Catching up on some links and other readings

A bit of a miscellaneous post here, more or less trying to catch up on readings and stuff to come back to:

  • From the NYTimes Lens blog, “Chop and Crop,” which is a complaint by photographer David Hume Kennerly about how Newsweek reframed/reworked a photo he took of Dick Chenney.  Basically, the original photo was a family picture of the Chenneys where Dick was cutting up a hunk of roast or some other sort of beef.  The re-cropped photo,which appeared in Newsweek and accompanied a quote from Chenney about torture and such, zooms in on Chenney cutting up bloody meat.  An extensive and interesting discussion, too.
  • “Is the Internet Melting our Brains?” is an interview in Salon with Dennis Baron about his book, A Better Pencil.  Spoiler alert:  Baron’s answer appears to be “no.”
  • Here and here, Henry Jenkins has a long interview with S. Craig Watkins about social media (especially Facebook) and about his book The Young and the Digital. Just skimming through the interview (which is in itself enough of a text to include in a class, especially something like 516 or 444), it seems like Watkins’ analysis is pretty interesting.  Say, speaking of stuff like Facebook:
  • The John Seely Brown Symposium at U of M on October 13 is going to feature an open to the public speech and panel presentation with danah boyd as the keynote speaker.  I think I’m going to let my 12:30 class out early and head on over there.

Wanting to check out “A Better Pencil,” though with some irony and a smidge of bitterness

I just heard via my colleague Linda AK and the WPA-L mailing list that Dennis Baron is interviewed here in the most recent Inside Higher Ed about his new book, A Better Pencil:  Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. I’m mostly interested in this because I’ve been teaching Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixels” for years, I’ve been teaching an assignment like the one Baron describes in the article where students have to write with something other than traditional tools, and I’ve done some scholarship on the general area of writing tools and pedagogy– an article on chalkboards, presentations on paper, pens, and a couple other things like this I’m forgetting now.

But I’m also interested in seeing this book to see what could have been.  Maybe.

Several years ago (maybe close to 10 years ago now), when I was working more earnestly on some of these articles and presentations about writing technologies, I put together a research leave proposal to work on a book.  Basically, I wanted to trace the connection between a rising awareness of writing instruction and the accompanying writing technologies.  So I went through the process of writing the proposal, outlining the various technologies I planned on writing and researching about, and I thought I had a pretty decent and compelling idea.  It was recommended by the department, and was ranked reasonably high in the college of arts and sciences process, too. But when it got to the final committee at the graduate college (or the university as a whole– I’m not sure which– but a committee which I believe had no one from my department on it), my proposal was ranked dead last.  I mean like out of like 40 proposals, number 40.

Now, there are a number of different reasons for this of course; the process here tends to weigh toward the sciences or projects tied to grants, and I am sure that my original proposal had any number of problems and limitations.  I’m sure I didn’t deserve the award and I’m not saying I was “cheated.”  But I do remember some of the comments that came back to me from the committee were rather dismissive of the whole idea.  Someone wondered what qualifications I had to research this kind of history; another said the idea of researching writing technology seemed more like an article in a place like Harper’s Magazine rather than a book-length project.

Obviously, I can’t blame this rejection for my lack of follow-through on this project; my not finishing pressing ahead with a book project on this is my own fault and my fault alone.  Still, it wasn’t exactly a confidence boost to be told that my scholarly interests seemed mostly fit for curious feature article in a genteel albeit liberal monthly magazine.  So I have moved on to other projects, projects where I’m also managing a lack of follow-through, but that is a slightly different story.

Anyway, I’m interested in seeing Dennis’ book and I’ll probably order it today.  There’s a part of me that is interested in seeing/imagining “what could have been,” but that’s a very small part since I realize that is a kind of dumb reaction to Baron’s book on my part, and, based on the Inside Higher Ed interview and a peek at the table of contents on the Oxford UP site, there’s probably room for the kind of book-length project on writing technology and pedagogy I have in mind.  I’m mostly interested in it because I am interested in the subject matter– like Baron, I’ve been fascinated with various communication technologies for a long time– and there may very well be elements of it that figure into my teaching sooner than later.

But I’ve got to say, I’m also interested in it for a bit of the “I told you so” aspect.  I have no way of knowing who on that university committee nearly a decade ago said the history of writing technology was just not worthy of a book, and it is water under the bridge at this point.  Still, I wouldn’t mind sending this person/these people a copy.  You know, just to point out that there was one press (and a pretty good one, too) that thought the general idea might be worth a book.

Handwriting and “running”

I haven’t had time/desire/etc. to post one of my usual “new school year resolutions,” and to be honest, I don’t have any new resolutions this year.  It’d be nice if I could actually manage to do some of the resolutions from last year. But I will mention two things that are kind of resolution-like that are not really school related (though they are not completely unrelated either) that might be worth working harder at this year.

First, there’s “Why your kids have such terrible handwriting and what to do about it,” which was posted to the WPA-L mailing list last week.  Basically, it’s an article from about the author, Emily Yoffe, and her eighth grade daughter both working through Nan Jay Barchowsky’s Fix it Write, a lesson plan/process for improving your handwriting– and Yoffe’s article is also about some various histories and issues of handwriting, too.  Somewhat on impulse, I just decided to order this, and I’m hoping I can convince Will to give these lessons a try along with me.  I have and have always had horrific handwriting, something I’ve learned to live with and also to blame on my left-handedness.  But Will also has pretty bad handwriting, and he’s still at a place (in seventh grade) where a) bad handwriting can actually make a difference on things like essay tests and such, and b) where he could still do something about it.  In any event, Will and I (or at least me) will try our hand at this during the school year.  So to speak.

Second, there’s the news I learned via Facebook today about Eddie Izzard running through the UK (actually, it turns out he finished on September 14th), about the equivalent of 43 marathons in 51 days.  As this BBC News article suggests, he started with almost no training, he’s pretty injured, and what he is doing is quite ill-advised.  At the same time, he has made quite a bit of progress in his seven week.  He started “running” a marathon distance is 10 hours (which, of course, isn’t really running at all– that’s walking a marathon, still an impressive enough feat as far as I’m concerned), and at the end, he was finishing his running in five hours.  By the way, there is a seven part video diary series of this on YouTube here.

Now, I’m not going to do what he’s doing for all sorts of obvious reasons, and I don’t really see myself training for a marathon.  But I took up “running” earlier in the year, “ran” in the Dexter-Ann Arbor 5 K this past spring, and have tried to keep “running” two or so miles three days a week.  (And I should point out that I am extremely slow. I say “running” to mean that if you saw me, you would say “well, that’s not walking, so I guess it’s okay to call it ‘running,’ sort of.”)  I’ve actually kind of come to enjoy it, and while I was originally planning on keeping my goals here modest, there’s something about seeing Izzard, who clearly has lost a lot of weight and is in much better shape at the end of this fund raising stunt than he was at the beginning, that wants me to extend my goals.  So I dunno; maybe a 10K?  Maybe a half-marathon at the Dexter-Ann Arbor run this year?

The problem with book stores

I like book stores, and I was pretty bummed out when Shaman Drum closed up in Ann Arbor in the spring.  In my estimation, it was clearly the best bookstore in the area and one of the best academic/independent bookstores in the country.  And I also like the “big box” stores like Barnes and Noble and Ann Arbor’s own Borders for the variety, all the extras (CDs, coffee shops, etc.), and, of course, books.

Still, there is a reason why Borders (and I presume Barnes and Noble, right?) are losing money hand over fist and why I end up spending a lot more money on books at nowadays.

I went into Borders today while running some errands to buy Crossing the Finish Line:  Completing College at America’s Public Universities and The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics. Initially, I can’t find anyone who actually works there to help me, so I head to the computer system to look up the Crossing the Finish Line book.  I learn the book is “likely” in the store in the “Education and Parenting” section, though I have no clue where the “Education and Parenting” section is in the store.   So I wander around for a while (is it near psychology?  self-help? business?), and I finally find someone, who tells me it’s back in the children’s section.  I find the shelf, which is a mish-mosh of books on stuff like potty training, Hirsch’s “cultural literacy” books, and high schools today, and remarkably, I do find this book (which is a somewhat controversial book about graduation rates at universities in the U.S.) stuck in there.  So I picked it up, comfortable enough with the $27.95 price.

Then I decided to look for the other book.  Again, I tried it on the computer system, but the answer I got was confusing, so I asked for some help from the person who helped before.  She actually logged into a completely different computer system and was able to find the book, which was in the store (though not anywhere close to the children’s section).  But it was priced at $40, and I knew that I could get it on for $26.40, and it wasn’t going to cost $13 to ship it.  So I took a pass on that.  And in hindsight, I should have left Crossing the Finish Line on the shelf too because I would have saved $10 buying that via

Oh, and just to add to it, there was but one cashier at the register, so it took me about 10 minutes just to pay my bill.

So, let’s review:

  • Buying online would have been faster, easier, cheaper, and more convenient, by far.
  • It would have been easier to find what I was looking for online.
  • On the other hand, actually going to the store allowed me to communicate with a human and to make an impulse buy (in this case, a different anthology of comics).  That’s certainly a plus of “real world” shopping, but it’s also one of the reasons why I wish Shaman Drum was still open.

A few thoughts on Obama, education, indoctrination, and immediacy

The latest crazy far right Obama worries about his “back to school” speech is symptomatic of lots and lots of different things.  I think part of it is about race because the crowd who is afraid to have their children exposed to the president while in school is (basically) the same ones who are worried about Obama’s death committees, who don’t believe Obama was born in the United States, and, back in the campaign, the same ones who said that Obama was an Arab Muslim and dangerous man.  But I also think these folks would say crazy stuff about Obama’s plans if he was a white guy, too.  Part of it all is rooted in legitimate concerns and differences of opinion, though anyone who thinks that Obama’s plan is somehow like the Nazis and who fears the impact of the government being involved in health care in this country doesn’t know anything about the Nazis and they are unaware of the extent to which the government is already involved in health care via Medicare, Medicaid, the CHIP program, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Besides all that, I think this stuff is an example of my dissertation work, which was about the ways in which rhetorical situations become problematized as the result of technology.  Basically, I argued that communication technologies– radio and television immediately come to mind given this example, but I focused more on internet technologies like email and the web–  skew previous notions of both “rhetorical situation” and kairos.  I used the term “immediacy,” because things that are “immediate” lack clear boundaries and are close together, and “immediate” has both connotations of quickness and confusion, of intimacy and chaos.

A simple example:  last night, on the NBC news, they had a story about Obama’s indoctrination message stay in school speech that featured a snippet of video of a couple who were terribly afraid of what the president might say to their children about gay marriage.  It was only a few seconds, but in those few seconds, those parents– who were both crazy and wrong– were given an enormous platform to play the part of the rhetor, and were thus able to either change or confuse the message for a large segment of the audience.

Now, NBC was showing these people in the name of “objectivity” and “fairness” in that journalistic tradition of showing “both sides” and they did follow up the few seconds with these parents to quote from Obama’s speech, which, in a sense, discredited them.  This of course presumes it is even possible for journalism to be purely “objective” and “fair,” and it is also presumes a reasonable method for approaching objectivity on a topic is to simply present “both sides,” even if one of the sides is completely and utterly wrong (in this case, parents afraid Obama will talk to their children about gay marriage).  But let’s just table that for the moment.

In a conventional rhetorical situation, these fringe elements would not have the opportunity to voice their arguments at all.  But in a rhetorical situation heavily mediated by technology, rhetorical situation become immediate and fraught with challenges.  The Rush Limbaugh-types on the radio, the Bill O’Reily-types on the television, and the thousands of bloggers, emailers, and other (inter)network communicators flatten the dimensions of a rhetorical situation to allow a chaotic mish-mosh where the definitions between rhetors, audiences, purposes, and messages themselves all exchange roles.  Health care reform becomes about death panels, and a president talking about kids staying in school becomes a socialist indoctrination favoring gay marriage.

Now, it’s not as if rhetorical situations were ever that clear; in the classic “egg versus chicken” debate that is Bitzer and Vatz, it seems clear to me that rhetorical situations both occur and thus demand discourse to fill them (Bitzer notes the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but I would also add the speech atop the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11 by George W. Bush) and are created by the rhetor with discourse (Vatz notes the Viet Nam war, and I would add the war/debacle in Iraq).  But what the Internet, talk radio, and the 24/7 cable news cycle has done is sped all this up, making already potentially dangerous and chaotic moments even more ripe for miscommunications and misunderstandings.

And in my own narrow way of looking at things, this is all the more reason why I ought to think about going back to that dissertation project and maybe writing something about it.

Farewell, 2000 Saturn, farewell…

I just finished the transaction to sell the Saturn.  I was asking $2425; I took $2200; and the buyer was a nice doctoral student from U of M who had previously been in the US Army Airborne unit (perhaps it was a good thing I took the “Impeach Bush” bumper sticker off).  This was the first time I used Craigslist for much of anything, and I was quite frankly amazed at how well and how easily that system worked.

Anyway, I’m still basking in the warm glow and new car smell of the new Honda CRV and I’m quite pleased to have a big wad of $100 bills.  But the Saturn was very good to me, overall.  Not a K car, but a nice reliable automobile.  Hopefully it will help a grad student out for a couple of years.

Saturn 4 sale

I just posted the ol’ Saturn to Craigslist:  Here’s the link to the ad and info.

Right when I started seriously looking for a new car, the “service engine soon” light came on.  I was hoping it would be just one of those things, like a loose gas cap or something.  Um, no.  Figures.  The good news though is $550 or so later, I know the car really is pretty much as fixed up as it’s going to get.

The Saturn has been a great car.  I got it in 2005 a few months after our crappy Plymouth Voyager minivan was stolen from in front of our house. Sure, I’ve had to put some money into it in terms of regular maintenance and such (though I can only think of one or so other times where I spent as much on a repair as I did today).  But basically, it’s been good, reliable, basic wheels.  It retaught me how to drive a stick, and it served me surprisingly well when Will and I went down to Alabama to visit my folks during winter break a couple years ago.  And if it wasn’t for the fact that our other car was getting “up there” in mileage and we were starting to feel a bit cramped on road-trips in the civic, I’d probably drive it for a year or two more.

Anyway, since I wasn’t going to get much for a trade-in, I’ve decided to try my hand selling it myself.  I’m cautiously optimistic about it.  At Will’s birthday party on Tuesday, a family friend said she knew some people looking for a used car.  I was in the grocery store today and somehow struck up a conversation with the woman at the register about our new car and how I was selling the old one, and the person behind me started asking me how much and if I had a card with contact information.  I posted the ad on Craigslist less than an hour ago and I’ve already received one inquiry about it.

So, if you’re looking for a gently used car….

Oh, you almost had me again, Stanley

There’s a kind of curious entry/article on Stanley Fish’s New York Times “blog,” “What Should Colleges Teach? Part 2,” which is about writing instruction and which picks up on his previous article, which I blogged about here. I posted a response on the NYTimes site, but since I have no idea if it will appear there or not, I thought I’d just post it here:

I have to say this seems more of a “revision” of your previous post and less a “response.”  After all, in part one of this series, you seemed to be all for a traditional view of teaching grammar and rhetoric:  you cited the conservative organization the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and you did write “I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else.”  Now you are saying that it is “of course” nonsense to teach grammar out of context.  But as I am sure you are aware, most administrators, the ACTA, and “people on the street” would interpret the phrase “teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else” as “teach grammar out of context.”

Be that as it may, I agree with your revision, more or less, though I would argue that form in writing various depending on purpose and audience.  This is why it is is important that universities are pushing more toward writing within disciplines while simultaneously acknowledging that writing is a field/discipline that itself has content and a purpose.  This is why departments separate from “English” have emerged at many colleges and universities.

But what I still see missing in your response/revision is addressing the issue of “the kids today.”  The way I read it, you were pointing to anecdotal evidence that college students writing skills were getting worse to support your criticism of “the composition establishment.”  This sentiment was certainly echoed in many of the comments, where writers agreed with you that the students today do not write nearly as well as the students of the past.

So, I was wondering what you make of the Stanford Study on Writing, which has received some (albeit more modest) attention recently.  The basic argument of Andrea Lunsford and its other researchers is that the youth of today write in more places and for more purposes than they ever have before.  Lunsford goes so far as to say “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.”  This is a lofty claim for sure, but it does appear to be based on actual research, not unlike the Braddock, Lloyd-Jones and Schoer article you cite here.

Have you revised/revisited your impression of the sorry state of today’s college writers?  Or is that too part of your response/revision here?