bluebookSo I’ve got a question, but it’ll take me a while to get to it.

A few years back, here at Syracuse, we overhauled our graduate curriculum, paying particular attention to the core curriculum and comprehensive examinations. When I arrived at Syracuse, our comps process was a fairly traditional major-minor-minor set up. The exams themselves were varied, in a well-intentioned attempt to account for a variety of writing processes, but the idea of generating 3 lists, writing, and being examined over the results is fairly standard practice. There are virtues to this model, not the least of which is that it gives students experience assembling bibliographies, time to read, and ideally, a more focused mastery over the field than perhaps can be achieved in coursework.

Nevertheless, there were problems. The written examination is a genre that only bears tangential resemblance to the writing that we do in our careers. If anything, it intensifies the event model of writing that seminar papers habituate in us (read, read, read, read, then write in a very short burst of eventfulness), rather than moving students towards a more integrated process of research/writing. We also found that, as an unfamiliar genre, the exams themselves produced no small amount of anxiety, and often took up more time than they perhaps deserved in a program where funding was limited. Finally, those kinds of exams are difficult to articulate with coursework–what exactly is being “tested” if the lists are student-generated and potentially have little to do with their prior 2 years of study?

We made some changes, and you can visit the CCR webpage on the topic if you’d like to see more detail than I’ll provide here. We shifted our comprehensives to more of a portfolio model, where the students complete a 2-part major exam on a shared list, produce an article that is publication-ready, and assemble a minor list’s worth of texts into an annotated bibliography that will ideally form the core of their dissertation’s bibliography. The faculty agreed that, when they are scheduled to teach core courses, they will include at least a few of the works from the shared list in their syllabi, so that the exams cover readings and ideas that students have been grappling with during their coursework. The exam questions are written and approved by the graduate faculty, students take the major exam just prior to the beginning of their third year, and their exams are read by a committee of those faculty from whom they’ve taken their core courses.

Speaking solely for myself, and as someone who played a role in this revision, I’m pretty happy with our new model, for a number of reasons. My question isn’t about the model itself, however, just one piece of it. You see, the first iteration of the shared “major” list was assembled pretty hastily. Students receive the list when they start the program, so that they know ahead of time what will be covered when they take their exams. Our overhaul took place in the early summer, and so we needed a list quickly, in time for that year’s cohort of incoming students. Since portions of the list would partially dictate the content of our six core courses, we simply asked the six faculty who had most recently taught those courses to suggest 7-8 works each (3-4 articles/chapters = 1 book = 1 work). It was not an ideal approach, but necessity was in this case invention’s parent. A few years later, having seen first-hand some of the weaknesses with this approach, we’re going to be revising our list (a link to which is available at the page linked above). But it’s really a tricky proposition. To wit:

Hypothesis 1: The shared, “major” list should provide graduate students with a representation of the discipline.

Hypothesis 1a: The major list should reflect the field, but especially the varied expertises of the faculty who will be rotating through the core courses, and evaluating the examinations themselves.

Hypothesis 2: The major list should reflect the work students undertake in their courses, and needs to do so insofar as faculty draw from the list for those course readings (Our current core: Composition, Ancient Rhetoric, Contemporary Rhetoric, Methods, Technology, Pedagogy).

Hypothesis 3: Works on the major list should lend themselves to intertextual conversations, insofar as most exam questions ask students to discuss multiple texts in their answers.

Hypothesis 4: Even as we acknowledge that the “categories” represented in the core are neither permanent nor stable, works on the list should help students draw connections among those categories and to areas of inquiry that aren’t explicitly covered in the core.

Hypothesis 5: The list should strive towards a balance of the canonical and the contemporary, and undergo regular revision as those categories shift. It should be responsive to the discipline.

Taken individually, each of these hypotheses seems eminently reasonable to me. Each operates under certain constraints, but I don’t look at any of these and say to myself that they don’t make sense in the context of our current model. We tried quite hard to reflect program standards as well as the immediate and long-term needs of our students, and to work towards an exam process that carefully managed the transition from coursework to dissertation.

Taken as a group, though, these hypotheses are making my brain hurt.

Intellectually, I know that the multiple functions of our exam process operate according to different sets of criteria, and that those criteria are not consistent among each other. The list is necessarily a reduction of a reduction (the core courses), but it’s not simply a question of representation because the list is also a tool for thinking that we ask our students to do. And more abstractly, it’s a site for shaping (and for revisiting) the values of our program in the form of debates over its contents. So it shouldn’t be easy.

My question isn’t really about what belongs on this list. Instead, I’m perplexed about how we can even begin. Seriously. When we designed the original list, it was divided into a set of much more constrained questions. My own task at the time was to provide a short list of works that would be appropriate for our course in contemporary rhetoric, texts from which I could teach that course. I didn’t think about anything other than the specific task. Easy, breezy. Approaching it as a global question, though, is a real conundrum to me.

What the heck should we do?

I’ll tell you what my semi-serious suggestion was: I suggested a variation on the desert island question, a variation that I used to use with my FYC courses. I would have them list what they thought were the five most important events to happen in their lifetimes, and then I would ask them to make a second list of the five most important events in their lives. It’s kind of a fun exercise that raises questions of personal vs public significance. So I said that we should ask all the faculty and graduate students to make 2 lists: first, list five texts that you assume just about everyone in the field has read; second, list five works that have been absolutely crucial for your own thinking. Then, aggregate those lists, and see where you’re at. I have no earthly idea what the next step would be, but we’d have something to work with and perhaps build on.

There’s something that feels a little wonky to me about proceeding this way, but at the same time, I’m struggling to come up with a better strategy.


Dossiers (sigh)

FilesWinter is coming, and around the country, a host of applicants are diligently applying their talents to the assembly of materials that they hope will demonstrate their suitability for what few tenure-track positions are available. That means that anxiety is on the rise, as are the blog posts that castigate the academy for its inconsistencies, its capriciousness, and above all, its indifference.

The problem: partly because of their relative rarity, partly because of the varied institutional expectations, and partly because they are conducted by volunteers who themselves have other full-time positions, academic job searches are often more complicated than they need to be. To be honest, I think the single most relevant reason for this, however, is not cruelty but inexperience. Every year, I’d guess that there are a lot of programs (and search committee chairs) who basically find themselves reinventing the wheel. They rely upon their own (often limited) experience, local history, and whatever advice they’re able to track down. And the result is that it can seem like every single job ad comes with slightly different expectations, particularly at the dossier stage, from every other one.

Each of us doubtless has a story about that weird 1-2 page document that we had to write for one school, answering a question that no one else in the country was asking. And because the other applications we have to assemble all blur together, we remember the outliers, and tend to think of them as representative of a broken system. And that’s true to a degree, I suppose, especially if the others each have their one weird document. But really, search committees are just doing what they think they need to in order to find the best person. It’s not a massive plot to make our holiday conversations more awkward.

Rather than waiting for every department in the country to become, spontaneously and simultaneously, just like every other one in its expectations, it seems to me that we ought to be moving up in scale to our professional organizations. Said organizations could easily put together a committee composed of experienced faculty from a range of institutions, whose job it would be to survey the field, then develop and publish a guide for job searches. That guide could be a valuable resource for inexperienced search committees in a couple of ways.

First, it might establish a consensus, baseline expectation for things like dossiers, and what it’s appropriate to ask for at the different stages of a search. Second, it would provide documentation that could be deployed if and when outside forces (from well-meaning colleagues to HR departments) think to insist on non-standard expectations. It wouldn’t have binding force, certainly, but sometimes all that’s needed is documentation of “field standards” to place the burden of proof on those who would complicate the process unnecessarily. Third, it would provide some needed structure/guidance for applicants, those people for whom the process both has the highest stakes and is least familiar.

The two recommendations that I’d make are fairly simple ones. First, the whole idea of the dossier as a stage in the application process developed at a time when our most efficient communications network was the US Postal Service. It made a great deal of sense to ask for everything at once, rather than having candidate submit material piecemeal. Hell, my first search, I had no access to a central service–I had to send stacks of stamped envelopes to my recommenders along with a sheet of pre-populated mailing labels. Ugh. But my point here is that a great deal of what goes into the dossier (writing samples, sample syllabi, research and teaching statments, e.g.) can be stored online, and downloaded directly by those institutions interested in additional materials. If a candidate is set up on WordPress, she might easily create Pages for each institution that links specifically and solely to those materials they request. Nothing could be easier (nor less expensive). While the confidentiality of recommendation letters would still require a service like Interfolio, adding that service as an additional layer (of potential mishap) for something that candidates could attach to an email or for which they could just as easily provide a simple URL makes little sense to me.

The ease with which most of these documents can be submitted is connected to my second suggestion, and that’s that we take a close look at the dossier and restrict its domain to those items that are necessary for us to do our work. For every tenure-track search I’ve ever been a part of, the dossier is a tool with which the committee moves from its initial shortlist to the shorterlist of candidates whom they will interview. That’s it. Rather than imagining the dossier as “everything you could possibly ask for,” we should be asking, “what information do we need to decide whom to interview?” For me, that list is actually pretty short: I feel like I can get a pretty good sense of most candidates from a writing sample, 1-2 sample syllabi (perhaps one writing course, one graduate-level content course), a research statement, a teaching philosophy statement, and their recommendation letters. (I already have their letters and vitae.) I would want to know more before I hired somebody, but that’s what interviews, additional potential materials, followup contacts with references, and campus visits are for. And that’s a lot of additional contact, interaction, and information. I’ve never heard of someone being hired directly from a dossier, so I’m not sure why it’s gotten to the point where it’s this sprawling, no-two-the-same mountain of make-work. The searches I’ve been a part of have all had 4 stages (application, additional materials, interview, campus visits), and three of those stages are pretty standardized. I think it’s well past time the 2nd one was as well. It just needs a little leadership.

One final note: I can only speak to my own experience here, and I work in a field that’s not been hit as hard by the decline in tenure-track positions. When I was prioritizing my applications, though, I was much less likely to apply to jobs whose requirements involved uniquely specific documents; when I had to choose between working on a research statement that was going to be a part of 20 applications and crafting a 2-3 page snowflake that was only required by one application, I chose to optimize what time I had. Not everyone has that luxury, I understand that. But those kinds of requirements are just as likely to chase off qualified applicants as they are going to unearth some deeply hidden jewel of insight that couldn’t have been gleaned otherwise.

Image Credit: “Rusty’s Files” by Flickr user Kate Haskell (CC)

The Job Talk (draft)

On FB a couple of weeks ago, I posted a link to a fabulous blog post from Aimée Morrison, which looked at the differences between the standard conference presentation and the “keynote;” I noted that in many cases, what passes for the “job talk” is effectively a keynote presentation. Given how many people shared and liked the post, I thought I’d take it a step further here. We’re currently revising our materials for people on the job market, and so I thought I’d try my hand at providing a more comprehensive account of just what the job talk entails. While some of this advice may be specific to my own field (particularly with respect to job market timing, e.g.), most of it is probably general enough to apply more widely. But of course, ymmv.

Please feel free to add, question, complicate in the comments, and I’ll credit as I edit.


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Relearning to Write

my new writing set-upI would describe myself as a deep writer, not in the sense that what I have to say is any more profound than anyone else’s thoughts, but in the “deep sleeper” sense. That is, when I write and it’s going well, I’m pretty able to shut the rest of the world out and focus on little else. For most of my life, this has included my body itself. I haven’t had to think about posture, arm angle, or things like that, unless they happen to impinge upon my ability to focus.

That changed with my back surgery last fall. I’ve discovered, to my dismay, that there are certain seats in my house that are worse for my back than others, and chief among the offenders is my desk chair, or maybe my desk more broadly, since I’ve tried multiple arrangements and chairs there. Among other things, I’ve learned that when I focus to write, I have the bad habit of wrapping my ankle around a table leg, or wedging my left arm a certain way, and when I do that for more than about 15 minutes, I pay the price in the form of hours, if not days, of subsequent pain. And woe betide me if I find myself in a position where I have no choice but to push through and do desk work despite that pain. I spent most of RSA using a cane to recover from the time I had to spend putting the online program together.

I’m perfectly able to read normally now; my habits include shifting from one area of the house to another (or to a coffeeshop) on a fairly regular schedule, and that seems to do the trick. But writing has still been a challenge. After yet another summer where I didn’t feel like I got the writing done that I wanted to, I decided that I was going to try something a little more radical. The picture above is the result: I ordered myself a GelPro standing mat, and a couple of 2×1 cube shelving units.

I don’t know if it’ll work. I already have a bad habit of wandering off and doing a lap of my office in between sentences, and I don’t feel especially comfortable yet, but this is my first blog post written entirely from a standing position. And I hope that, this semester, I can learn to write again in a way that doesn’t make my back or my knees feel like someone has been smacking tennis balls at them. We’ll see how it goes.

RhetBit: a summer mecology project

It’s always a challenge for me to shift gears once the summer starts. After a full year of just-in-time work meeting others’ deadlines (and a few of my own, to be fair), the summer often happens upon me like an infinite horizon of possible projects, the opportunity to put a dent in the “to read” shelves of my bookcases, to write intransitively, and so on. It is the worst thing to hit August 1st only to realize that none of those wonderful plans have been realized.

For years, I’ve used the metaphor of exercise to communicate to my students the importance of steady, regular writing as a key to successful dissertating. The fact of the matter is that no one can just sit down and write a book, any more than one can lose a substantial amount of weight in a single burst of physical activity. It’s a long process that involves much more localized motivation and a certain amount of faith that daily activity will ultimately allow a body to reach its goals. And it’s something that improves with practice and investment.

However, when it comes to my own work during the summer months, too often I’ve been prone to waiting “until the mood hits.” So this year, I’m going to try something a little different. I toyed with Tumblr in my grad class last semester, and while my activity there had faded by mid-semester, I liked the interface well enough to think about adding it to my toolbox. So this summer, I’m setting up a commonplace book on Tumblr as a means of keeping myself to a daily regimen of a certain amount of reading and writing. I’ll be posting quotes there daily, and as I do some writing, perhaps some excerpts from that, or at least links to blog posts.

I’m calling it RhetBit, both for the pun on FitBit (as a means of quantifying and keeping track of my intellectual activity) and because its purpose is really just to aggregate bits of what I’m reading and thinking about each day this summer. I don’t expect that it will add up to some coherent map of my brain, but who knows? At the least, it’ll give me a place to store quotes and bibliography entries for later use.

The Strength of Weak Media

There are a couple of different conversations that serve as context for this post, but rather than hail people directly, I’ll just note that it’s that time of the year (for us at Syracuse, anyway) when we encourage our dissertators to start thinking about the job market. Part of what we do in our graduate program is to set up gradual deadlines over the summer for them to share their dossier materials with each other and with faculty, so that when the deadlines start rolling in, they’re ready to go.

I’ve noticed in recent years, off and on, what has been kind of a surprising decline in the number of folks who maintain some sort of professional home page, whether a set of static pages or embedded within WordPress (or some other CMS). This isn’t to say that they’re not active online; for rhetoric and composition, at least, activity on social media has been steadily growing, I think. But as more and more of us embrace Facebook, Twitter, and the like, one of the casualties has been the individually-maintained homepage, and that’s to say nothing of blogging, which has been supplanted by its various micro- cousins. I want to make the case, though, both for my own students here and for others across the discipline, that this is a mistake. You might not necessarily know it to look at my own page (which has been in-process for an embarrassingly long time), but I think that a periodically maintained homepage may be the best piece of social media that you can invest your screen time in.

The title of this post alludes to Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties,” of course, and I want to summon one of that essay’s insights here. Granovetter’s point is that for certain social tasks, like finding jobs, a person’s weak ties are more valuable than their strong ones, because we tend to share a social horizon with those to whom we’re strongly tied. Those weak connections are more likely to yield new information to me, because if my close friends have heard of something, I’ve probably already heard of it as well. Graduate programs, whatever else they do, are a site of strong ties: as graduate students, we take lots of classes with the others in our cohort, see the same set of professors on a regular basis, and are generally surrounded by people who are invested in our success. For better or worse, it’s hard not to know what the other people in a program are doing. When students apply for jobs, they are faced with a much different audience, committees of people whose knowledge of them is minimal and mediated through the genres of the application process. To call such ties weak probably overstates them.

And yet, those are the interactions according to which these decisions are frequently made. They’re not the only ones, though. I am probably asked a dozen or so times a year if we have any students who’ll be on the market during the next cycle, for instance. And I google people in the field all the time, because I hear their name in another context, or hear them cited in a conference presentation, or I see a retweet, or whatever. In all of these cases, I’m looking to find (or to give out) some kind of professional profile. I don’t know that my own experience is representative, but it feels like, increasingly, all I’m able to locate are out-of-date department sites and/or various rate-my-professor pages. If you think the job letter and the cv are limited in their ability to provide a full picture of a person, you should see some of the search results I get. Even when they’re accurate, they often subdivide a person into a range of social media platforms (FB, Twitter,, LinkedIn, Pinterest, et al.), none of which quite gives me what I’m looking for.

Here’s what I’m looking for: I’ve heard your name in some context. Maybe I’ve seen it in a conference program, or I’ve heard someone mention you in a conversation. I want to know what you’ve been doing, what you’re working on, what kind of things you do. Sometimes this is in the context of a job search, but not always. I might be helping someone brainstorm possible panelists for a conference proposal, or contributors for a collection, or readers on particular topics for a journal. I’ve done each of those things in the past six months. Inevitably, I do a certain amount of searching and exploring, but my results are limited, of course, by what’s out there. What’s interesting to me is that it feels like there’s less out there than there used to be.

A certain amount of this takes care of itself in the form of reputation and professional activity. Publish a few essays, present at conferences, and eventually people will know something about you. And the opportunities to do more of those things will begin to trickle in. But getting to that point, where your name occurs to people when thinking about topics X, Y, or Z, takes a while. Maybe the single easiest step that you yourself can take is to be findable, and findable by people who don’t already know you or your work. We write our application materials for that audience already (explain your dissertation to your family members!), but I wonder if social media hasn’t reinforced our strong-tie bubbles when it comes to online presence.

And that’s the other piece of it. While it may sound like I’m imploring you to make my own life easier, the fact is that we are neither the sum total of our academic products nor our social media platforms. I blog here, infrequently as I do, because there are some things that I can’t reduce to either of those categories. I like to think that, insofar as there’s a place where I’m most fully represented, it’s here. And if I’m doing it right, this site should be appearing close to the top of folks’ search results when they look for me. (It’s #1 when I egosurf.) And I should be asking myself, more often than I actually do, what someone who doesn’t know me will see when they click that link. But I’m curious lately about the number of people I’ve seen who haven’t even provided a link, much less a glimpse of the person behind it.

Despite my title, I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that a homepage is a “weak” medium, but it can sometimes feel that way, contrasted with the potentially dynamic nature of more contemporary social media. It’s probably better to think of it in terms of stock and flow rather than strength and weakness. Strong and weak ties do have something to do with stock and flow, though: flow is engaging, vivid, immediate, and it demands our attention; in this sense, it reinforces and perhaps helps to create strong ties. But stock is where we connect with people over the long haul, sometimes without our knowledge. As Robin Sloan puts it in his original post on the subject, “It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.” It used to be that skeptics would say that you didn’t need a homepage because no one (“important”) uses the internet, so it’s odd to me to think that the reason you don’t need one now is because everyone does. Needless to say, I don’t find either argument especially convincing.

A Book of Stars #tbt

It’s been a while. My spare time has been consumed with preparing for the 2014 Rhetoric Society of America Conference (that link will take you to the online program for the conference, which did no small amount of the consuming), which happened last week. As a consequence, I haven’t had a great deal of time to spend here.

Anyhow, one of the things that I talked about with friends at the conference was the idea of recovering orphan works–unpublished essays and/or conference papers that never saw the light of publication for one reason or another. One of my own orphan works is an essay called “A Book of Stars: Slicing, Scaling, and Data Mining Our Discipline,” which I wrote (as far as I can recall) sometime not long after I taught my first course in Network Rhetorics in 2005. Interestingly enough, you can see some of the same concerns (meta/data, scale, synecdoche) that are currently swirling in my brain as I work on my second book.

I submitted the essay originally to College Composition and Communication, where it received a “revise and resubmit,” which I declined to follow up on. In part, this was because the suggestions took the essay to a place that I was ambivalent about. Part of it too, I think, was that I was experimenting with what I think of Malcolm Gladwell’s style–the progressive layering in of sources over the course of a chapter/book–an approach that I would have had to rethink quite a bit in order to publish the piece.

So in honor of our discussion at RSA, and as a variation on Throwback Thursday, I thought I’d post it to Scribd and share it here. It’s kind of fun to go back and read something that I wrote several years ago–there were some surprising resonances.

[I should also note that with this year's proposals, CCCC is finally doing something like what I suggest on pages 9-10, focusing on keywords/tags rather than categories, and good on them for that.]

A Book of Stars: Slicing, Scaling, and Data Mining Our Discipline by Collin Brooke

Textexture (#THATCampCNY)

I suppose that it might surprise a few people to learn that, before this weekend, I’d never attended a THATCamp. Surprise! It’s true. I blame this strange omission on several factors, including but not limited to proximity, awareness, and that special brand of conferential social anxiety that I bring to the table. Unconferences always sound great to me in theory, but then I realize that they’re basically designed to put participants in social situations that are my least comfortable. Ah well. I like to think I did okay this time around.

Anyhow, one of the things that these sorts of gatherings inevitably accomplish for me is to tip me onto tools that I hadn’t been aware of before. I left our Camp dead set on trying to incorporate Zotero more mindfully into my workflow this summer, and I saw a couple of other interesting tools that I may try in upcoming weeks. Chief among these is Textexture, which allows you to paste in a text to be visualized as a network (and exported as a GEXF file.

It’s pretty cool. Here’s my chapter from Dobrin’s collection on Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media:

Network Visualization of "Discipline and Publish"


As you can see, the site also gives you a couple of topic clusters, which accounts for the different colors (toggling the filters restricts the diagram to that/those cluster(s)) Each of the nodes in the network can be rolled over to reveal the term and its closest friends in the text. It’s not a substitute for more robust graphing tools, but it’s a pretty nice for a web app. Here’s the full screen version of that network–more words appear as you have the room for them (you can also zoom in to portions of the graph–not here, but in Textexture itself).

Fullscreen network visualization of "Discipline and Publish"

So now you know how I’ll be spending the rest of the weekend.


The Work of Conferences in an Age of Social Media #4c14

This week is our flagship national convention, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). After having attended CCCC for many, many years in a row, I find myself once more forgoing the experience. This year, I’m spending my travel money on a couple of summer conferences (RSA and KBS), and between those and my upcoming talks at LSU and Wisconsin, that’s more than enough public speaking for me for the year.

But as rhetopians and complandians across the nation converge on Indianapolis this week, one of the things that I chatted a bit about in class last night was the role that the flagship conference plays in our field these days. I’ve thought a little about this in various places, but as the field of Rhetoric and Composition has grown (and shifted towards what I think of now as Writing Studies), one thing that hasn’t changed a whole lot is CCCC. I might even project that comment beyond the discipline to suggest that the idea of the flagship conference hasn’t changed a whole lot, but I can’t really say whether that’s correct. For the moment, I thought I’d explain a little of what I mean by this.

I’m sure that, with a little extra nuance, we could subdivide these further, but in my mind, there are at least three network models that correspond to changes in the field, with implications for how we think of the flagship conference:

centralized, decentralized, distributed

3 network models of disciplinarity

Wave 1: In the early days of the field, before there was much in terms either of graduate programs or even publication venues, I think a conference like CCCC served the very obvious function of centralization or aggregation. Folks with an interest in the teaching of writing were few and far between in most English departments. Not that there wasn’t plenty of writing instruction happening, but there weren’t nearly as many people taking rhetoric, writing, and teaching as research topics, nor were there likely large numbers of conversations about these happening. This is a very sketchy (and evidence-free!) history I’m offering here, but I think it fairly safe to say that most academic disciplines emerge this way, and flagship conferences, organizations, and journals play an important role in establishing them as discrete areas of inquiry. The conference plays an important role in establishing continuity and community, a social core of practitioners around which the discipline eventually forms.

Wave 2: As a discipline matures, that aggregative function of the conference remains, but it shifts somewhat. Graduate programs are only a portion of the story, but the “center” of the discipline begins to distribute among them. If I wanted to study this, I might look at the archive of conference programs, and look at the number of panels that consisted entirely of presenters from the same institution. I’d argue that, during the first wave, that number would be close to zero, because most places wouldn’t have “clusters” of people in the discipline yet. At a certain point, though, as RhetComp becomes a viable area of study, degree concentration, and eventually its own degree, the number of panels composed of folks from a single institution would rise. The conference, rather than aggregating geographically-dispersed individuals, brings “programs” together. When I first started attending CCCC, this was very much the case. My tongue-in-cheek way of characterizing it is that we hunted in packs. You could walk into the hotel bar, and see a social map that looked a lot like the second network above: clusters of people all from the same program gathered around their respective table or two.

CCCC was not the only site for disciplinary conversation during this wave. There were more journals, and the steep climb in masters and doctoral programs meant that conversations were happening across the country. Those conversations were not “evenly” distributed, though, and like I said, graduate programs only represent a certain portion of the organization. There were (and are) still plenty of people being hired as “the one RhetComp person” in an English department, and for someone in that position, a flagship conference still serves that centralizing function.

For those who are part of the clusters represented by graduate programs, a flagship conference helps to combat the insularity that can sometimes happen as a result. Members of the same program may develop strong ties amongst themselves—spending several years with the same, small group of people will have that effect—but the conference provides an important opportunity to venture outside of that small group, to see what conversations are happening elsewhere, to learn that yours are not the only ways of doing things. This is much of what’s meant by networking. A conference is an opportunity to see the field as broader than one’s own immediate horizon. I think of this as the development of weak ties as a complement to the strong ties (of mentorship, colleagues, etc.) that one develops as part of a graduate program.

Wave 3, then, for me begins with discussion forums and email distribution lists, but it becomes much more active and intense with the current wave of social media. I think we’re already seeing this at conferences like CCCC, where individual programs are much less centers of social gravity than they used to be. When we can have conversations with and get to know our far-flung colleagues over Facebook and Twitter, a flagship conference no longer plays that primary social role. There are lots of opportunities now for even the most isolated members of our field to interact with others who share their interests on a daily basis, via listservs, blogs, social media, etc.

(My guess, btw, is that the number of panels composed entirely of presenters from a single institution would drop a bit, although not quite disappear. Social media makes (or will make) it easier to find a 3rd person to fill out a panel topically.)

The question that comes up for me, time and again, is what role does or should a flagship conference play when the intellectual life of a discipline is as distributed as ours now is (and I can only assume that parallel developments are playing out across the academy). The pace of the conference process (requiring submissions almost a year prior to the conference itself) feels positively glacial, and conferences are no longer the privileged point of access to one’s disciplinary audience that they used to be. For me, this raises questions that I can’t really answer yet. I think it’s generational to a degree—we could legitimately argue that CCCC at least is more of a Wave 2.5 conference right now. There are plenty of people in the discipline who don’t avail themselves of social media much, and the conference itself is still working from that older model where workshops, special interest groups, and the like happen at the margins. The “typical” CCCC encounter remains the 3-4 person panel of presentations delivered to an audience.

I do believe that this is slowly changing, with genres like poster sessions, subconferences (like ATTW), and even roundtables grounded in edited collections and online projects. But as current generations of scholars mature into the field, my guess is that the conference will need to change faster. The traditional rationale for what the flagship conference does for a discipline (and its implicit justifications for institutional travel budgets) is becoming, if not obsolete, at least a little more debatable. I don’t think that social media can substitute for all of the things that a conference can do, but I do think that conferences will have to account more explicitly for social media, sooner rather than later.

Close vs Distant Readings #rcdh14


Photo by cinz, CC-licensed, CGB-modified

In RCDH this week, we began the turn to a series of weeks where we look at some specific methods associated with digital humanities, and I began our conversation by explaining why I’d avoided (mostly) the idea of “distant reading” as a way to organize the syllabus. I think my explanation worked out okay, but I thought I might write through it here.

None of this is to say that I don’t use the phrase “distant reading.” I like to think that I don’t spend too much time or energy trying to close barn doors after the animals have escaped. But I also believe that the phrase itself was initially meant to be suggestive rather than particularly denotative; it’s grown heavier as it’s gotten more popular, though, and there’s a tension at its core that I don’t find especially helpful.

I’m no expert when it comes to New Criticism, which is where the idea of close reading emerges (in the US, at least), from folks like I.A. Richards, Ransom, Empson, Brooks, et al. I did a little bit of research on this (it shows up in my discussion of interfaces vs objects in Lingua Fracta), but it’s never been a real focus of mine. And I don’t know that it’s exactly something that requires that focus. “Close reading” is not a method per se. Rather, it’s an attitude, I think, where “close” actually means “closely,” implying an extra degree of care, attention to detail, expertise, etc. When we ask someone “to pay close attention” to something, we’re not asking them to invade our personal space; we use it as an intensifier, like the word “critical” in the phrase critical thinking. There’s a metaphorical sense where we might imagine scholars moving their faces/eyes very close to the text, but that physical proximity is more metaphor than necessity.

The problem, then, comes from the fact that “closeness” can mean both physically near and carefully attentive. When we speak of distant reading, even though there’s a similar connotation in terms of attention (“You seem really distant tonight…”), that is not really what Moretti and others have in mind. Distant reading is not sloppy or inattentive so much as it is an inversion or distribution of attention—instead of focusing attention on a single passage or text or author, the distant reader looks for specific features or patterns across a broad range of texts. The connotation of distance makes sense to us in terms of zooming in and out with a camera lens, taking a metaphorical step back from the individual text(s), etc., but I think this misleads us (a bit) to think that distant reading is just a matter of tuning the “proximity dial” on our reading processes. Here’s Moretti, recently,

The “lived experience” of literature no longer morphs into knowledge, as in Ricoeur’s great formula of the “hermeneutic of listening,” where understanding consists in hearing what the text has to say. In our work we don’t listen, we ask questions; and we ask them of large corpora, not of individual texts. It’s a completely different epistemology.

Now, I do believe that this epistemology can be brought to bear upon targets that are smaller than the ones that Moretti works with, even to the point of a single text. The way that I ended up organizing the course was by focusing our attention at different scales or scopes, from single texts (microscopy) to small-ish sets (mesoscopy) to larger ones or corpora (macroscopy). While I think I’d argue that the kinds of macroscopic studies that Moretti suggests aren’t really possible through close reading, I do think that the techniques associated with both close and distant reading are applicable up and down the scale, even if (in the case of large-scale corpora, e.g.) certain of them become prohibitive in terms of labor.

So this week, we looked at a few different instances of “distant” techniques applied to individual texts, from Greg Urban‘s exploration of the politics of first-person pronouns in his own writing, to Don Foster‘s rhetorico-linguistic attribution work, to Seth Long‘s application of centrality and distribution maps to the Unabomber Manifesto. Each of these projects offers a take on an individual text that isn’t necessarily accessible to the (close) reader, but at the same time, these “distant” strategies provide a reading that is somehow “closer” than close. It reminds me of the way that we require specialized techniques to capture a fingerprint, as well as a large-as-possible database for comparison. Neither operation is especially feasible at the scale of human vision, but there’s a distinction there that doesn’t really exist for reading as we think of it.

The value of a term like “distant reading” for me, then, isn’t so much that it names a specific method or technique. Rather, it’s that it introduces the “proximity dial” at the same time that it expands the possibilities available to us on the “scope dial.” (allowing it to be turned up to 11?) Certain combinations are inevitably going to be more fruitful than others—I don’t spend a lot of time with the bass and volume both maxed out when I listen to music, for example, but it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t, or that such a combo wouldn’t tell me certain things about a song.

There’s an interesting passage in the Moretti piece I quoted above, that I’ll close with, because it’s going to make some folks uncomfortable, I think:

I don’t want to answer for the humanities in general, but for those of us in digital literary studies the answer has to be, Yes: reading a book from beginning to end loses its centrality, because it no longer constitutes the foundation of knowledge. Our objects are much bigger than a book, or much smaller than a book, and in fact usually both things at once; but they’re almost never a book. The pact with the digital has a price, which is this drastic loss of “measure.” Books are so human-sized; now that right size is gone. We’re not happy about the loss; but it seems to be a necessary consequence of the new approach.

I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, I think he’s right to call attention to the notion that the book is not a natural form. The more we know about our neurological capacities for attention, the more I suspect we will find that what feels like “normal” or “natural” when it comes to the scope of our interfaces (like books) is in fact the product or consequence of enculturation. On the other hand, though, whether or not books are the only scale, Moretti’s comments feel strangely resonant with the “death of the book” nonsense from the 1990s. I don’t want to ignore the qualification he offers (“for those of us in digital literary studies”), but at the same time, a statement like this consigns this brand of study to a reactive pose. We neither write textual features nor corpora—we produce language at the scale of the human, however much we might push at the boundaries of what that means (and I do think there are some really intriguing examples of those boundaries being pushed). Perhaps, I’m being oversensitive to the difference here between literary studies and rhetoric, at least as it exists for me. But one of the questions we raised this week, after looking at several examples of rhetorical “fingerprinting,” was to ask whether those patterns are really (a) unique and (b) irrevocable. In other words, we weren’t just focused on what these techniques can help us to find (or even understand), but also what they can help us to do, as writers. If there’s an awkwardness for me here, it’s with the idea of thinking that opening up one dial necessarily means abandoning (or strictly limiting) another. I don’t want to read too much into a single passage, but at the same time, something feels a little off to me about it.


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