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May 6, 2004

Criticism

It's been a couple of weeks since this was posted, but I've been trying to pare down my bookmarks here at the end of the semester. I just re-read this post by Rick Poynor over at Design Observer, and was struck again by the reason I bookmarked it in the first place.

Poynor reprints about half of an article ("The Critic and His Purpose") that came out in the late 60s, and setting aside that pesky "his," the article is a 62-point list, collectively generated, about art criticism. The first half is over at DO, and is subtitled "Critical Method." Some of it seems a little dated, of course, but otherwise, it's a pretty accurate distillation of what most fields in the Arts and Humanities expect from criticism--our students and colleagues could do worse than consulting this for guidance...

July 29, 2004

Perspective(s)

Thanks, all, for the kind comments and emails re the new homepage design. The longer I look at it, the happier I am. I think it's pretty well set--I've added credits, and links both to email and a slightly dated version of my cv. Good enough for now, I think.

I'm gearing up for a dissertation defense later today, and took a break from poring over chapters to try and bring my aggregator under control. There's a couple of interesting pieces I wanted to point to. danah boyd takes the NYT to task for demeaning the unprecedented amount of blogging going on at the DNC this week. What's most interesting about this is that she was asked to expand on this entry, and to turn it into an essay for Salon. In it, she shifts gears quite a bit, and frames a pair portion of the essay in terms of the ideals of objectivity versus the virtues of multiple perspectives. It's an old, old debate, and one that's getting fresh legs as the mainstream media responds to blogging.

The essay is interesting in and of itself, but I recommend it also to those who plan on using (or already are using) blogs in their writing classrooms. Pairing these two essays might provide a really nice example of what it means to move from blog to essay, or simply to move from one audience or space to another. I was struck, for example, by the move from the first passage here to the second:

By framing bloggers as diarists, the NYTimes is demanding that the reader see blogs as petty, childish and self-absorbed.
In order to signify the difference between blogging and "real journalism," it is not that surprising that the New York Times drudges up connotations of 13-year-old girls writing about their lives. It helps to belittle the role of convention bloggers who have been given the same press credentials as reporters.

Neither of these is the "correct" or "better" one for me; each is effective given its context, and helps to point out some of the differences between those contexts. For the record, I'm guessing that "drudges" is simply a misspelling of "dredge," and not a subtle dig at the Drudge Report, but who knows?

The other pointer I have is to David Weinberger's site, where he likewise tackles the question of objectivity. In this case, he examines coverage from the Boston Globe, and discusses how the "necessity" of devising headlines and leads interferes with journalists' ability to be objective. It's a really nice reflection on the gap between convention and coverage, conceived in terms of the rhetorical demands of what are two very different media (speech v. news story).

And if I may be a disciplinary homer for a moment, what's most refreshing about DW's piece is that he uses the word "rhetoric" correctly. Yeah, he cites Heidegger too, but that's just gravy by the time I get to it. heh.

August 21, 2004

How to write about rhetoric without mentioning rhetoric

A quick question for those of you who visit regularly: has anyone picked up Howard Gardner's new book? (Gardner is familiar to me as the "multiple intelligences" guy.) His new book, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds, is freshly out--I saw it in Borders today, and was about as stunned as I was to read Richard Lanham's Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style. In other words, it looked to me like another book that would discuss rhetoric without actually mentioning it. It was published by Harvard's Business Press, and looks like yet another attempt to translate my field into corporate-speak.

Thanks to Amazon's handy dandy search function, I did find out that the word rhetoric appears some 13 times, and in a couple of cases, even looks to be used correctly. Even so, I'm suspicious. And curious to hear if anyone's taken a look yet...

March 24, 2005

DeLuca visit

The CRS and CCR programs here at Syracuse hosted a talk on Wednesday by Kevin DeLuca, and I've been meaning to throw my notes up here before I get too far away from it to do any good. Kevin's at the University of Georgia, and is the author of Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism. Given that visual rhetoric is one of those things that I try to keep abreast of, I was pretty interested to hear what he had to say.

His talk was pitched at the level of an overview, which was cool by me. There were a number of undergrads in the audience, and I thought he did a nice job of meeting the citational expectations of the faculty while making it accessible to the whole audience. He began with an overview of the various ways that rhetoric has approached images:

  1. Not at all.
  2. Reading them as texts and denying the qualities that aren't textualizable.
  3. Domesticating them through the same vocabulary and frameworks that we use to write about textual rhetorics.
  4. Taking images seriously as images.

Obviously, he was more interested in the last of these options, and he cited Cara Finnegan and Robert Hariman & John Lucaites as some of the scholars doing this kind of work. He was particularly interested in work that examined how images appear in context, that offered close readings of various images, and work that didn't simply study "serious" or "aesthetic" images. A key distinction, repeated throughout, was that it was important to focus on what an image does, not just what it means.

Some of the issues that may be keeping us from this kind of work are an overreliance on context as a knowable factor. Our tendency, he argued, is to reduce the complexity of context into something that we can grasp, and this tendency can turn contexts into fiction. He was also critical of the kind of iconophobia that still persists today, particularly in academia, as typified by Sontag's now-classic critique of photography. Finally, he was a little critical of the work of Finnegan and H&L, for offering what he described as transcendent concepts, critical terminology that erases the singularity of the images under consideration.

His answer to these issues is twofold. First, he believes that the shift to focusing on what images do rather than what they mean is crucial. And second, he called for a new mode of criticism, one that was more appropriate to an image-saturated society. This latter is a little difficult to pin down, but Kevin offered several pairs of binaries that captured what he was after:

  • from gaze to glance
  • from public sphere to public screens
  • from a focus on originals to the possibilities of reiteration
  • from attention to distraction

This notion, of an image-based criticism, was pretty provocative, and he cited Barthes, Benjamin, D&G, and others throughout. His close, though, ended up turning in a different direction. He did finally make the turn towards creating images as an important critical practice, and he shared his experiences with the Warbus.

Part of this may have been the audience, so I'll be gentle. For me, there was a real disjunct between the theoretical tenor of the first part of this talk and the emphasis on advocacy in the conclusion. For example, Kevin was somewhat critical of H&L's concept of iconicity (images that are widely recognized, historically significant, reproduced broadly across multiple media, and that evoke strong emotion), and yet, it's hard not to see the images on the warbus as selected and presented precisely for their iconicity.

My other qualm was that Barthes' Camera Lucida was being used in an unusual way. Kevin never mentioned the term punctum and yet constantly referred to the excess, the ex-stasis of the photograph. For my part, I take Barthes' punctum to be singular and personal, and this makes that quality exceptionally unsuitable for public advocacy. In some ways, the punctum is the polar opposite of iconicity, and while this made sense in terms of the theoretical vector of the talk, it falls short in the application, and far shorter, I would think, than a text like Debord's Society of the Spectacle might. The one example of a punctum-based reading is Finnegan's claim that the "migrant mother" Depression-era photos "oozed sexuality," and Kevin was pretty flip in dismissing that reading, while I would have argued that F's response is exactly what RB is after in Camera.

Hey, but that's my take. Both pieces of the talk were clear and engaging, but I left really feeling the tension between them. My guess is that Kevin would have dealt with that in more detail for a more strictly academic audience. As it was, he made me think during the talk, and for a couple of days now afterwards. I can't ask for much more.

October 10, 2005

Wayne Booth, 1921-2005

I know. Three posts in a single day is largely unprecedented, but news just came across a listserv that Wayne Booth has passed on. His is not a household name, even in rhetoric circles, and Wikipedia's entry on him is woefully inadequate, but Booth was one of the people who helped rhetoric (re)emerge into its own discipline in the 20th century. He probably doesn't receive the attention nowadays that he deserves for that contribution.

He began as a literary critic (as did many of the canonical 20th C rhetoricians), and the Rhetoric of Fiction is still a staple on many reading lists. Although we carnivalized (and cannibalized?) his latest offering, The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, I've always considered WB to be worth reading, if for no other reason than his optimism. Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent was one of those books that everyone in my grad program read at one point or another, one which attempts a decisive break from the modern dogmas of skepticism and doubt in favor of the kind of rhetorical generosity that certainly characterized that last book of his.

I can't say that I always agreed with Booth, but I can say that I almost always wanted to. He was someone who made the field richer, and who never stopped trying to convince others of that richness and value. Disagreements or no, that's good enough for me.

That's all.

February 2, 2006

The Art of Making the Stronger Team the Weaker

The only coverage of the interminable lead-up to SuperBowl XL that I can stand is Gilbert Gottfried and Kermit the Frog on ESPN's Cold Pizza Chuck Klosterman's "blog" for Page2 of ESPN.com. Say what you will about their ugly habit of tucking most of their really insightful writers behind PPV walls, the one thing that ESPN.com does right is Page2, where they hire writers to write.

Anyhow, ChuckK's coverage of Tuesday (Media Day! Media Day! Gather ye sound bites while ye may!) was pretty darn good. Exhibit A is his breakdown of the logic by which the Steelers, a 4-point favorite this week, are actually victims of that most heinous (not to mention nebulous) of treatments: disrespect.

As I write this, Pittsburgh is a four-point favorite to win Super Bowl XL. As you might have heard, the Steeler players are nonetheless viewing this prediction as a sign of disrespect. And Hines Ward spent part of media day explaining how being favored is (covertly) a criticism of his franchise.

I will now attempt to illustrate his five-pronged logic, even though I remain semi-baffled by its abstract complexity; I have a feeling Hines read a lot of Jacques Derrida while attending the University of Georgia. But here goes ...

Premise 1: Earlier this season, the Steelers were not given much credence from the mainstream media. Moreover, they struggled when Ben Roethlisberger was injured.

Premise 2: Conversely, Seattle was exceptional all season. The Seahawks finished as the NFC's No. 1 seed.

Premise 3: By favoring Pittsburgh in this game, the oddsmakers are negating Seattle's success.

Premise 4: Since Seattle's greatness has been quietly negated, the media is premeditating a circumstance in which a Pittsburgh victory would be less impressive than raw evidence would normally suggest.

Premise 5: Ward believes the Steelers will win in a major upset that the world is not recognizing; as such, the Steelers have been disrespected in advance.

Wow. The weird thing about this is that it actually makes a Bizzaro World kind of sense. More to the point, it makes me wonder if we shouldn't be teaching Hines Ward in our contemporary rhetoric courses.

That is all.

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.

April 21, 2006

The Rhetoric of Rollback

I don't have a great deal to say about this, but lately, I've been somewhat fascinated by the resignation of Scott McClellan. In particular, I'd like to recommend to you Jay Rosen's analysis of McClellan, whom Rosen sees as a crucial figure in what he calls the "Rollback" of media privileges at the current White House. Let me quote at length (although there's plenty more where this came from):

McClellan’s specialty was non-communication; what’s remarkable about him as a choice for press secretary is that he had no special talent for explaining Bush’s policies to the world. In fact, he usually made things less clear by talking about them. We have to assume that this is the way the President wanted it; and if we do assume that it forces us to ask: why use a bad explainer and a rotten communicator as your spokesman before the entire world? Isn’t that just dumb— and bad politics? Wouldn’t it be suicidal in a media-driven age with its 24-hour news cycle?

You would think so, but if the goal is to skate through unquestioned—because the gaps in your explanations are so large to start with—then to refuse to explain is a demonstration of raw presidential power. (As in “never apologize, never explain.?) So this is another reason McClellan was there. Not to be persuasive, but to refute the assumption that there was anyone the White House needed or wanted to persuade— least of all the press!

What's fascinating to me about this is how the WH has (successfully) undermined something that many of us in rhet/comp simply take on faith--the value of effective communication. Of course, one could argue that McClellan was wildly successful and effective in his (non)communication. But there's something deeply cynical about this, and directly at odds with the optimism necessary to teach writing (or speaking, for that matter). We have to believe that the skills and talents necessary to communicate well will ultimately carry their own rewards. Goodness knows, it's difficult enough to teach what is perceived as a contentless course without having that fundamental optimism thrown into question.

And I don't mean to suggest that we should all now experience existential crises because of one demonstrable moron, regardless of how centrally placed McClellan happened to be. The larger pattern includes a lot more people who were hired by the current WH not because they were in any way qualified but because they assented. McClellan's just one of many.

At the same time, though, when I think what a blow this administration has dealt to the idea of reasoned discourse, the idea that we can and should communicate with one another, and that we should make a good faith effort to persuade and to be persuaded--when I think of that blow, it makes me a little sad. I know that, as ideals go, this one is pretty impossible, but it's one of the ideals that underlies our society far more than I think we sometimes realize. As we teach our students to write themselves and the world, we do so with an ethic that is undercut both by the idea that "McClellan was there to make executive power more illegible" and by the fact that no one really ever called the WH on it, not the press, not those of us interested in rhetoric, not the general public.

Anyways. Anyone interested in contemporary rhetoric and particularly political rhetoric should zip over and bookmark Rosen's column.

That is all.

May 14, 2006

Happy Mother's Day (and a question)

Somewhat unconsciouly, I've been saving up my bloggables lately. I think part of it is the residual myth that if I spend my words here, I'll be taking words away from the revision process. I know that that's not how it works, but doesn't mean I don't sometimes fall under the spell of the myth.

Anyways, I thought I'd emerge from my accidental exile to wish all mothers, both current and impending, a happy day. And to ask a question...

Last week, I met with one of the many whose dissertation committees I'm serving on, and we had a rollicking conversation about all sorts of things. One of the issues that came up was Burkean identification, and over the course of our conversation, we ended up at a place where it was less than useful to speak of identification as a general category.

So my question to you is this: are there writers out there who have done any sort of differentiation among identifications? For example, there's a difference between I took to calling lateral identification (the kind that you might share with a neighbor or a colleague, for example) and vertical identification (the kind where you attach to a larger entity, like a state or country).

At the root of my question is the conviction that there is a difference when identifications cross various scales. Or perhaps I want to say that there's a scalar quality to identification itself--I'm tempted to suggest that the more vertical (and no, I'm not really happy with this term) the identification, the more uncomplicated it needs to be, if I can say this without implying that complication is somehow superior to the alternative.

I'm 99% sure that I can't be the only person to have ever asked this question, but I'm even surer that I don't really know where to look to remove that final 1%. Any suggestions?

May 22, 2006

Diss-appointments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 9, 2006

Party like it's 1996

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

Computer Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 26, 2006

We'll see how this flies

I've spent the past few days finishing up the overview document for my tenure case, known affectionately across the campus as "Form A." The form closes by asking for "additional information" that might be helpful in evaluating one's work. Here's what I put:

In a conversation with one of the members of the search committee that recommended my appointment at Syracuse, after I arrived in the Writing Program, I learned that this particular committee member had three criteria for each of the candidates. This person explained that each candidate was expected to make technology their primary area of scholarly inquiry, to be able to apply it in and to their pedagogy, and, just as importantly, to be a practicing user of technologies. While I believe that this form documents my achievements in the first two areas, I want to discuss that third area briefly.

In the field of rhetoric and composition, a field devoted to the study and teaching of writing, there is a sense in which we are practitioners of that which we study. But for those of us who choose to specialize further in the study of information and communication technologies as they impact writing, practice is not only essential, but it brings added pressures as well. In addition to staying abreast of developments in our field, we are obligated to remain familiar with developments outside of academia, to be practicing technologists as well as scholars, pedagogues, and colleagues. However, the criteria by which tenure and promotion are determined do not easily admit this fourth category, partly because it is a difficult one to measure. The proficient use of technologies does not fit into any of the three categories, but it is not entirely separable from them, either. I have spent hours learning software in order to write multimedia essays, familiarized myself with various research and productivity tools in order to help students become more proficient at online research, and drawn on my understanding of spread sheets, databases, and web design in order to improve the performance of the graduate office. But I also engage in activities that cannot easily be reduced to scholarship, teaching, and service.

It is in this context that I wish to call attention to my activity as an academic blogger. I started a weblog (Collin vs. Blog) in August of 2003, and in the three years I have spent writing and maintaining it, it has become an integral part of my academic practice. I use it as a place to work through ideas that will eventually be turned into published scholarship, to reflect upon teaching practices, and to connect with colleagues both local and distant. In roughly 20 months of tracking site traffic, my site has received close to 75,000 unique visits and over 100,000 pageviews, averaging 144 visits and 199 views daily since January of 2005. In the summer of 2005, I received my discipline’s award for Best Academic Weblog. In short, maintaining a weblog has raised my profile, both within my discipline and beyond it, far more than any course I might teach or article I might publish. And in doing so, it raises the profile of Syracuse and of the Writing Program in a fashion that I believe to be positive.

In recent years, there have been high-profile tenure cases where applicants have offered their technological work in lieu of activity more easily categorized in traditional terms; that is not my intent here. I feel that my scholarship, teaching, and service stand on their own. But in a year where Syracuse is actively pursuing and promoting the idea of “scholarship in action,? it strikes me as particularly important to include this form of public writing as part of my activity as a member of the Syracuse University faculty. At a time where much of the discussion surrounding academic weblogs focuses on the risks of representing one’s self publicly as anything more than the sum total of items on a vita, I feel that it’s important to acknowledge the positive, productive impact that blogging has had upon my academic career. My weblog is not a strictly academic space, any more than my life is consumed with purely academic concerns. But it adds a dimension to my contributions here at Syracuse, both as a writer and as someone who studies technology, that would be difficult to duplicate within the categories articulated in this form.

* * * * *

I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

September 26, 2006

Rhetopia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. A critical mass of faculty

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

2. An articulated rhetcomp curriculum

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

3. Sponsored Networking

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

4. The Vision Thing

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

5. Doing unto others

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

* * * * *

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

January 8, 2007

SelfCCCCongratulations

Came into the office today to find a promotional flier for this year's CCCC:

front page of CCCC flier
back page of CCCC flier

Wait a second. Scroll down the right hand column there for me on the back. What's that?

who's a featured speaker?

That's right. For one brief, shining moment, I'm a rockstar. We're far enough in advance of the event that I don't feel any nervousness at all. And I can't have messed up or anything. Our featured session exists in a state of pure, perfect potentiality and as long as it stays that way, who's to say I'm not a star?

Well, okay. Lots of people. But I'd appreciate it if you didn't ask them, at least until after March.

That's 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 1, 2007

The How of Writing Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that is all.

March 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.

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: http://inventio.us/ccc/atom.xml. 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.

January 31, 2008

As Tsar of Rhetnation, I vow...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. That's all.