Monthly Archives: September 2012

For Good Measure: We’d all love to see the plan.

Note to ENGL 8900 readers – I posted this shortly after my weekly 8900 submission, which can be found here.

NBC’s Revolution pilot and second episode have aired, and have left me with something of an axe to grind with television science fiction. Spoilers may await you below, so be warned.

A short synopsis: sometime in our near future, an unnamed catastrophe strikes the entire planet, rendering all electronics non-functional. Televisions fizzle to eternal darkness, cellphones and computers wink out, cars coast to a stop on highways, planes fall from the sky, and cats and dogs are free to marry at last. Fifteen years later, survivors live in the bombed out remnants of the Chicago area, reduced to pre-tech (and seemingly, pre-industrial) means of providing for themselves. At least one survivor, as is indicated in a pre-disaster vignette, may know the cause of and perhaps information crucial to reversing the blackout. When he’s killed in a militia’s attempt to kidnap him for this information, his daughter and two other plucky villagers (a doctor and an ex-Google engineer) join her quest to fulfill her father’s dying wish that she locate her uncle to help rescue the brother that was taken instead during the botched abduction.

Aside from being uncomfortably close in concept to existing novels (SM Stirling’s Dies the Fire, for one), Revolution signals that producers still aren’t learning any lessons from mainstream science fiction juggernauts like Lost and Battlestar Galactica. I make it a general policy to give new shows at least two or three episodes before I abandon them, but I’m not finding a lot to work with here. The people over in the TVTropes forum have been having a ball with this since its trailer appeared months ago, but my irritation with this show has to do with more with the substantive part of any drama, not just science fiction.

Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was known to ask any writer pitching an episode to explain what the story was about. For Roddenberry, and I think for any story that will stand up to critical viewing or reading, there has to be a deeper storyline than just surface deep. Think about how some of our greatest science fiction films stack up against that: Terminator 2 (fate, the human condition, compassion), The Matrix (destiny, the mind as a prison, the nature of reality), The Empire Strikes Back (legacy, the sins of the father, self-discovery), Space 2001 (self-awareness, our place in the universe, our impact on others), Planet of the Apes (the seventh generation, slavery, man as steward of the Earth) The Wrath of Khan (aging, relevance, loss, self-assessment). Of course there are many more films that never reached real blockbuster status that still hold up to the same standard, but my point is that we do stumble upon the occasional story that, despite a science fiction facade, manages to deliver a real story to the masses and win popular acclaim at the same time. Why can’t this apply to television shows more often?

What we have in Revolution is what we see again and again in network science fiction offering. Scrimping on acting talent; shoddy writing that fails to see the difference between genuine mystery/intrigue and chaotic script twists; and failing to plan beyond the hook of the story (something I fully admit I fell for, as skeptical as I was). Like with ABC’s V remake, NBC is acting like an ethically-deficient used car dealership, and appears to have slapped another coat of shiny paint on the same rickety, mechanically unsound clunker that will break down within five minutes of driving off the used car lot.

I love apocalyptic fiction, but what I love is nowhere to be found here. In compelling fiction, the story is about characters. In compelling apocalyptic fiction, the characters are really all you have to work with because the size of the world has necessarily shrunk, and characters necessarily have immense impact on each other – good and bad. The genre reduces humans to their basest motivations and puts them in fascinating conflicts between their cultured selves from a lost world and their primal selves in a new world. Yet I know so little beyond the surface depth of these characters because they are all clichés: a guilt-ridden, angry teenager with something to prove; an enigmatic outlaw who has been a loner so long that depending on others is anathema; a megalomaniacal villain who thinks he’s the good guy; and a violent and ruthless henchman (this last one is a true disappointment for Giancarlo Esposito, coming off his success as a fantastically deep and nuanced villain in AMC’s Breaking Bad). These characters are still their archetypes two episodes in.

Combine this with some standard failings of mediocre science fiction shows, such as acting that ranges from bland to forced, exposition that’s incongruous with the fictional world it comes from (such as forcing the common back story of a family member’s death into the dialogue between a father and daughter – they should both know and wouldn’t need to speak so explicitly), and situational clichés aplenty. And I’m no physicist, yet I’m pretty sure that while a plane faced with sudden power loss/engine failure would of course crash, it would happen in a glide that turns into a nosedive. It would not spin downward like a winged bird.

I’ll watch the third episode of Revolution tomorrow, giving it one more chance to show a glimmer of potential because this is a personal rule of mine with new shows. I want it to be better because I want science fiction on TV to be better, but also because I know this show’s failure will be more “proof” to producers that science fiction is too risky a genre for TV. Surprise, surprise.

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8900: Scholarship rechanneled (or, A meta-analysis of academic blogging)

By the time Yancey’s Made Not Only in Words was published, blogs had been around for a few years. It wasn’t until mid-decade – about the time in which Yancey writes – that the format was beginning to be realized for its scholarly potential.

Since that time many composition instructors have worked course blogging into their pedagogy, grateful to provide an outlet for student writing that was an alternative to, as Yancey stated, “emphasis on a primary and single human relationship: the writer in relation to the teacher” (309). Instructors saw in blogging many potentials: the encouragement of critical thinking and writing; the revoicing of writing into a conversational tone that they wouldn’t feel compelled to call out during grading of a major course paper; and the tearing down of the firewall of official school writing venues so student writers could engage with a broader audience that didn’t necessarily have to include the instructor. Scholarly blogging was, and is still, a developmental win-win.

Concurrently, these same instructors were realizing the potential scholarly blogging held for their own professional development. Blogs, especially when shared with a circle of like-minded pedagogues, were a New Media writing locus somewhere short of the same status as journal publication, but still worthy of consideration as scholarship. The immediacy of an academic blog’s writer-reader relationship helped to refine rhetorical thinking and pedagogy through a much quicker, nimbler, and more negotiated channel than the proposal>submit>rewrite>publish>review>respond process of traditional publishing. While there wasn’t the same strength of quality control we attribute to a peer-reviewed journal, there was a real-time editorial process enabled by peers nonetheless: colleagues in the academy received and reciprocated profoundly helpful criticism. This is a strength that is arguably unique to scholarly blogging: agile, rigorous, yet collaborative pedagogical development.

I’ve already experienced the benefits of scholarly blogging requirements twice as a student. In 2009 (the course that required the development of this blog’s earlier iteration) and now in this course, I’ve felt more free to engage with whatever little item of interest I personally find worth writing about, but to not worry about inflating it to full paper size, scope, or rigor. Comments that I’ve left and that have been left for me continue this sort of development. Much like the professional’s circle of like minds, these course blog rings synthesize that reciprocal development.

I came to choose this topic for this week’s post from two inputs: Yancey’s mention that “faculty see blogs – if they see them at all – as (yet) another site for learning” (302) and Ball’s Show, Not Tell quoting of Steven Krause:

‘Prior to the web, it was east to determine what should or shouldn’t count as scholarship: if it appeared as an article in a peer reviewed journal or if it was published as a book by a respectable press, it was definitionally ‘scholarship’ both in the abstract sense of advancing knowledge and in the tangible sense of being worthy to count toward tenure, review, merit, and so forth.’ [emphasis added] (404)

I too have experienced the sense of reciprocal development the way an academic would when a few of my blog postings have briefly become known to the larger internet community of rhetoricians. There’s nothing like seeing an unknown name as a commenter on your blog to put your confidence in your writing to the test. It is because of these moments that I wonder if blog scholarship really isn’t as rigorous as the more accepted forms of scholarly development. Departments must also be wondering about this status, too, as scholarly blogs are included more and more in instructor portfolios for review, promotion, or even tenure.

Scholarly blogs serve as a microcosm of the Burkean parlor conversation or, to stretch the metaphor a little further, conversations among a small gathering of parlor attendees off to the side. The larger conversation is still in effect, but these sidebars draw from it and later add back to it, enriching the breadth and depth of the parlor topic over time. If we see blogs in composition class as worthwhile (something I certainly plan for 1102 and the next time I teach 1101),  blogs have to be worth something professionally.

8900: Interface in flux

I feel silly saying this so bluntly, but 2004 was a long time ago. So was early/mid 2003, which is probably the rough timeframe Wysocki and Jasken set about writing “What should be an unforgettable face …” for its March 2004 publication.

Let’s round this out to an even nine years ago and snapshot the changes between Fall 2003 and Fall 2012: Windows XP hadn’t reached its dominating saturation point yet, so most users were operating in Windows 98 or 2000. Apple Mac OSX was still a puny minority of usership that had no impact on the greater interface landscape. The iPod was not yet the ubiquitous music serving device, having begun only its third generation. Facebook and MySpace were still nascent. The first iPhone and the waves of similar smartphones were still four years from launch. The dominant social writing venue was still LiveJournal. Public wireless access was still mostly offered only to large university communities.

These and many other interfaces stand between us now and us then. At the time “Unforgettable face” was written, the dominant interfaces of software still played largely by the Microsoft Windows rules; the vast majority of all computing tasks, writing included, happened in Windows environment. Thus, interface advanced only as much as this massive software landscape allowed it. There were the alternatives of Linux and Mac out there, but at that time they served niche users, so virtually all writing applications for Windows had the same over aesthetic.

Admittedly, the growing Mac usership hasn’t really challenged the Microsoft model. In both environments, we still have a row of menus to choose from, and within each the same basic types of functions can be expected to be in the same basic space: the File menu still features saving, opening, and printing; we still have the same icons for basic functions at the top of the screen; our text still appears on a simulated page surface; we still utilize the same conventions of formatting our text – although that may have more to do with the persistence of the academy’s expectations than the software.

What has challenged the model is the explosion of touch screen environments. When opened up to the processing power of these small, inexpensive little computers, app developers have shown enormous creativity in recreating interfaces over and over again. Swiping, taping, pinching, and dragging offers ways to interact with our writing spaces that desktops and laptops still don’t replicate. This has perhaps restored the personal quality of writing that the authors say is missing from computer-based composition. Especially on the larger devices such as the iPad, document drafting, management, and customization has gained depth and immediacy.

I won’t deny that this same omnipresent communications technology doesn’t lead to greater distraction (although at least in cases of Facebook and Twitter, we are distracted from our writing with more writing), but surely the benefits come out ahead. If we continue to expand interfaces to more closely approach invisibility (remember that Google Glass is on the horizon), perhaps we will retake all of the immediacy of tangible composition and enhance it with the flexibility and creativity enabled by the technology we’ve come to appreciate these past nine years.

8900: Identity discovery for the “other” in online spaces

My last two 8900 posts were embarrassingly long, so I’ll attempt to narrow in on my point much sooner this week. I’ll focus just on Alexander et al.’s Queerness, sexuality, technology, and writing.

The first question that comes to mind in choosing to comment on this piece is one of my own identity: what right do I have to speak here? I’m the definition of “default,” as the participants in this conversation would conclude. In virtually any broadly trafficked digital community(that is, a place founded not on those identifying a specific way), users are assumed male, Caucasian, and heterosexual. I do believe the past decade has seen the internet user as a conglomerate entity mature and attain a more nuanced awareness of the non-normative. Still, we humans like social sorting, and any deviation from our concept of “norm” translates to some degree of otherness. These identity-based online communities, as the authors discuss in relation to queerness, are powerful tools in exploring, defining, and contextualizing aspects of the self that users might otherwise never get to know as fully. As the “default” user assumed in so many online spaces, I can only imagine the power of these digital safe harbors for those who don’t see themselves when they look at the internet at large.

Samantha Blackmon contributed to this insight when she retold how the internet was part of her coming out process:

“It gave me a space to contemplate my feelings. Online I was able to experiment with my queer identity. I learned that it was actually okay to be a ‘tomboy’ and that I looked like I was in drag when I wore a dress because I actually was… It was all a question of performativity and ‘performing the femme’” (14).

Blackmon later adds,

“I think it is easier to come out online where nobody knows that you are older, darker, fatter, etc., things that can make you less desirable… a place where the various layers of ‘otherness’ can be hidden if one chooses, where one can ‘pass’ by a simple act of omission” (16).

I’ll tie this back to composition instruction in a way I didn’t anticipate when I started this reading. What happens when the students Selfe was most concerned about – those already at risk of underdeveloped tech literacy – happen to fall into one of the “other” categories? Quite aside from the already significant heap of problems associated with this denial of digital naturalization, some of these students may never experience the same growth opportunities the authors relate. If the digital writing space remains unfamiliar ground to these users, they may never trust it enough to be the negotiator between their real world “in” self and their digital “out” self. Such self-discovery may take years or decades longer as a result, and will be littered with the same pitfalls some of the authors disclose from their pre-digital days.

Again it falls to those of us who are comfortable and initiated in the digital writing world to hold the door wide for those who are not yet.

8900: The digitally absent composition instructor

This is my first semester teaching a first-year composition course – teaching at all, for that matter. When teaching actual class sections was still a far-off, abstract thing I’d get to do soon – way back in May – I had the idealized notion that I’d nail it on the first try. That notion never really solidified into anything specific that I wanted to include, but I’m pretty sure the intent had been to teach a technologically perfect class. That never really happened. Before I knew it, life was consumed by packing, ill-fated house-hunting trips to Atlanta, and finalizing affairs in Michigan. Then after the move, everything centered pretty much on restarting life here; unpacking, becoming a legitimate Georgia resident, and generally orienting myself.

Then it was less than two weeks before the first day of class and I realized I hadn’t the haziest clue of what I really wanted my classes to look and function like. What was clear was the goal of ensuring students would leave my classes better prepared for college writing than when they entered. I think I did what many people do with their first classes: I retreated to something of a safe mode. I’d do a good job now, but try to make it great later. I built a syllabus around in-class lectures on all the bare essentials of writing (as if I am really qualified to make such pronouncements): process, organization, support, audience, revision, and all the other concepts pedagogy suggests. I then populated it with equally safe writing assignments, added a couple of TBD days to accommodate schedule tweaks, and called it ready. I don’t mean to devalue these things above, because they are the crucial parts of composition education that I hope every class I teach will deliver, but one of the things left on the cutting room floor was my notion of a “technologically perfect” class. It was crunch time, so I set aside that which was difficult to define.

My reaction as a new instructor mimics in part what was discussed in this week’s reading for 8900, but I’ll get to that in a moment. It’s important first to note that what Cynthia Selfe tells us comes from a timeline now significantly different from our own. 1997 (and still in 1999, when her thoughts were republished) was right as the brave new world of computer/internet technology was exploding. She was justified in her apprehension over the willful ignorance she saw in the composition instruction community, and perhaps that anxiety worsened in the light of how she viewed a class-based technological divide. I can see how in 1999, the tendency of comp instructors to omit a structured role for computers from their course plans deprived those of lower technological literacy of yet another opportunity to level the playing field. Beyond simply failing to capitalize upon what computers offered to composition, there did exist the risk that populations statistically less likely to own or make frequent use of computers would find themselves on the wrong side of a widening access gap.

Now back to 2012 in Sparks Hall and Classroom South: have I unwittingly done the very thing that Selfe feared? Have I disadvantaged students by not better integrating the use of computers in my own course design, or is the digital landscape sufficiently different now that I can put those fears aside? I believe we can go beyond the examples that are tirelessly trotted out in digital writing discussions, like social media and the proliferation of cell phones, and acknowledge that the economics are now far friendlier; the average cost of a bare bones desktop hovered around $1,000 at the end of the 90s, whereas perfectly capable laptops can now run between $250-$300. I won’t pretend that’s all there is to the issue of access, but I think that should be less of a concern to Selfe by now. On the other hand, I may still be doing a disservice to students by failing to more assertively break the writing venue model they likely had in high school: come to school, sit in a classroom with 20 other students, listen to one instructor talk about how one figures out how to write best, get an assignment, go home and type it out on a word processor (Selber nailed it – the mode is still a glorified typewriter), and finally hand it in.

I believe my hesitation to include formalized digital writing requirements in my haste to come up with a course plan can be linked back to a question I asked myself constantly during the development phase: “What purpose does this serve?” When I attempted answer that question regarding digital writing, I felt my responses were either too corny and trite (“our students are writing digitally all the time, anyway”) or that I risked distracting from the ultimate point of the course by trying too hard to be current. Thus, I retreated to a safe spot and made a copy of the any other old composition course. Write your papers, get some feedback, revise them, and off you go.

As I’m sure was intended when these readings were chosen, and as I hoped for when I decided on this course for my first semester, I’ve just taken a look at what I planned for my classes and am now thinking that waiting for “great” isn’t going to cut it. What I already have planned is good and important, but I think I need to take another crack at my syllabus to see what I can do better.

8900: The optimism of youth

New tends to freak humans out. Anytime something new comes along with the potential to redefine or redesign, we tend to get excited and upset in equal measure.

“New” is a messy, imprecise term when it comes to the broad fields of computers and composition instruction. That they overlap is clear, but how they interact and where they matter to each other is less so. There’s a recurrent theme in this week’s reading: optimism. From different snapshots in time, these writers attempt to parse the new effects of technology on writing. These observations are either directly optimistic themselves, or they engage the optimism of others.

Vannevar Bush, writing when we were only beginning to guess the possible outcomes of the nascent technology age, describes his conceptualization of home computing equipment designed to aid the storage and organization of information and research. Bush is optimistic that beleaguered researchers will finally have digital assistance in maintaining their ever-growing “mountain(s) of research” (2) and this would enable better writing. Nearly 45 years later Richard Lanham again focuses in on the benefits of technology on research, but now looks at it from the point of view of students. He writes that the literature and composition students of 1989 are on the verge of a quantum leap in the accessibility of texts, morphing from unidirectional talking to readers to a dialogue of authors and readers sharing both up and down the stream of information, creating nonpermanent living texts in the process. Both authors are dazzled by the concept of greater access and engagement with information.

Only two years after Lanham, however, Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe conclude this exuberance about what computers may offer writers doesn’t necessarily translate into better teaching: “… technology can fail us. We need to recognize that … computers can, and often do, support instruction that is as repressive and lockstep as any that we have seen” (61). Despite this criticism, Hawisher and Selfe still see potential for the technology to enable students of composition to retake authority over their own writing.

These discussions are still taking place in the academy, and with similar fervor of optimism and skepticism, depending on who you ask. In the past few years alone, we’ve heard enthusiasm over social writing spaces: writing is writing, and we should be thrilled that students are willingly occupying themselves with so much writing, no matter the venue. We’ve also heard frustration over these services and worry that these places undermine student understanding of audience and voice.

We’re always going to be reacting – optimistically or negatively – to what’s new in computing because the very nature of our technological existence ensures there will constantly be something new. The reality is that by the time we see enough to conclude that computers (again – the broadest sense of the term applies) have affected writing, that effect is so entrenched as to be irreversible, and the next big agent of change is already up and coming.

Transition

This marks the first post of this relocated blog. I get to feel all special for finally doing the 1999 thing and registering my own domain.

As far as already-present content goes, what comes before this post is an import of content from my Blogger blog. I kept most of what populated that blog, but did cut some of the more unrelated content from when I started writing there in 2009. Most of the earlier stuff had to do with class-required topics from one of my first University of Michigan-Flint classes, a course on digital rhetoric and new media in the classroom. The blog went silent for about a year until I resurrected it and refocused it as I began work on my MA thesis, an ill-fated and presumptuous answer to questions of the author’s fate as the ebook/ereader market exploded. I’ve maintained it sporadically since.

I intend to keep to mostly the same topics here, and because any blog relaunch or relocation wouldn’t be complete without empty promises to write more, I’ll vow to post more entries on more topics. That brings me to my thoughts on how I’ll choose what I include here.

When this blog launched for that UM-Flint class three years ago, my instructor and now friend James Schirmer introduced us to a term for a condition I had not realized was definable: multiphrenia. This term describes the sense of personality fracturing we experience as we engage with an ever-increasing number of social environments, particularly digitally. As Schirmer explained then, the multiphrenic self is constantly choosing which self to be in which venue. We experience great pressure to craft unique personas for each place, be it Facebook, as instructors online, in emails to students, in emails to faculty, on Twitter, in online games, when writing for blogs, or any other digital space we inhabit. One of the greatest assets of a digital life – the ability to seriously consider what we say before we hit “submit” – can turn against us as we experience anxiety over how we will be perceived once our text appears on someone else’s screen, so we fracture ourselves into our different aspects.  To see how we dissociate these facets, look no further than the methods Facebook and G+ offer to sort our connections into groups or circles. By enabling the sorting which information is sent to which group, we’re encouraged to be different things to different people online.

It is this identity stratification I’ve decided to resist. This blog will be refocused with this in mind. One of the causes for the large gaps between my posts in the past (not the cause – I can tend to be lazy, too) was my apprehension over what I was including. As you may see from the post before this one, I recently experienced the gut/mind/soul-wringing process of gaining admission to a PhD program (I was accepted to Georgia State’s Rhetoric and Composition, by the way). In the months between summer of 2011 and April this year, I’d had many notions to post on any of several topics, but I always froze when I asked myself one question: what if someone from the admissions committees at one of my schools decided to take a look at me beyond my application materials? Was I comfortable putting myself out there more and more, especially if it was more off topic? In retrospect, I realized I obsessed to the point of talking myself out of submitting several posts I enjoyed writing because they were unable to be reconciled with the image of Roger the hopeful academic. For better or worse, the personality compartmentalization worked out and I made it to where I wanted to be. I think that should end now. I’ve recently made the decision to integrate my Facebook and Twitter selves. Including this blog in the same person is the next step in the reunification of my online self.

If for some reason you end up being a reader of this blog, you may want a little about what to expect. This is how I’ll organize posts from this point forward:

  • 8900: These are posts responding to weekly topics for a Fall 2012 course on the subject of computers and composition. I’ll keep them around all semester. At the end, I may delete some or all of them, but I anticipate keeping at least a few if I think the topics have a broader applicability to what I prefer to write about here.
  • For Good Measure: Generally off-topic, more personal writing about anything and everything.
  • Probably Cats: I’m a cat guy. So much so that I even outed myself as a hopeless cat guy to one of my ENGL 1101 sections. These posts have a high probability of being cat-related.

Anything not falling into one of these headings can probably be assumed to be vaguely related to my professional life: composition, writing center stuff, pointless academic philosophizing, digital selves or rhetoric, and writing. Read on, dear friends. The great experiment begins!