Computers and Writing 2011

Good summaries abound on the web, but I thought I’d turn in my thoughts as well.

The venue:

  • Congrats to the folks at the University of Michigan Sweetland Writing Center for their excellent organizing and venue choice.  The panel rooms were great and the dorms were fine.  The union center worked okay, but the audio needed a bit more oomph, as the clinkity clank of silverware made quite a racket.
  • Being in Ann Arbor reminded me a lot of Gainesville.  There were parts of town that were wicked trendy, awesome little businesses (lunch at Zuckerman’s deli owned), and cool college town stuff.  There was also a high quotient of student-priced cheapo-grunge businesses and shitty housing around the campus.  Also, a very high hipster quotient (even compared to my current environment, a Chicago art school).
  • Had a lovely evening at a bar with Bradley Dilger and Alex Reid.  Aside from great conversation both academic and personal, I also learned an excellent theory of group activity: three people is the best number for long, peer events because you can have a single conversation for the whole time.  With four, you break into sets of two.

The sessions:

  • This is the first conference I’ve been to in je ne sais how long where I saw no stinko papers.  I wasn’t enchanted with the Tim Wu keynote, but mostly because I thought he didn’t know his audience very well.  We all got what he was saying really fast, and he could have pushed into more detailed discussion earlier.  I thought the Hawisher talk was a nice summary of the past and likely future of the field, but its narrative style didn’t fit the dinner environment, which could have used a strong entertainment component to hold the hungry and beer-seeking audience in thrall. By contrast, all the papers I heard were quite good.
  • #c02 – Laurie Gries gave a really interesting talk weaving de Bord and ideas of psychogeography in with notions of circulation to examine how the Shepard Fairey HOPE image circulated.  Oodles of examples and cool stuff.  Derek Mueller demonstrated the awesome potential of animating the data reflecting how keywords in CCC have circulated over the last 20 years.  Really compelling visuals and interesting conclusions.
  • #d03 – Cynthia Haynes, Jan Holmevik, and Victor Vitanza reflected on MOOs and the current state of the web.  Each presentation was startling, interesting, and different from the others.  Vitanza, as always, entertains as much as he provokes thinking.  Check out my tweets from the session to get more details.
  • #e13 – the “Is Blogging Dead” roundtable yielded lots of great conversation and interesting stuff.  LOVED it.  Bradley has a better summary than I could write, and Dennis Jerz storified the whole twitter sidechannel.  It was good stuff!
  • #f09 – Michael Pennell gave a really interesting piece about using Google Maps as a writing platform, and Tim Amidon related sustainability, ecology, tourism, and writing classes.  I especially liked his use of the Hawaiian term “Haole” (pronounced how-lee) to describe the practice of FY writing students entering digital spaces to do projects.  It’s a great term, one that acknowledges the assholishness of arrogant outsiders but also suggests the good intentions and positive goals those outsiders have.  Respect for the root is a useful idea I took away from the conversation.
  • #TH-02 – The Digital Humanities Roundtable was interesting, but I didn’t get a whole lot out of it.  The main thrust seems to be that the keywords digital humanities open up purse springs for people with grant money and get deans all excited.  Few of the town hallers seemed to have much use for the term themselves.

Overall, the conference was really great for being able to spend time with Bradley, a colleague from my UF days who is simultaneously mentor and peer, far enough ahead of me in his studies and work timeline that I can watch how he navigates various waters and aim to emulate him, but close enough that we are friends who can collaborate and conspire on even ground.  It’s also good to reconnect with Ulmerians sometimes, as we have a similar perspective on the world, even if I’ve drifted more into Popular Culture studies while he has moved more toward Technical Communications as his star rises in the Rhet/Comp world.

On revealing exposition and inspiration, also an invitation.

So I’ve been trying my hand at some short-story writing this summer, and it’s not going too badly, if I do say so.  We’ll see how it goes when I start sending the stories out to accumulate some rejection letters.  But a couple thoughts:

Writer's Block by Thorinside
Writer's Block by Thorinside

On revealing exposition.  The stories I’ve been working on are SF stories with a healthy amount of back story in my mind.  The telling of the events relies on some revelation of the back story, obviously, but it’s not just a straightforward telling of the world events.  In fact, one of them explicitly relies on revealing bits of the back story to the protagonist at the same time the reader gets it.

So my problem is in figuring out how much to explain to the reader.  Is it important that they understand the whole back story as I laid it out?  I tend to write some ambiguity into the descriptions and events, but then would like that ambiguity to resolve itself without being too heavy-handed.  In other words, how do you make a clue work like a clue without saying “here’s the clue.”

On inspiration.  Of the four stories I have been working on this summer, two have direct inspiration from other texts.  In both cases, I rely on the title to draw the connections, but I’m wondering what I should do with readers who don’t recognize the references.  Do I alert them to the references?  More importantly, when I’m sending these stories out, do I alert the editors/slush readers to the references?

On readers.  If any of my regular blog readers would like to become early-draft readers and commenters, I’d happily add you to my list.  Be warned, though, that I’ll send you multiple drafts.  Be assuaged, also, that I completely understand if you’re busy and aren’t ever able to offer comments.  As long as you don’t distribute the story to other people, I’m happy to have the help.

Boy that feels curmudgeonly

I just got a free copy (thanks, Tarcher Penguin!) of THE DUMBEST GENERATION by Mark Bauerlein.  Here’s the description on the back:

They are The Dumbest Generation. They enjoy all the advantages of a prosperous, high-tech society. Digital technology has fabulously empowered them, loosened the hold of elders. Yet adolescents use these tools to wrap themselves in a generational cocoon filled with puerile banter and coarse images. The founts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation camps in the desert, exchanging stories, pictures, tunes, and texts, savoring the thrill of peer attention. If they don’t change, they will be remembered as fortunate ones who were unworthy of the privileges they inherited. They may even be the generation that lost that great American heritage, forever.

Part of me grumbles “ho, yeah!”  But the other, less curmudgeonly part thinks this sounds an awful lot like “kids these days can’t write.”  Will post more after I read it.

Rhet/Comp and New Media

Fellow academics, please do read through (or jump) to the end and pick up the meme if you’re willing — it would be helpful to me.

When I was on the job market, I got three interviews at MLA.  One was a cattle-call interview where the interviewer and I exchanged “Oh, that’s nice” pleasantries with one another, me about the aspects of the school, him about aspects of my CV.  We parted mutual friends but pleasantly sure we’d never meet again.  The second was my interview with Columbia, which was all wine and roses.  The third was a disaster.

I should have been prepared for the question: “How would you teach a graduate seminar to Rhet/Comp scholars?”  I wasn’t.

To be clear, I’m a hybrid guy.  I do computers and writing, but I also do media studies.  I see them as the same thing, most of the time: I do Grammatology.  I wasn’t very good at making the argument for that perspective at the interview.  Here’s a rough transcript:

Lead interviewer: Hi Brendan.  We’re running behind so I’ll be blunt–you’re my candidate.  The rest of the committee thinks you’re too much media studies and not enough rhet/comp for this position.  Prove them wrong.

Me: Um, will do! [I’m sure I wasn’t really that inarticulate, but it would be close.  I proceed to talk a bit about how I teach writing.]

Lead interviewer: Okay, okay, okay.  But how would you teach a graduate seminar, to rhet/comp scholars?  Who would you read?

Me: Uh, McLuhan.  Ulmer.  Johnson-Eilola.  Manovich.  Bolter.  Robert Ray.  Jeff Rice.  [I could see this was getting me nowhere.]

Lead interviewer: Ah, but that isn’t really the field is it?  I guess what we were looking for were people like Cindy and Dicke Selfe, Ann Wysocki, [and I forget the rest.]

We parted with pleasantries about how great my writing sample was and how it got me there.  Then the Lead interviewer urged me not to let the door hit me on my way out.  This would have been a crippling interview had I not had the Columbia one first.

All this came flooding back when a friend emailed and said:

I’d like to assign one student to write a review essay and introduce the class to the topic of computers/new media and composition. I want to assign three or four key articles in this field for them to read/review. Can you suggest some titles that they absolutely should read?

Good Lord, no I can’t.  But I tried anyhow.  Here’s my response, and then a meme for y’all at the end:

I tend to think the fields of new media and media studies are very closely related, and thus MY list of the essential articles would be:

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” _Atlantic Monthly_, July 1945

Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” _Understanding Media_,  1964

Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” _Simians, Cyborgs, and Women_, 1985.

Lev Manovich, “What Is New Media?,” _The Language of New Media_, 2001.

Geoffrey Sirc, “Box-Logic,” _Writing New Media_, 2005.

Alas, this is a media-studies approach to new media and rhet comp. There are definitely overlaps, but the Haraway and the Manovich would probably be disputed by some more rhet/compy people.

Hrm.  This is actually a lot harder than I thought it should be.  There are a few names that come to mind as important people in the field, but for these I can think of books more than articles that capture their thinking.  Three important voices whose specific articles I can’t bring to mind are:

Cindy Selfe
Ann Wysocki
Johndan Johnson-Eilola
Gunther Kress

I’ll put a call out on my blog and see what other folks think.


I tried to figure out how to include Ulmer and Rice on those lists, but couldn’t think of anything digestible enough from Ulmer, and I haven’t (sorry JR) been keeping up with Jeff’s stuff as much as I should.  I was also tempted to say the person should just follow my blogroll and then those blogrolls, as the stuff appearing there rings very true to me (especially Digital Digs which has been on an intense, amazing roll lately).  But I’d like to know:

What do YOU think are the four or five essential must-reads for an emerging Rhet/Comp scholar?

For your edification

I’ve decided to post the podcasts from my Writing and Rhetoric 2 class here, mostly because I can, rather than from the idea that any of you will want to listen to them. They will be in a rapid succession of posts, so apologies in advance for flooding your RSS feeds.

On finishing grading

Finish Line image by Karen Withak

I crossed the finish line, flags waving and emails sent. I’ll upload the grades on Friday, but all the grading is done. I generally enjoy writing comments and responding to student project, but I really dislike grading. As I teach more, I’ve wavered quite a bit in what I think about grading, but I tend to think it should just go. Gone.

Ken Bain’s What The Best College Teachers Do has a long section on grading. Bain suggests that grading at its best serves as a communication tool between teacher and student. He also explores some studies that consider grading often gets in the way of developing a perspective of learning among students.

…they have consistently found that most extrinsic motivators damage intrinsic motivation. That have also found that if they use “verbal reinforcement and positive feedback”–in other words, encouragement or praise–they can stimulate interest, or at least keep it from evaporating. (33)

If external motivation becomes the driving force behind the student’s desire to learn, the internal motivation wears away and then, when the student is no longer a student, the motivation isn’t there either. I know there’s a vast body of stuff written on this that I haven’t read yet, so I’ve still got some research to do. That said, here is one grading plan I’m considering using after I get tenure.

No grading at all. James Kincaid, author of Annoying the Victorians, apparently just gives everyone As regardless of what they do. I’m not sure if I’m willing to go this far, but perhaps another version of it would be like this:

“I will be giving you lots of feedback on your work in this class, but letter grades are not part of the evaluation mode. Thus, everyone who stays enrolled until the end of the semester gets a C automatically. Students who attend class regularly and turn in all the projects for the course earns an A automatically.”

The goal here would be to let me concentrate on giving comments and not grades. I would only keep track of whether projects were turned in or not. It puts the burden for motivation on our class, not on the grade. It also allows the students who literally don’t want to be there to just get the gentleperson’s C and never come back.

What grading methods do y’all use? Does anyone in my readership actively subvert the grading system? Do you worry about “grade inflation”? Should you?

Laughing at my monitor

Thanks, Alex…

As Waters notes “If words lose out, so do we all: We are in danger of losing our souls, our backbones, our bearings. We are in danger of losing the civilization that was created in the West in the Renaissance.” Oh good, I was afraid we might fall prey to hyperbole.

responses to a suspicious post

I got a comment, on the old installation of my blog, in response to my post about The Blind Assassin (old thread here):

hello. I also enjoyed the book. What’s more, I’m writing a essay on it, and I would like to ask you what themes/subject did you find throughtout the book? For example, the role of women, the truth, etc…I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Here are some of the responses I considered, and the winner, which is less amusing than pretty much any of these, but I’d prefer to just let it go away.

  • I think it’s an allegory for the rise of the modern industrial state.  The conflict of the sisters and the two men (the husband and the communist boyfriend) represent oppositional forces in American economics, and the sister’s plunge into the river certainly symbolizes the death of American ingenuity.
  • Yes, I think women had roles throughout the book.  Both telling the truth and not.
  • Wow! I should write an essay on it, too, and we can compare!  I think I’ll write about the role of truthful women as a thematic trope throughout the book.  When is it due, er, when should we post our comparison versions?
  • Your comment fits the classic trope of the undergraduate looking for cheap paper-writing help online.  Are you indeed an independent scholar writing an essay on Atwood’s book, or are you trolling for free paper-writing services?

And I ultimately went with

  • Hrm, this seems like a homework question. Are you asking me to write your essay for you?

I wish I were wittier.

What Bombed

For the last few days I’ve been participating in the 2005 CASTL conference. It’s been a pretty cool experience that helped me get insight into some of the ways people do the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SoTL, which most pronounce like SO-tul but one guy pronounced to rhyme with bottle). Of course, as a compositionist, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning was nothing new—we built our profession on it.

Craig Nelson, one of the featured speakers, presented several key points, but the big one was “sharing” your teaching knowledge with others. Again, not a new idea in Composition, but new for many of the audience. He led us to several models of SoTL research, starting with the “What Works” article. It seems like those kinds of articles might be best shared in updatable, searchable online resources like the Practical Muse. I doodled in my notes, though, that we also needed a “What Bombed” genre, in which we explain our ideas for teaching projects, assignments with an eye toward the challenges these bring.

I also composed a limerick, reproduced here for your amusement. NOTE: I’m using the less common but more-easily-rhymable pronounciation of SoTL (SAW-tull):

There once was a souce who did SoTL
who looked for a good teaching model.
  He said, with a wink,
  I really do think
the answer must lie in a bottle.

Writing New Media

Our reading group meeting was fantastic last night. We met to chat about the first couple chapters of Writing New Media by Wysocki, Johnson-Eilola, Selfe, and Sirc. As our conversation ranged over a wide territory of issues, we started talking about Selfe’s piece, “Students Who Teach Us,” in particular her description of David, a young man who developed outstanding technological literacy skills while simultaneously failing to succeed in college—so much so that he flunked out. Selfe writes:

To make it possible for students to practice, value, and understand a full range of literacies—emerging, competing, and fading—English composition teachers have got to be willing to expand their own understanding of composing beyond conventional bounds of the alphabetic. And we have to do so quickly or risk having composition studies become increasingly irrelevant. (54)

Selfe buys into the idea that the need for electrate composition in our classes ties to the changing world outside; we need to learn to recognize these other ways of communicating and help teach them. She says, on page 51, that when David’s teachers failed to recognize his new technological literacies, the “missed important opportunities to link their instruction goals to his developing strengths” (51).

Pegeen asked why David’s instructors should have recognized his new media literacies, rather than his competency in his own dialect. Had his instructors been willing to go to bat against “standard English” and the power-centered grammar rules that go with it, he may have succeeded. In short, our discussion last night asked why new media should be the space through which we “stay relevant” and (implicitly) “change the world.” Why not use our knowledge that different dialects operate under perfectly logical grammar systems and our understanding that standard English grammar reinforces power structures that put at a disadvantage the already disadvantaged to argue for the validity of poly-vocality, rather than the validity of new media?

Continue reading Writing New Media

Walking in the City

From de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life:

Rather than remaining within the field of a discourse that upholds its privilege by inverting its content (speaking of catastrophe and no longer of progress), one can try another path: one can analyze the microbe-like, singular, and plural practices which an urbanistic system was supposed to administer or suppress, but which have outlived its decay; one can follow the swarming activity of these procedures that, far from being regulated or eliminated by panoptic administration, have reinforced themselves into the networks of surveillance, and combined in accord with unreadable but stable tactics to the point of constituting everyday regulations and surreptitious creativities that are merely concealed by the frantic mechanisms and discourses of the observational organization. (96)

Booyah! That’s why I like M-de-C. This paragraph describes precisely the activities of the baroque (as Ray would call us) chroniclers of electracy. Some phrases that hyperlink for me:

  • “speaking of catastrophe…” sounds like the Rhet/Comp plagiarism conversation to me. “Students are downloading their papers! We need some TechnoGotchas!”

  • “swarming activity” sounds like mixing, filesharing, blogging, podcasting: the web’s ecstatic flurry of new stuff.

  • I would love for my students to harness “surreptitious creativities.”

  • “frantic mechanisms” echoes the catastrophe quote above. RIAA lawsuits, the Broadcast flag (recently defeated!), anti-Wi-Fi.

If we follow de Certeau’s lead here, perhaps the internet isn’t the Global Village, but rather the Global City. It’s the nameless city from The Matrix.


The other day, I had a long chat with a colleague about electracy, new media, and many other things. I described my theory about Future Shock (at the bottom of the page), and she agreed; she also added that in her experience, it was with generation X that students started being consistently skeptical of not only texts, but symbols, explanations, and conversations about those texts. This is not to say that they were not skeptical before, but rather that a sea change had occurred in which many more were skeptical now than were in the years before the Gen Xers hit college.

Then I read this in Avatars of the Word:

The underlying insight of this strategy [of “teaching the arguments of the field”] is that ours is already a culture permeated by irony. Skepticism about received messages is rampant, leaving any system that depends on transmitting those messages vulnerable. To use the space of the classroom to teach both the message and the critical reception and evaluation of the message is to create an opportunity to reach students at multiple levels. (119).

I’m not sure what I want to do with that passage, but I found the synchronicity pleasing.

So apt!

From Matthew Pearl’s enchanting The Dante Club:

The mind of our country is moving with the speed of a telegraph, Osgood, and our great institutions are stagecoaching behind it. (16)

This passage seemed particularly relevent given the recent discussion on WPA. Plus, I think it’s damn funny. It appeals to the part of me that fetishizes old technologies—cogs and levers look so much cooler than circuitboards.

More How to Lie with Maps

I just finished Mark Monmonier’s book. It’s great. There’s one passage that strikes to the core of my being with a glowing, cartographic, nerdly joy. He writes:

…map publishers have been known to deliberately falsify their maps by adding “trap streets.” As deterrents to the theft of copyright-protected information, trap streets are usually placed subtly, in out-of-way locations unlikely to confuse or antagonize map users.(51)

It seems to me that the “trap street” is a fantastic opportunity for hypertext writers. While people working for “transparency” and “clarity” certainly wouldn’t want trap streets cluttering up their “site maps,” I think hypertext authors interesting in the more playful aspects of the web could use “deliberately falsified” elements deliciously.

When trying to write using hypertext to be more socially active or aware, this passage seems particularly apt:

By omitting politically threatening or aesthetically unattractive aspects of geographic reality, and by focusing on the interests of civil engineers, geologists, public administrators, and land developers, our topographic “base maps” are hardly basic to the concerns of public health and safety officials, social workers, and citizens rightfully concerned about the well-being of themselves and others. In this sense, cartographic silences are indeed a form of geographic disinformation(122).

Perhaps an offshoot of adbusters could be mapbusters–people dedicated to the cartographic education and elucidation of social problems often ignored in maps.