A less than complete recap/blog post about #cwcon 2016

I was in Rochester, New York last weekend for the annual Computers and Writing Conference at St. John Fisher College. This was not my first rodeo. I think I have about 20 different presentations at probably about 12 different meetings, maybe more. I have a love/hate relationship with the conference. C&W will always have a place in my heart because it was the first conference where I ever presented– back in 1994– and maybe because of that (and also because I’ve always thought of it as the conference that most closely aligns with my research and teaching interests), I have found the whole thing kind of frustrating in recent years.

A better and more complete (albeit more chaotic) way to get a sense of what happened this year is to go to Twitter and search for #cwcon. I tried to make a Storify of all the tweets, but the limit is 1000, so I only was able to get tweets from Sunday and some of Saturday. If I get around to it, maybe I’ll make another Storify or two– unless there’s a better/easier way to capture all those tweets.

Anyway, a recap from my POV:

  • Bill Hart-Davidson and I drove there together. Bill and I have known each other since 1993 (he was on that panel with me at C&W in Columbia, Missouri back in 1994, and he claimed on this trip that Cindy Selfe either chaired our session or was in the audience, I can’t remember which) and we both like to talk a lot, so there and back was pretty much seven straight hours of the Bill and Steve talk show. It’s a good thing no one else was with us.
  • We got there Wednesday late in the afternoon and played a quick nine holes with Nick Carbone before meeting up with a bunch of Ride2CW and conference goers at a lovely place called Tap & Mallet.
  • Bill and I stayed in the dorms at St. John Fisher. Dorms are a staple of #cwcon, but this is the first time I’ve actually stayed in them mainly because ew, dorms. But given that the hotels for the conference were almost 10 miles away and St. John Fisher is small private college, we both opted for the calculated risk that these dorms would be okay. And that risk paid off, too. The only things missing from the room were a television and, oddly, a garbage can.
  • Bill ran a workshop Thursday, so I ended up hanging out with Doug Walls (soon to be faculty at NC State, congrats to him) for a lot of the day and then working on school stuff back in the garbage can-less dorm.
  • Had kind of a weird Friday morning because I woke up for no reason at 5 am or so, went back to sleep thinking that I’d wake up at 8-ish and I ended up sleeping until 10 am. So, with the morning of the first day of presentations thoroughly trashed, I went to the George Eastman Museum instead. Pretty cool, actually.
  • Friday afternoon, I saw some presentations– a good one from Alex Reid, and an interesting/odd session from some folks at East Carolina called “Object-Oriented Research Methods and Methodologies for Open, Participatory Learning” which was not at all what I was expecting. It ended up mostly being about using fortune tellers/cootie catchers as a sort of heuristic for writing research. Showed up a little late for a panel where Bradley Dilger and crew were talking about the Corpus & Repository of Writing project. Interestingly, there were a number of talks/presentations/workshops on methods for capturing and/or mining a lot of “big data” in writing– well, big for our field at least. What I didn’t see much of was what all this mining and corpus-building gets us. Maybe the results will come eventually.
  • Went to the banquet/awards/Grabill keynote. More on the awards thing in a moment, but to kick off the after-eating festivities, there was a tribute video to Cindy and Dickie Selfe who are retiring this year. The set-up for the banquet made watching the video pretty impossible, but it’s on YouTube and it’s definitely worth a watch. Both of them have been such giants in the field, and it really is a lovely send-off/tribute.
  • Jeff Grabill gave a good talk– it’s right here, actually. I think he thought that he was being more confrontational than he actual was, but that’s another story. Alex Reid has a good blog post about this and one of the other key things going this year at the conference, which has to do with what I think I would describe as a sort of question of naming and identity.
  • Speaking of which: my session was on Saturday morning. My presentation was about correspondence schools and how they foreshadow and/or set the groundwork for MOOCs. It was okay, I guess. It was a sort of mash-up version of a part of the first chapter/section of this book I’ve been working on for far too long (which is also one of the reasons why I’m not going to post it here for now) and I think it’s good stuff, but it wasn’t really that dynamic of a presentation. I ended up being paired up with Will Hochman, and his approach was much more of an interactive brainstorming session on trying to come up with a new name for the conference. I don’t know if we “solved” the problem or not, but it was a fun discussion. Lauren Rae Hall and she created a cool little conference name generator based on stuff we talked about.
  • Walls made me skip the lunch keynote to get pizza (twisted my arm, I tell you!) and then I went to the town hall session where Bill was on the panel. Alex Reid blogged a bit about this (and other things) in this post; while I suppose it was interesting, it was another example of a session that is advertised/intended as one where there is going to be a lot of audience discussion and where, after the many people on the panel all said their bits, we were pretty much out of time. And then we drove home.

So it was all good. Well done, St. John Fisher people! Though I can’t end this without beating the drum on three reoccurring themes for me, the hate dislike/grumpy side of me with #cwcon:

First, I think the work at reconsidering the name of the conference is perhaps symptomatic of the state of affairs with the general theme of the conference. “Computers and Writing” is a bit anachronistic since the definition of both “computers” and “writing” have been evolving, but it wouldn’t be the first name of an organization that seems out of date with what it is– the “Big Ten” with its 14 teams immediately comes to mind. So maybe the identity issues about the name of the conference have more to do with the fact that the subject of the conference is no longer a comparatively marginalized sub-discipline within composition and rhetoric.

Take that with a significant grain of salt. I was on a roundtable about the “end” of computers and writing in 2001 and we’re still chugging along. But that video honoring Cindy and Dickie Selfe featured some other senior members in the C&W community remembering the “old days” of the 1980s and even early 90s (really not that long ago, relatively speaking) when anyone in an English department working with a computer was considered a “freak.” Scholarship and teaching about technology and materiality (not to mention “multimodality” which often enough implies computers) might not be at the center of the field, but it’s not on the “lunatic fringes” of it anymore either. That’s good– it means folks like the Selfes were “right”– but it also makes #cwcon a little less “special.” I can go to the CCCCs and see lots of the same kinds of presentations I saw this last weekend, not to mention HASTAC.

Second, I really wish there was a way to hold this conference more regularly some place easy to get to. Rochester wasn’t bad (though still a regional airport), but in recent years, #cwcon has been in Menomonie, Wisconsin; Pullman, Washington; and Frostburg, Maryland. And next year, it’s going to be Findlay, Ohio, which is good for me because that’s only 90 miles away but not exactly easy for anyone planning on not driving there.

And third, there’s still the lack of basic infrastructure. As Bill and I discussed in our 14+ hours of car time, HASTAC specifically and Digital Humanities generally have their own organizational problems, but at least there are web sites and organizations out there. We’re a committee buried in a large subset (CCCCs) of an even larger organization (NCTE), and as far as a web site goes, um, no, not so much. During the many awards, I tweeted that it sure would be nice if there was a page of winners of various things posted somewhere. Someone who will remain nameless said it was all they could do to not tweet back something snarky about “where.”

If I get the time or energy to track that info down, I’ll post it here or somewhere else….

Big Data(s), Small World(s)

This perhaps should be two different posts, but since I don’t have that much time, I’m going to suggest some kind of connection(s) here.  Maybe they’ll connect, maybe not.

For 516 this semester (this week, actually), we’re reading Jessie Moore et al’s “Revisualizing Composition: How First-Year Writers Use Composing Technologies,” coming out in the future (!) March 2016 issue of Computers and Composition. It’s a large survey that’s been going on (on and off) for a few years of over 1,300 students at a bunch of different colleges and universities about their use of “composing technologies,” which includes some of the usual things– paper, pencils, word processors– some things kind of in-between– email and blogs, for example–and some things that aren’t often considered as writing tools in writing courses, things like Facebook, Twitter, and cell phones.

The short version of their results is while a lot of what they found is not surprising (students still use paper and pencils a lot, they mostly write alone, etc.), a lot of it is interesting and unexpected– for example, the heavy use of cell phones. Further, writing pedagogy isn’t really keeping up in that we don’t do enough to integrate new technologies into school writing, “how classroom instruction can better prepare students to write effectively with these technologies when they use them for self-sponsored genres, and whether any kind of transfer occurs when students use these composing technologies to write for academic and self-sponsored purposes (10).” Though I suppose that kind of depends a bit on over-generalizing classroom instruction perhaps.

The other big data that I thought was pretty interesting as of late– really big data– was the Open Syllabus Project. There was an article about all this in The New York Times and Aaron Barlow has an interesting post about this where he digs in a little deeper into the syallabi for courses in “English.” Among many other things, Aaron notes:

The first thing that jumps out is that Allan Bloom has little to worry about. Most of the works on the list were considered ‘canonical’ even before the rise of Feminist Studies, African-American Studies and that shibboleth ‘politically correct.’  Only seven of the works aren’t by Dead White Men and only four are by African-Americans.

I haven’t had much time to play around with this database yet, but I had a sort of similar conclusion by looking just briefly at the “Open Syllabus Explorer” interface. Here are the “top ten” books assigned across all courses:

1
The Elements of Style
Strunk, William, 1869-1946
2
Republic
Plato
3
The Communist Manifesto
Marx, Karl, 1818-1883
4
Biology
Campbell, Neil A., 1946
5
Frankenstein
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851
6
Ethics
Aristotle
7
Leviathan
Hobbes, Thomas, 1588-1679
8
The Prince
Machiavelli, Niccolò, 1469-1527
9
Oedipus
Sophocles
10
Hamlet
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616

The thing I find most striking here– and frankly, most bizarre– is that this “top ten” is probably pretty close to the “top ten” list of 30+ years ago when I started college, and it probably isn’t too far off to the “top ten” list when my father was in college 55 or so years ago. So, at least at first blush, the reason why people grumble about how higher education resists change is because data like this suggests that higher education resists change.

Of course, the problem with both of these chunks of “big data” are the specifics of the sources and samples. While the Moore et al study is impressive for a field where there just aren’t a lot of big studies, they have some problems that they acknowledge in terms of sampling of race. Further, almost all of the students in this study were first year students (and I have to think that juniors/seniors/graduate students would have somewhat different answers to writing genres that matter to them), and the institutions were pretty much limited to the places where Moore and her co-authors worked. I haven’t poked too far into the methodologies for the Open Syllabus Project yet, but what they say is the project “leverages a collection of over 1 million syllabi collected from university and departmental websites.” That’s pretty impressive in all kinds of different ways; however, as anyone in academia knows, one of the most consistently inaccurate places to find data about what happens in academia are departmental websites.

The other lesson I take away from both of these studies involving big data is why it’s still important to triangulate this data with smaller studies and exploration. For example, there’s this bit of puzzlement from the Moore et al study:

More surprisingly, students also report using blog technologies for e-mail, writing academic papers, texting, commenting on status messages or posts, writing research papers, and taking lecture notes. In spite of the academic-oriented genres in this list, students predominantly used blog technologies for entertainment or personal fulfillment. Again, we’re left asking what “e-mail” means to students when they see themselves doing it with blog technologies. Exploring this flexible use of genre terms would help inform the field’s understanding of how students are using the composing technologies available to them for all the writing they complete in their daily lives. (10)

It’s an interesting problem/question. If had to make a wild guess, I’d say that for at least a small percentage of respondents, “email” is an almost generic term for “Internet stuff.” But again, that’s just a guess. If there was a way to do some kind of focus group or case study with some of the folks who filled out the survey in the first place, there might be a better answer.

And I’m particularly sensitive to the news from the Open Syllabus Project that the top book assigned is Strunk and White, which is a book my students and I are reading right now! Now, I have a feeling that my approach to this book in a course called “Writing, Style, and Technology” is a little different than the approach of most faculty teaching this book. While I want my students to benefit from S&W’s advice (and really, they do have some good advice in there), I mostly am trying to get my students to read against the text, to try to dig into and question what’s going on here. It’s difficult for a lot of my students to do this, but I try.

Anyway, the point is the Open Syllabus Project (and the project of the Moore et al piece, for that matter) is good at presenting some really interesting observations, ones that I would have never guessed, such as the popularity of The Elements of Style. But this kind of big data doesn’t answer the smaller question of “why?”

What’s the difference between HASTAC and CWCON? Organization and a web site

I went to the HASTAC conference this week/weekend instead of the Computers and Writing conference (also this week/weekend) mostly because of geography. HASTAC was at Michigan State, which is about an hour drive from my house. Computers and Writing (let’s call it CWCON for the rest of this post) was at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, which is in the middle of freakin’ nowhere in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which is a small town a little more than an hour drive from Minneapolis. I also have some bad memories from the job market about UW-Stout, but hey, those are my own problems, and I’m pretty sure that all of the folks associated with those problems are long gone.

Anyway, I’ve been to CWCON about every other year or so (give or take) since 1994, so my guiding question for much of this conference was how would I compare HASTAC to CWCON? The short answer is they are very similar: that is, there was little going on at HASTAC that would have been out of place at CWCON, and vice versa. Both are about the intersections of the digital (e.g., “computer stuff,” technology, emerging media, etc.) and the humanities, though “humanities” probably includes more disciplines at HASTAC, whereas at CWCON, most participants identify in some fashion with composition and rhetoric.

Granted, my HASTAC experience was skewed because I attended panels that were writing studies-oriented (more on that after the jump), but I didn’t see much of anything on the program that would have been completely out of place at CWCON.  HASTAC had about as much about pedagogy on the program as I’ve seen before at CWCON. Both of the keynotes I saw were ones that would be welcome at CWCON, particularly the second one by rootoftwo (I missed the third, unfortunately). Both conferences were about the same size, mid-300s or so. Both are organizations that have been promoted and propelled by prominent women scholars in the field– Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher for CWCON, and Cathy Davidson for HASTAC.

So, what was different? There were more grad students and younger folks at HASTAC, but (I was told) that is mostly because the conference and its origins are more grad student-focused. CWCON is arguably a little more geeky and “fun,” with things like bowling night and karaoke and the like, though maybe there was some of that stuff at HASTAC and I just didn’t know about it. I think there is housing in the dorms at HASTAC, though I stayed at the very affordable and convenient Kellogg Center. And of course I know more people who go to CWCON.

But at the end of the day, I think the most significant difference between these two groups boil down to organization and a web site.

Computers and Writing, as I have complained about before, has neither. It is a loosely formed neo-socialist anarchist collective committee organized under the umbrella of the CCCCs (which itself is technically a group organized under the umbrella of NCTE) that meets at the CCCCs mainly to figure out where the next conference is going to be– and often enough, deciding on where the next conference is going to be is tricky. The web site, computersandwriting.org, is mostly non-functional.

The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (aka HASTAC) is an organized community that has an executive board, a steering committee, council of advisors, a staff (at least of sorts), lots of related groups, affiliated organizations, and (of course) a web site. According to the web site, HASTAC is an “alliance of nearly 13,000,” though I don’t quite know what that means. Before she introduced the first keynote of the conference on Thursday, Cathy Davidson took a moment to talk about the upcoming revisions to the HASTAC web site, which she claimed was the oldest (and I think most active?) “social media” web site for academics. I might be getting some of that wording wrong, but it was something along those lines.

Does any of this matter? Maybe not. I mean, “bigger” is not automatically “better.” So what if HASTAC has 13,000 in their “alliance,” if “Digital Humanities” is the term of art (in the sense that the National Endowment for the Humanities has an Office of Digital Humanities and not an Office of Computers and Writing), if CWCON remains the small conference of a sub-specialization within composition and rhetoric, a discipline that many also view (and the MLA wishes this were the case) as a sub-field of “English?” What do we care? In thinking about this post, I revisited some of the discussion on tech-rhet last year about the decay of the computersandwriting.org web site. Back then, I stirred the pot/rattled the cage a bit by suggesting that a) maybe we need an actual organization, and b) maybe we need a robust web site. Both of those ideas were more or less poo-poo-ed, in part because I think a lot of people like the way things are. CWCON has always been a “non-organization” organization that has had a groovy and rebellious feel to it, and I mean all that as a positive. And given that the conference has now been put on 31 times (I think?), it’s hard to dispute the success of this approach.

On the other hand, if folks associated with CWCON want to be taken seriously by academics outside of that community, I think it matters a great deal.

A big theme amongst the CWCON crowd in recent years (and I include myself in this) has been being miffed/angered/hurt/etc. about how scholars in the “Digital Humanities” have ignored the decades of work we’ve done in comp/rhet generally, particularly folks who identify with CWCON. Cheryl Ball wrote a pointed editorial in Kairos about this (though she was taking on the PMLA more specifically), and I believe in her keynote at this year’s CWCON (I wasn’t there, just judging from Twitter), she again expressed frustration about how comp/rhet scholars doing DH work (CWCON, Kairos, etc.) are ignored, how “we” have been doing this work for a lot longer and better, and so forth.

I share that frustration, believe me. But at the end of the day, the CWCON community can’t have it both ways. It can’t be both a free-wheeling, non-organized “happening” of a group and be miffed/angered/hurt/etc. when the rest of academia interested in DH either doesn’t know we exist or ignores us because we’re not organized and visible to anyone outside of the group.

All of which is to say I have three general take-aways from HASTAC:

  • HASTAC was good, I would go again, and I am generally interested in seeking out/attending other DH conferences with the confidence that yes indeed, the kinds of things I might propose for CWCON would probably be welcome in the realm of DH. The one caveat to that is my general resistance to academic conferences of all sorts, but that’s another issue.
  • HASTAC could learn a lot from CWCON, sure, but CWCON could learn a lot from HASTAC too. I don’t know how much of this was the MSU location and how much of it was HASTAC generally, but I liked the presentation formats and I also thought they had some creative ways for getting people to know each other, like “sign-ups” for particular restaurants to go to as a group.
  • I’m not interested in starting an organization (that takes way too much work and isn’t something I can do alone), but I’m thinking very seriously about creating a web site that could be what I’d like to see computersandwriting.org be, a repository for comp/rhet things relevant to DH things, and vice-versa. I found out that computersandwriting.net is actually available, but that would be a little too snarky, and besides, I think the move should be to make connections with the DH community. So I thought maybe writinganddh.org or writing-dh.org maybe something like ws-dh.org (where I mean “writing studies”). If you have any ideas and/or thoughts on pitching in (I mean to write– I’ll fund it out of my own pocket, at least for a year), let me know.

More specifically about what I did at HASTAC after the jump:

Continue reading “What’s the difference between HASTAC and CWCON? Organization and a web site”

“Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities,” Edited by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson

I’ve blogged about “the Digital Humanities” several times before. Back in 2012, I took some offense at the MLA’s “discovery” of “digital scholarship” because they essentially ignored the work of anyone other than literature scholars– in other words, comp/rhet folks who do things with technology need not apply. Cheryl Ball had an editorial comment in Kairos back then I thought was pretty accurate– though it’s also worth noting in the very same issue of Kairos, Ball also praised the MLA conference for its many “digital humanities” presentations.

Almost exactly a year ago, I had a post here called “If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues,” in which I was responding to a critique by Adam Kirsch that Marc Bousquet had written about. Here’s a long quote from myself that I think is all the more relevant now:

I’ve had my issues with the DH movement in the past, especially as it’s been discussed by folks in the MLA– see here and especially here.  I have often thought that a lot of the scholars in digital humanities are really literary period folks trying to make themselves somehow “marketable,” and I’ve seen a lot of DH projects that don’t seem to be a whole lot more complicated than putting stuff up on the web. And I guess I resent and/or am annoyed with the rise of digital humanities in the same way I have to assume the folks who first thought up MOOCs (I’m thinking of the Stephen Downes and George Siemens of the world) way before Coursera and Udacity and EdX came along are annoyed with the rise of MOOCs now. All the stuff that DH-ers talk about as new has been going on in the “computers and writing”/”computers and composition” world for decades and for these folks to come along now and to coin these new terms for old practices– well, it feels like a whole bunch of work of others has been ignored and/or ripped off in this move.

But like I said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The “computers and writing” world– especially vis a vis its conference and lack of any sort of unifying “organization”– seems to me to be fragmenting and/or drifting into nothingness at the same time that DH is strengthening to the point of eliciting backlash pieces in a middle-brow publication like the New Republic. Plenty of comp/rhet folk have already made the transition, at least in part. Cheryl Ball has been doing DH stuff at MLA lately and had an NEH startup grant on multimedia publication editing; Alex Reid has had a foot in this for a few years now; Collin Brooke taught what was probably a fantastic course this past spring/winter, “Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities;” and Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo are editing a book of essays that will come out in the fall (I think) called Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities. There’s an obvious trend here.

And this year, I’m going to HASTAC instead of the C&W conference (though this mostly has to do with the geographic reality that HASTAC is being hosted just up the road from me at Michigan State University) and I’ll be serving as the moderator/host of a roundtable session about what the computers and writing crowd can contribute to the DH movement.

In other words, I went into reading Jim and Bill’s edited collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities with a realization/understanding that “Digital Humanities” has more or less become the accepted term of art for everyone outside of computers and writing, and if the C&W crowd wants to have any interdisciplinary connection/relevance to the rest of academia, then we’re going to have to make connections with these DH people. In the nutshell, that’s what I think Jim and Bill’s book is about. (BTW and “full disclosure,” as they say: Jim and Bill are both friends of mine, particularly Bill, who I’ve known from courses taken together, conferences, project collaborations, dinners, golf outings, etc., etc., etc. for about 23 or so years).

Continue reading ““Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities,” Edited by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson”

If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues

A few days ago, Marc Bousquet posted on Facebook a link to “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments: The false promise of the digital humanities” by Adam Kirsch and published in the New Republic.  Kirsch obviously doesn’t think highly of digital humanities and technology at the expense of the feel and smell of paper and the old-fashioned magic of old-fashioned reading, and Bousquet obviously didn’t think much of Kirsch’s critique. Bousquet posted on Facebook about the Kirsch article twice for some reason; to quote (can I quote Facebook like this?)

Technology Is Taking Over English  http://t.co/d21kSd5opr Ahistorical & stupid cuz comes from a lit-dh discourse bypassing rhet-comp. Duh.”

and

“DH added strawberries to breakfast cereal! The era of breakfast cereal is over! Moral panic in lit makes it to TNR: http://t.co/d21kSd5opr

I agree with Bousquet: Kirsch’s piece is wrong, but it’s more than that.  I think it is in places almost perfectly, exquisitely wrong. To me, it’s like a rhetorical question that falls flat on its face because of Kirsch’s many assumptions about the problems of the digital and the purity of the humanities. And this made me realize something: it’s time for me to admit that I’m actually a digital humanities scholar/teacher and have been all along. It’s time for me to put aside petty arguments and differences (I’ll get to that below) and jump on that bandwagon. Continue reading “If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues”