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Five by Five for Rhetsy

The August 31st issue of Rhetsy marks the beginning of a new school year for me, and in recognition of that fact, I sent out a call for lists of 5 a couple of weeks ago, inviting subscribers to submit lists of 5. If you’re not subscribed, you can find it in the Issue Archive available to anybody who clicks on the Rhetsy link above.

I thought I’d add a few lists here, lest I be accused of completely taking the easy way out on this week’s issue:

5 Most recent Amazon purchases (academic):

  1. Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
  2. Laurent Pernot, Epideictic Rhetoric
  3. Richard Nisbett, Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking
  4. Alex Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital
  5. Cesar Hidalgo, Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies

5 Farewells:

  1. Jon Stewart
  2. The Fraction/Aja run on Hawkeye
  3. Hannibal
  4. Leonard Nimoy
  5. Summer

5 Terms increasingly likely to find their way into my writing this year:

  1. Emblem
  2. Ecology of Attention
  3. Friction
  4. Amplification
  5. Epidemocracy

5 Smells that remind me of fall

  1. Dry-Erase markers
  2. Burning leaves
  3. Spice Cake candles from Pier 1
  4. Chai lattes
  5. Nutmeg

5 Trips to the well taken too often

  1. Star-making reality programming
  2. “austerity” measures
  3. 1970s/80s Saturday morning television
  4. Marvel comics
  5. listicles

 

 

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5 Tools (& Habits) to Start the Year in Graduate School #rhetsy

The orientation day for our graduate program is Monday, and I’ve been tapped to speak briefly about a topic related to the overall theme of navigating the currents of the program and the discipline. So this post is the handout that I’ll be distributing, and it’s also the first of what will probably end up being five lists of five for the August 31st issue of Rhetsy. So I thought I’d also share it here, since it may be of interest to others. Strictly speaking, this isn’t advice that applies solely to graduate students; these are things that I use myself.

Five Habits/Tools for the New School Year

Over the summer, I got around to reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Amazon), less from an interest in individuality than his focus on attention and design. While the book is not without its flaws, much of what Crawford has to say about attention fits with other work that I’m doing. In his introduction he identifies one of the persistent themes of his book:

The paradox is that the ideal of autonomy seems to work against the development and flourishing of any rich ecology of attention–the sort in which minds may become powerful and achieve genuine independence….our environment constitutes the self, rather than compromises it (25).

When I reflect back on the ecology of attention that I cultivated in graduate school, I’m actually pretty pleased with how the social and interpersonal part of that ecology turned out. However, if there’s one thing I would change, it would be my approach to managing knowledge. I’ve always been a fast reader, and I’m pretty adept at understanding what parts of texts are worth underlining or highlighting. My memory for scholarship may even have been better than average. But I assumed that my brain could absorb and retain anything (and everything) that I needed to know. Now, almost twenty years out from graduate school, I’ve finally realized that neither of those functions (absorption or retention) last forever. That may seem obvious, but it can be awfully easy to ignore when you’re younger.

My point is that it is never too soon to begin developing and honing an ecology of attention. I’m constantly revising my own, but there are several specific things that are now a part of it, which I recommend that you seriously consider adopting (and adapting) to your own work.

1. Bookmarking (Instapaper/Pinboard)

As more and more of our world takes place online, some type of (browser-independent) bookmarking tool is crucial. I use two (three if I count my use of favorites in Twitter): Pinboard and Instapaper. Pinboard requires a nominal fee to sign up, but it is a very stable, no-frills bookmarking service with strong cross-application and cross-device compatibility, privacy settings, and an archiving service. I also use Instapaper, although anything I save there is also saved in Pinboard. I use Instapaper more as a reading tool for archiving things that I want to read later–it saves the link, full-text, and strips out advertising.

2. Reference Management (Zotero)

My single biggest professional regret is that I didn’t get into the habit of maintaining a tool to manage bibliographies. I hate doing them, and reference tools are precisely designed to minimize the worst parts of that activity. My recommendation here is Zotero, which is an open-source tool developed by academics for academics. It’s free, although I’ve donated money to it in appreciation. There is nothing quite so lovely as visiting a journal website, hitting a browser button, and having a full set of bibliographic data downloaded into an app which will then export it into a bibliography for you. Seriously. For someone who hates biblographies, it is the best.

3. (Reading) Notes (Evernote/Wordpress)

I’ve written on my blog a few different times about the importance of reading notes, and the virtue of aggregating them, so you end up with a database that is more than the sum of its parts. There are lots of tools that might serve for this, and I’m only mentioning 2 here: I pay for the premium version of Evernote, so that I always have my notes available to me as long as I’m near a screen. But I use that more for informal notekeeping. I think it’s worthwhile to have a space, whether it’s through WordPress, Tumblr, Google Sites, or a wiki, where you can build a stable, consistent, searchable store of reading notes. The actual tool is less important than the habit, in my opinion.

4. Conceptual Mapping (Scapple)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more of a visual thinker. When I write anything longer than a page or two, I tend to use a sheet of paper or a notebook page to sketch out topics, sources, ideas, etc. The best tool I’ve ever found that gives me that kind of casual functionality is Scapple, an app from the folks who developed the word processor Scrivener. Unlike a lot of other mind-mapping tools, Scapple has very basic click-type-drag functionality that mimics (for me) the way that I work on a page. It has more advanced features that make it competitive with other, more flashy options, but it’s the only one I’ve ever found that I genuinely like to work with. It costs $15, but they offer a very generous trial version to give users a chance to try it first.

5. Personal Indexing (4×6 Note Card!)

Sometimes the oldies are goodies. When I was fresh out of graduate school, I started this habit, but I’ve only recently picked it back up again. I tend to keep a stack of 4×6 index cards handy for quick notes, grocery lists, etc., and I use them sometimes too as bookmarks. What I would do would be to use them to keep a running index of topics, arguments, sources that I wanted to be able to refer to in class or later in my work. Basically, what I’d end up with is a list of 15-20 page numbers, each with 2-3 words beside them that functioned as memory aids. Think of it as a personalized, distilled index to the book. Then imagine picking up a book 10-15 years later on a hunch, and having your own personal index available to help you find that passage you only vaguely remember. It’s worth the trouble, and helps to frame reading notes as well.

 

I’m sure that there are other tools I’ve missed, but these are the ones that form the core of my ecology of attention at the moment. Ultimately, it’s important to find the ones that work best for you, and that will serve you later on. I tend to prefer tools with a low participation threshhold, but whose results will benefit me five and ten years down the road.

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So long, and thanks for all the… #JonVoyage

Jon Stewart’s final episode as host of The Daily Show aired this past Thursday, and I spent a bit of my browse time this week reading all of the thinkpieces that heralded and/or accompanied his final appearance. I discovered that he had changed American politics forever, that he hadn’t changed it enough, that he’d variously used his powers for good, for evil, for opiate, and for naught. He was too much of a tool for the White House; he was not enough of a tool for the White House. He was incisive, provocative, palliative, smug, and so on, and so on.

The one thing I noticed, though, was that most of these pieces focused on the effect that Stewart’s version of TDS had either on the political landscape in this country, or on the media coverage of such. I thought I’d take a different tack, and suggest that his retirement (as well as Stephen Colbert’s late last year) leaves a large hole that Larry Wilmore and John Oliver don’t appear to be filling. Whether Trevor Noah will do so remains to be seen. Let me describe this hole in the form of a list:

Paul Farmer. Toni Morrison. Steven Johnson. Jill Lepore. Michael Lewis. William Deresiewicz. Naomi Klein. Randall Munroe. Doris Kearns Goodwin. Steven Wise. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Thomas Piketty. Edward O. Wilson. Jane Goodall. Nate Silver. David McCullough. Sarah Vowell. Reza Aslan. Fareed Zakaria. Tavis Smiley. Jon Ronson. Cass Sunstein. Steven Brill. (pulled from the Daily Show Booklist and the Colbert Report Booklist.)

That’s a very partial list of the writers who appeared either in the last six months of Colbert or on The Daily Show this year (and in a couple of cases, both). While most people are praising/blaming Stewart for the impact that he had on politics and media, I haven’t seen anyone yet remark upon the fact that his and Colbert’s shows occupied a pretty unique niche with respect to culture as well. In an era where most talk shows function as a marketing arm for the music, movie, and television industries, Stewart’s crew committed deeply to the written word. And they did so in a way that reached an audience that wasn’t likely to tune in to NPR or subscribe to the NYT or LAT for their Sunday book reviews.

I have no idea whether there was a “Stewart/Colbert bump” in the same way that Oprah’s Book Club provided, although if there was, it was almost certainly a drop in the bucket comparatively. And sure, a 4-5 minute interview couldn’t have provided anything close to the depth of a radio segment or a full, written book review. At the same time, the exposure that they provided to poets, novelists, historians, cultural critics, and scientists was unlike anything else going today. Add all those segments up, and you’d get a pretty good cross-section of what the brightest and most creative thinkers over the past 5 or 10 years were doing.

I hope that someone else steps up to fill that gap, although the fact that few others seem even to recognize it as a gap doesn’t leave me optimistic. For 4 or 5 minutes, a couple of times a week, Colbert and Stewart did what they could to make the country smarter. If you don’t think that’s a real loss, well, that’s where you and I part ways.

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Rhetsy: Under the Hood

Today marks the half-year anniversary of Rhetsy, and while half a year doesn’t sound like much to me as I write it out, it means that, for the past six months, I’ve been collecting links on a daily basis and synthesizing them weekly for general consumption. On the one hand, it’s not a lot of work, but on the other, when I multiply by six months the time I’ve spent on it, Rhetsy begins to occupy just a bit more of my scholarly identity. So congratulations to me, I guess.

The feedback I’ve received on Rhetsy has been universally positive, which makes sense, considering that a single (unsubscribable) email per week is a pretty small price to pay for its potential benefit. If there’s one question that people ask me about it, it’s about the process. When I was at the RSA Institute a few weeks ago, the question came up again in a couple of contexts, and so I thought I’d write a little bit about my process, and share it for this issue as a way of marking the milestone.

When I started up Rhetsy, I had in mind a handful of inspirational/aspirational newsletters (which I’ve written about before), and the name itself, which was a mashup of rhetoric and Etsy. With the decline in (my own) blogging, my feeling was that part of what I’d lost was the benefit of link blogs, trusted voices who would point my attention to interesting resources and essays. Newsletters like Brain Pickings and 5IT were beginning to fill that gap for me, but I thought I’d try my hand at it myself.

And really, the biggest change in my own reading and writing has been attentional. I’ve been using Instapaper for a few years now, mainly because I can save links to it from my desktop browser as well as a couple of different tools on my iPad (namely, Safari and Tweetbot). I still need to be better about organizing on Instapaper (use your folders, please!), but mainly, I lowered my threshold for bookmarking from “Will I likely use this later?” to “Is this interesting?” If an essay or a resource looks interesting to me, I bookmark it. I don’t share as much on Facebook or Twitter as I used to; instead, I go back into that bookmark archive on a weekly basis (usually Monday mornings, but sometimes Sunday afternoons), and read things more closely. Then I choose 4-5 items that seem to me to be the most shareable, and I build an issue of Rhetsy around them.

I have a few rules of thumb: first, I don’t share academic writing, although I bookmark a fair share of that kind of work. My test here is whether or not I would feel comfortable asking my undergraduate students to read it, on the spur of the moment. So I’m looking for work that stands on its own, is addressed to a general audience, and generally speaking, targets an issue of some broader interest. Second, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the difference between “interesting” and “interesting to me.” Undoubtedly, this skews what I share towards certain topics and away from others; one of these days, I’m going to aggregate my newsletter and see what patterns have emerged. Third, I try to be fairly timely, but that’s not a hard-and-fast requirement. Sometimes, I pull from older material because I’ve happened upon it that week. At the same time, for the most part, I try not to be too “current events” in my approach. Finally, and this is mostly implicit for me, I find value in reading material even when I don’t really agree with it, so I try not to restrict myself to material that I would endorse. This isn’t often an issue, but I do think about it from time to time.

What I find is that, as I look back through my bookmarks, certain patterns do emerge from time to time, and I try to bring those out through juxtaposition when they do. I don’t “rank” Rhetsy items, but I do treat them a bit like a playlist (cf. High Fidelity). Maybe with a few less rules, though.

I think that my single most important rule has been to approach Rhetsy in a way such that it’s not a burden. That is, the difference in time and effort for me between publishing Rhetsy and not is only a couple of hours a week, and so far, those hours haven’t been too much of an imposition. I usually start thinking about it on Saturday or Sunday, think about when I’m going to have time to do it, and then do it at that time. Otherwise, I’m just saving items like I normally would. The added layer of connection, juxtaposition, and synthesis that Rhetsy permits me has been more than worth it–if you want to see how, check out my closing keynote from IDRS this April, and as you do, keep in mind that, by my count, 6 or 7 of the “sources” I use appeared in Rhetsy at some point.

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All’s Quiet on the WordPress Front

I haven’t been here a whole lot lately. In part, it’s just a matter of devoting my social media attention elsewhere.

Some of that attention, though, has been spent on an email newsletter that I started up at the turn of the year: Rhetsy. I just realized that my TinyLetter site only archives a certain number of posts, and I wanted to preserve, semi-publicly, the very first post, which explains the point behind Rhetsy. So I’m reproducing it here, and adding a link to my page:

Hello, and welcome to Rhetsy.

Rhetsy is an experiment in scholarly/social media. It’s no secret that weblogs have waned in importance, replaced by corporate/clickbait content farms at one end and services like Facebook and Twitter at the other. For me, that change brought with it a shift in the way I read online. I used to spend perhaps an hour a day on Google Reader, often over breakfast, perusing a self-curated set of feeds for interesting stories, sites, and resources. I can sometimes approximate that experience through social media feeds, but it requires much more time (and personal sorting).

Over the past few months, though, I’ve realized that part of what I miss is link blogging. Interestingly enough, this genre has made something of a comeback, in the form of email newsletters. Sites like Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, Alexis Madrigal’s 5IT, and Robin Sloan’s Primes are slowly beginning to occupy the space once reserved for RSS aggregators, curation services that don’t require me to be online 24-7 for fear of missing something (or to place myself at the whim of algorithmic filter bubbles). I’m finding that the time that I used to spend each morning with Google Reader is now spent with a handful of newsletters delivered to my inbox. It occurred to me that I should try it myself. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Rhetsy is a newsletter devoted to rhetoric, targeted at a broad audience. One of my chief aims is to broaden my own horizons, to look outside of rhetoric journals and academic venues for items of potential interest. I’m hoping to publish it weekly, and initially at least, I’m not going to place too many restrictions on content. I hope that it would appeal not solely to academic specialists, though. I’d like for it to be a resource that students might be interested in, and my goal is to make it accessible to general readers as well. Think of it as something of a cross among personal bookmarking services (e.g., Instapaper/Readability) and Facebook link posts, but done at the speed of blogging.

My hope for Rhetsy is that it will become something of a shared aggregator, and that’s where you come in. Obviously, I encourage you to subscribe, but more than that, I hope that you’ll share links with me, as you find things that are compelling, intriguing, and worth sharing beyond the 15 minutes that a link shows up in your friends’ Facebook feeds. You can send them to me at cgbrooke at Gmail (just put ‘rhetsy’ in the subject line), and I’ll be setting up FB and Twitter accounts, too, to make it as easy as possible. I’m also happy to post calls for papers, announcements, etc., but I want to focus as much as I can on stuff that’s not on the beaten, academic path.

If you’re interested in working on Rhetsy with me, let me know. This is the kind of project that can be a challenge for one person to execute, so I’m more than willing to share curation duties.

Collin Brooke
Issue 1, January 5 (posted Jan. 1)

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Frictional Ethics & Social Media

It’s time for one of those posts where a few different ideas have coalesced into something for me. It’s been a while since I’ve written here–I’d originally intended to post an angry rejoinder to Steven Pinker’s infotisement in the Chronicle, but in the process of writing it, I managed to get him out of my system. There’s still some material there that I want to post, but it’s not what I’ve been thinking about lately.

The first thread I want to collect comes from several weeks back, an essay that I happened across, probably on Facebook. Dorothy Kim, over at Model View Culture, has a great piece about the ethics of social media research, particularly (but not exclusively) when it comes to questions of race. Kim draws provocative connections between recent research and “[t]he scientific and academic history of disregarding rights and ethics in relation to the bodies of minorities and especially women of color,” connections that cannot simply be waved away with recourse to the assumption that “Twitter is public.” I strongly recommend Kim’s essay–to be honest, I began reading it defensively, because as someone who doesn’t do a lot of qualitative or experimental research, my understanding of the public nature of Twitter was pretty uninformed. I’m not going to summarize her essay fully here, because I want to connect it to a couple of other things here, but Kim persuaded me to take another look at my assumptions.

Kim’s argument relies on what I still find to be a pretty big “if”:

If one imagines that digital bodies are extensions of real bodies, then every person’s tweets are part of that “public” body. By harvesting digital data without consent, collaboration, discussion, or compensation, academics and researchers are digitally replicating what happened to Henrietta Lacks and her biological cells.

Earlier in the essay, she explains that “We know from #RaceSwap experiments that Twitter as a medium views digital bodies as extension of physical bodies,” for example, but there’s an elision here. I don’t quite buy the idea that “Twitter as a medium” does anything of the sort. And yet, in the examples Kim offers, she cites several cases where researchers do make that assumption. Their projects rely on particular identity claims in order to demarcate their object of study. If we rely on the same assumption, Kim argues, then “the affordances of public spaces must be respected:”

“People in public spaces are allowed to protest, hang out with friends, watch and participate in public lectures and performance art events. If Twitter is Times Square, then the media, academia, and institutions (government, non-profit, etc.) must respect that Twitter users have a right to talk to their friends on the Twitter plaza without people recording them, taking pictures of them, using their digital bodies as data without permission, consent, conversation, and discussion.”

This is an intriguing claim to me, and I’m not sure I have the expertise to evaluate it, but it’s one that has made me think for the past month or so. In passing, Kim mentions the Facebook emotional contagion study, and that functions as a bit of a bridge to one of the other threads I’ve been thinking about. I asked my Digital Writing students this semester to read a couple of chapters from Christian Rudder’s new book Dataclysm, as well as Evan Selinger’s LA Times review of the book. Again, an essay worth reading in its entirety, only a glimmer of which I’ll be able to articulate here.

Selinger is critical of Rudder not for poor writing, nor for reaching the wrong conclusions from the data he collects, but rather for the cavalier way that issues of privacy are ignored:

Rudder presumes that if information is shared publicly in one context, there’s no privacy interest in it being shared publicly in any other. But as law professor Woodrow Hartzog and I argue, information exists on a continuum: on one end lies information we want to disseminate to the world; on the other end is information we want to keep absolutely secret. In between is a vast middle ground of disclosures that we only want to share with selective people, our “private publics.” As a matter of both etiquette and ethics, it’s important to consider whether someone would have good reason to be upset with us moving information from one place to another, where it can be more easily seen by new audiences. Privacy scholar Helen Nissenbaum defines this as an issue of “contextual integrity.”

This idea of contextual integrity was what triggered this connection for me with Kim’s piece, reminding me that I’d already been thinking about this question. Selinger remarks earlier in his essay that Rudder’s data strikes him as a case of “an analyst’s deliberate decision to abstract data away from its intended context, and put it to what privacy scholars call ‘secondary use.'” The idea of requiring researchers or corporations to secure informed consent for secondary use is almost certainly already an uphill battle, if we think about the opacity of Terms of Service agreements and the “commonsense” rejoinders that “you have nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide” or that “if you don’t want FB to sell your data, don’t use FB.”

Part of Selinger’s point is that the choice is rarely that simple. There’s the fact that social media (and technology more broadly) aren’t simply an extraneous, optional layer laid across an otherwise perfectly functional world. That ship has sailed. Regardless of where we choose to locate agency in our description, our social and professional worlds change as our means of mediating them do. Given the potential costs of “simply” opting out, according to Selinger, “it becomes untenable to construe our options as a matter of individuals needing to make smart choices that weigh costs and benefits. The deck is stacked, and many of the available choices exhibit anti-privacy bias.”

I found myself thinking about the question of contextual integrity this past week, when I learned about the arrangement that ProQuest has with Turnitin, which is a couple of years old now, a relationship that benefits ProQuest (I assume) through ongoing payments and Turnitin in the aggregate. One can opt out of this “partnership.” But one cannot simply opt out of ProQuest–most institutions’ arrangements with them predate the establishment of institutional repositories. It’s a required step on the checklist at Syracuse for completing degree requirements, complete with the handy reminder to “have your credit card handy so that you can pay Proquest online.”

It may be that most people wouldn’t care about their work being used on Turnitin, but this is a secondary use enabled by that anti-privacy bias, one that ProQuest is apparently double-dipping, by requiring scholars to pay them for the privilege of having their work sold to a third party. That third party usage has been determined to be “fair use,” so copyright isn’t violated, and yet, there’s something about it that makes me feel uncomfortable. Part of it, I think, is that, however mild, it’s a violation of trust, and that’s a theme that runs across all of these examples. Kim offers several high-profile examples of the ways that the academy has violated the trust of certain populations, such that researchers shouldn’t reasonably expect to be trusted without explicit consent. The idea that FB or dating sites are filtered doesn’t negate the good faith assumption on the part of its users that this filter operates consistently–we shouldn’t have to opt out of manipulation or surveillance.

Part of my interest here is that it’s a trust erected upon a false foundation: a particular understanding of the relationship between public and private, and of the relationship among different media substrates, that no longer holds. Or, at least, it’s one that’s changing rapidly. ProQuest has a monopoly that’s based upon a much different media landscape than our current one, and they’re exploiting that. The difference in degree may be substantial when we compare it to the way that privacy and IP laws lagged behind genomic research in the case of Henrietta Lacks–the latter strikes me as deeply wrong in a way that these other examples here do not–but I’m not sure that it’s a difference in kind.

I’m still thinking through these issues–my position on them is by no means settled. But I had a conversation yesterday where we talked a bit about technology, ethics, and networks, and it got me to thinking about an ethics of friction. Selinger argues that

This is Silicon Valley dogma: friction is bad because it slows people down and generates opportunity costs that prevent us from doing the things we really care about; minimizing friction is good because it closes the gap between intending to do something and actually doing it.

I think that this is a little reductive. That is, it’s true in a very general sense, particularly when it comes to things like ownership of data, but I think that there are examples of frictional decisions (FB’s “real name” policy, Twitter’s decision to require mobile phone numbers in order to use developer tools, e.g.) that make friction a more complex issue than simply yes or no. But I take Selinger’s broader point, and I think it connects with Kim’s essay as well. I do think there are ethical questions that need to be raised, particularly when our old sources of friction (like informed consent regulations) are slow to keep pace with contemporary sites and methods. I’m just not sure myself how I’d answer those questions.

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  • bluebook

In-Comprehensive-le

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.

 

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  • Files

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)

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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.

-cgb

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  • my new writing set-up

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.

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