web. "In nearly a decade with Amazon," he writes, "I've yet to experience the moment of perfect serendipity when it discovers a book I really like that I wouldn't otherwise have known about." I, too, have been waiting years to experience that moment - with Amazon, with Netflix, with iTunes, with all of 'em.

These are Long Tail companies with Short Head motives, and so this isn't that surprising to me--their market share is built on factors other than specialist searches (like convenience, e.g.). I find Amazon almost completely useless for automated recommendations. But they also enable more specialized, community recommendations, and these I've found useful. If I've liked several of the books on a Listmania list, there's a good chance that I'll add one or more unread ones from it onto my Wish List. And there are a few situations where I've found autorecs useful, like when I'm returning to a particular genre after a hiatus, for instance.

As some of us non-science disciplines start to catch on to the benefits of these kinds of networks (e.g., AnthroSource, MediaCommons, et al.), the tools will exist that allow alot of people to bypass Google altogether. Not that the occasional apple bob isn't necessary, mind you, but it shouldn't be the first and last step.

The other little piece of optimism that I have is this: once we start acknowledging the value of this kind of searching and KM, then perhaps more broad-based support will exist for the construction of resources that take advantage of it. Imagine the iTunes interface, for instance, as a gateway to the scholarship in a discipline, where professors can put together "playlists" of texts in the same way that users now publish mixes, only these playlists are the syllabi for the graduate courses taught in the discipline or the bibliographies of our articles and books.

What I come bumping up against again and again is that we're too accustomed to treating our expertise as disposable. How many hundreds of times a year do we put together carefully thematic and specifically paced syllabi/playlists, only to bury them in desktop folders and wastepaper baskets? We don't collect that information in any systematic fashion because our vision of the web lacks an understanding of the motivation behind links and networks. Google was successful precisely because PageRank algorithmizes that motivation, and if these Search 2.0 tools succeed, it will be by leveraging the networks even further.

I hope we're not still bobbing for apples.

That's about it from me. There's some spots above that probably need filling out, but it's getting late. This is part of what I mean when I say that we need to understand search better, both for ourselves and for our students.

(Almost forgot: Dean)

August 9, 2006

In Xandiego did ComiCon...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 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 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. (#)

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.

October 9, 2006


Henry has an interesting entry over at Crooked Timber, riffing on Matthew Yglesias's complaints about "the emergence of a single website with enormous market power—Pitchfork [Media]." In said entry, he compares the near-monopoly of PM to the Mafia, from sort of an organizational standpoint.

One interesting piece is this. A criminal organization has some interest in brokering "bad" transactions, thereby impressing upon its customers the wisdom of sticking with them ("The mafioso himself has an interest in regulated injections of distrust into the market to increase the demand for the product he sells – that is, protection."). Similarly,

one could make a plausible case that critics have an incentive to inject certain amounts of aesthetic uncertainty into the marketplace, by deliberately writing reviews which suggest that bad artists are good, or that good artists are bad, so as to screw with the heads of the listening public. This ensures that the Plain Music-Punters of Ireland remain unsure of their own ability successfully to gauge artistic quality, and don’t start ignoring what pop critics say in favor of following their own aesthetic judgements.

Folks in the comments are rightfully skeptical of this suggestion, at least of the idea that critics might engage in this intentionally. But there's something more to it when I step back, and I'm thinking here in terms of disciplinary networks. If we remove the "good/bad" valuation and just think in terms of information/noise, then I wonder if this isn't an intrinsic feature of any organization where filtering carries reward, even if that reward is just whuffle.

When I think of this, I think of Latour's emphasis on the involvedness of writing, even when it sets itself the "simple" task of description. To describe something is to pay attention to it, attention that is not being paid elsewhere by either writer or reader--at some base level, there's an endorsement implied, and that endorsement either engenders or discourages some degree of trust. There are writers whose work I will read without a second thought because I trust that what they have to tell me is worth my time and attention. This ties into our growth as collectors of whatever, be it academic knowledge, obscure Swedish music, a customer base, etc. It's how we build our personal databases of stuff.

Henry's post has got me thinking in the opposite direction, though. Collection aspires towards canonicity, reading/hearing/seeing/thinking everything and making the database complete. But there's an opposite force as well, one that isn't necessarily evil. Maybe it's just plain old fallibility (Latour makes much of the "risk of failing" necessary for success.), but I also think about how a certain amount of success within an organization allows agents to frame things. I'm thinking of certain people within our field, for instance, whose ability to raise particular concerns or areas of inquiry has been earned by their prior work. Let me try and make this clearer. There are people whose work I read, and spend a couple of years coming to terms with, only to find that they themselves have moved on to other things. And those other things function as noise with respect to the information that I've been assimilating. Those folk are "ahead of" what conversational curve there is in our discipline.

It's like the ratio between given and new (or between centripetal and centrifugal, for that matter), but where the ability to introduce new is related to network centrality. New information, if it is to be anything other than noise, must overcome a certain degree of inertia, which is more easily done from that position of centrality, whether it's in the form of placement in a prominent journal or quasi-celebrity status. But initially it functions as noise, as something else we need to pay attention to.

[A quick amendment: I don't want this to sound like there's inevitability in the noise->information transition, though. Celebs can get a much broader hearing for their ideas, whether or not they're any good. And sometimes those ideas stick around whether or not they're any good, for any number of reasons. Having greater powers of circulation doesn't guarantee better ideas. Sadly enough, in some cases.]

I don't know if any of this is making sense, but I feel like I'm a little closer to something than I was before today. It would be fairly easy, I think, to spin this cynically--academics inventing crap to justify their cushy gigs, blah blah blah--except that I think there's something about it that's not intrinsic to academia but to any organization that involves mediation. And that returns me to Latour, for whom mediation is never transparent or innocent. The idea that a certain amount of noise is inevitable is something I want to think about.

That's all for now.

November 5, 2006

For example, trending

I've seen this link crop up in several places over the last week or two, but you never know who's seen it or not. So...

Chirag Mehta's Presidential tagclouds

Chirag Mehta has generated tagclouds for Presidential documents/speeches (State of the Union Addresses and others), going back to 1776, and offered them for your perusal. (Usability note: I found it a lot easier to use the arrow keys to move the slider back and forth one at a time, but didn't figure out that I could use them until the fourth time I visited the site...)

It's an incredibly cool project, and what we're doing over at the CCCOA is obviously related, although our output is structured in different ways. Although we've got other things occupying our front burners at the moment, this site has definitely got me thinking about how we might build on our work there. More broadly, and perhaps relevantly, it's also got me thinking about how visualizations of trends in language usage might be folded in to some of the work we do in our field.

That's all.

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 11, 2006

Playlists - The NBT?

It may just be a matter of confluence. I've come across a couple of blogposts talking about playlists in the past week or so, 43F has featured a couple of tips and tricks entries about iTunes playlists, and Bloglines just announced a playlist feature as well. Seems like I'm seeing them a lot recently.

My first thought was that it's one of those metaphors (taken from radio?) that's quickly becoming stretched beyond its original meaning--my fave example of this is Jakob Neilsen's complaint about the shopping cart metaphor. But I'm more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist.

And playlists have more than a little in common with tagging. In a lot of ways a playlist can be little more than a unique tag. In iTunes, you drag a song over to the playlist and add it, but this is only superficially different from adding a tag to the songs you want on the list, and then opening up the page of all items tagged thusly. The music doesn't move or anything.

It's interesting to me because one of the things that I didn't really get to a few days back in talking about tagging was a quibble that I had with defining tagging as the addition of "descriptive" terms. Reason for that is that one of the first uses for that ever made sense to me was when I saw Jill Walker use it in a talk (at the MEA conf) as a quick way of gathering up the links for the sites she was talking about.

In other words, my first "click" moment with was seeing it used as a way to gather certain bookmarks into a playlist.

In the strictest sense, this isn't descriptive tagging, since the playlist/tag refers to a particular context rather than anything intrinsic about the resource itself. More and more, I've been thinking about making a distinction between descriptive tagging and what I think of as procedural tagging, or tags that function in some way other than simple description.

The best account of this I know of (and there may be others, certainly) is Bradley's discussion of using as a teaching tool. I tried something similar in my networks course, but I didn't really think it through to the degree that Bradley does there. In other words, procedural tags can be used to set aside certain bookmarks for course reading (and not others), they can be tagged for particular units (or multiple, to indicate connections), with due dates for reading the texts, etc. You can tag a set of resources for a talk, as Jill did, tag them with someone's name if you want that person to find them easily, etc. Right now, the Teaching Carnivals are assembled every couple of weeks (in part at least) through procedural tagging. None of these particular tags are descriptive in the strictest sense, although the Carnival tags come fairly close. They point outwards, connecting the bookmark to some additional context.

Over at the CCCOA, we use tags as keywords for CCC essays, but we also have some hybrid tags, so that you can look at all of the articles from a particular issue, or see which of the articles are converted CCCC Chair's Addresses or Braddock Award for the best in a given volume. What calls tag bundles, we might also call playlists.

What's got me thinking tonight, though, is the place where the smart playlists of iTunes go beyond descriptive or even procedural tagging. Certain of the tags in iTunes are variables. For example, "Play Count" is a tag that increases by 1 every time the particular song is played, and "Last Played" and "Date Added" are simply automatically attached to the song by iTunes itself, as opposed to the 5-star "My Rating" a user can apply. Where the playlists go beyond this is in allowing users to set rules for the playlist that are based on these variables. Merlin's entry is focused on keeping an iTunes collection manageable, but I find myself wondering about how much of the smart playlist idea is transferrable.

Here's where I'm stalling out a little. I have a sense that there's something to this, but I'm having trouble figuring out how it would function outside of my head. Part of me thinks that there's a degree to which sites like digg already accomplish what I'm talking about. In other words, I think about the variables that could be assigned to a blog entry or essay, and how a playlist might incorporate them, and digg does some of what I'm after. I could also be creative with the RSS feeds from interior pages of users (add something to the playlist when User X tags it with Y). But it seems to me that there are other functions that might be of use as well. It'd be interesting to have a smart list that captured bookmarks on topics that had crested a certain number of users, or that had attracted steady attention (a combination of Date First Tagged and Frequency). Or even one that fed resources tagged with a user's top 5 tags, but allowed that top 5 to change over time, so that as that person's attention shifted to new issues, so would the feed.

No grand conclusion here, except to say that there's something here in the mix of procedural tagging and playlisting that may be worth pursuing. And I would, given time enough and skillz. As it is, though...

November 18, 2006

Trending againding

Along the same lines of my entry about Chirag Mehta's Presidential tagclouds, Alex shares a graph generated by a student of his, which charts yearly the number of times that the phrase "civil rights" has appeared in the NY Times over the past 150 years or so.

Interesting on its own, but it's also suggestive of all sorts of similar work that could be done on the same scale and/or smaller scales, as a means of charting the relative success or saturation of particular buzz phrases and words. Alex notes the dip in usage of "civil rights" right after 2001, and I would guess that similar kinds of language patterns might be tied to all sorts of events.

Cool stuff.

November 27, 2006

Folks on Folksonomy

You'll recall that last week I promised to visit the following in more detail:

Elaine Peterson, Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy
David Weinberger, Beneath the Metadata, a Reply
Tom Vander Wal, Beneath the Metadata - Replies

Well, here I am. David and Tom have dealt pretty substantially with Peterson, and I haven't been following the discussions sparked by the pieces, so forgive me if I repeat someone else. I'm not going to write a full-scale essay here, but I'd like to make a few points.

First, a little context. One of my all-time favorite essays is Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences." It's one of the more accessible pieces of Derrida's writing, and tips the attentive reader off to a number of the themes that JD would revisit throughout his career. But it's always been a fave of mine because it lays out a particular rhetorical strategy that I've since seen repeated many, many times. Although it's not the sole focus of the essay, JD distinguishes between mythomorphic and epistemic discourses. I don't have the essay beside me, or I'd serve up some quotes. Mythomorphic discourse is fuzzy, messy, vague, imprecise, while epistemic discourse is much crisper, focused, organized. Think, as I think JD does, of the bricoleur and engineer, respectively.

The rhetorical strategy that the essay calls my attention to is a two-fold one. First, epistemic discourse emerges from the mythomorphic; one analogy I've always found helpful is the way that some slang eventually finds its way into "official" accounts of our language. The second move is that this latter discourse effectively seals itself off from its mythomorphic origins. You can see this 2-step as an early version of deconstructive reading, particularly of philosophical texts--much of JD's time is spent examining textual seams to find the messiness that has been disavowed by logocentrism. There is no small advantage for defenders of a system in disavowing its emergent origins--if a given system is simply "the way things are," rather than "the way things have become," then anyone seeking to change that system has that much more inertia to overcome.

I've spent a fair shake of time on this pattern because I think that Peterson's essay provides a fairly textbook example of the relationship that Derrida is working through in that essay. Like Vander Wal, I consider folksonomies and taxonomies "co-dependent" in that both are vital. But I think he underestimates the extent to which that position, which seems common sense to him (and me) is threatening to those who are consciously invested in taxonomy. It would be child's play to look at a given taxonomy, and to examine all the ways that it emerges folksonomically--Peterson's appeals to authorial intent ("...the goal is to recognize the author's intent over others' interpretations.") overlooks a vast network of classifications that emerge after "authorial intent" could play any sort of role. We don't categorize aesthetic movements, for example, prior to their instantiation by a given set of artists. But those categories ultimately become something akin to first principles, frames through which we understand the artists and works placed under its aegis, whether by "authors" themselves or by those who follow.

Peterson's essay, if it has one overarching blind spot, is that it cannot conceive of folksonomy in terms other than "A is not B," what she calls "the most important philosophical underpinning of traditional classification." And so, she doesn't see folksonomies and taxonomies in relation to one another; they are alternatives, from the first sentence introducing the former ("...folksonomy has emerged as an alternative to traditional classification."). All of the so-called weaknesses of folksonomy are weaknesses only if folksonomies are seen as an attempt to arrive at the goals of taxonomies through another means. Relativism is a Really Bad Idea when it comes to laying out a library, but pretty innocuous as an organizing principle for my home library, which tends to sort itself out according to how recently I've used a particular book.

I guess the point I'm working towards here is the assumption that Peterson uses to disavow the relationship of taxonomy to folksonomy: that because we can appeal to philosophical underpinnings when it comes to taxonomy, there must be corresponding underpinnings to folksonomy. The underpinnings of folksonomy, however, are rhetorical. Tags are about language-in-use, not about abstract definitional categories. They are addressed, even when the addressee is one's self at a later date. Folksonomy is bricolage, and so Peterson's conclusion that it makes for poor engineering is at once self-evident and a little inconsequential. Folksonomies are not "bad taxonomies"; rather, taxonomies are themselves folksonomies that have achieved a certain level of stability and intersubjectivity (this latter of which is mistaken by Peterson and others for objectivity). And part of the way that stability is achieved and defended is by denying the role that folksonomy plays in the origins of any taxonomy.

One more point, and I'll sign off. This is a point that I've been working at ever since my NFAIS talk last fall. There is no such thing as "search," at least not in the generic sense. The idea that all searches have the same premises and the same goals is mistaken. As you read Peterson, you'll see reference to categories, subject headings, search engines, etc. All of these references assumes a uniform model of search, one that I think of as "cold search," where you have nothing, and want something, and use the tools of taxonomy to locate it. (I think of this as the equivalent of cold call telemarketing.) And we search that way, sometimes. When we do, taxonomies are important.

But there's a different kind of search, which I'll call "social search," for wont of a better term (I'm open to suggestion). I also think of it as lateral search. I have something (some sources, a book, a favorite movie, song, whatever), and I want more of whatever I already have. So when I see a cover blurb on a novel that compares it favorably to something I've already read and liked, I'm more likely to buy it. When my friends with similar tastes recommend to me movies or music, I'm more likely to look into it. If I want more information about folksonomy, I can go to the Wikipedia entry on the subject, bookmark it in, and then trace out the network of others who have marked and tagged it. I don't need to start back at square one, break out Google, and try to narrow my search terms sufficiently.

The problem is that 90% (and maybe more) of discussions about "search" only think about cold searching. And honestly, folksonomies don't have much to contribute to the cold search, other than chaos. But for the stuff that matters for me, the culture I consume, 90% of my searches are lateral. My tastes aren't organized by the section headings in Barnes and Noble. The innovation of sites like Amazon, iTunes, and others is their ability to aggregate folksonomy (and yes, folksonomies are the Long Tail of classification) in productive ways beyond one's immediate social network. I never search Amazon using their taxonomies. I hardly ever find sources for my academic work by cold search. Most of my life is conducted easily and efficiently via folksonomies.

Damn. Every time I start an entry claiming that I won't write a full-scale essay, I write an entry that's far longer than normal. So I guess I'll stop here, and go work on other stuff. Although I will say that this has got me thinking about expanding this into a full-length essay. Not tonight, though, or even this semester.

That is all.

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

Going out with a whimper

Although I still use them from time to time, as their affordances are useful for a particular context, I don't spend much time anymore on listservs. And today, I unsubbed from my last holdout, a disciplinary listserv ostensibly devoted to my specialty. As with the blog, I go through phases of listserv fatigue, but over the last few years, the fatigue periods seem to grow longer and longer, punctuated more by silence than by activity.

My unsubscription was prompted by a message today which, under the auspices of continuing a discussion from earlier this week, launched into what, as best as I can tell, was a largely unprompted invective against blogging. I won't repeat it here, both because I'm not sure the list is public and because I'm not interested in dignifying it. Long and short, though: blogging, the message suggests, "atomizes, isolates, and individualizes knowledge." A few more sweeping generalizations, and a strange fascination with the idea that blogs are assholes, or like assholes, or bloggers are assholes. I don't know.

And honestly, I don't really care. My experience with blogging is so different--of course, it could matter that I actually maintain a blog--that the message could have been in another language for all the sense that it made to me. I was sitting in Panera today, reading Amanda Anderson's The Way We Argue Now (Amazon), and in it, she has a chapter on ethos in the Foucault/Habermas debate. Anderson is accounting for a comment from Foucault that he is "a little more in agreement" with Habermas than Habermas is with him. By saying this, Anderson explains:

Foucault implies that there is no external perspective from which one might adjudicate their differences or agreements, precisely because one essential element of agreement stems from the attitude of the thinker towards the other's work.

This stuck with me, because it fits nicely into the network-y/visualization thinking I've been doing, particularly when it comes to thinking about ways to map conversations and/or disciplines, and to chart changes. One of the things that Anderson's doing in that chapter is shifting the relationship between Foucault and Habermas, undoing the knee-jerk binary through which that relationship is frequently viewed. The link between the two is still there, but its character is altered, assuming that Anderson's various interpretations are persuasive.

It sticks with me not because I can really disagree with the specific charges leveled against blogging in that message, because I'm sure that there are plenty of examples that anyone could trot out to validate them. What irked me most is the foreclosure of any sort of conversation; it was almost beside the point that it was initiated by someone with little to no direct experience of our community. Almost. Anderson explains that this comment from Foucault is consistent with his "dislike of polemic":

The polemicist...proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is armful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue.

There's something to this for me, not the least reason for which is my own general avoidance of confrontation. And it's also not to say that I don't fall back into polemic myself. I do. But I've got a lot more interest in figuring out how my ideas connect to, diverge from, and/or relate to someone else's than I do in waging a polemic/war. Even though, I suppose, it could be argued that my entry is doing just that.

Or it would be, were I to do two things, both of which are equally tempting. I'm tempted to refute those claims, drawing on my own experiences, talking about all of the collaboration, networking, and working-with that maintaining a blog has prompted in my academic life for the past three years. I'm also tempted to critique the listserv post, and perhaps even the list itself.

But I think I'll refrain. Which isn't to say that my entry here is snark-free--that'd be some sort of record, I think. It is to say, rather, that a community where someone feels comfortable (much less justified) in making those sorts of comments is not the kind of community I have any interest in being a part of.

That's all.

March 3, 2007

Information dorkologies

one of my bedroom shelves

One thing I've noticed about my usage patterns with respect to Library Thing is that I have the tendency to record books that are within eyeshot of wherever I happen to be. So the books on the shelves next to my couch? All inputted. The ones on the shelves in my bedroom? Not so much.

It only took me roughly a year and a half to come up with a solution to this problem. I went around my apt to the various shelves, and used my digital camera to snap them, and have been recording the books from the pix. Duh.

If I could add one feature to LT, it would be on the duplications page. Sometimes I forget what edition I have, or whether it's hard or soft cover, and since there are different ISBNs for different formats, it's only when I check the duplicates that I find 10-15 books that have been double-entered. It would be sweet if, rather than just linking to each of the versions, there were radio buttons, so I could choose which of each of the pairs I want to keep, and then single-click the duplicates away. As it stands, we have to visit each page, click remove, confirm, and wait. My other solution (quit with the multiple versions!) would be a little more challenging to implement.

And yes, this is my Saturday night this week, taking pictures of my books. And no, I haven't gotten to this shelf yet. And yes, that is all.

March 17, 2007

Ethics v Ethos (& Class Blogging)

In an episode that demonstrates where my media preferences and habits lie, I caught a post of Kathleen's today a couple of hours in advance of the digested email list to which she refers.

Anyhow, in this conversation, a senior scholar raises the question of whether or not students should be blogging about people who may one day be their colleagues. In short, this scholar has a Google alert set to inform him of mentions of his name, and he wonders about the ethics of allowing students to post their initial forays into his work publicly ("While I am happy that folks are reading my stuff, I am aghast that their entries are on the web for all to read.").

It's an interesting question. Like Kathleen, I don't think it's "unethical" per se, as long as it's made quite clear to the students what the potential drawbacks are should they choose to make themselves identifiable.

But I do think it's a question of ethics in the sense of ethos, which is what I take Kathleen to be talking about. It's important (for different reasons at different points along the academic spectrum) to understand the ethical consequences of blogging, the ways that it may help to construct an identity that potential employers and colleagues may one way be able to access. That's one of the lessons that emerged from the whole Tribble flap.

I think another point worth raising is that, soon enough, these same people (in the case of graduate students) will be writing articles that are in the journals for all to read. It's not quite the same thing, true, but there's one thing about the comparison that does work. It's easy in graduate school (and beyond) to imagine that scholarship, particularly in the humanities, is a matter of moving around quotes and citations, almost treating our sources as chess pieces in our various writerly gambits. It's easy to forget that the proper names that appear on our books and in our articles are more than simply functions. They also signify real people, who will react to our work and our citations in various ways. In other words, it's easy to forget that we are often writing about real people with varying levels of investment in the ideas and quotations that we patch together with our own writing.

I'm not always good at it myself, imagining how the people whose work I draw on would themselves respond to my appropriations. But I think that many of us have to undergo the transition where we write dissertations that challenge "the field," only to realize eventually that we ourselves are "the field," that there is no objective field-out-there but instead networks of colleagues, each of whom tries just as hard as we do to get it right, to advance our understanding, to contribute to knowledge.

Transforming one's self from a student to a scholar is in part a matter of coming to terms with the fact that your audience as a scholar is in fact real, addressed rather than invoked. And I don't mean to make it sound as though my transformation is complete--I think it takes a long time to shake the temptation to treat the field as a reified, monolithic whole in need of correction, revision, or enlightenment. I struggle with this myself.

But one of the things that blogging can do, particularly if one does it in the context of a community of scholars, is to make that transition easier. I'll be spending time with a lot of other bloggers in New York next week, some whom I've known (and I know) pre-blog, but many of whom became "real" to me first through this space. And in a lot of ways, that community has become the audience that I write to, even when I'm not writing in this space.

Not everyone who keeps a class blog is going to have the same experience as I have, certainly, but the potential rewards are substantial, I think, if they develop some sense of the ethos they must develop and the audience they may one day address under more formal circumstances.

That's all.

March 19, 2007

I bet I think this post is about me

danah boyd has a fantastic entry today, on "fame, narcissism and MySpace." There's nothing there that she doesn't already say much better than I could, so I cite her entry more out of appreciation than with an eye towards adding anything.

Long story short: claims about MySpace producing a generation of narcissists misses the broader social point, which is that MySpace is only a small symptom of a much deeper cultural tendency towards unwarranted esteem (from "you can do anything" to "you deserve everything").

Particularly interesting to me is the vicious cycle that boyd describes with respect to so-called "reality" programming (even the name itself is symptomatic of the economy at play). This kind of programming helps contribute to the spread of narcissism (Why should you be the next American Idle?), and then harvests that attitude by providing outlets for it. reality programming appeals to network execs because they can pay talentless amateurs a fraction of what they pay actors, without any corresponding drop in advertising revenue.

Anyhow, boyd has some good thoughts on fame, esteem, attention, and narcissism, and there are some really nice followups in the comments. Check it out.

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.

November 30, 2007

Re/Visions are Live

I'm assuming that the issues themselves are going into the mail soon, but if you visit the NCTE site (which I seem to be doing a lot lately), you'll find the most recent issue of CCC available, which includes the Re/Visions piece from Anne, Jeff, and I.

The issue index is here, and the article itself is available here. You'll need to be a subscriber to download it, though. If you want a free copy of the Janangelo article, it's available on the front page of the CCC Online Archive.

I'm just heading out; otherwise, I wouldn't violate the rule against deictic linking. Sorry about that.