In honor of national novel writing month, a new blog (for a month or more)

I’ve been trying lately to follow my own advice to my students in English 621 by working on a project in small bits and pieces as time allows instead of doing what far too many of us do far too often, which is to think “oh, I’ll get to that when I can really spend a solid couple of days on it,” which translates to “never.”  And I’ve been making decent enough progress on revisiting my dissertation to see if I can’t re-see/re-shape it into something for now.  The basic premise of the complexities of rhetorical situation in the digital age are still true, and if nothing else, I’ve been enjoying going back to poke at something that I wrote a long time ago.

Anyway, while that “touch it every day” project is going well, I’ve decided to kind of put it on hold and/or let it compete for time with a new blogging project about iPads (and similar mobile devices) and academic work.  I’m calling it Academic iPad.

Why, you ask? Well, three reasons, basically.  First, while I have always been a bid admirer of National Novel Writing Month and the “just do it and stop over-thinking it” attitude behind that project, I really don’t have a novel in me right now, and November is anything but a “slow month” in terms of work stuff.  So I thought I’d try something a little more modest, and I figure I can write a blog entry a day for a month.

Second, to the extent that people find this blog through a particular search for something (as opposed to those who read this blog once in a while because they might know me in “real life” or through my work at EMU or in computers and writing or whatever), it tends to be about iPad stuff and usually academic iPad stuff.  I figured that perhaps that justifies a whole new space.

And third, I thought I should do something tangible for my participation in EMU’s mobile computing/eFellows initiative.  There is a longer/insider story behind this that I’m not going to go into now, but last winter, I got involved in an initiative here where faculty were supposed to be doing things to learn more about incorporating mobile devices into their work.  But other than getting an iPad from EMU (as a loaner, at least in theory), I haven’t done much of anything with all this.  So I thought if nothing else, I could create a blog/web space that could serve as a place for resources and reflections on the role of iPads (and other “mobile computing” technologies) for academics.

So we’ll see how it goes.  I make no promises that this continues beyond this month, which might also be a good thing, a blog/web site that has a definitive ending point.

Post WIDE-EMU (#1)

Enough puns about Emus already:  the on-the-fly/on-the-cheap (un)conference of sorts that Derek, Bill HD and I set up, the WIDE-EMU, went off with pretty much no problems on Saturday.  It was all rather amazing to see, frankly, though my pictures and video of the day are all pretty lame, mostly people sitting around and listening.  I’ll have to work on that for next time around.  And I will try to put up the video of keynote session up online later today or so, too.

Where did this thing come from in the first place? My recollection was that germ of the idea emerged during a long car ride back from the CCCCs in Atlanta and a conversation about how so much that we value in conference is the face to face interaction and exchange over the standing and delivering of papers.  And we also wondered about the costs of conferences which has always struck me as too high.  Long story short, we kept talking about this stuff over the spring and summer, and the WIDE-EMU was born.

There’s lots of stuff at the web site— links to “phase 2″ proposals, an agenda of the day, a robust twitter stream represented on Storify, and (eventually) there will be the video of the plenary session with Troy Hicks, Danielle DeVoss, and a distant (via Skype) Elyse Eidman.  We had around 40 people registered, though I am certain there were many who didn’t get around to registering since we didn’t have people do it at all until they were on site and we didn’t really require it.

I’m obviously biased and we’re still waiting for some survey data to return, but I thought it turned out to be fantastic event, and not just because of the localness/”proof of concept” point I’ll get to in a moment.  I thought there were some legitimately great conversations/presentations.  A big part of it is we just so happen to be geographically located within an easy day’s drive of a lot of places where the idea of studying digital writing is being taken seriously.  But I also think our process helped.  Basically, we asked anyone and everyone to start by submitting a title in one of three different types of presentations, “talk,” “make,” “do.”  Lots of people came up with ideas.  But then we asked people in phase 2 to submit something more.  It didn’t have to be a lot or particularly complicated, but it had to be something– a few paragraphs, some slides, a short video, a web site, etc.  So since people had to come up with something before the conference actually began, people came to the conference prepared.  And I think that showed.  The stuff I saw was just as good as what I typically see at overpriced, oversized national conferences.

But again, I go back to the proof of concept issue:  I think what we demonstrated here is that if you have a “free” meeting space, if you use “free” electronic tools, and if you eliminate other elements that cost something (notably food and fancy speakers), you can do these kinds of conferences with only a modest amount of organizational labor and with no charge to participants.  And for me, this begs the question about what is it that we are paying for when we go to Computers and Writing or the CCCCs.

Obviously, size matters.  We had about 30 individuals/groups giving the equivalent of presentations, and these were more or less “self-vetted” in that the people who went through the process of proposing something for phase 2 got on the program.  And again, I think that worked.  If we had a lot more people proposing and we needed to make some real choices about who is in and who is out, then it would have been more complicated and labor intensive, probably.  Still, I’ve reviewed proposals for both C&W and the CCCCs and as far as I can tell, no one gets paid for that service.

And size matters in terms of the number of participants.  I think we could have easily handled twice as many attendees, but if we had become 200 people, then I suspect we would have been forced to contend with some more complex organizational issues– for example, I’m not sure we could have gotten away with telling that size of a group that they were simply “on their own” for food, beverages, nametags, programs, etc.

I also think cost matters in interesting and paradoxical ways.  In the “DIY” spirit of things, we didn’t charge anyone for this, but one of the possible implications of this was that the conference wasn’t seen by some as having “value.”  I talked with folks about this in the last session of the day, and Tammy Conrad-Salvo told a story about a dairy farm that used to offer free tours and had virtually no customers, but then started charging for the tours and they had many more customers.  That’s entirely possible with something like this too:  had we charged a modest fee– say $20 or less a person– we might have had more attendees who saw the conference as a “serious” and “real” thing.  On the other hand, charging money would have meant significantly more labor for the organizers.  We would have had to have done something to actually collect money (not always the easiest thing in the world at a public university), and people would have expected some basic stuff for that fee– a program, nametag, coffee and doughnuts, etc.  In other words, still more labor.

There are a lot of other issues here too that I’m still wrapping my head around.  I guess what I’m left with though is I wondering about the “major conferences” in our field.  Don’t get me wrong; I like the “working vacation” of the CCCCs or C&W or whatever as much as anyone, and I realize that these kind of conferences have to pay for space.  Still, I wonder if there aren’t ways to do these things differently.  Maybe we need a lot more smaller events like this.  Maybe the bigger events need to do a better job of using easily available electronic tools to crowdsource conference organization and planning.  Maybe we need to cut costs a bit by getting rid of some of the doo-dads that aren’t really that necessary.  And maybe if the CCCCs and NCTE (for example) are using their conferences for financing their existence as organizations, maybe they need to rethink that, too.



The Situations of Occupy Wall Street

Just the other day, I came across this useful post from Jill Walker Rettberg, which is also discussing this useful post from Mike “Rortybomb” Konczal, both about the use of social media and the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Walker Rettberg is more or less summarizing Konczal’s analysis of the Tumblr site We Are the 99 Percent and also of the site Occupy Together, which is a sort of hub for all things “Occupy-ish.”

The point here with Walker Rettberg’s post and these (and other) sites is that these sort of events are perhaps only possible nowadays with social media of the sort you are reading right now, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.  I’m inclined to agree, and I’ve been thinking about all that lately because I have been fiddling around with finally getting off my butt and doing something book-like with my dissertation.  I don’t want to make promises here; saying that I am going to write this book is a little like saying I am going to stay on this diet, both the kind of things that are probably wise to bet against.

In my diss, I used the term “immediacy” to suggest both the profound sense of intimacy that can happen in these situations from proximity (albeit electronic proximity at times) and chaos that results in the immediate speed of these situations playing out.  The Arab Spring uprisings are another good example of this, of course.  The other aspect of the Occupy Wall Street movement (and the Arab Spring, for that matter) is that there is a lack of a singular rhetor/leader offering a single message.  This is probably more true with Occupy Wall Street, though that’s the point of Konczal’s post:  he’s trying to analyze the text on that Tumblr site to ascertain the concerns of the movement as articulated there.  And in brief, those concerns are student loans, children (which I also think might be interpreted as “the future”), unemployment, and health care.

As for my own thoughts about the whole Occupy Wall Street thing:  I am very torn.  On the one hand, I am sympathetic to the broad concerns about student loan debt, jobs, taxes on the rich (or a lack thereof), health care, and I guess what I would describe as the just general frustration that makes people think “nothing else is working; I’m going to go out into the street and beat a drum.”  On the other hand, the lack of a unifying message and leader(s) makes it unlikely that this group is going to get a lot of traction in the analog and very traditional situation of government:  that is, I don’t think the federal government is going to pay a whole lot of attention to these folks until they are able to swing elections.

The other issue I have is the “99 Percent” depicted on Tumblr and other places is that who is in that group is a little problematic to me; or maybe a different way of putting it is there is a certain level of inequality regarding who has it worse.  Most/many of the folks on that blog have legitimate “that sucks” kinds of stories, but there are also many that frankly look like college kids looking for something to protest/join.

Of course, I suppose all of that is just normal and is not a reason to not be frustrated.  I mean, I’m not in the 99 percent of most of the people depicted here– that is, I’m securely employed, I’m not worried a lot about debt, I have decent health insurance, etc.  At the same time, I want to help folks not as lucky as me, and I do worry about the future for my son and his generation, I worry about stupid government cuts in taxes to rich people, etc.

The rise of the web as the source of knowledge– in a book to be released soon

I went to the JSB Symposium with Derek on Monday over at the University of Michigan, which was an event that featured David Weinberger as the speaker.  Weinberger is the author of books like The Cluetrain Manifesto, the excellent Everything is Miscellaneous, and a forthcoming book that was more or less the topic of his talk, Too Big to Know.  It was an interesting talk, though not as provoking (for me) or as popular as the last one of these I went to in 2009 with danah boyd.  But I digress.

Weinberger talked about a lot of things, but I think it’s fair to say that his new work continues in the same vein as what he talked about before, and how, in a digital age, knowledge is no longer expensive, rare, logical, and locked into books, and that the problem with books is they as objects freeze knowledge at the point of printing.  And he talked through Darwin quite a bit as a pretty good example of how knowledge used to work and how it works now, how nowadays Darwin would probably have a blog.

A lot of what he was talking about here reminded me of an article on Prof Hacker I had been meaning to blog about here for quite some time, “Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities” by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is the “director of scholarly communication” for MLA.  Basically, Fitzpatrick is offering encouragement to dissertation writers to “be bold” by producing dissertations that distinguish themselves potentially in form if not also content.  For example, she writes:

Writing a standard dissertation that meets everyone’s expectations for what a dissertation should look like, how it should argue, and what it should say is the safe path to a completed degree. But having taken that path—the path to a book—the candidate is likely to find herself on the job market with dozens of other Ph.D. holders with prospective books. Getting her work out of the pile is helped enormously by having done something more than what was expected. That is not to push experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but it is to say that reining in a project a graduate student really wants to do to conform with a traditional structure is counterproductive, deflating both the student’s passion and the thing that makes her work distinctive.

On the one hand, I don’t disagree with either Weinberger or Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald is pretty much praised in the comment section on ProfHacker.  I’m all for “breaking the rules” in terms of scholarship, my dissertation has been online now almost as long as it has existed in print, and I’m proud of the fact that I’ve published lots of stuff online.

On the other hand, let’s check in with reality.  By definition, taking the experimental/alternative path is a risk, and I don’t know if a dissertation is a good place to take that risk.  There are a lot of variables here, of course.  When I was dissertating 15 years ago, there was no “taking a risk” in that dissertations were double-spaced and bound chunks of text by definition.  My assumption that much of this has changed nowadays with electronic publishing possibilities and it is more normal for even traditional dissertations to reference web-based content.  But if someone doing a dissertation on the use of multimedia in the teaching of writing and then produced it only as a web-based chunk of video, then I think that person would probably have a difficult time having that work taken seriously by scholars or the job market.  The cautionary tale that already Alexandra Juhasz tells about her multimedia work/book on YouTube “A Truly New Genre” outlines the problems for an established scholar in publishing this kind of work; freshly minted PhDs just entering the profession would have an even bigger challenges.

Hey, I don’t make the rules.  I’m just telling you what they are.

As for Weinberger:  well, he’s telling us about the powers of the web and its transformations of what constitutes knowledge based on a book.  He isn’t working at Harvard and hasn’t been invited to the University of Michigan to give a speech (one that he has and will surly repeat at other similar venues) because he keeps a blog.  I don’t know how much money Weinberger makes from his books, but I guarantee you that in direct and indirect ways, he makes a lot more from them then he does from his blog.

So, while it is true that we technically don’t need books anymore (though there is something to be said about the permanence and unalterability of print as well) and we might not even be buying books like we used to, books have far more capital in an information economy than anything in the blogosphere.