Archives: writing

The Limits of Facebacking

Last week, as part of their 10-year anniversary, Facebook released a tool that allows users to create (and later edit) movies based upon their FB usage. The “Look Back” videos offer “an experience that compiles your highlights since joining Facebook.” For a couple of days, my feed (and I suspect, most people’s) filled with “looks back” from a variety of friends, followed by the inevitable wave of parodies (Walter White, Darth Vader, et al.).

Like many of my friends, I went ahead and let FB sort through my photos and updates in an effort to set my “highlights” to music, but I didn’t end up sharing the results. This week in my DH course, we’re talking about archives, so I’ve been reading around somewhat alert to discussions of archiving, and I ended up thinking a bit about my “Look Back” and what it had to tell me about my relationship with FB as an archive of my life. I didn’t end up sharing my movie because I didn’t feel like it was particularly representative–while it did manage to hit on a couple of significant events (such as the fact that I bought a house), most of the updates and images included were pretty random. And so I’ve been thinking on why that was.

One obvious reason is that I don’t share as much of my life with FB as others do, and I say that without judgment. As FB itself notes, the content of the movie “depend[s] on how long you’ve been on Facebook and how much you’ve shared.” While I’ve been there for 6 or 7 of its 10 years, it would be an understatement to say that there are gaps in my self-presentation, the same gaps that show up in my movie. So on the one hand, I have no one to blame but myself–I can hardly be critical of a presentation when I’ve withheld the raw materials that it might draw on. And I don’t mean here to be critical of those who do share much more–I’m as fond as anyone of being able to keep up with my friends’ lives this way. But it was interesting to me just how much my Look Back ended up referencing my own attitudes toward sharing.

One of the texts we’re looking at this week is Johanna Drucker’s “The Book as Call and Conditional Texts.” It’s a compelling meditation on how we understand books, and how contemporary technologies might shift that understanding. Among other things, Drucker notes

The future book, which is already here, not just imagined but implemented in various ways in the configurable and mutable pages of the web, will be fluid, a conditional configuration based on a call to the vast repositories of knowledge, images, interpretation, and interactive platforms.

Of course, I read this article having already thought about the Look Back, and thus found echoes of it reverberating throughout. The “pages” of the Amazon website (or really, any e-commerce site) provide another fine example of this conditional configuration, a structured query whose contingent nature is disguised by “stable” terms like site and page. Of course the Look Back is a conditional text, but faced with mine, I was struck by how its conditions are really Facebook’s. I assume that its selection of images and updates is guided by the internal currency of shares and likes, FB’s way of calculating relative life-importance. And of course, the movies are shared on FB, themselves subject to the same economy that generated them.

I was especially taken with this passage from Drucker:

If ever the principles of a Heraclitan flux were embodied in the very ontology/phenomenology of an artifact, it is here, now, in the fleeting immediacies through which a document composes itself for our eyes only and for an instant’s disregard and then vanishes. Siblings and cousins and shades of resemblance may reassemble, so like the original we mistake them, momentarily, for that earlier temporary object brought into being, but then, with regret, relief, and other realization of the subtle but significant difference between the initial document and this “new” one, we realize the perils of our connection to “refresh rates.” No corpses remain.

I know that this is going to seem a little dark, but maybe the biggest absence in my Look Back was death itself. Among the life events that didn’t show up were the losses of my father and grandparents, and my surgery in 2011, perhaps the closest that I myself have come to death, at least to my knowledge. I have only really shared those things in very limited ways over social media, but collectively they represent a significant chunk of my life taken up with loss, depression, and grief. Even if I were better at sharing and dispelling those feelings, in many ways, my presence on FB was an intentional hedge against that time. If I couldn’t read or write academic prose (and there was a long time there where I couldn’t), at least I could toss up a link or a snarky observation about something or other. Nothing remains very long, and maybe for a while that’s what I needed.

Maybe what I saw in my Look Back, then, was a bearable lightness, or what passed for such at the time. If there’s something that Drucker’s discussion of conditional texts left me with, it was that, despite FB’s desire that I “become internally colonized by the form and formats of these reconfiguring texts,” something different happened. It produced just a little bit more distance between my own conditions and those that FB suggested on my behalf. That’s all.

Telescopic Text

So I’ve been slowly reading S by Abrams and Dorst, and slowly expanding my Twitter horizons with respect to bots, and today, I came across a really interesting app/tool that crossed the streams, so to speak.

It’s called Telescopic Text. Not unlike Tapestry, it’s an application that lets you write and store texts. Those texts, though, are like that word game where you create a ladder of words by adding a letter at a time (a, an, pan, plan, plane, planet, etc.). You start with a tweet-length sentence, highlight particular words, which then “unfold” as they’re clicked on. It’s like drilling down into a text to find more and more details.

The TT site itself starts with an example:
http://www.telescopictext.com/

The tools for building one, and saving it, are at:
http://www.telescopictext.org/
(registering for an account is free, which you’ll need to do if you want to save your efforts)

I ended up finding the site from a link to Tully Hansen’s “Writing,” which is located here (you’ll need to scroll down):
http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/electronic-overland/

It reminds me too of Jon Udell’s classic screencast about the WIkipedia entry for the heavy metal umlaut:http://jonudell.net/udell/gems/umlaut/umlaut.html

I’m not entirely sure how I’ll be using this, but it’s been a lot of fun to play with this afternoon…

(x-posted from Facebook)

Publishing as a Graduate Student #gradpub #cwcon

So, Jim put out this call for advice this week:

 

It’s been a while since I last posted here, and Jim’s tweet got me to thinking, so I figured I might write a few thoughts down. They’re not necessarily complete, because I do think that discipline and venue matter quite a bit, as does the student’s progress, work habits, and readiness. While it might be nice if there were a simple 10-point listicle that provided us all we ever needed to know about publishing, the fact of the matter is that it’d be pretty horoscopic. I’m not sure my advice will be any better, but it’s generally worked for me.

There are a few essays that I hand out to graduate students on a semi-regular basis, pieces that I’ve found really useful to have and to revisit every so often for my own writing. In honor of the listicle, I present to you my Top 5 Must-Read Essays for the Aspiring Scholarly Writer:

* C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” (PDF) — It’s dated, and it’s from the social sciences, but it’s worth every graduate student’s time to read and adapt Mills’ advice:

By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot `keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression.

Mills’ piece is a new one for me–I picked up a used copy of The Sociological Imagination years ago, but only happened to read its appendix recently. It may seem overly simple to imagine that there is someone who doesn’t realize that writers must “write something at least every week,” but it took me a long time to figure this out. I no longer assume that it’s something that goes without saying. Publishing is the tip of a massive iceberg of writing.

* Joseph Williams, “Problems into PROBLEMS” (PDF) — This is a long read, the academic equivalent of a novella, longer than an article but shorter than a book. Again, this may seem like obvious stuff, but I assure you, it can be really helpful to use the framework that Williams supplies to look at one’s own writing. The putative topic of Williams’ book is learning how to stage introductions effectively, and that in itself is worth the price of admission. But I use this text less as a means of helping me write my introductions than I do as a way to help me crystallize the point of whatever I’m working on at the time.

…posing and solving PROBLEMS is what most of us do, but most of our students, both undergraduate and graduate, seem unaware of not just how to pose a PROBLEM, but that their first task is to find one. As a consequence, they often seem just to “write about” some topic, and when they do, we judge them to be not thinking “critically,” to be writing in ways that are at best immature (Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman), at worst incompetent. Yet many of our students who do not seem to engage with academic PROBLEM-solving, in fact, do. Their problem is that they are ignorant of the conventional ways by which they should reveal that engagement; ours is that we have no systematic way of demonstrating to them the rhetoric of doing so.

The first time I read this work (the first of many, many), I was a little resistant to the idea that everything could be “reduced” to problem-solution; I’m not sure I feel that way any longer. I don’t think that it’s always necessary to make that framework explicit in one’s writing, certainly, and I think that there are times when we invent the “problems” we are solving, particularly in the humanities. On balance, though, it has helped me to think through my work in terms of this framework. I return to Chapter 1 frequently.

* Richard McNabb, “Making the Gesture: Graduate Student Submissions and the Expectations of Referees” (PDF) — This may be the single best essay for the aspiring graduate student that you’ve never heard of. It was published in Composition Studies in 2001, and is based on a study of graduate student submissions to Rhetoric Review over the course of nearly a decade.

The typical graduate manuscripts I saw as an associate editor suggest that the success of one’s argument depends on the appropriation of the correct gestures, that is, the discursive conventions that govern the ways of arguing and evaluating that define the language of the field. As I have tried to illustrate, writing for publication goes beyond producing a coherent, effective, well-supported argument; a writer has to be able to negotiate the publishing system by making the right gestures. I have identified two such gestures present in the scholarship (22).

“Gestures to a Rhetorical Mode” draws on Goggin’s taxonomy of description, testimony, history, theory, rhetorical analysis, and research report. “Gestures to a Problem Presentation” draws on MacDonald, Swales, and others to differentiate between epistemic and non-epistemic presentations. I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets to say that McNabb sees many graduate student submissions that rely on testimony and present themselves non-epistemically. What’s interesting about this piece is that it’s a rare study of a category of submissions that isn’t defined in terms of success, a problem that we run into if we only look at published writing when we talk about how to publish–it’s instructive to see the differences.

* Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin, “Gatekeeping at an Academic Convention” (from Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication) — Speaking of differences: once upon a time, our national conference made its submissions, both those that had and those that hadn’t been accepted, available to researchers. Right towards the tail end of that time (the early 90s, I think), B&H examined a fairly large random sample of CCCC abstracts pulled from three years’ worth of submissions, “in hopes of getting a more comprehensive picture of the genre” (102). As with the other pieces on this list, you can’t take too literally the results of a study of conference abstracts, one from 20 years ago at that, but at the same time

“In this chapter we have illustrated at least two of the principles laid out in Chapter 1, namely those of form and content and of community ownership. The former states that “Genre knowledge embraces both form and content, including a sense of what content is appropriate to a particular purpose in a particular situation at a particular point in time” (13). It is clear from our study, we think, that the ability to write a successful CCCC abstract depends on a knowledge of what constitutes “interestingness” to an insider audience, which in turn depends on timeliness, or kairos. The principle of community ownership states that “Genre conventions signal a discourse community’s norms, epistemology, ideology, and social ontology” (21). Here, too, we think our study provides some insight in to the intellectual constitution of the rhetoric and composition community” (115).

Much of this book is worth reading, if no other reason that to think carefully about what B&H call “genre knowledge,” and to learn how to recognize and to internalize it throughout one’s graduate career.

* [Insert Role Model Here]: This is not as tongue-in-cheek as you might think. When I watch a show or movie that I really like, I end up internalizing pieces of the characters, and the same goes for academic writing that I find particularly inspiring. One of the best things you can do is to locate your own role models for writing, and to read and reread them on a regular basis. I don’t do so in order to imitate them, necessarily, but I find that part of what I find inspiring about them is the way that they write, not just what they have to say. Don’t share your models with anyone–they are yours and yours alone. As soon as you start choosing your models according to what you think others expect from you, you’re sort of missing the point.

One of the common threads among all of the pieces I’m recommending here is the idea of genre knowledge–we tend to overemphasize “originality” of content at the expense of timeliness of contribution when it comes to scholarly communication. And timeliness is not something that can be planned out ahead of time, or captured in a listicle. It requires us to engage with the conversation, to see what others have to say, to think about where we might contribute, to account for the context of the discussion, and to make it worth reading in both form and content.

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My words here are hardly the last ones on the subject, but these are the things that I’ve found helpful in my own work. Good luck!

UPDATE: Just as you find the perfect citation only after you send that article out for review, hitting publish helped me to remember a variety of texts that I could very well have included on this list. I first taught a grad course in 2005 that was a combination of genre studies and EAP, where I used these and many other readings. Some of the other books I could have easily recommended include:

 

and so on. Please feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments–I’m aware of how partial my own list is…

 

Backwards, Bookwards, Burke Words, Brooke Works

I.

I want to wish everyone a happy Burkeday — Kenneth Burke was born on this day in 1897, making today as good a day as any to celebrate rhetoric.

KB is part of my origin story: When I returned to graduate school for my PhD, my first course wasn’t actually official. The summer before I started, I sat in on Victor Vitanza’s Kenneth Burke course. For me, it was like a homecoming, and only partly because I was glad to get back to academia. I was a fairly half-hearted rhetoric and composition person, having done a concentration in my MA program on the counsel of our graduate advisor. I’d originally gone to graduate school thinking to study Irish literature, and I was possessed of a fondness for critical theory. While I could see some connections with rhet/comp, they were weak ties at best, and it may not have been an accident that I ended up taking a couple of years after my first attempt.

Anyhow, reading Burke was a revelation for me. It wasn’t always easy reading, nor would I say that I agree with everything he wrote, but I’ve always felt a resonance with his work. I don’t doubt that it shows up in my own writing from time to time. But reading Burke was one of the things that made me feel (finally) like I’d made the right decisions to go back to graduate school and to stick with rhetoric and composition. One of Burke’s passages that has always appealed to me comes from the Afterword to the 3rd edition of Attitudes Toward History, revised a bit for an interview he gave later on:

Remember the big traffic jam in New York when the subways stopped? That’s when I learned the word gridlock. Gridlock means you can’t go any way. The traffic is so jammed, it can’t go forward, backwards, or sideways. What I had was counter-gridlock….So, I’d write six or seven pages; then another tangent would seem needed, and I’d start over again, with the same baffling outcome. Instead of no way out, there was a clutter of ways out, each in its own way running into something that cancelled it.

Kenneth Burke, “Counter-Gridlock”

 I don’t know if other people’s minds work that way, but mine sure did. I think that’s part of what drew me to hypertext originally, and eventually to blogging and social media. Along the way, I’ve learned tricks to help tame my own counter-gridlock (cut the first 5 pages, work on multiple parts at once, etc.), but it’s always there, making it harder for me to force my ideas into the shapes that I know they need to take.

II.

There’s another piece of Burke that always appealed to me secretly. Burke was raised on the work of Mary Baker Eddy (who founded Christian Science), and while he turned away from those ideas to an extent, there is a sense that runs throughout his work that language is not simply representational but material, that the ideas we hold affect us physiologically. The idea of literature as “equipment for living” is a mild expression of this. There’s a story about him that says that one of the reasons why he never published the third volume of the Motives trilogy was that he would be “finished,” and not just in the intellectual sense.

You might imagine how even the hint of this would appeal to a kid who grew up reading and gaming in worlds where language did have that power. There’s a “not really…but maybe” quality to it all in my head that sometimes crosses over the line separating figurative and literal. If you were to connect this idea to a passage from an academic text like this one, published in the fall before I started back to graduate school–

After all, anyone the least bit familiar with the workings of the new era’s definitive technology, the computer, knows that it operates on a principle impracticably difficult to distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word: the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does. They are incantations, in other words, and anyone at all attuned to the technosocial megatrends of the moment — from the growing dependence of economies on the global flow of intensely fetishized words and numbers to the burgeoning ability of bioengineers to speak the spells written in the four-letter text of DNA — knows that the logic of the incantation is rapidly permeating the fabric of our lives.

Julian Dibbell, A Rape in Cyberspace, Village Voice, December 1993 

–well, then, you might begin to tease out some of my own motives and interests. In The Philosophy of Literary Form, Burke writes, “The magical decree is implicit in all language, for the mere act of naming an object or situation decrees that it is to be singled out as such-and-such rather than as something other” (4).

III.

Here’s where it gets even less rational. Imagine that you’re a person for whom writing has never been a struggle, but who does struggle with putting it into a straight line. And imagine further that you’ve got a secret fascination with what Dibbell calls that “logic of the incantation.” You force your work into those shapes, article after article and conference papers galore, and eventually, you even manage to craft your own little snow globe, your first book.

I shouldn’t continue in 2nd person here. I started deflecting before I even realized that I’d done it. I am those things, and have done those things. The process of taking Lingua Fracta from initial manuscript to published volume, however, took almost 5 years. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that my father passed away before he had a chance to see it published. What you may not know is that my grandfather did as well, about a year later. And my grandmother’s health at the end of her life was such that she probably only caught a glimpse.

Part of me loves my book, and part of me blames my book. It makes no sense, and even sounds silly to me as I write it down like this. But the fact of the matter is that I stopped wanting to write for a long time. The gradual fade of my first blog took place over about 3 months following my father’s death, and the loss of my grandparents sealed the deal. In my brain, I know that this is a story (events happen) that a tiny part of me has turned into a plot (events are connected!)–that’s the very definition of superstition–but sometimes all it takes is a tiny part 

IV.

The tiny thing that helped me come out of this, to the degree that I’m out of this, came last summer. Since my book was published, I’ve been thinking on and off about what I’ll do my next book on. I’ve had several possibilities in mind, but I’m fairly sure that when I hit a certain level of detail in the planning, something in me just shut down. It was too easy to turn to something else and just forget about it. I’ll spare you the long stories of my self-distraction.

Last summer, though, I realized that I don’t have to write another book. Ever. I say this fully aware that this is a luxury; I am in an incredibly privileged position to be able to say it. But I don’t mean it in the sense that I no longer have to work: I’ve been writing articles and chapters for collections, supervising students, teaching and designing courses, mentoring as best as I’ve been able–I overfill my time (sometimes) with the work that I’m obliged to do and the work that I enjoy doing. What I mean by this is that I can continue my work, my reading, my writing, my teaching, my mentoring, my participation–and none of those things have to take the particular material form of a book.

Is this distinction clear enough? Because it’s made all the difference for me. In that deep part of me that associated my book with loss and grief, the idea that it could be the book as formal obligation rather the specific incantation I wove to meet that obligation shook something loose in me that’s allowed me to start relearning how to write. I know that this might sound like “Aha! It wasn’t my fault after all, but the evil institution that made me do it!” But that’s not quite right. Writing had become this thing that forced me against my inclinations and ended in heartbreak. It wasn’t a matter for me of finding someone else to blame; rather, it was working my way through to a place where “blame” didn’t quite work to capture the full range of possible relations. It’s not like it doesn’t still occupy me, but I no longer feel locked in by it.

I don’t know if this quite makes sense. It does in my head.

V.

Here’s a last little odd fact about me. When I was young, I was fascinated by writing backwards and writing upside down. To this day, I can read text upside down almost as quickly as right side up. I would practice backwards cursive with a mirror–something about inverting and reversing the shapes of letters felt like magic to me. I loved codes, non-Roman alphabets, letter substitutions, all that stuff. Our daily paper had a cryptoquote next to the crossword that I would try and solve in my head. Palindromes, ambigrams, word ladders, snowball poems, I have always been fascinated by the extravagant capacities of language. So add that fascination to my discomfort with the book as form and my fascination with the logic of incantations, mix it together with a little technology expertise, and it makes perfect sense that what I should do is to do it backwards, to announce the “publication” of my new “book.”

Believe it or not, I’m not joking.

My next project is called Rhetworks, and I’m publishing it today, even though it hasn’t been written yet. It may or may not become a book; I’ve toyed with the idea of describing it as a BOOC, a Book-Sized Open Online Colloquium. I’ve been thinking about the relationships between rhetoric and networks for close to 10 years now, and I think I’m going to start writing something big and sprawling on the subject.

Over the next 2 years, starting today, I’m going to write it online, using a PBWiki installation. That means that I’m going to write in public, which scares the heck out of me, but not nearly as much as it used to. I’m going to make mistakes and I’m going to have to trust in the generosity of my readers. At the end of two years, if I feel like I have enough material to justify publishing it as a book, I may do so. But I’m equally prepared for the possibility that I won’t. In either case, I’ll be writing under a Creative Commons License and it will stay up there, freely available to anyone who’s interested, regardless of any subsequent form it might take.

I have a hypothesis, a fairly grand one, that I want to work through, and I even have a set of keywords that may someday provide me with the chapter structure for a book. But neither of those things will drive this project. I am interested instead in giving reign to my counter-gridlock, without knowing ahead of time whether or not it will actually work. But at its most basic level, this is an experiment. It may not catch on, I may grow bored with it, other people may find it stupid or silly or self-indulgent–I can imagine a hundred different ways that this could fail. And that’s why I’m going to do it.

Oh, but there’s more. My first idea was to write Rhetworks on a private wiki, and invite people to visit it once I’d gotten “enough” of it going to feel comfortable sharing. What I’m doing instead is to invite you to participate in it from the get go, and to contribute to it as much as you’re comfortable with. For some, this may mean correcting a typo or two, asking some questions in the comments, or adding a work or two to my bibliography. And that’s fine. But that’s just the start of what’s possible. I’m willing to collaborate with you on sections. I’m willing to list you as co-author. As long as you’re comfortable, I’m willing to let you publish your own work on the site, and even in the pages of the book, if it comes to that. My only request is that you make your own work as available and editable and shareable as I’m making my own. Does that mean that I’d be willing to include a chapter written by someone else entirely in the book version of this? Or include entire sections or chapters that disagree with me? Yes. Yes, it does. I’m also open to the possibility of using the site as an invention space and breaking off pieces of it to publish collaboratively in other venues–I know that not everyone can afford to invest time and effort as open-endedly as I can.

And yes, I can imagine that this project could be derailed by edit wars, or that someone might get it into their head to try and ruin it. I’ll be restricting editing access to registered users, so that I can exercise some minimal amount of supervisory influence. But I have thought about a lot of different ways that people might make use of the site, add to it in ways that I cannot predict, and even disagree with me in fundamental ways, and I find that I’m surprisingly okay with that.

A scholarly project sits at the heart of a network by nature. The traditional model of publication, though, encourages us to mediate that network ourselves, often out of fear of what would happen if we let others see before it was complete. William Germano described it as a snow globe in the Chronicle a couple of weeks ago:

Within the realm of the snow globe, every authority on the subject has been cited or pacified. Look inside and find a perfect, tidy, improbable world where no questions are asked, or invited. Scholarly books, especially first ones, are a paranoid genre—their structure assumes that someone is always watching, eager to find fault. And they take every precaution against criticism.

He asks if we dare write for readers–what I want to do here is write WITH readers, with you. I want to create a book-sized network of scholarship that itself is the product of the network. It’s not coincidental that it’s about networks, too.

VI.

I go back and forth about this. On the one hand, it feels like the next step, or maybe a leap of faith: the idea that scholarship can locate itself somewhere that’s part text, part connectivist MOOC, part community. Germano suggests that maybe “the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry,” and part of me believes that enough to give it a try. Maybe what I’m describing is actually a 2-year online course on networks and rhetoric, open to anyone who’s interested. (I will almost certainly use it to some degree in the digital humanities course I teach next spring, and I hope others will take it up that way, too.) It pushes the idea of public, online review even further, and maybe it will ultimately push at our ideas of what acceptable (and accessible) online scholarship can look like.

And then there are days where I imagine that I’m so crazy to even think of this that I can’t see outside of the crazy. Even if I manage to summon the effort, time, and energy to do this successfully, it feels insanely risky, when I could just sit down, open my books, fire up my browser, and bang out a publishable manuscript.

And then I think about the “clutter of ways” that I want to give voice to.

I think about how maybe if I cast my spell backwards this time, something magnificent might happen.

And I think about Clay Shirky’s incantation–publish, then filter–and how much more sense it makes to me, even if it sounds upside down.

And then, one day in early May, I publish a book that doesn’t yet exist, and invite you to write it with me. I wonder what could possibly happen next.

MOOCery #moocmooc

“[Rhetoric] seems to me then . . . to be a pursuit that is not a matter of art, but showing a shrewd, gallant spirit which has a natural bent for clever dealing with mankind, and I sum up its substance in the name flattery. . . . Well now, you have heard what I state rhetoric to be–the counterpart of cookery in the soul, acting here as that does on the body.”

Ahh, Plato, our old friend.

Yesterday was the first day of MOOCMOOC, a massive open online course devoted specifically to the topic of massive open online courses. Follow that link if you’d like to take a look–my understanding is that lurkers, observers, and hangers-on are welcome. Far as I can tell, there are a few hundred participants at the moment; other than posting an introduction and missing a Twitter social this evening, you won’t have missed much if you hop on in.

One of the values that I’ve already found is that the readings for each day provide so much more context for MOOCs than the infotisement columns that have been floating around lately, dutifully penned by those with a corporate stake in the success of a certain brand of MOOC. If you’re like me, you’ve gotten quickly tired of them. And by quickly, I mean that I now scroll to the bottom to check the identity of the author before I’ll even bother with paragraph 2. Anyhow. The readings for MOOCMOOC are refreshing in that respect. If you’re doing anything related to digital pedagogy for the upcoming semester, there are worse things that you could do than pulling together those resources for yourself and/or your students.

There’s an internal, winding path that took me from thinking about MOOCMOOC to the Plato quote above, not the least of which was the opportunity for the pun in my title–the MOOCs, they are fond of the puns. As I’ve been thinking about how I (should) feel about MOOCs, it did occur to me that, if I wanted to hop on the Plato side of things, I might dismiss them as “showing a shrewd, gallant spirit which has a natural bent for clever dealing with [humanity].” And I’m not sure that I blame folks for feeling that way. The way that MOOCs have been infotised to us lately does seem to imagine the world of education occupied by students, teachers, administrators, parents, governments, and employers. And you might be forgiven for imagining that the solution (MOOCs) proffered appears to be to take all of those stakeholders and to phase out the one group of people among them who (a) has some sort of professional stake in knowledge, and (b) has some sort of professional stake in education. And you might also be forgiven for imagining that by phasing out, they mean turning 0.003 percent of educators into “anchors” and the rest into glorified teaching assistants. After all, I’ve heard that offered as a serious model in the past, and no doubt will again. Having forgiven you for all of those assumptions, I could hardly blame a body for finding some resonance in Plato’s dismissal of rhetoric.

(There’s a part of me, too, that imagines the dystopia of the 1.3 million-member Comp 101 course, and my future career looking like a permanent seat at an AP Exam Grading session, complete with a clock to punch. Frankly, I’m not sure that there aren’t folks out there drooling over this possibility.)

I forget the place where I saw this and for that, I’m sorry. I’ve been reading so many pieces about MOOCs over the last few days that I finally sort of lost track. One of them, though, actually made the MOOC – cookery connection, in terms of the food culture that’s emerged in the U.S. over the past 10 or 15 years. [Edited to add the link.] There’s a sense in which the Food Network is massive, open, online, and educational–most folk don’t have the time or the inclination to attend culinary school (although there was a time in my life where I actually seriously considered it). You could argue that it’s not really possible to become a serious chef by watching Food Network, but then, not everyone’s after being a “serious chef.” And it’s not as though the Food Network makes it more difficult for actual chefs to find work (I don’t think). If anything, I’d argue that a lot of their shows have raised the level of food discourse and knowledge for a healthy percentage of people in the country, making it more likely that they will support quality establishments, rarer ingredients, organic food, etc. This is completely back-of-the-napkin on my part, but I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that food culture has shifted for the better in the wake of Food Network.

The other thing that strikes me here is that cookery isn’t a bad analogy with writing, because they’re both crafty (in both ways). There is a certain degree of unapologetic cleverness about each when they’re done well. But more to the point, they’re practiced, over and over, not absorbed. I can watch wall-to-wall Food Network, and that does less to make me a better cook than an hour spent in my mom’s kitchen over the holidays. I can easily think of circumstances where it’s been helpful for me to work in that kitchen, times when it was easier to test something out on my own or on friends (and sometimes fail), and times when I brought something to an expert for a tasting (I did a little baking when I was younger). Point is that there’s no one way to learn cooking, nor is there any one way to learn writing. Ideally, I’d hope the folks who come through my classroom are learning to write from as many sources as possible, as much as possible.

That doesn’t mean that I believe that writing courses can simply be ported to MOOCs, or that that kind of instructional model can take the place of everything we do. I do think, however, that it pushes us to consider how much of “learning to write” as it’s currently happening is actually “learning to write an essay,” and whether or not that’s the best way to approach things. To push my analogy further, it’s a little like saying that “learning to cook” actually means “learning to cook a roast.” You can improve your roast-cooking without ever touching one, by learning about ingredients, cooking time, managing your food prep, and some of that can be accomplished by watching Food Network shows (I imagine). More to the point, you can learn to cook (and I’d guess that many, many people do) without ever touching a roast, much less learning to cook one. Similarly, I can imagine MOOC experiences that would help students practice and develop the skills that they need to become better writers, regardless of whether or not they’re writing “essays.”

And that’s kind of where I’m at right now. I’m setting aside my (earned!) suspicion for the week, and trying to imagine what might be gained by students and teachers alike if a MOOC were done well and centered around questions of literacies, communication, and discourse. I’ll probably watch an episode or two of Chopped, too.

___

Addendum: Pamela Hironymi, “Don’t Confuse Technology with College Teaching,” in today’s CHE:

As someone who spends time with students in directed conversations on difficult subjects, I’m sure the online model won’t work. We will, instead, produce graduates who cast assumptions they’ve never really questioned into grammatically correct slogans, and the sloganeers with the catchiest phrases, the most confidence, and the most money will shape the future.

That sounds a little familiar.

Surreality

(This is a riff off of Kathleen’s post on seriality and may make more sense if you read that first.)

One of the years that I was in graduate school, the Computers and Writing conference was held in Hawaii, a fact that drove me bananas. Bad enough that it happened every year at the end of the fiscal year (guaranteeing the absence of travel funding), and bad enough that I could barely afford any conferences, but to hold it in a place that was extra expensive to get to? So, one evening, I went on this prodigious rant in front of a couple of friends, enumerating all of these points and more–apparently, at some point I convinced myself that I’d made two points and needed to gear up for a third. I said, “And C…Hawaii?!?!” (imagine this in my best whatever voice) whereupon we all collapsed in laughter. After that point, regardless of how many items were on the list, “C. Hawaii?!?!” became our way of poking holes in each others’ will-to-rant. (It works best, I find, if I number my points, and then break out the C.) And I still think about it from time to time, if I get particularly wound up about something, and need a way to defuse. So clearly, it’s a charter member of my Inside Joke Hall of Fame.

Inside jokes are interesting to me, in that we talk about them primarily as a strategy for patrolling the boundaries of a given social group: You don’t get it. You’re not one of us. You had to be there. And C. Hawaii?? But no one sits around with friends plotting out how they can exclude everyone else through the use of obscurity and in-jokes. There’s something to the in-joke that’s typical of social networks in general, something that doesn’t have only to do with exclusion.

There’s an analogy here to be made between the inside joke and scholarly publication, but the analogy is less perfect than I think critics typically let on. Think for a moment about the criticisms of disciplinary specialization that complain about all the jargon, the barriers to entry, the tiny number of people who comprise the intended audience, and you’ve got a bumper sticker: Print publication is the inside joke of academia. But it’s a little more complicated than that, yes? Part of the point of publication is that you don’t have to be there and then, and thank goodness for that. Whatever the truth of execution may be, part of the point of a published essay or book is that it intends to rise above the messiness of the moment (deixis!) to make some sort of statement that incorporates both the flashes of insight and the perspective of reflection. That perspective, ideally, allows us to select and combine the insights that have some lasting value, those that are worth preserving precisely for those people who weren’t there in the moment with us.

One of the very few moments of friction for me with Kathleen’s post comes in her historicization of academic discourse, and only because I think that

The first modern scholarly journals came into being as a means of broadening and systematizing such correspondence, and in the process, gradually replaced a sense of ongoing exchange with one of formal conclusion.

is a thin description of the shift to formal publication. (I actually talk a little bit about this in a CCCC presentation I did a few years back.) Not that I disagree with it, but there are a lot of advantages to be had in supplementing conversation: community, memory, storage, preservation, hypotaxis, et al. There’s perhaps an argument to be made about how that shift parallels the one from orality to literacy, but I’d have to do a lot more research to make it. At the very least, though, I think there’s a danger in imagining the modern scholarly journal as simply a fall from seriality–I don’t think K does this, but I definitely get that vibe from some who advocate for open access. For example, the phrase “guerilla self-publishing” brings into play a whole host of associations that position us in particular (undesirable?) ways, and tend to return us to the bumper sticker understanding of things. (For the record, Aimee doesn’t use that term–I’m fairly sure she got headlined.)

I’ve titled my piece “surreality” partly for the homophony with “seriality,” but mostly because I don’t think we can talk about the horizontal of seriality without considering it in combination with some vertical quality, and “sur” (over, on top of) + “reality” (duh) fits cleverly. The inside joke is a micro-example of this ratio in action–something happens over the course of a conversation (seriality) that’s particularly funny, and it becomes a touchstone or reference point (surreality) in later conversations. A discipline is a much much more complicated site to think about this, because you have to get into talking about a lot of different layers of surreality. In one important sense, seriality doesn’t change (Randall Collins has a tome); it is the foundation of what we do as writers, as social beings, as communities. But as any community expands to the point where its members can no longer sit around the same table, or fit into the same room, surreality begins to assert itself. Actually, that’s not quite right, because it implies that there’s some point prior to surreality. Fact is, regardless of how reflexive or naturalized the process becomes, we’re always choosing the words we use as a result of the combination. Within a complicated, dispersed community like a discipline, surreality manifests itself in a broad range of genres, from course syllabi to reading lists to published scholarship–we are constantly engaged in the process of sorting and managing our serially generated knowledge along that vertical axis of evaluation, priority, importance, salience.

And yet. It’s not just the case that, back in the day, academia flipped the switch and got to publishing. The system we have now is broken, in part, because surreality drowns out the seriality, and again, I firmly believe that this is a question of scale. (I also still believe that there are important steps that we can take to deal with issues of scale, that we don’t.) At a given size, a community outgrows itself in certain ways, almost like phase transitions. Aimee’s essay (not to mention countless others) points to some of the implications for this outgrowth: the model we have often results in long lag times that erase seriality even further, specializations become ever more insular and inaccessible, and institutionally, we can become overwhelmed with the added layers upon layers (please write an executive summary of the committee report compiling the outside reviews of the scholarship section of the tenure packet, would you? oh, and write another book while you’re at it.). It can become an Escherian vision of interlocking, overlapping synecdoches–wholes distilled into parts gathered into wholes distilled into parts gathered into wholes–that’s disorienting and demoralizing.

In that sense, the metonymy machines of social media are a refreshing alternative. And honestly, I think we desperately want that alternative. Some of the most popular essays in my field are those that highlight their seriality (Elbow v Bartholomae, Gale v Jarratt/Glenn). Think about all the energy generated at conferences, in part because of the stark contrast they provide to our normal academic lives. The surreal pressures of academic life (and here I’ll use it both ways) have created a space where our cv’s, the tiniest surreality tip of the seriality iceberg, replace all of the energy, exploration, invention, experimentation, community, and (yes) excitement that should accompany what it is we do. It’s freakin hard to replace “I have to get another line for my cv this semester” with “I want to explore this set of ideas and talk with these people” as a baseline motivation; one of those goals is measurable, and one is not (or at least not necessarily so).

One of the cool moments for me about K’s piece was that it sent me back to my essay in Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media–in a sense, that essay’s actually all about this issue. And the fact that it appears in a book that’s library-priced only underscores the point. Anyhow, among the recommendations I make there is one about turning our graduate seminars more towards seriality. Let me quote liberally:

As disciplines grow, and the ground that we must cover in our courses increases, the temptation is to rely more and more heavily on the shortcuts we develop, synoptic texts, surveys, anthologies. We rely upon the consensus of the field to determine our texts, comfortable in the assumption that while our students might not be exposed fully to the conversations in the field, they’ve acquired some sense of what’s important. As I hope I’ve implied above, one problem with such shortcuts is that they skip over the very processes our students need to understand to arrive at that perspective. There is no single, correct model that could be applied to every subject matter, but one important step we might take is to treat at least some of our graduate courses less as sites of coverage and more as sites of topical development. In other words, our courses could serve as disciplinary simulation, where students can study a topic or issue as it unfolds in the discipline over a particular interval, even if that unfolding doesn’t provide the coverage that a more synoptic survey might.

An important part of such a course would be attending to the conversation as it emerged, taking texts chronologically, of course, but also studying them closely for their epistemic practices. It would be worth examining how the texts during one time frame take up or set aside those texts that preceded them, and reading one week’s texts as the consequence and outcome of prior weeks’ readings. Certain texts would begin to acquire disciplinary density and centrality; others might prompt a week or two of discussion and fade into obscurity. Such a course would ideally train students to read the discipline, helping them see how each successive text built on what preceded it, how each framed issues in particular ways, how certain texts were taken up and canonized, and others set aside. A certain amount of time would be need to spent exploring and explicating the texts themselves, but the emphasis in such a course would be intertextual, exploring the impact that the texts had on the network formed through the conversation they engaged in (102). (“Discipline and Publish: Reading and Writing the Scholarly Network”)

[Alex's piece on "how to do things with a humanities phd" just came across my reader, and it occurred to me that the idea of "microecology" links up nicely with what I'm suggesting above. He writes: "A microecological approach, at least as I see it, suggests that elements might combine in unexpected ways, and that while the totality, seen from a great distance, might look the same (i.e. from the outside an English department still looks like an English department), from the inside (of any discipline), the relations might look very different." Metonymy!]

Wow, I should wind this up. Let me close with the same issue that K does – evaluation. Like her, I really value seriality, and I’m conscious of the fact that in today’s academy, it’s a privilege to be able to embrace that value. I think the question of credit, though, can drift dangerously into the surreality side of things. It can reterritorialize seriality, if we’re not careful about that. So I think there’s some strategy in looking to the sites where seriality hasn’t been erased–like conferences–to think about how we’re able to preserve seriality. Where I get a little tangled up is in the “prepositional differences” I wrote about in response to the OPR document: should blogging be more like publication? should publication be more like blogging? should both be more like conferences? do I really need one thing to rule them all? (probably not.)

I’ve got more to say, but I’ve also got more clever post titles to invent, so I’ll do both later. After I finish this damn essay.

 

Academic Horoscopia

Gah. I’m taking a break from putting the (semi) final touches on my contribution to the updated edition of A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. My chapter is about “New Media Pedagogy,” and it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve had to write in recent memory. I’m really hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be one of the worst things I’ve had to write in recent memory. So, fingers crossed.

One of the things that they don’t tell you as a graduate student is that there’s a special genre of writing that you get to do later on where failure is all but guaranteed. You get a little taste of it during the job search, I think, but because you’re competing against other candidates who are all faced with the same impossible task, there’s something mildly comforting about that. The best example of this is probably the teaching philosophy statement (the acronym for which should sound familiar). That statement needs to be general enough to fit into a couple of pages, and yet, the values/perspectives that operate at that level of generality are largely shared in a given community. If you asked most people in a given discipline to list 5 terms/phrases characteristic of their approach to teaching, my guess is that the overlap would run in the neighborhood of about 95%, and much of the underlap would have to do with only a few factors (early v late tech adoption, e.g.). There are strategies that we can use (examples, stories, assignments) to make ourselves somewhat distinctive, but honestly, even those are pretty generic. We are forced in the context of the old TPS Report to try and locate some middle ground between the universal, disciplinary values and the particularities of our classrooms (which often depend on factors beyond our control anyway: location, student population, time of day, curricular guidelines).

I can think of no better analogy for this sort of writing than the horoscope, and I think sometimes about what it would mean to have to actually write them for a living. You’re not allowed to be stupidly obvious (“You will wake up today.”), nor meaningfully specific (“That cutie on the elevator today will make eye contact and smile at you!”), so instead you’re stuck with this awkward language that implies specificity (“Today is an opportune time for changes and new things as long as you choose things that continue to pique your long-term interests.”) while still being vague enough to apply to roughly 1/12 of the population. So the horoscope has to try and capture both the macroscope (you’re a Pisces!) and the microscope (you’re a snowflake!), and ends up doing neither particularly well (“You might look around your house and think of some new and exciting ways to spruce it up a little, Gemini,” unless you don’t live in a house, work more than one job, need to spend that money on food and shelter, and/or are turned off by anyone using the word “spruce” as a verb.).

Back to my problem. One of the things that’s really valuable about books like GCP is its ability to distill a lot of expertise and sourcework into a small space. This is incredibly useful for folks who are new to the field. And yet, the process by which that work is published and made available is the same process that results in our specialist work. And so yes, it’s inevitable that this chapter I’m writing will be read alongside much better, more focused scholarship, and it will look like a poorly dressed bumpkin next to that work. I’m in the position of having to cover a lot of ground in a distressingly small space–pan out too wide and I’m obvious, zoom in too close and I’m pointless. If I try to be timeless, I can only speak in the broadest and most meaningless generalities; if I go timely, then I’m guaranteeing myself a six month shelf life. I remember sitting around as a graduate student, ripping apart others’ horoscope essays, taking them to task for all of the weaknesses that are built into the genre itself, not realizing until years later that maybe they weren’t such dullards after all. It’s not easy to write looking forward to that kind of reception.

It is both the best and the worst thing that horoscope essays are often read by more people than the combined scholarly audience for everything else an author has written. And yet, it’s also an honor to be asked to write them, despite the frustrating built-in failures of the genre. Gah.

For what it’s worth, I have to admit that I momentarily flirted with the idea of writing: “Today is an opportune time for changes and new media as long as you choose assignments that support your long-term pedagogical philosophy. You might look online and think of some new and exciting ways to spruce it up a little. Now, here’s a 25-page bibliography to get you started.”

Gah.

(ps. If ever there were a genre that would lend itself to crowdsourcing and curation, it is this one. Don’t think for a minute that I didn’t think about that as well.)

Open Peer Review and Generative Attention

I’ll begin by thanking Kathleen, Avi, and the rest of the Mellonaires for posting Open Review, and providing a nice hub for this conversation. Honestly, I have other things I should be doing, but upon reading Alex’s thoughts on the matter, and waiting for the aftermath of today’s root canal to come and go, I hunkered down and did a little reading. Now that I have enough focus to write, my thought is that if I don’t post something now about it, I probably won’t ever. So…open peer review.

I’m not opposed to it in any way, so like Alex, I may not quite be the audience for the piece. That being said, my own rhetorical disconnect differs a bit from his. Alex asks, “What is the problem with existing scholarly review procedures that the open review process seeks to solve?” and his answer is that “The humanities publish work of little interest.” There’s a lot more to his comments, so they’re worth reading in their entirety, but I want to pull out one thread and take it in a different direction. Among other things he notes:

For most humanities scholars (and when I say most, I mean 99%+), review feedback is the most substantive (and often only) conversation they encounter regarding their work. We know something like 95% of humanities articles go uncited. Even when an article is cited, there’s no assurance that the citation represents a substantive engagement with one’s text. So there is rarely much intertextual conversation that would be akin to editorial feedback. Be honest: have you ever published an article that received the degree of attention I’ve given this white paper here?

This was a little jarring to me, because honestly, my answer is yes. In fact, I’d say that just about every article I’ve published has received that degree of attention. I’ve gotten plenty of substantive conversation, engagement, and even some intertextual conversation. However, I’ve gotten that attention before publication, not after it. And although I do my share of reviewing for journals and tenure cases, most of my “generative attention,” if I may turn a phrase, is shared with those friends and colleagues who seek my feedback.

For example, the piece that I published in JAC on posthuman rhetorics way back when (PDF) actually began as a review essay of Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, drifted towards Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, and I can still remember sitting with my writing group at ODU, talking about it, and feeling the click as we all realized that it was actually something else entirely. I remember that click better than I remember the essay itself, honestly. And just about every memory that I have of having received generative attention is similar–I remember the attention and engagement more than I do the final product. Insofar as open peer review might provide that, sign me up.

But I guess it feels like it’s almost a little backwards to me. My first reaction upon reading

They impact publishing, of course, but also the ways scholarly work is assessed beyond the moment of publication, from hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions to funding applications, and the development of a scholarly reputation.

was to mad-lib it, and to ask what about “the ways scholarly work is [encouraged] [before] the moment of publication…”? It seems to me that we do a better job of providing generative attention at conferences, research network fora, workshops, and the like. So, OPR feels a bit like we’re asking about how we can get X (peer review, publication) to be more like Y (conferences, writing groups), when it might be just as fruitful to ask how we can build upon Y to the point of making X less of a chokepoint.

It’s entirely possible that I’m inventing a difference where none exists. None need exist, certainly–the obvious answer to this concern is that there’s nothing to stop both kinds of projects from happening. And I buy that to a degree. But when I read through some of those recommendations, I felt exhausted by them. One obvious problem of starting from X is that you have to deal with all of the accumulated and varied baggage that the traditional peer review system brings. And honestly, I wonder a little about how these publication-style experiments would scale up if a significant portion of any community (much less lots of them) tried to implement them. I’m sympathetic to turning over a rock or two, but I can also imagine a world where every single site comes with its own set of rocks that have to be lifted over and over and over. I pity the first people who have to prepare their tenure committees by explaining each of the peer review schemes behind their various publications. :)

Maybe it’s just a push-pull thing for me. A site like Digital Humanities Now feels like a much more intuitive way to build upon the kinds of attention that we want than trying to chisel away at the gigantic ice block of publication. The more I say about this, the more I realize that this is more of a prepositional difference than a propositional one, so maybe I should stop writing at this point. Heh. If nothing else, I like the idea of generative attention, and I certainly agree with the goals behind the idea of OPR, enough so that I’m planning on experimenting with it for my second “book” project. More on that story as it develops. Now? Now I have deadlines to dispatch.

 

 

 

It is no mere coincidence

I’ve been sorting back through some of my old posts at cgbvb, and thinking about whether or not I’m going to port some of the oldies here to this site. I’m not decided one way or the other just yet. I will say that, given the time I spent on job market advice and scholarly communication, among other topics, it does seem a shame to let those posts languish. The prospect of sorting through 1000-odd posts to pull them out, however, suggests to me that it’s a project for another time.

One of the things that I didn’t talk about when I stopped blogging is the fact that really, I only added about 40 or so entries after my father passed away in the fall of 2007, over the course of about 3 months. That sounds like a lot of posts to me now, but most of them are short. Maybe I’m projecting, but as I read back through some of them, I can feel myself just trying to hold on to the habit despite a deep affective resistance to doing so. What I’m circling around to here is that it is indeed no mere coincidence that my dad’s passing matches up so well with my old blog’s demise.

I don’t think about it nearly as much, but I still feel that grief and pain, and given that Father’s Day is tomorrow, those feelings have surfaced. What hasn’t surfaced this year is the strong association I carried with me between his death and the torturously protracted process that led to the publication of my first book. I’ve told plenty of people this, but I don’t know that I’ve ever said it publicly: from the time that I turned in the first draft of my manuscript (late summer 2004), it took nearly five years for it to be published. For those of you keeping score at home, that means that my dad never got to see my book, and that’s a fact that added several layers of anger, pain, and disenchantment to the emotional cocktail brewing in me at the time. When they honored my book at Computers and Writing the following year, it was very difficult for me to feel any sort of joy.

And I don’t know that that’s changed all that much. At some point this year, though, I seem to have recommitted myself to writing in a way that wasn’t possible for me for a long time. And thus here I am, writing mostly to myself, and inviting you all to read along. It feels pretty good, although it’s a different sort of pleasure than I got from the first go-round of my blog. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll puzzle that all out.

Anyhow, I’m also circling around to the fact that the final blog post I wrote was something that I never published there. Those of you who happened upon my book will recognize that post as the Acknowledgments section. Given that Father’s Day is in less than an hour now, I thought I would post it here. Perhaps it functions for me here as something of a symbolic opening ceremony, a place to pass the proverbial torch from one blog to another, and a sign that enough of my grief has passed to be able to let me write again. Whether or not those things are true, it makes me smile tonight to think that they are.


 
Acknowledgments

The book before you is the culmination of a long and layered history, spanning my time at three different institutions. It began as my dissertation at the University of Texas at Arlington, and while the current volume shares little with that document beyond a title and an abiding interest in the classical canons of rhetoric, it’s difficult for me not to think of this project as an inevitable outgrowth of my work as a graduate student ten years ago. In that time, however, my thoughts on rhetoric and technology have been honed, challenged, supported, and complicated by friends and colleagues at UTA, Old Dominion, and Syracuse, and there is no question in my mind that they have helped to push my thought further than I ever could have on my own. Under normal circumstances, I would take this opportunity to thank as many of them as possible; I am grateful for their support and mentorship over the years, certainly, but I believe that they will understand if I fail to mention them here by name.

While this book was in press, my father, Charles Winston Brooke, passed away after a protracted battle with cancer. Even now, some months later, it is difficult for me to write those words, or to grasp fully the facts behind them. We are faced in our lives with losses and joys at every turn—I am not so self-centered as to imagine that my own experiences in this regard are unique—but with my father’s passing, I have struggled to regain what was at one time my unquestioned faith in the sufficiency of language. I have struggled to articulate the conflicted mess of emotion and experience that has been my near-constant companion for the past year. It has not been something that I have felt especially comfortable either talking or writing about, and even now, I have my doubts. But this is what I remember:

  • Saturday morning errands to the library, the hardware store, the firm
  • Dad’s Club softball, YMCA soccer, and playing kickball at dusk in the summers
  • Our annual trips to Missouri to buy fireworks for the 4th of July
  • Youth group canoe trips to the Boundary Waters
  • My father trying to learn to play the flute. Trying.
  • The first Quad-City Symphony Riverfront Pops concert
  • Going to Wrigley Field in the summers
  • Borrowing my father’s clothes for debate tournaments
  • Being able to attend any college that accepted me
  • Exploring cemeteries in Indiana tracking down our family history
  • Struggling to understand graduate school my first go-round
  • Living in and renovating the saltbox on 13th Street
  • Deciding to give graduate school another try
  • Landing my first tenure-track position
  • Driving the UHaul from Virginia to New York
  • Watching my father be sworn in as Mayor of Davenport
  • Going to Busch Stadium last summer

In one sense, I never had the chance to thank my father for any of these things. But as I spent time with him last summer, even though we never talked about it, I like to think that I showed my gratitude each day. I think it frustrated him to be treated as someone who was dying, when in fact each day was another day of life. And we spent those days doing crosswords, watching baseball, eating out, reading, catching movies, and talking local politics. For the past few years, every time I left Iowa to return home, I did so not knowing if I’d see him again, but when I was there, I was there, in the moment, nothing more, nothing less.

Through all the good times and the bad, my father was there for me, and that’s something I don’t know that I fully appreciated until it was my turn to be there for him. Here’s a final memory. In May of 1997, I received my first job offer from Old Dominion, which was contingent upon completing my dissertation. I had to choose between turning down the offer and spending another year in Texas or spending the entire summer doing nothing but writing. Without a second thought, my father loaned me the money so that I could finish my dissertation and accept that offer. Of all the layers that comprise the history of this book, one of the deepest is the support I received over the years from my father. He may not be around to read it, but he’s here in these pages. The name on the front is mine, but the book itself is ours.

Hope you enjoy it, Dad.
-cgb

Argument by Adjective

This summer, for what seems like the umpteenth time, I’ve been working with our veteran graduate students in our Summer Job Group. We meet every couple of weeks, peer review cover letters, dossier materials, etc. I’ve backed away from the group a bit in years past for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I think it’s important to have multiple voices guiding the process. It’s a bit like teaching the same course several times in a row–it gets increasingly difficult to remember who knows what, which stories you’ve told and which you haven’t, etc. It can be difficult to hold your own thinking about the process at the same place year after year, even though for each group of students, the advice and anecdotes are new. And in the past few years, there have been some major changes (Interfolio, Skype interviews, et al.) that can have a ripple effect on even some of the tried-and-true pearls of wisdom that I once held dear.

As is often the case, this kind of work makes me all the more conscious of my own verbal tics and habits, and this year, I found one that I emphasized quite a bit to the group, particularly in the context of cover letters. I don’t know that I’d elevate it to the level of fallacy or anything, but my name for it makes it sound like one: I call it “argument by adjective” (AA).

There is a lot of ground to cover in an application letter, and no small amount of emotional investment on the part of the writer. Perhaps more than any other document, the cover letter is a prose representation of one’s self as an aspiring academic, and as such, it’s probably the most difficult site at which we need to balance the competing interests of writer and audience. That is, we want to present ourselves in the best possible light, as quickly as possible, while still ensuring that we meet audience expectations and interests. Perhaps not everyone thinks of it in those terms, but I guess I always have. I’ve been on plenty of search committees, and I can tell when a letter tips too far in one direction (3 dense, 10pt, expanded-margin pages that cite every line on the vita) or the other (someone largely unqualified who’s trying way too hard to prove to the committee that they really do fit the position after all, despite every indication to the contrary).

It’s hard to strike that balance and even more difficult to let go of the letter enough to judge semi-objectively whether one has struck it successfully. One of the things that often happens (for me, at least) is a kind of compression; I might have only 1-2 sentences to describe a project where I would prefer 6-7, and as a result, I’ll really try to pack those 1-2 sentences, and make every word count. When I’m doing this, I have a bad habit of building arguments into my adjectives. So for example, rather than including 2-3 sentences about the various perspectives I’m negotiating as I engage in an interpretation of a phenomenon, I might instead simply say that “my project offers a nuanced, rhetorical interpretation of X.” It’s easy to fall into this–it saves space, and it starts to get at what I feel is the value of my project.

The problem is, of course, that I’m claiming that value on behalf of my project that the letter itself can’t ever earn. And if the people reading my letter are doing so closely, I can’t really blame them for wondering exactly why I’m claiming values that are best judged by my readers. I try not to read this strictly when I’m on committees, but honestly, it’s sometimes hard for me to ignore it. My archetypal example for AA is Dave Eggers’ book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; while I can thankfully report that I’ve never seen AA in a cover letter even approach that level, I do think that we employ that kind of blurby language, albeit more subtly.

It’s not really up to me to decide or to claim that my work is complex, sophisticated, nuanced, compelling, effective, interesting, thoughtful, careful, close, detailed, thorough, or heartbreaking. Heck, it took me almost a month (and a Facebook poll of my friends) to decide to include the word “groundbreaking” when I was writing the cover blurb for my book, and I still feel awkward about having done so. And that’s a blurb.

What I try to do is to treat adjectives a lot like pronouns. In the same that you wouldn’t use a pronoun without first establishing the proper noun to which it refers, I try (hard) to use only those adjectives that are earned within the context of the document itself. That means that if I want to describe my project as nuanced, I need at least an additional sentence that communicates (effectively) that nuance. Or that complexity. Or that thoughtfulness. Or that staggering genius.

Adjectives, I try to remind myself, are for interviews. Nouns and verbs get my foot in the door. That’s the (brilliant) piece of (timeless) advice that I (thoughtfully) re/learned this (delightful) summer.

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