The failed textbook paying off again

I gave a talk at the Computers and Writing Conference at UC-Davis in 2009 with Nick Carbone about textbooks– my failed project, Nick’s perspective from St. Martin’s, etc.– and one of the things I talked about then was the two kinds of “capital” that comes from publishing.  There’s capital as in “money,” and, there is definitely more of that with textbooks than there is with traditional academic publishing.  Though one thing that I definitely learned from working on a textbook is that doing it for the money is not a good strategy.  If I calculated my earnings based on an hourly wage, I’d say I would have done a lot better financially getting a part-time job at Starbucks.

Anyway, then there’s capital as in “academic credits” of various sorts, usually in the form of a CV entry.  As I pointed out in Davis, my talk there about my failed textbook was an example of that, and I’m happy to report two more of these more nebulous and abstract forms of capital.  The first is I have a chapter in volume 2 of Writing Spaces called “On the Other Hand: The Role of Antithetical Writing in First Year Composition Courses.”  Basically, it’s a revised and repurposed version of a chapter in The Process of Research Writing on the antithesis exercise, which I personally still think is one of the better ideas I had for that book.

The second is a project that is a little more tricky for me to describe on the CV.  Out of the blue, I was contacted about the online version of my book from Eleven Learning, which is a tech start-up in Boston (I think) that has a pretty sweet interface for online books.  I’m not sure what the future of this operation is likely to be or even what is at stake with them right now, but I think it’s a great idea.  Even if I can’t put it on a CV.

I guess the moral of the story is that even “dead” projects can have another life.

On Sheridan’s “Fabricating Consent: Three-Dimensional Objects as Rhetorical Compositions”

I’ve been a bit tardy posting about my scholarly reading because the start of school last week has really kicked me in the butt.  Hard.  I’ve more or less triple-whammied myself.  I took on an administrative assignment: I’m the “Writing Program Coordinator,” which means I deal with our undergrad major and our MA in writing, and while this is something I’ve done before, I still have to get back up to speed and/or figure out what has changed since I did this a couple years ago.  I’m teaching an overload this term, which complicates some of the previously mentioned administrative work start-up time.  And I wasn’t really as “ready” for the new term last week as I ideally would have liked to have been.  The break is never long enough, but with trips to both Florida and Iowa and Annette at MLA for the first week of classes, it was really really not long enough.  Oh well.

Anyway, I have actually still been reading about an article a week, and last week’s selection was David Sheridan’s “Fabricating Consent:  Three Dimensional Objects as Rhetorical Compositions,”  which is in the December issue of Computers and Composition. It’s about the implications of the tools that are coming online for fabricating objects– so-called 3D printers, for example– and how that might be incorporated into composition and rhetoric, and it’s also advocating for a rhetorical exploration of objects.

There’s always the “why would you do this” question– one I’ll bring up again– and I think Sheridan does a really good job of naming the fundamental categories for answers to that question in the field generally, and he goes on to structure his article in response to these questions:

Because it’s possible. (New technologies increasingly allow rhetors to produce visual compositions.)

Because it’s powerful. (Visual rhetoric allows us to communicate more effectively than words alone can.)

Because it’s valued. (Visual rhetoric is valued in the personal, professional, and public spheres that students inhabit.)

Because it’s ours. (Visual rhetoric, is the domain of ordinary rhetors, not just a specialized group of professionals, such as graphic designers.)

These are all the reasons why I see including writing practices that go beyond “words in a row” in different classes– I’m thinking of movies, audio/podcasts, web sites, posters, etc., etc.  I have a hard time imagining 3D fabrications along the line of what Sheridan is describing in parts of this article, but that is mainly because I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of 3D desktop printing, period.  But apparently, as Sheridan cites pretty clearly here, affordable 3D “printers” are just around the counter, and I guess in a lot of ways, we’re in the stage now with this stuff that we were 30 years ago with the advent of desktop publishing.  I mean, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the idea that it would be possible to publish a newspaper or a magazine without laying out the physical page– skipping past stuff like the waxed column of print created by the linotype operators, light tables, blue grids, etc.– probably seemed pretty abstract.

Sheridan also gives us a good bibliography in this piece of all kinds of scholars who have written in different ways of how objects have the power to persuade in lots of different ways.  In fact, it’s enough stuff there to form the basis of a great “rhetoric of objects” sort of graduate course.  If nothing else, I might borrow some of this the next time I teach the Rhetoric of Science and Technology course.

But I think there is still a bit of the question of “why would you do this;” or, perhaps more specifically, “when would you do this?”  Sheridan cites Lanham’s essay “The Electronic Word” to get to the issue of “what business are we in,” offers several examples of things sort of like 3D compositions, and he writes:

I could imagine a colleague challenging me in the way that Bruce McComiskey’s colleagues challenge him: You’re a writing teacher! What business is it of yours to teach students to make t-shirts, mugs, lamp shades, and dolls. My reply would echo McComiskey’s: my job is to teach rhetoric, in all its forms, and 3D compositions are compelling rhetorical forms. My training as a teacher and scholar of rhetoric helps me to understand and teach the way compositions like an altered Barbie can function as powerful strategies of persuasion in certain contexts.

(The “altered Barbie” thing is one of the examples he discusses earlier about the Barbie Liberation Organization).

For me, it’s all about contexts and purposes of the class.  If I ever get a graduate-level multimedia authoring class off the ground (it’s on the “to do” list), then some discussion about these kinds of 3D “fabs” would very much fit in.  As part of our first year writing program at EMU, students generally fabricate things and/or otherwise represent their writing in the kinds of ways that Sheridan talks about here in the “Celebration of Student Writing” that happens toward the end of the Fall and Winter semesters.  So I can definitely see it as a part of a writing course.

Having said that, I think that in a class like first year writing at a place like EMU, I would be doing students a great disservice if I spent too much time on learning how to fabricate t-shirts, mugs, lamp shades, dolls, and other 3D compositions, especially if it was at the expense of teaching “words in a row” kinds of writing skills and researching skills.  I want to stress “in a class like first year writing at a place like EMU” because we have a lot of students in those classes who are “at risk,” to put it euphemistically. A good number of these students struggle mightily with some very basic, traditional, and unsexy writing skills.  So to the extent that first year writing is a “service” course (and I am well aware that that’s debatable), I think we owe it to students to focus first on those arguably boring and traditional elements of a writing course first, and to incorporate other elements of writing (e.g., 3D fabrication, visual rhetoric, audio, etc.) only as it relates to “the basics.”

This is not a position that everyone in the computers and writing world has, but I have always been of the opinion that students need to first have a good handle on “words in a row” literacy before they venture into images, sounds, objects, etc.  Or at the very least, the images, sounds, and objects that are incorporated into writing pedagogy for first year students has to serve “words in a row” literacy first. I wrote an essay/commentary back in 2004 called “Yes, But Is It Writing?” that was more or less in response to some stuff I saw at the Computers and Writing conference that year.  I remember going to a presentation where the speaker (I have no idea who) was talking about incorporating Flash movies into a first year writing class, and where this speaker showed some of the (frankly, mediocre) work his students did with their movies.  As I wrote back then:

I’m not trying to suggest first-year composition courses are or should be just about the so-called basic skills, and, like most of my composition and rhetoric colleagues, I resist the idea that first year composition is a sort of remedial course. But at the same time, being able to “design” a cool looking web site or Flash movie is not the same thing as being able to “write.”

A class that focuses on intensely graphic projects, one where the teacher would inevitably have to devote a great deal of class time to helping students learn and use the multimedia software and hardware, might help students to be “visually sophisticated” and even critical readers of visual mediums like television or film. But it wouldn’t necessarily help student write decent paragraphs and sentences and “essays,” no matter how you define the difficult to define term “essay.”

So the same thing with 3D fabs:  best used with moderation, I think.

On Pedersen’s “Negotiating Cultural Identities through Language: Academic English in Jordan”

My second article/review reading in the December 2010 CCC is Anne-Marie Pedersen’s “Negotiating Cultural Identities through Language:  Academic English in Jordan.”  I should point out at the outset that I haven’t read much of anything on English as a second/non-native/additional language since graduate school, and even then, I didn’t read much.  So the general area of Pedersen’s article is largely something I haven’t studied and am not that interested in.  Not because it’s not important, of course– it is; it’s just something that hasn’t been much an issue for me in my teaching and in my main scholarly focus.

The first thing I thought about in reading this article is this would be a good one to show to grad students in the fall when I teach English 621, which is our sort of research methods/capstone/get ready to work on your MA project class.  Pedersen’s essay is an excellent example of the structure and genre or “research essay” of the sort that a lot of our students do involving subjects:  she introduces the problem, explains her methodology and interview subjects, discusses and concludes (while at the same time drawing on lots of relevant scholarship in the field), and she includes a couple appendixes about her research subjects and questions, notes (including reference to IRB), and a works cited.  Her project involves 24 subjects, which is quite a bit bigger a project than most of MA students should/would tackle, but it looks to me like this work was the basis of Pedersen’s dissertation.

I also like how Pedersen’s project asks a “manageably-sized” question about English use among a set of scholars in the Arabic world (specifically Jordan).  That’s it.  She isn’t trying to find the answer to “life, the universe, and everything,” which is a problem I see frequently with MA students, especially when they start their projects. I tell students you don’t want a project that is like a big shaggy wet dog leaving fur and drool and who knows what everywhere; rather, you want a small and well-groomed lap-dog of a project, the kind of dog/project where the reaction is “aww, that’s adorable.”  So when I say that Pedersen’s project is like a well-groomed lap-dog, I mean that as a compliment.

Ultimately, she finds that her subjects’ relationships with English are complicated.  They rely on English for their scholarship and their teaching, but they value Arabic in their day-to-day lives.  English is the language one of her subjects uses for his phone because he had not bothered to learn how to use Arabic on it; it’s the language another subject uses to communicate with their Philippine (sp??) nanny because she doesn’t speak Arabic, and it’s the language of the TV shows this subject’s kids watch; and it is the language another subject uses to write things that are somehow politically charged.  So on the one hand, English is problematically hegemonic; on the other hand, it is simply the common and accepted language of scientific discourse.

There are only two issues/questions I have about all this.  First, I wonder what the results would be had Pedersen studied language use among scientists or academics in a country that had not had some sort of English colonial history.  I am not sure that English is as necessary or empowering among scholars in places like Russia, France, or Brazil, for example.  Second, she’s talking specifically about science here.  I heard on the radio the other day about a site called Three Percent, the amount (evidently) of the literature written not in English that is ultimately translated into English.  In other words, I can see why it would be critical for scientists participating in an international discourse to know and use English, but I’ll bet you there are plenty of Jordanian and other Arabic poets and fiction writers who are quite successfully practicing their art without English.

The year that was….

Among other things, here are some highlights from the blogosphere: