April 6, 2004

Nobody cares but me

Trolling on ESPN to find that the Cubs don't play again until tomorrow, I come across the following headline:

"Navratilova loses first singles match in decade"

I know that this is nitpicky and anal and simply identifies me as one of those geeks who falls square into the worst stereotypes of English teachers, but I can't help but observe that this headline could mean two different things: Martina played in her first singles match in a decade, and lost (this is what it actually means); or, that she's been playing tennis and hasn't lost for at least ten years. It's either a headline about a comeback or one about total dominance.

I'm completely aware that I'm opening myself up to all sorts of ridicule by admitting this, but it's an unfortunate fact that I notice bad writing, almost by reflex, and I care more about it than is probably healthy for my own publishing aspirations.

You may commence

April 8, 2004


I'm chairing a thesis defense at 10 am tomorrow for a student over in the Communication and Rhetorical Studies department, and rather than reading back over the thesis itself, I've spent the last hour or so over at Timothy Burke's site. He's one of those academic bloggers whose name I've seen around, and I've even read a couple of entries of his here and there, but this is the first sustained read I've done of his site.

Won't be the last, either. One of the first posts I looked at was his discussion of student writing "Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay," a nice collection of some of the persistent, "perennial" problems that occur in the writing students do for him. Over the past couple of years, I've grown more and more interested in analysis as a genre/strategy, and most of what he describes are issues that I've taken up in my own classrooms as well, although perhaps not as crisply as he does here. I'll probably start linking to this entry in my online syllabi, and not just the first-year courses, either.

Okay. Back to that thesis...

July 24, 2004

I must confess my curiosity

Will notes that Microsoft has set up an RSS feed for topics of interest to educators. I admit it, I'm curious and, as of a few minutes ago, subscribed.

The first entry I looked at connects to a white paper at the MS site: Learning in a Connected World. Even downloaded it. But let me make one thing clear to the person from Microsoft who comes here as a result of the obligatory corporate egosurf. When the page told me that the paper explores, and I quote:

A solution architecture to help educators map a technology infrastructure to the challenges faced by institutions today.

I can't tell you how close I came to unsubscribing right there. Laugh all you like at the tortured prose of academic writers, poststructural theorists, etc., but this is abominable stuff. An architecture, and a solution architecture no less, to help me map an infrastructure to challenges? OMG.

At least, the page doesn't use "leverage" as a verb--oh wait, that's in the subtitle.

I know that it's basically an extended advertisement for MS products, and I know that every network generates its own jargon which is more or less opaque, but still. Look at it this way: if academic prose is so bad as to function almost like a second language, why in the world would we want to learn a third language in order to be advertisted at? Hire a couple more Discursive Efficacy Engineers, would you?

(I'm available on a consultant basis)

August 10, 2004

Staying out of the kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 20, 2004

qu'est-ce qu'on dit?

Brian Weatherson started a conversation over at Crooked Timber about whether or not he can ever be used generically. Brian notes, "English has a perfectly adequate gender-neutral pronoun - they - and it should be used instead of he in these contexts." There's a little backstory as well about the Canadian Supreme Court having once (back in 1927) ruled that women didn't count as "persons." And yes, they were quickly overruled.

One of the commenters makes reference to an essay that I myself had forgotten about, Douglas Hofstadter's A Person Paper on Purity in Language, a satirical essay that imagines making the "he is gender-neutral" argument in a world where pronouns were based on race rather than gender:

Most of the clamor, as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun "white" and words built from it, such as chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, middlewhite, Frenchwhite, forewhite, whitepower, whiteslaughter, oneupuwhiteship, strawwhite, whitehandle, and so on. The negrists claim that using the word "white," either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism.

Hofstadter is a fave of mine from way back, and PPPL is a tour-de-force, not only reproducing/parodying all of the bad arguments on behalf of the generic he, but also bringing to our attention all of the little ways that gendered pronouns and language usage function near-invisibly. It's hard for me to imagine anyone being able to use the generic he after reading H's essay. The solution that most people seem on board with is the occasional use of they as singular, although this tactic has its detractors as well. Me? I'm growing increasing fond of hir, although I've yet to try getting it past an editorial board. Most of the time, I find that it takes very little to adjust a sentence and remove the problem altogether. I suspect that, after a while, most people just internalize it and move on. Still, it was cool to go back and read a little Hofstadter, which I haven't done (I don't think) since I was working on my dissertation...

August 21, 2004

Doing "the math"

Before you add a comment and tell me that I take this stuff waaaay too seriously, let me admit up front that, yes, yes I do.

For whatever reason, I've been hearing the phrase "you do the math" with a lot more frequency lately. It's kind of a discursive shortcut--if you're talking numbers, rather than laying out an entire calculation (especially if it's fairly obvious), you might just suggest that your listener/audience "do the math." The implication is that the point you're making is so obvious that there's no real persuasion to be gained by explicitly completing the calculation.

Lately, though, I'm hearing the phrase in commercials--most recently for some back-to-school jeans sale. It's not so much that it's being used to describe situations that aren't really mathematical as much as it's become another one of those insufferably smug, self-consciously psuedo-ironic placeholders. What it really means, now, is "we don't really have anything to say, so we're going to pretend as though we've thought it through." For me, it's a lot like one of my all-time pet peeves: the apparently irresistible slapstick cliché, when someone runs into something or falls from a height or whatever, of saying "That's gotta hurt!" or "That's gonna leave a mark!" Hardy har har. It was mildly clever the first couple of times, but since then, it's become a piece of empty dialogue to be used in place of actually having to react to violence/pain/damage. There are all sorts of other "lines" like this, I'm sure, attempts to disguise one's lack of cleverness by adopting a clever pose...

Believe me when I say that I'm not a language purist or anything--much as I'd like to declare a moratorium on crap like that, language is going to change in all sorts of ways whether I like it or not. All the same, if language is the food of thought, "you do the math" is rapidly approaching the status of circus peanuts for me.

August 23, 2004


Every once in a while, it's worth an entry just to bring together a few ideas that click in my head. A couple of days ago, Jeff put together a couple of posts on "Theories I Believe In" and "Theories I Don't Believe In" (the link is to the positive post). In some ways, this reminds me of the "values listing" that Carol Bly advocates (I wrote about it right before my brithday last year). And the more I thought about it, the more I was thinking how it might make for a good exercise for graduate students--I should mention that I'm already planning on doing it myself one of these days when I'm not up to my elbows in manuscript.

Carol's exercise clicked with me, in part, I think, because it reminds me of doing Tarot or I Ching readings, and even heuretics to a degree--using different structures of thought to take snapshots of your life, mental or otherwise. And as I'm thinking this, Adrian posts about using Bruce Mau's "An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth" as a means of getting his students "to move to being knowledge producers"--"museflowance" is his result from trying #28: Make New Words. And this after, a few days earlier, having futzed around a bit with Robert Kendall's Soothcircuit.

No grand conclusion, except to observe that my mind's clearly been clicking on invention lately...

September 15, 2004

Where I realize I spoke a day too soon

Some of you already know this, but I finally decided today that the returns on my writing have declined to the point where I need to take a break, a winding, two-month, hop-in-the-car-and-go kind of break. And so while it's not exactly "done," my manuscript is now over at Kinko's, getting copied and bound in the next day or so. It still needs work, in some places more than others, to be sure, but it's complete enough (I hope) to benefit from some constructive outside review.

I like to think that Rilo Kiley is at least partly responsible for my decision. I bought their new album about a week or so ago, but have been overdosing on it lately. It's a much different and much more varied album than The Execution of All Things and I wasn't sure I was going to like it. A couple of the songs hooked me though, and brought me round, and so I'll probably lead off my trip with it.

And as I got back from Kinko's, I went through my apartment and gathered a bunch of the books that I'll be taking with me as I travel and as I move on to book project #2, the one I've been chomping at the bit to work on for the past 6 months or so. Since I'm teaching a course on the topic in the spring, I'll probably end up being far more productive than my road trip would seem to indicate. I've realized tonight that psychologically, I've been preparing to leave for about 3-4 weeks, and now that I can, I'm not going to waste any time. Tomorrow, I'll figure out exactly how I want to set things up here for maximum blogging convenience from the road. Well, that and pack.

October 7, 2004

more on shortcuts

I wanted to write a little more about the idea of "shortcuts," because I shouldn't assume the self-evidence of the way that I'm using it. I'm working from an idea that Ball talks about in Critical Mass, and specifically from an article that I downloaded, from Joshua Epstein, who's at the Brookings Institution.

Epstein, Joshua M. "Learning to be Thoughtless: Social Norms and Individual Computation." Computational Economics 18 (2001): 9-24.

Continue reading "more on shortcuts" »

October 9, 2004

The final deconstruction

Jacques Derrida passed away last night, according to the BBC, succumbing to cancer at the age of 74.

News coverage will describe his obscurity, the controversies over his work, the difficulty of understanding deconstruction, etc. For me, though, JD was one of those once-in-a-generation thinkers whose work has become so diffuse across disciplines that there are literally hordes of writers who owe a great deal to his work without even realizing it. As I was working on my book this summer, I was amazed at how many times his work peeked through my own, and I don't really consider myself especially Derridean in my approach to things.

Two years ago, I taught Of Grammatology in my 20th Century Rhetoric course, and I remain convinced that Derrida, who is identified primarily as a philosopher, is one of the most important rhetoricians of the past century. He will never be recognized as such, I suspect, because his work is so difficult to encapsulate into keywords or simplistic patterns. Language is difficult, and Derrida's writing both attempts to understand and to perform that difficulty. But to see him simply as "difficult" underestimates one of the most important thinkers of our lifetime.

October 24, 2004

we being Brand

-new; and you
know consequently a
little stiff

Couple of weeks ago, Clancy posted an inquiry about Cluetrain, whether anyone in the field was picking it up or not, and that question has been bouncing around in my head ever since. It came at a time where I was thinking about excerpting it for my class next semester, and at a time when I've been adding people like Hugh MacLeod to my aggregator (having already aggregated the Cluetrain principals).

This morning, I came across an entry at Doc Searls's site, on the issue of branding, and that set me to thinking even more. (good set of followables there, that I won't simply repeat here)

The gist of Doc's remarks is that there is an inverse relationship between company-sponsored or -encouraged blogging and the strength of that company's brand. In other words, companies that have a high-intensity brand (like Apple, e.g.) need to exercise a great deal of control over the information that leaves the company. Hence, they're not likely to be as blog-friendly, which would require a certain amount of relaxation of control over information flow.

Normally, I'm not a huge fan of the corporate metaphor for education--I think it was Anne Balsamo who said once that education needs no metaphor--but in this case, I've been thinking about how compatible blogging will prove to be in composition classes. Actually, that's sounding a lot more philosophical than I mean it to--maybe I'm just responding belatedly to this thread from Kairosnews.

Anyhow, the connection for me among all of these things is whether or not we've basically treated the type of writing we profess as a brand--Academic Discourse®, perhaps--one that we find ourselves engaged in what Hugh calls egofriction, or as GaryM notes in the comments to that post, "a subconscious desire to have their side win." In other words, we hold on very tightly to what we do in our courses, particularly when it comes under fire from people in other disciplines, the general public, New Yorker columnists, whoever. And I'm as guilty of this as anyone--there are plenty of times where my interaction with these constituencies is more about "winning" than about anything particularly educational.

I'm not suggesting that we start reducing what we do to corporate-speak, but rather that we ask ourselves honestly if that isn't already what we do. If so, if we're involved in protecting our brand of writing, then it's hard for me to see how blogging is going to find a comfortable home in our departments, and I say that fully aware of the colossal overgeneralization I'm offering here. I'm not sure, however, that it's any worse of an overgeneralization than the ones we take for granted in the establishment and protection of our brand.

No grand conclusions or answers here--that's just what I've been thinking about this morning. That is all.

November 10, 2004

To that same old place that you laughed about

Nothing dramatic today. Just wanted to welcome Dave Rieder back to blogspace after a 7-month hiatus. He's back on the 'roll to the right.

Also recently added are a couple more SU bloggers. My colleague, Becky Howard, has finally taken the plunge, and has assured me that her site is unintentionally pseudonymous (and only then if you ignore the URL). Also, one of our ABD's, Jon Benda, who's currently teaching in Taiwan, has started "Notes of a Former Native Speaker."

I've got a couple more additions to make, but I'll get to them in a bit.

November 21, 2004

"Something Borrowed," Someone Blue

This entry would be a lot better than it probably will be, if only I had the expertise of Becky and the scathe of Jeff to bring to bear upon it. We'll see if we can't muddle through, though.

A few people (most notably Anil Dash) have picked up on Malcolm Gladwell's "Something Borrowed," an essay appearing in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. I mention Becky because the essay in question carries the subtitle "Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?" and is about Bryony Lavery's plagiarism of Gladwell for her Tony-nominated play "Frozen." Gladwell complicates things quite a bit, though, because plagiarism is a far more complicated issue than most people are willing to acknowledge. The ability to rip, mix, and burn is a crucial element of culture, so crucial that Lawrence Lessig (who's quoted by Gladwell at length) locates it in the birth of nearly every major form of mass media available to us today. In certain ways, culture is about "pirates" becoming "property owners," a cycle repeating itself over and over.

It was only a matter of time before this nuanced take on the relationship between intellectual or creative property and creativity was taken up in various academic discussions on plagiarism, most of which tend to abandon nuance in favor of a neoPuritanism, or what Gladwell calls "property fundamentalism." The discussion has begun on one of our field's lists, and will presumably begin over at Kairosnews, where Spencer Schaffner tries to think through Gladwell's article (without abandoning nuance) in conjunction with a recent encounter with a plagiarism/cheating "expert."

I mentioned Jeff above because the "solution" to the problem of plagiarism is a painfully conservative one--conservative in the sense of resistant to change. The argument runs that we must "educate" the "savages" through honor codes and increased surveillance, to rehabilitate those poor souls who, left to their own devices, can't help but turn to the dark side. The approved solution, one that administrators are willing to pay millions of dollars to support, is to fall back on conservative assumptions about education, to treat students like incipient criminals, and to police them vigorously. There are still plenty of people in my field who are like the professor Schaffner describes:

The other afternoon, at this panel I keep referring to, after we panelists had paneled, a professor in the audience stood up and asked a question. "How can I get my Computer Science students to stop plagiarizing? How can I get them to see that it is wrong to copy another person's work and turn it in as your own? They just don't see it as unethical!"

This guy is looking, it seems, for a way to teach the ethic of original composition ... but how can such ethics be articulated without also being critiqued as fetishizing the solitary writer and the marketplace of (TM) textual products? And even moreso, I am concerned, how can we advocate for this aspect of academic integrity when so many other aspects of our academico-socio-cultural fabric is so lacking in integrity?

The problem with those first two questions is that the professor who's asking them believes them to be synonymous, when in fact they're not. We all plagiarize, which of course is the opposite of what one list denizen accuses us trendy folks of believing: "It may be interesting, even fashionable, to argue there's really no such thing as plagiarism..." Yeah, ummm, no. We all plagiarize, in the sense that we learn language by copying each other, from picking up on words that we like, all the way down to learning which grammatical structures are acceptable and which are less so. Reading is ripping. We are what we read, from our heads down to our feet--check out Don Foster's Author Unknown if you don't believe me. The problem comes with the mixing, with how much we mix (or how little, in the case of copy-paste plagiarism). Academics are taught to mix well, and to use quote marks when we choose not to. But there is no zero degree of mixing--putting one's name on someone else's work is pretty damn close to zero, but it's not. What we think of as "original composition" is in fact a case where the mixing is done so well that the composing, the putting-together, produces the effect of originality. Even Gladwell, knowing that his words had been lifted verbatim and placed in Lavery's manuscript, testifies to this effect:

Then I got a copy of the script for “Frozen.? I found it breathtaking. I realize that this isn’t supposed to be a relevant consideration. And yet it was: instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause.

Problem is, many of us in academia have come to believe, or perhaps simply assumed, that what we ask of students is itself a "grander cause," even if it's a mandated requirement in a mandated course that may have no immediate connection to a given student's interests or education. This is not the absolute answer here, but not every student sees an essay fulfilled for an assignment in one of my classes as "their own work." The grade is theirs, perhaps, but the work (in their eyes) is mine--it matters to me, but not to them. The question that the professor above should ask is whether or not there's a better way to teach the material, design the assignment, or build the course, a way that encourages the student to see the benefits of mixing. There are ways, you know. Ways to design assignments that don't lend themselves to what Jenny's described as the general equivalency of paper mill assignments.

None of this means that there is no such thing as plagiarism or cheating, nor does it mean that there aren't students who won't willfully attempt to achieve the best results for the least amount of work, even if there are honor codes prohibiting their behavior. But there are also professors who assign mind-numbingly bad assignments, ones that are eminently plagiarizable because they are so predictable. Instead of only asking why students plagiarize (and concluding that they're simply evil or stupid), we might also be asking why they're able to plagiarize, why our assignments are so meaningless that they don't see the virtues of actually completing them on their own. The problem is undoubtedly broader than bad assignments or indifferent professors, but neither of those factors is entirely blameless.

And discussions like these would progress much more briskly if the issue of blame weren't such a huge part of them. That is all.

November 23, 2004


[Via MetaFilter] A page of alternative "warning stickers" for your local schools' textbooks...

warning sticker

This page should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

[Update: It makes a lot more sense when I actually include the link to the page itself, doesn't it?]

March 1, 2005

Alert ETS

I am no friend of standardized testing, although, ironically enough, it's been a pretty good friend to me. Nevertheless, I believe that I have found a test that I can support wholeheartedly. I present to you the Reading-Too-Much-Into-Things Comprehension exam, courtesy of the fine folk at McSweeneys.

May 2, 2005

Why does he get to be Mr. Pink?!

I'm sure that someone's already thought of this, but I'm feeling too dead lazy to google it, so instead, allow me to take credit for my new word: treyincidence. A treyincidence is basically a coincidence of three things instead of two. Although, really, "co" just means together, so technically you could have a coincidence of three things as easily as two. Anyways.

I was at Borders this weekend, the proud owner of a highly date-specific 30%-off coupon, and so I went over to the Psychology section to see if Steven Johnson's new book was out (it wasn't--May 5). I'm a sucker like that: instead of taking the 30% off of something that I would have bought anyway, I'll look around for something expensive, so that my coupon brings it down just to the place where I'll feel okay about buying it. I'm exactly the right person to give this coupon to, in other words.

Anyhow, I came across Daniel Pink's Whole New Mind, and was sorely tempted until I remembered that this is the kind of sucker I'm not: I do try to be realistic about buying hardcover books when I know that I'm only somewhat likely to read them before the softcover comes out at less than half the price.

Okay, that was a lie. I still do that sometimes.

I've seen Pink's book mentioned in spots lately, and he's also the guy who wrote the NYT article to which Jon Udell referred briefly in his piece on screencasting (although that didn't occur to me at the time). That was one incident.

The second was reading Alex's smart, smart post in reply to the screencasting discussion. In part, Alex suggests a writing curriculum that mixes composition, professional writing, creative writing, and new media. The result?

The result, ideally, of such a curriculum is a student who is a confident, practiced writer; who understands his/her creative process; who has developed a productive writing practice for him/herself; who has composed and performed work in multiple "creative writing" genres; who has internalized some sense of rhetorical and poetic theory (to really get into it would require further graduate study); who has experience writing in workplace genres and bringing a more creative, "right brain" attitude to them; and has a strong foundation in working with new media.

I'd planned on linking to this originally, but as I was frittering away my time yesterday, I came across my third incident/encounter with Mr. Pink, over at Kathy Sierra's site, in an entry where she contrasts the US and Japan in terms of their design (in)sensibilities. Her read on what Pink has to say?

Really, we're all designers -- at least with a lowercase "d". We're all trying to create solutions. But we should all--ALL OF US--be adding design to the list of "must learn" topics for this year.


We should all start thinking like designers.

The last time I taught our Professional Writing course here at Syracuse, I focused it around design, but it was a pretty modest course for all that. As I went back and re-read Alex's post, though, my ideas got wide. I'm thinking that, instead of trying to figure out how to negotiate a writing program amongst the traditional units in an English department, why not turn to design programs for our models?

That's the move that Stuart Moulthrop, Nancy Kaplan, and others made some time ago at the University of Baltimore, where the English dept falls under the umbrella of a School of Communications Design. And I think of the productive thinking that, for me, has been spurred by work like Kaufer and Butler's Rhetoric and the Arts of Design or Herbert Simon's Sciences of the Artificial. Honestly, what's to keep us from drawing on the curricula in graphic design, architecture, and/or art for a Bachelor of Design Arts in Writing? Or splitting the difference between an MBA and an MFA with an MDA?

I was going to end the post there, but that'd make it too easy for my first comment to be: "What's to keep us? Duh, Collin. You teach at a university, remember?" Yeah yeah. But I'm keeping the word treyincidence, and using it in a sentence daily. So there.

May 15, 2005


Derek made the eminently reasonable suggestion that I give myself one or two "hiatus coupons," redeemable for those moments when I can't not blog. I've come close to redeeming them over the past week, but managed to restrain myself.

Anyhow, one of my aims in taking the hiatus was to put in some serious writing time (and I mean serious time for writing rather than time for serious writing. Heh.). Among my goals for this time was a draft of an essay that I'd like to send out to CCC sometime in the near future, and that draft is now complete-ish, awaiting feedback from eyes more critical than mine are at the moment. The piece is called "A Book of Stars: Slicing, Scaling, and Data Mining Our Discipline," and for the moment, I've posted a pdf version of it for anyone who'd like to feed me back on it.

I post it here mostly because it takes up issues, about the CCCC specifically, that I've raised in this space on occasion. It also partakes of a 2002 CCCC presentation I did on the way that we use the program as a map of the field (and mistakenly so, imho). There's some social software goodness in there as well, and a quick read of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink lined up with Kenneth Burke's famous reflection/selection/deflection. Coincidentally, that's the presentation I'll be giving at Penn State in a couple of months.

Okay, now I'm just babbling. I'd have to check, but I'm pretty sure that the coupon doesn't include that as one of the permissible activities.

Update: There are some parallels in my argument and the stuff that Clay Shirky's talking about in "Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags". It may be worth my time to make that parallel a little more explicit.

May 31, 2005

Fish in a Barrel

Must be something in the water. It's bad enough that I have to listen to the lame defenses offered by the College Board for its new writing exam, which appears to evaluate little more than a student's ability to generate context-free verbiage. But today, for whatever reason, I was treated to a couple of additional essays that cloud any sort of dialogue that we might have about writing.

Exhibit A is Stanley Fish's offering in today's NYT, "Devoid of Content." Fish offers us his definitive answer to the crisis, oft-repeated and rarely proven, of the clear sentence. "Most" of the millions of students graduating from high school and college, Fish explains, are "utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence." Okay, that's a load of crap, but probably not worth the effort that would be required to falsify the claim.

This crisis is exacerbated, according to Fish, because

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow.

This is an astoundingly craptacular claim. Even if Fish were much more of a micromanager than he claimed to be in his various tenures at Chicago, Duke, and Hopkins, I doubt that he could speak with any veracity about (a) what "most composition courses" at his own institution did, or (b) the "theory" behind what they did. As an assistant professor in a writing program who spent 2 years chairing the committee that directly supervised the first-year writing curriculum, I would never presume to characterize "most" of the composition courses in my own department, much less those serving "millions" of students, at institutions far more diverse than those for which Fish has done the majority of his teaching. And the "theory" that Fish cites should sound familiar, because it is the idea against which the contemporary development of composition and rhetoric has emerged. Substitute "literature" for "big ideas" (or don't), and you have the "theory" of composition that "developed" in English departments (i.e., literature professors) for much of the 20th century, at least until composition and rhetoric began to define itself in opposition to literature. Are there such courses, where a focus on content supercedes the teaching of writing? Undoubtedly so. But it's easier to slop them all together and dismiss them (without any sort of evidence, of course), because this is an article meant to enlighten all of us poor souls who have actually studied, thought about, practiced, theorized, and care about the teaching of writing.

Fish's solution is formal: "over the semester the students come to understand a single proposition: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships."

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students.

I will admit that I would have loved to take this course, and I can imagine plenty of other students who might have the same reaction. It's an intriguing idea, and one that undoubtedly challenges and educates. And most of the rest of the article is engaged in explicating it, punctuated with subtle self-praise. Fish closes with an implied claim about what his course accomplishes:

{In a content-focused course,] They will certainly not be learning anything about how language works; and without a knowledge of how language works they will be unable either to spot the formal breakdown of someone else's language or to prevent the formal breakdown of their own.

The only model for a writing course with content that Fish seems capable of imagining is one where "once ideas or themes are allowed in, the focus is shifted from the forms that make the organization of content possible to this or that piece of content," but last time I checked, the "focus" is one of the things that we might label a pedagogical responsibility. Again, are there classes where content does become the focus? Of course there are. But it's colossally insulting to every one of us who teaches writing to imply that we're incapable of teaching form in the context of actual writing. And it's absurd to imagine that Fish's is the only way to learn about form.

I'll close my little hissy fit here by noting that I don't doubt that Fish's students leave his class fully capable of crafting logically coherent sentences. And I don't doubt that some of them, and perhaps all of them, are capable of combining those sentences into paragraphs and/or essays that effectively communicate ideas and target particular audiences. But I can tell you that they don't learn the latter in his class. Writing is necessarily the blending of form and content in a particular context. It is certainly possible to examine language in the absence of particular content or context; such an examination has little to do with the skills and abilities that a writing course should be encouraging, however.

Fish's own clear and coherent sentences serve, among other purposes, a couple of "straw" arguments and at least one false binary. Hey, they're good sentences, though.

Exhibit A wasn't supposed to take so long. Let me get some other work done, and Exhibit B will follow...

June 1, 2005

Fish in a Barrel, Take 2

Okay, Exhibit B. While I found several links to the Fish piece as I scanned my feeds this morning, over at the Blogora, Jim links to an article by Jethro Leiberman, an Associate Dean at the New York Law School, called "Bad Writing: Some Thoughts on the Abuse of Scholarly Rhetoric, available through that school's Law Review. A more appropriate exhibit, given my title, as Leiberman takes careful aim at the dead horse (or the barrel-bound fish) we know and love as the "difficulty" of academic writing.

From the abstract for this paper, we are given a glimpse of what is to come: "Bloated, foggy, and enigmatic prose masquerades as profundity that escapes conventional mental grooves. In fact it is useless, unethical, and taken far enough, evil." Well, it's a glimpse only if you count the appearance of the word "evil" in the final sentence of the article, and treat this melodramatic hyperbole as a serious claim, which you might be able to do as long as you're willing to ignore the absolute lack of evidence offered in its support. Oh wait, there's logic: understanding is good, I can't understand what they're saying, so they must be evil. Ahh yes.

Leiberman's article is more sophisticated than this when he tones down the enigmatic prose and sticks to the question of difficulty. He's right, I think, to question the defense of difficulty that's taken place in recent years, although I'd argue that you only earn the right to question it by taking it seriously in the first place. More on that soon.

The article begins with a Sokal-esque parody of difficult writing (and what critique of academic writing would be complete without a nod to the patron saint of academic schadenfreude?), containing such gems as:

This familiar defamiliarization of the conventional Ordinary problematizes much of the turn to the ornate Interpretive. In this sense, the enactment comes, if at all, with foudroyant force, an irresistible tsunami of hypercathexis toward concretized Law.

No, it's not meant to make any sort of sense, although it makes a fair amount of smugness in the first couple of pages. And apparently, this smugness (is it too late, almost 10 years later now, to coin the term Sokality to refer to anti-academic performative smirking?) is called for nowadays:

In fact, I think, something else is new: of late certain academic scholars have sought to justify bad writing. It is necessary, the claim runs, to write mysterious, impenetrable, foggy prose, to embed words in a style inaccessible not merely to the lay reader but to most academic readers as well.

Well, in fact, the claim doesn't quite run thusly, but Leiberman isn't really interested in understanding the claim so much as he is in rounding up the usual tropes to array against some Platonic ideal of clarity. Sokal is one, and of course, the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing contest is another. Lacan appears in a footnote as particularly inscrutable, of course, and Orwell is trotted out so that Leiberman can write, in sufficiently dramatic fashion, that "Euphemism allows us to gloss over the repugnant thought and avoid the evil deed that it masks." Yeah, that's not an Orwell quote. Evil deeds, indeed.

Leiberman is a dean at a law school, and the essay appears in a law review, so while you and I might think it appropriate that more than one example appear from legal writing, Leiberman satisfies himself with a single passage from a 1952 decision rendered by Justice Felix Frankfurter:

The faculties of the Due Process Clause may be indefinite and vague, but the mode of their ascertainment is not self-willed. In each case “due process of law? requires an evaluation based on a disinterested inquiry pursued in the spirit of science, on a balanced order of facts exactly and fairly stated, on the detached consideration of conflicting claims, on a judgment not ad hoc and episodic but duly mindful of reconciling the needs both of continuity and of change in a progressive society.

Oh. My. God. Impenetrable, right? Well, no. I don't know what the Due Process Clause is, although I can certainly guess. Leiberman asks "How can such language be defended?" in all apparent seriousness. I don't know the Clause or the case, but it seems pretty obvious to me that Frankfurter is suggesting that interpretation of the clause is not an individual decision, but one that should be weighed against the competing forces of the stable precedents of the law and the changing nature of social circumstance. In the footnote to the passage, Leiberman explains, "This passage is not necessarily difficult writing, but it is bad writing nonetheless; it purports to describe a method of ascertaining due process, but its oracular quality denudes it of meaning."

Its oracular quality denudes it of meaning? Oh my pots and kettles. It's hard for me to imagine that anyone reading that decision has a right to expect that a single sentence is going to "describe a method of ascertaining due process," but hey, that's just me. On the other hand, I can easily imagine this sentence appearing either at the beginning or the end of a decision that goes into far greater detail attempting to perform the method alluded to in the passage. And my point, if I may make it without overly denuding it of meaning, is that we can't really know whether or not this is "bad writing" without seeing the context for it. Leiberman describes this as "ennobled, pretty language," but I just don't see it. Perhaps it is indeed vacuous, but not on its own, and certainly not because someone says it is.

Let me say it more bluntly. There is no such thing as "bad writing" or "difficult writing," independent of a particular context. There is writing that I find bad or difficult, but that speaks to my own taste and preference and background, not to some intrinsic quality of the text itself. And that's the largest problem with this article, and indeed, this whole genre of academic anti-academicism. It's also the problem with collections that defend difficult writing, mostly because they've already given away the most obvious point: difficulty is not a textual feature, but rather a ratio that involves a host of factors, including vocabulary, register, sentence length, reader background, and textual context. A text is not difficult; it is difficult for somebody: me, you, us, them, whoever.

So to insist that writing should be difficult is to exclude most of humankind from understanding whatever it is that the difficult writers think the difficult writing purports to be saying. It is to build walls around the purveyors of such prose, not to goad outsiders into thinking anew. It dampens the spirit of inquiry for all except the initiate, and the more difficult the writing the smaller the inner circle. It mocks humanity’s hard-fought battle to think its way out of the jungle, to articulate a life worth living, to aspire through language, thought made manifest, to a richer, warmer, fairer life. Writing that is opaque, obscure, tortured — difficult writing — is humbug. Its purveyors condescend toward their audiences and are contemptuous of their readers.

By the end of this essay, it's just too easy to poke at. So let me close with a couple of final thoughts. First, there's a weird sort of entitlement operating here: I don't understand your writing, therefore you must be writing it in such a way so as to keep from understanding it. This is humbug. I don't defend difficult prose, but I defend our right to write to our audience. Yes, "the smaller the inner circle," but to think that this is a result of complicated prose, and has nothing to do with the downsizing of the humanities, is precisely the kind of euphemistic thinking that this article appears to condemn. To attribute these qualities (opacity, obscurity, torture) to a given text is to decontextualize it in a way that ignores the conditions of its production and its circulation.

And it's striking to me, and this is perhaps my second closing point, that in his swirl of metaphors for bad writing, Leiberman never once pauses to ask whether or not he's examining cause or effect. He marches forward, as any number of similar critics do, and accuses so-called difficult writers, by implication at least, of evil, never once stopping to think about why scholars might write in such a fashion. And the fact of the matter is that for most of us who toil away in the humanities, our audience will never be more than a couple of hundred readers, and guess what? That's not the result of "difficult" writing, but one of the preconditions. Most academic writing is produced for a fairly select audience, an audience that shares vocabularies and references that are going to appear opaque to the person who doesn't share them. Difficult writing is as much the result of the absence of a broader audience for academic work as it is a cause.

But then, testing that claim would require one to take even "difficult" writing seriously, rather than presenting decontextualized examples of it for our collective derision. Ah well. If nothing else, this essay provides ample evidence for the claim that writing that is clear, transparent, and obvious — easy writing — is no less capable of humbug.

That is all. Happy June.

June 7, 2005

Deictic Systems?

One of the projects that I've been slowly working on has reached a stage where it's ready to receive some critical attention. Those of you who were at my CCCC presentation will have heard some of this before--I took part of my talk and expanded it quite a bit, and it's scheduled to go "live" at Computers and Writing Online next week. However, it's been tough for me to make time to read the presentations daily, much less respond to them, so I thought I'd make mine available over a slightly longer stretch.

It's called "Weblogs as Deictic Systems," which may be the most direct title I've ever placed on a piece of writing of mine. It's still kind of drafty, but you're welcome to take a look. I went ahead and published it via MT, so that you could comment on individual sections, so please do. My ultimate goal is to work it up into something publishable, so any feedback (positive or negative) is welcome in that regard...

That's all.

June 25, 2005

You think you got problems?!

Last week, the students in my genre theory course read another of those sine qua non essays about academic publishing, Richard McNabb's "Making the gesture: Graduate student submissions and the expectation of journal referees" [via FindArticles], and as I was cruising the web looking for a nice handout-sized thumbnail of John Swales's description of creating a research space, I came across Joe Williams's monograph Problems into PROBLEMS: A Rhetoric of Motivation, which was announced at Kairosnews back in February.

I can't do much more than gush about Williams at this point--I'll definitely be teaching Williams and Swales alongside McNabb in the fall. Williams's monograph is a careful exploration, supported by some pretty broad, multimodal research, of how to write introductions, and more to the point, how to pose a PROBLEM in the academic sense. Among a number of smart things in this document:

Our students find this kind of thinking bizarre. But it’s what we do -- a kind of Zen locksmithing: we have made a key that fits a lock before we have made the lock that fits the key.

Students may find it bizarre, but I still think that there are plenty of us who find it opaque, or who learn how to do it without necessarily articulating what it is that we're doing. And Williams does, in painstaking detail. Not only will my graduate students in the fall be reading this, but I'm going to require it of all my dissertators as well. Believe me when I say that it's worth a couple of hours of your time, if you're writing for an academic audience.

That is all.

January 25, 2006

Didn' it

Derek and I were chatting in my office today, and in reference to something or other, he said "One down, one to go." And my response was "Another town, one more show." It didn't take long, thanks to the internets, to discover that I was quoting a song from Yes--you remember "Leave It," right? No? Maybe it's because it was popular 22 years ago. At some point in the past couple of days, I must have either heard the song (or something a lot like it) that triggered this lyrical couplet in my head today. But it did so completely without my knowledge. And were it not for those internets, I couldn't for the life of me have told you what song it was from

My first thought was that it was that song from the musical Chess--you know, "One Night in Bangkok" or something like that?

One more note with respect to Yes. The first song on that album you may remember as well: "Owner of a Lonely Heart." I remember the song primarily because you can switch the openings of the two words and it makes almost as much sense: loaner of an only heart. I do this all the time, switching the opening sounds of pairs of words, particularly with people's names and two-word phrases. I'm pretty sure, though, that this is not the fault of Yes.

Anyhow, that was all I'd planned on sharing with you today, but in the process of nosing about, I discovered today that the project begun in last spring's graduate course, continued at CCCC, and composed for C&W Online has recently come out: Weblogs as Deictic Systems: Centripetal, Centrifugal, and Small-World Blogging was just published in the Theory into Practice section of Computers and Composition Online.

So I've got that going for me, too.

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.

Avast, ye windmill!

I want to both acknowledge and thank Scott Jaschik of IHE for being willing to brave the storm and ire of those of us who feel strongly about the whole Facebook situation. That's no small thing. In light of his visit, I thought I might lay out, without swearing, as clear a statement of my position as possible. I don't know that he will find it persuasive, but perhaps it will offer some context for the anger that many of us feel over this.

Let me start with a snippet from Katherine Hayles's new book My Mother Was a Computer (a book I hope to review once I've (a) turned back into Dr. Banner, and (b) gotten much more of my workload under control). Hayles attempts to make the case that we need to consider "code" at the same conceptual level as "speech" and "writing," sort of a parallel to Ulmer's (among others) orality, literacy, and electracy. Hayles writes

Code that runs on a machine is performative in a much stronger sense than that attributed to language. When language is said to be performative, the kinds of actions it "performs" happen in the minds of humans...[examples]...code running in a digital computer causes changes in machine behavior and, though networked ports and other interfaces, may initiate other changes, all implemented through transmission and execution of code (50).

Now, I'm taking liberties here a bit with Hayles's work, but my broader argument the past few days is that the difference among dorm room conversations, passing notes in class, and posting comments on Facebook are the differences among speech, writing, and code. The three aren't separate, of course, and Hayles says as much. But the issue I have with Scott and IHE's coverage of this event is that they have failed to appreciate the degree to which they are not simply "writing" about Facebook. They are also coding the event by creating resources that are more visible, accessible, and available, and for a longer period of time, than any of these other analogs.

Clay Spinuzzi puts it this way, rather nicely:

Collin's point is that defamation becomes a de facto part of a person's online record - the "portfolio" (my term) that Google and Yahoo are constantly assembling for everyone with an online presence:

When you write about this situation, and then code it, you are effectively contributing material to the online portfolio of each of the people involved. This is particularly relevant to those sites that have exploited the naivete of the students in that course--an irony I pointed out yesterday in reference to the fact that the Internet is far more a "permanent record" than a student's file at a university. The latter is protected by FERPA among other things, while IHE and other sites endure no such limitation.

Today's newspaper may be tomorrow's bird cage liner, but today's Internet story can be future employers' search results, even as far as several years down the line. You can still, with relative ease, locate things that I said and did in graduate school back in the mid-90s. That's one of the ways I would interpret Hayles's notion of "strong performativity"--by publishing names, by reprinting the page itself, by reproducing the comments, you are, literally, performing and participating in the event in a way that the "shield" of journalistic objectivity and coverage does not fully account for.

In this case, and let me put this as bluntly as possible, if you are willing to cede the possibility that this page constituted harassment (a possibility fully in line with determinations made both by SU and by Facebook), then it is not enough to simply put quotes around the page, or remove it from the "front" with a link. It is not enough to absolve you of the responsibility of considering that you, in consciously reproducing this document, have actively participated in the harassment that you are "reporting."

To assert that you are not responsible is to deny the very real, material effect that certain kinds of language have on the people around us. And it is to deny the very real, material differences among media. To post something hurtful, and to do so with the alibi that the material did not originate with you, is still to post something hurtful. And it is to implicitly reinforce that pain.

All the way throughout this discussion, I have not said anything about restricting Facebook, and I won't, because I don't hold them responsible for what was said. Once they learned about the abuse of their site, however, they had a choice to make. They could either leave the page in place, or remove it. There was no choice that they could make that was neutral. I believe that they made the proper decision.

Similarly, IHE and other sites posting screen grabs are making choices that themselves influence the perception of the story. By allowing these words and images to persist (without, as Spencer suggested, blurring anything), they are weighing in on the side of those who would permit this kind of behavior, because they themselves are reproducing the behavior for a wider audience. In the interests of "coverage," they are, inadvertently or not, affecting the lives of the people whose names they've "covered."

They are, of course, free to do so.
They are, however, also accountable for doing so.

And that's all I have for right now. I persist in the hope that more of us will do the right thing here.

February 23, 2006


That'd be my variation on schadenfreude, designating the (only slightly) jealous pang I feel when someone else says or does something that I wish I'd thought of first.

That was my thought as I caught Ben V's latest over at if:book. In particular, check out the description of the subtitling for the American release of the Russian movie Night Watch:

What they've done is played with the subtitles themselves, making them more active and responsive to the action in the film [snip]:

"...[the words] change color and position on the screen, simulate dripping blood, stutter in emulation of a fearful query, or dissolve into red vapor to emulate a character's gasping breaths."

Very cool. The idea of spicing up the traditional white text at the bottom of the screen is something that should have occurred to someone (me!) long before now.

Also, mainly bc I want to save it for future reference:

The problem with contemporary discussions about the future of the book is that they are mired -- for cultural and economic reasons -- in a highly inflexible conception of what a book can be. People who grew up with print tend to assume that going digital is simply a matter of switching containers (with a few enhancements thrown in the mix), failing to consider how the actual content of books might change, or how the act of reading -- which increasingly takes place in a dyanamic visual context -- may eventually demand a more dynamic kind of text.

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

April 18, 2006

Slow to reply? That's why.

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

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

The blog, it understands, if begrudgingly.

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

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

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

April 23, 2006

At a breakneck pace

It would be nice if I could honestly say that this is the speed at which my revisions are going. They're coming along pretty well, but I always want my writing to go faster.

No, the title is more a reference to the fact that, two days ago, I woke up unable to turn my head to the right. Turns out I sprained a something-or-other in the right side of my neck. And then, a day later, after holding my head stable to keep it from making me cry, I apparently overtaxed a muscle on the other side of my neck. Fortunately, the pain has softened a bit, even if it's spread out all over, and double fortunately, I've been slapping IcyHot patches back there every 8 or so hours, and that's helped.

It's made it a little tougher to sleep, which has correspondingly made it tougher for me to focus when awake, but oh well. What are you gonna do?

That's all.

April 27, 2006

Lunchtime wisdom

Over lunch today, Derek and I developed a new mantra. I have many of them, accumulated over the years, and each new one is like the click that I feel when I finish a crossword puzzle. It makes everything fit together just a little bit more. This may be an obvious one, but hey, we were pleased with it:

The opposite of good writing isn't bad writing; it's not writing.

That's all.

May 19, 2006

Kevin Kelly, "Scan This Book!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is all for now.

May 22, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 9, 2006

Party like it's 1996

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

Computer Literacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 31, 2006

Rhythm and Bass

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

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

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

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

That is all. Happy Monday.

my 2006 mix

August 1, 2006

Academies & Publics

One of the very best thing for me about reading blogs, particularly those from separate contexts, is what Frans Johansson calls the Medici Effect (Amazon), the sometimes productive insights that come when you bang together ideas from different domains. It's also what Greg Ulmer calls conduction. But anyways, I was tidying up Bloglines this morning, and each of the following entries struck me for longer than usual. They're speaking to different issues, but in obvious ways, they started speaking to each other in my head:

First, Ray Cha's discussion of "academics in the role of public intellectual" at if:book. Cha looks at the recent CHE collection of high-profile academic bloggers commenting on the Juan Cole situation, and among other things, writes

I do not mean to suggest that every professor needs to blog. However, on the whole, university presidents and department heads needs to acknowledge that they do have an obligation to make their scholarship accessible to the public. Scholarship for its own sake or its own isolated community has little or no social value.

And then, over at Easily Distracted, Timothy Burke picks up a thread from some discussion of the Ward Churchill controversy, in a post called "Core Truths":

I think it’s worth trying to figure out how intellectuals can operate in multiple arenas or discourses. [snip, with a big However in between these two excerpts]

Quite aside from the problem of assuming the political virtue of doing so, I think it’s anything but clear that legitimating a distinctly non-scholarly epistemology inside academic discourse empowers those that hold to that epistemology: more likely all it does is slightly change the configuration of turf wars for academic resources within universities.

Often, when my wires are crossed as they were by these two entries, I'll try and sort through my reactions to come up with something more univocal. No such luck today, I fear. There are points I agree with in each, but also, as I think these excerpts demonstrate, a fundamental disagreement when taken together. You might say that the two entries, as well as the conversations that they are responding to, are unified by a concern for epistemologial spaces that differ or depart from the space traditionally demarcated (and thus legitimated) by the institutions of discipline and university.

Now, if I haven't confused these posts enough, I can easily imagine careful arguments to be made in opposition to each as well. And rather than try and sort through them here, I'll leave you to assemble your own conversational knot. Neither represents a discussion that a single blog entry is likely to conclude to anyone's satisfaction.

That is all.

August 7, 2006

Behold: the mighty comma

(via MeFi) Next time you hear someone complain about the pointlessness of commas, drop this little piece of knowledge on them: because of a single misplaced comma, a Canadian company will end up paying $2.13 million. The sentence in question?

Page 7 of the contract states: The agreement “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.?

The second one is the million dollar comma, allowing that final clause to modify the original agreement when it was intended, by one of the parties, to modify only the "thereafter" portion of the contract. Not a bad little cautionary tale for those of who ignore and/or overuse the comma...

That's all.

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 13, 2006

Alfred Hitchcock, Fidel Castro, and Collin vs Blog

All 3 have a little something in common that I like to call August 13th. Well, me and the rest of those who adhere to the Gregorian calendar. Anyhow, I am pleased to note that the blog, it has a birthday today. Three long years since I began bee-loggin, and as I thought about this post yesterday, I decided that I didn't feel like trotting out the reflection so much. Not that I might not in the next week or so, but for the moment, I'm not really in the mood to craft a long introspective post.

So instead, what I did was to put together a tagcloud that does a pretty fair job, I think, of visually representing the true and aggregated character of this space as I've maintained it for three years:


Looks about right. That's all. Happy birthday, blog.

August 22, 2006

Coming soon, to a theater near you...!

My reaction has been mixed to the new suite of Geico commercials, although I am forced to admit that they are a serious improvement upon the "meta-gecko" crap they've been serving up. If you haven't seen them, "real Geico customers" are paired up with celebrities like Little Richard, Charo, and Burt Bachrach. Bachrach was just plain weird, but it's actually grown on me.

Anyways, one of the commercials features the guy (or one of them, anyway) who does the voiceovers for movie trailers. The commercial is utterly predictable, as you might imagine, a quasi-emergency headed off by Geico, blah blah blah, all done in the MovieGuy voice.

Which brings me. At the risk of appearing to be piling on when what I sort of hope to do is to pile up, I wanted to pick up a couple of the threads that appear in posts by Jeff and Alex, which themselves respond to an if:book post noting Kairos's 10YA. Are we all linked up? Good.

When I went over to Jim Kalmbach's retrospective in Kairos, my response was fairly similar to Jeff's. As I began to read the piece, though, as I read this:

Undaunted by this mystery, they set out to create an online journal that would explore the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy, or as Michael Salvo (Doherty & Salvo, 2002) put it:

With Kairos, a handful of graduate students in half a dozen states, with no budget and no sense of what was and was not possible (or acceptable), created something that caught (and continues to catch) peoples' attention.

Here's where it comes together. I couldn't read this passage without MovieGuy's voice intoning it: "In a field stagnant and dominated by print ideals....a band of plucky graduate students...with only the clothes on their backs...armed with an idea and the will to change a discipline...."

This may be snotty of me, I admit. I honestly have nothing against Jim, whom I don't know, nor Michael, whom I consider a friend. In a lot of ways, this folds into Jeff's ruminations about recognition, and the way that "epic tales of struggle and triumph" tend to obscure all of the other tales. And I react against it here, in this case, not because this is an especially egregious example, but rather because the overall pattern is one that I see repeated with some frequency. The "call" is one strategy that's part of it--it's a way of "being first" without actually "being first," and I say that as someone who's issued my fair share of calls.

Jeff's right, I think, to note that we could do a better job of understanding the way that we direct attention, and the thing that "hero narratives" like these do is to direct attention squarely and solely upon the hero. This is an attitude that's been critiqued heavily in terms of pedagogy, for the degree to which other factors, often beyond the pedagogue's control, play as great (if not greater) a role in the classroom as the teacher hirself.

Writ disciplinarily larger, and here it's important to note that this Kairos piece is far from singular in this regard, I see calls for the kind of work that is already going on, but perhaps unknown to the caller. I see histories of "the field" that only recognize certain people as belonging to the field. I see "critical overviews" heavily shot through with self-citation. None of these things I find particularly pleasing. Or particularly critical. Or especially productive.

Now, it's going to be easy to read this list and wonder who I'm talking about in "our field." But, and this is part of my point, it's not just "our field" that I'm talking about. Technology cuts across many fields, and in some places, I'm talking about people that aren't even recognized as part of "our field." I bet you think this rant is about you. Don't you?

Similarly easy to think that I'm just sour graping it. Will all my posts from here on out be bitter reflections on my lack of recognition in the field? Well, yes, but that misses the broader point that all of these things, which in an unkind turn of phrase I might call self-promotion as scholarship (rather than self-promotion of scholarship), function to reinforce some of the tendencies that Alex notes in his post. I may print out the following and tape it above my desk:

A new multimedia scholarship that essentially does what we've always done, only with video and links, isn't worth the trouble it takes to create. A new medium means a new epistemology and not a predefined one held out manifesto-style like an ideological holy grail (though those can be fun to write sometimes). At the same time, though experimentation for its own sake is a necessary part of this, ultimately a new multimedia scholarship must respond to some exigency.

Back in the halcyon days of hypertext, end of books and all that, the assumption was that, if we start replacing books with hypertexts, pretty soon the snowball rolls under its own momentum, and voila! cultural paradigm shift. If you think that this is too glib an account, just go back and read some of it. What some of us, I hope, learned was that the book, for its various faults, did certain things well. Also, it had a couple of hundred years to diffuse into the culture, through attitudes towards authorship, commoditization, education, and all of these different spheres of activity, none of which was especially ready to see books wither on the vine. Plug hypertexts into that culture, and nothing much happens. "Books suck" wasn't much of an exigency. Of course, now that we call hypertexts by the various names of blogs, wikis, SNSs, discussion fora, you could argue that they've had a much greater effect, but I can't help but think that would be cheating just a little.

The moral of this little tale is that a lot of that early scholarship believed, in an astoundingly self-assured way, that you could just pluck out one medium, sub in a newer one, and change would radiate outward. So when Alex implies that Kairos is to a degree constrained by its operation within a fairly traditional, academic attention economy, I think he's spot on. Cheryl asks:

Others are doing on the web what Kairos wants to do. We see that. I see that and totally acknowledge it’s happening. So is it wrong to “call? for some of that action within the server space of the journal itself?

Maybe so, even though that's not the answer the question wants. At the very least, it's no less wrong to call for an electronic journal to blur the focus on emulating print, such that that "action" might happen. Years ago, I tried to argue unsuccessfully to push Enculturation away from the "event model" of journal publication, which is grounded in an economy of clerical and print scarcity. Why would an electronic journal need to publish simultaneous issues? thought I. Years later, and my writing has moved well away from event model poetics, enough so that deadlines are mind killers for me these days. I will count my blogwork in my tenure file the way that other performance disciplines count their work--I don't need a journal to validate it. It's led to other things I can count, like interviews with media outlets, invited talks, etc., all (of course) outside "our field," but oh well.

I feel like I've swirled myself around a bit here. I guess I should close by noting that, despite a little pessimism and skepticism, I do believe that we're slowly inching our way outside of the constraints of the academic economy. Like Jeff, I may come off here as critical of particular efforts, but also like him, I think, I find it more a function of a system than any particular agent within the system (and I'm an agent within the system, too). If it sounds like I'm waffling between "breakin on through to the other side" and "working for change from within," that's because I am. More and more, I find myself unsatisfied with either option, mostly because each requires me to think of my work at a scale that I don't find particuarly productive. My attitude is still a work in progress, I fear.

Snip, snap, snout.
This rant's told out. (#)

August 26, 2006

We'll see how this flies

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

September 4, 2006

Collections vs Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

technorati tags:

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 13, 2006

Comic zen

There are days where I wish I could do more with Garr Reynolds's Presentation Zen than just send adulatory links his way. But oh well. He has a great piece on translating Scott McCloud's work on comics into presentations. Maybe it's more accurate to say that he's talking about learning from comics when it comes to presentations. Either way, as I gear up for what will be several talks this year, I'm going to keep going back to PZ over and over as I plan out this year's presentations. You should, too.

Update: It is a conspiracy. McCloud is giving a talk next Monday in Rochester, and where will I be? Yes, that's right. At a faculty meeting. AARGH.

December 27, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

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

That is all.

January 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 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.

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.