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?”

“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

Nothing Personal

I don’t know Geoffrey Sirc.  I have met him, I think, but that’s about it.  The only other thing of his I have read (other than the essay that is the topic of this CCCarnival, his CCC article “Resisting Entropy”) is his contribution to the Wysocki et al collection, “Box Logic.” I have always thought it was a so-so piece, though my students tend to like it a lot more than I do.  By the way, it’s interesting as I look back at that 2004 essay and read the opening sentences:  “Let me confess: it has been a frustrating last several years for me in my writing courses. The rapid advance of technology has meant a pedagogical dilemma for me: just what do I do in the classroom, what do I teach?”

And I haven’t read any of the books he is reviewing in this essay.  I at least own Hawk’s book and I suspect I would agree with Sirc’s review of Shipka’s book, though I also suspect I would like Miller’s book and, if I was a WPA, I might look to the Harris et al book for some ideas.  My own limitations thus make it difficult for me to evaluate the quality of Sirc’s review in relation to what he’s reviewing.  But it seems to me that this is such an odd and provocative essay because it’s only partially a review.  The rest of it is something else.  He writes in the opening paragraph:

On a personal, practitioner level, one always wishes for more sustained wonderfulness in the work of one’s students and so turns  to the classroom credos others have formed as a result of their own sustained  practice in the field, looking hungrily for inspiration from their pedagogy. On  the professional level, especially after doing historical scholarship and seeing,  shockingly revealed, a recursive, abysmal spiral of the same essay-based pedagogy from the field’s origin onward, one can’t but wonder why the field on the  whole seems so stunted and contrary and so looks for illuminating answers in  how others have surveyed and interpreted the field, finding, perhaps, hidden  avenues leading out of otherwise dead ends from the patient reconsideration of roads taken and not.

As I think about this passage and the one I quote from eight years earlier, it seems to me that Sirc has, for lack of a better way of putting it, made up his mind some time ago on these matters.  Which, I suppose, is its own form of entropy.

The most problematic part of this review for me is the way that Sirc just hammers Thomas Miller for his book The Evolution of College English:  Literacy Studies from the Puritans to the Postmoderns.  Like I said, I haven’t read it, though with final chapter titles like “At the Ends of the Profession” and “Conclusion:  Why the Pragmatics of Literacy Are Critical,” I can kind of imagine why Sirc is less than impressed.  There’s a long passage on page 510 where Sirc, foaming at the mouth a bit, takes up the value of Henry James (who I personally could never actually read when I was a student and who I have not been moved to return to either), New Criticism, Wordsworth, and all things literary.  Sirc concludes this passage:  “Part of refiguring English studies means rethinking composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness; it means our subfield’s reimagining literature as a cultural value and practice, refiguring how it fits in a first-year course centered around writing.”

I hear echoes of this conversation from a week or so ago here, and my basic response is the same.  It’s not that literature cannot be an engaging part of a first year writing course; it’s just that a first year writing course shouldn’t be about literature, and it turns out there are a lot of texts and subjects and ideas that can ennoble and enrich students’ minds and souls other than literature.  I majored in English and then I was in a creative writing program where the goal was making literary art, so this idea that there was something besides literature that could be of cultural value took me a while to accept. And from a more pragmatic point of view, if you want to make first year college students hate all things literary, make them read and write about The Ambassadors.

Now, I do think revisiting the history of the field ala Hawk and others is useful, and I can see Shipka’s assignments and alternative approaches to writing as provocative and engaging.  I also think these things are happening in lots of writing classes right now.  Or at least they are happening along side uninspiring and regressive pedagogy, which is one of the long-standing problems of our field:  the teacher who believes in students making objects as research projects works right along side the teacher who feels the five paragraph structure is critical and who is a stickler for the use of who versus whom.

Then again, I wonder about Sirc’s response to Harris, Miles, and Paine’s book.  He seems particularly critical of their grading rubric language, which I agree does come across as a bit robotic.  Sirc writes:

Let’s please end the sham of this all-too-common editorial board/peer review practice: I’ve received good feedback from editors, but never such that I radically rethought a piece or even did more than tweak. More often, I’ve received  misguided, even atrocious editorial advice. Outside feedback never really enters  into what I’m doing. James writes to Wells in 1902: “certainly I shall not again  draw up detailed & explicit plans for unconvinced & ungracious editors. . . .  A plan for myself, as copious and developed as possible I always do draw up”  (Horne 376). Peer response remains popular, I suspect, because a certain fiction  of audience is easily teachable and helps reduce the complexity of creation into  a simplified sort of flow chart—do X to cue Y in your reader, do Z to give your writing authority. My students are taking a class with me; one of the benefits is  that they get to have an ongoing conversation about their writing with someone  who knows something about writing, who can help coach their work, identify  strengths and weaknesses. The thought of blowing off a class in a coffee shop,  listening to students’ pleasant, phatic comments on their assignments, would make me wonder if the whole thing was worth it.

It seems to me there is a space between valuing useful feedback and ignoring editorial response because the author knows best, between believing that as the teacher you are The Expert and turning over the whole enterprise to the students to sort out for themselves.  In my own growth as a writer, particularly as a fiction writer, peer review was critical.  I learned from the feedback of others of course, but I also learned a lot about myself in learning how to give others feedback on their writing.  So when I teach peer review in writing classes, I’m not trying to get the students to do the work for me– though when peer review works (and I will be the first to admit it often does not work well in first year writing classes), it does help.  Rather, I’m trying to teach students about the process of peer review and how it helps to both give and to receive feedback on writing in order to become a better writer.

And besides all that, my guess (again, I haven’t read it) is Harris, Miller, and Paine have written/edited a book useful in addressing the extremely practical and real conditions inherent in first year writing programs.  These are mandatory courses taught to very inexperienced students who frequently come into college with extraordinarily inaccurate ideas about learning let alone writing, and taught by comparatively inexperienced teachers who are rarely familiar with the scholarly and theoretical discussions of the field.  At any decent-sized university, we teach a couple hundred of these classes a year, all of which (in theory) are supposed to be meeting common outcomes and goals, all of which (again, in theory) under the guidance/direction of professionals who occupy that weird institutional space between “professor” and “administrator,” the WPA.  And despite (or maybe because) of its service/quasi-janitorial space on the academic food chain, it is a course that others at the university see as enormously important, especially when it comes to fixing the problems of students’ writing in other courses.  That, I assume, is the real world context and purpose behind Teaching with Student Texts.  So, given that Sirc is a critic of this institutional function of first year writing in the first place, it is probably not that surprising that he’s not a fan.

Like I said, I haven’t read these books and and I don’t know Sirc.  But by the end of this essay, I feel like I know a lot more about him than I do about the books he reviewed.

On Bowen’s “Resisting Age Bias in Digital Literacy Research”

I actually read Lauren Marshall Bowen’s “Resisting Age Bias in Digital Literacy Research” in the June 2011 issue of College Composition and Communication a couple weeks ago when I was visiting family at a reunion of sorts in Minnesota.  Now I’m writing this as my in-laws are visiting from Florida.  I think there is a connection here.

In the nutshell, Bowen’s essay is a case study of eighty-one year old “Beverly” and her literacy practices with computer technology.  Beverly is a retired and widowed woman who has actually worked with various computer technologies for quite a while; she worked her way up from secretary to purchasing agent at her town’s paper mill and worked with spreadsheets and other software.  Her technological practices include Flickr, developing scrapbooks (which she prints– Bowen talks about this as a form of remediation), and she seeks help from friends, grandchildren, etc.  Along the way, Bowen makes lots of excellent connections with the scholarship regarding technology and literacy and technology and older people, too.

I have mixed feelings about this piece.

On the one hand, I think it’s well-written and Bowen does a good job of weaving/connecting this work to the scholarship in the field.  I think it would be a good model essay to share with students in English 621 this fall.  Bowen demonstrates classic research methodologies of the field– literacy narrative, ethnography, participant-observation, more or less case study– and it is very good evidence that researchers in our field can do “legitimate” subject-based research with a very small sample.  A lot of times, students in our MA program in Written Communication get to the point of working on their thesis or writing project and they start with these giant and pretty much unworkable ideas: “I want to interview all the teachers at my school about ‘x’,” “I want to give a survey of all the students at EMU about their attitudes about writing,” etc.  It’s not unlike the first year writing student who starts with a working thesis for a research project along the lines of “Drunk driving is bad.” Anyway, what I like about Bowen’s essay is that it is in itself evidence that our field values and certifies as scholarship very small and precise studies, so instead of contemplating dozens of complex case studies, why not focus just on one?

On the other hand, I think this is an essay that raises some largely philosophic questions on the definition of “research” in our field.  There was a discussion that kind of touched on this on the WPA-L mailing list a while ago.  While we as comp/rhet people are willing to call this research, I wonder to what extent scholars in other fields– even other social science kinds of fields– would value a study based on a single subject.  And if it is research that is only valued to people within our field, well, what’s the point?

The story of Beverly’s literacy practices that Bowen tells is interesting, but for the most part, it remains for me only “a story,” one that is difficult for me to make larger conclusions and generalizations.  Granted, when this particular story is read in relation to lots of other literacy narratives regarding technology (I’m thinking in particular of Selfe and Hawisher’s excellent Literate Lives in the Information Age), and I think that’s why Bowen’s essay “works” here.  But I’m not completely sure that’s enough.

I also have a bit of a problem squaring some of Bowen’s arguments in relation to senior citizens and technology.  Without going into any great detail, I’m thinking in some ways of my own parents and of my in-laws (who are quite a bit younger than Beverly), and I do wonder to what extent Bowen might be “reading into” Beverly’s own technological literacy and making claims about her practices that might be a bit of a stretch.  I see with my parents and in-laws the ways in which affinity and affect can motivate people into doing new things with both literacy and technology.  My mom (and my dad, too) recently bought an iPad, I think mainly for my mom to read and to play games.  My in-laws have been working a lot lately with eBay to sell the many clocks and parts my father-in-law has collected and worked with over the last 45 or so years.

But I’m not sure that any of these new activities constitute a particularly sophisticated literacy practice.  I mean, the idea that Beverly is still printing out those Flickr sets is sort of frustrating to me.  We used to have faculty who would insist on printing out email messages, and I think it is fair to say that no one thought of that was a smart adaptation, right?

I digress, but you get the idea.  It’s an interesting essay and interestingly problematic, too.

On Micciche’s and Carr’s “Toward Graduate-Level Writing Instruction”

I guess I’m trying to make up a little for my tardiness with scholarship reviews by posting a second (or third?) review in less than a week, but it’s also an effort to keep up a bit.  I finished reading “Toward Graduate-Level Writing Instruction” by Laura R. Micciche and Allison D. Carr at the gym the other day and I don’t want to fall behind on this stuff again.  (For the citation-minded, this was in College Composition and Communication 62:3 February 2011).  The general topic of the article is on my mind because I will be teaching what is sort of the “capstone/before you do a project of your own” course in our MA program next year, “Research in Theory and Practice in Writing” and I want to try some new things.

On the one hand, I think that Micciche and Carr are right on track in that I think there is a need think more about writing pedagogy at the graduate level– heck, at all levels beyond freshman comp.  Micciche says she is trying to “demystify scholarship” by trying to bring the messy process out in the open, to more or less show how the trick works.  Along the way, I think she is emphasizing that it is good habits and practices and not “inspiration” that are what leads to scholarship, and no brilliantly thought-out and imagined piece of scholarship began as perfectly formed.  Carr is credited as a co-writer here, though her contributions (we are told) are mostly limited to the textboxes that appear throughout the piece, more or less in response to Micciche’s writings.  I think this is the most insightful one:

I have learned that badness is just part of my process, and I love the badness for helping me get to better-ness.  If I want to accomplish anything, I have to allow myself to have bad ideas, to write bad sentences, and to make bad claims.  Badness, I think, is my first language.  The fun is in the process of sorting it out, translating, recomposing in a more artful language others can understand and appreciate. (491)

Well said.  I’m always trying to beat perfectionism out of my students, which I think is sort of like embracing the badness.

On the other hand, I’m not so sure how much of Micciche’s approach is translatable/useable by others– or at least by me.  She’s teaching this course for all MA students in English at the University of Cincinnati, and I don’t think that would ever go over here.  It is more or less a “writing workshop” approach, which I know from past experiences is a mixed bag sort of affair:  while it can be productive and insightful, it can also produce a sort of “group-think.”  And I think that some of what Micciche is talking about here with a “pedagogy of wonder” is a little fuzzy for my way of thinking of these things.

Anyway, this article and/or some elements of its approach might find its way into ENGL 621 this fall.  It’s a tricky course in that it is supposed to be teaching students about research methodologies, about the logistics of our MA projects, and about IRB stuff, which is to say there’s too much going on in the course as it is.  At the same time, I don’t think it has done as much as it should do to show students the workings of presenting and publishing scholarship in the field– you know, conferences, articles, books, etc.– and it seems to me that even though 621 is already a pretty crowded course, it wouldn’t be a bad or difficult addition to have some discussion about what it is scholars in the field do.  And it also wouldn’t be a bad to have a discussion about some of the necessary habits of good writing and good scholarship, things that I think often trip students up when they are trying to finish those pesky graduate projects.

On Rice and Gallagher on Assessment Scholarship

I was looking at it this morning, and I realized that I haven’t posted any “Scholarship Reviews” since way back in March and in response to Marilyn Cooper’s essay in the February College Composition and Communication. Talk about falling off the wagon/giving up on a resolution!  Well, I have various excuses, including pesky distractions from teaching, conferences, and life.  But I wanted to get back to it with a couple brief and belated reviews of articles on assessment.

What I’m thinking about here is Jeff Rice’s “Networked Assessment” in Computers and Composition March 2011, and Chris Gallagher’s “Being There:  (Re)Making the Assessment Scene,” which was in CCC from February 2011.  As a preface here, let me come clean and admit that I have kind of a bad attitude about assessment.  I understand formal assessment procedures are important for both internal self-reflection and external justifications and/or approval, etc., etc., but I generally find this part of my job and this kind of scholarship kind of, well, boring.  And I especially don’t like performing assessment in response to some external threat call, but more on that in a bit.

Both Gallagher and Rice use the word “network” in their articles, but they use those terms in very different ways, as Jeff discussed on his blog way back when.  Gallagher is using the term network more or less as synonymous with “relationships,” and he also references Burke’s darmatism as a way of explaining the relationship between various stakeholders (I hate that word– I’m not saying that Gallagher is making heavy use of it, just saying I hate that word) in the assessment process.  He includes various charts, including one that (idealistically?) includes students at the center (467).  Rice is referencing “network” as Latour uses it, which (to be simplistic and brief about it) is about the trace and dialog between all sorts of constituents/stakeholders.   Think very detailed ethnographies, tracings that go beyond just a “thick notebook” to show all of the sorts complexities involved in the workings of the assessed (31-32).  Rice argues on his blog that Gallagher misapplies network theory; I think that it’s more that Gallagher simply does not have Latour and “network theory” in mind when he employs the word “network.”

For Gallagher, assessment (as he discusses it, especially in relationship to “neoliberalism”) is an external phenomenon:  that is, some administrator or accrediting body asks for evidence that you are doing something right.  The network he’s talking about navigating is between teachers, students, administrators (I assume both WPAs and what I refer to around EMU as “the suits”) and what he describes on his chart as a “policy/corporate/technical/elite.”  This can mean all sorts of groups, but more or less entities demanding accountability.  So while Gallagher is suggesting we understand these relationships as existing as a network that is more complex than a simple hierarchy, he is still assuming the motivation for assessment in the first place comes from outside and (more or less) higher up.

Rice’s focus is assessment as a self-motivated and guided process.  I think he makes an extremely compelling argument that most conventional notions of assessment are designed to generate answers that the assessors (and the assessed) want.  For example, NCATE asks EMU (and other universities that certify school teachers) to prove X, Y, Z and– guess what?!– it turns out that the answers EMU gives proves X, Y, and Z.   That isn’t a truth-seeking or discovery activity.  Instead, what Rice is proposing ala Latour is more a mapping/descriptive activity, assessment as a way of figuring out what is actually being done and describing that network.

Both of these articles have strengths and weaknesses.  I think Gallagher is describing an approach for negotiating assessments that can often be an “us” versus “them” landscape.  But I tend to agree more with Rice’s take and purposes for assessment, though one of the problems is he doesn’t really have a chance to follow through on his plan.  He ended up moving from his position as the WPA at the University of Missouri to a new gig at the University of Kentucky.   What he’s suggesting here seems like a good idea though.

Two last thoughts:  first, when I was originally reading these pieces back in March and April, they sure seemed a lot more important.  Long story short, we have had at EMU an institutional assessment process that is/was complete pointless bullshit, and just as I was going to have to start thinking about this earnestly as the program coordinator, the provost quit and/or was fired.  So as of right now, there is a collective “what’s the point” sentiment on campus.

Second, I’d like to see some kind of administrator– a department head, a dean, whatever– ask faculty to do a self-assessment where they describe three things they think they do well, three weaknesses, and three strategies for minimizing the weaknesses and maximizing the strengths.  And I’d like to see these be less than three pages.

On Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted” (and Phillip K. Dick and porn)

Finally, finally I’m returning to my posts on scholarship review, this time with Marilyn M. Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted,” which is in the February 2011 issue of College Composition and Communication. It’s taken me this long to get back to this in part because I’ve been swamped beyond repair with school stuff (indeed, I’m writing this post in 2-3 minute bursts yesterday and today in an effort to break up the marathon of grading, email catch-up, and other paperwork), but also because this is a long and complex piece.  It’s a lot more “theory heavy” than what I’m used to with the CCCs, and frankly, it is a piece I have some complicated and mixed feelings about, as my headline might suggest, and it’s made me think.  A lot. Continue reading

Scholarly reading blogging interlude: CCC, what’s with the “posters?”

Once again, I’m in that “completely swamped” territory of work stuff, this time more because of grading/assessment project I’ve nicknamed the Googledocs Gradinator 2011 v1.1-1.2.  I’ll probably post about that soon– maybe yet this weekend as I finish up the first batch of grades/comments on projects for English 328.  And I am actually in the process of reading things; right now, it’s Marilyn Cooper’s excellent essay in the most recent issue of College Composition and Communication on “agency,” a concept that proved to be quite thought-provoking in English 505 last fall.  This is an essay that will probably find its way into that class the next time I teach it, and I really will be blogging about that some time next week.

But for the time-being:  CCCs, what’s the deal with these “posters?”

I think this began a few issues ago with one about “the rhetorical situation” (complete with obligatory triangle), and the most recent ones are for “Literacy/Literacies” (December 2010) and “Genre” (February 2011).  Of course, they aren’t posters at all, but rather one page pieces with some kind of graphic element (for “Genre,” it is a word cloud, which strikes me as a sort of odd choice, almost the use of a genre to define “Genre”), and “Literacy/Literacies” was accompanied by an image of the book cover from the 1917 textbook English Composition as a Social Problem. (?????)

As barest of bare bones summaries, I guess they are okay, but honestly, I can’t see giving either one of these to students as some sort of introductory piece to students.  Maybe– maybe— they would be useful if my non-academic Mom asked me something like “dear, I read that people in your field are interested in ‘genre;’ what is that?” but how big of an audience is that, really?  My reading of the validity of all of these posters to date has been “well, sort of,” not because they are not well written and inaccurate, but because they are attempting to define God terms that are too slippery for a less than 500 word summary.

So honestly, does anyone out there have a sense of the purpose of these things?

On Cosgrove’s “What Our Graduates Write” and Gogan et al’s “Research Centers as Change Agents”

Man, it’s been a couple of crazy weeks around here.  It’s been a tsunami of teaching stuff (one experiment of which I might be blogging about soon), meetings up the ying-yang, reports/requests/documents/whatever to write, grad students interested in our MA program, program poli-ticks not worth explaining here, etc., etc.. And then there’s that pesky teaching thing, which I feel pretty far behind on too.

Anyway.

This is two-fer in my on-going reading and reviewing scholarship project, two pieces from the December 2010 College Composition and Communication.  First, there’s Cornelius Cosgrove’s “What Our Graduates Write:  Making Program Assessment Both Authentic and Persuasive.”  This is an essay that starts out kind of slow for me, describing what I see as a fairly routine assessment of what graduates from writing programs end up doing.  And I have to say that while I realize assessment work is important and a legitimate area of study and all that, I personally find it kind of boring.

But I like what Cosgrove does here, especially in his results.  First, he raises some interesting questions about what it is we should count as “writing” in the public sphere, more or less suggesting that we ought to be more open to considering a lot of different kinds of writing beyond traditional classroom settings.  I think it’s difficult for us within academia to often see what those other kinds of “real world” writing practices might be, so it’s useful to just ask our graduates and let them tell us.

Second, I really like what he has to say about the extent to which we ought to (or really, not) teach specific software, because that’s changing all the time.  Rather, “it’s just that the practice we provide our undergraduates should probably be driven more by the texts they are likely to produce than by the software applications that are extant that the moment when they are producing them (326).”  I agree 100%, and for me, it means that there isn’t really much point in teaching students how to use a specific piece of software in class like Writing for the World Wide Web or a computer documentation class.  Specific software choices shift way too fast, and besides, just because we teach students to use a specific software because it is the “industry standard” doesn’t automatically mean that particular employers will actually use that software, if that makes sense.

And I also agree that students today in writing programs need to think about is actually creating an audience for their writing via blogs and other social network sites.  That’s a point that might be coming up in my section of “Writing for the World Wide Web” this term.

As far as “Research Centers as Change Agents:  Reshaping Work in Rhetoric and Writing” by  Brian Gogan, Kelly Belanger, Ashley Patriarca, and Megan O’Neill goes:  I think it’s a reasonably good piece about the history of research centers and how they have contributed to the field.  For the most part, this seems to me a history of research centers and sort of a recap of some of the current ones that are in operation and that are tied to writing studies.  But I have to say I found my mind wondering in reading this one.

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.