On Riffraff

Dear Coach Creighton,

I don’t think we’ve met, not in person. I sent you a welcome to EMU email a few years ago when you accepted the position of head football coach, noting that I remembered you from your time in the early 2000s at Ottawa University (Kansas) because I was in Kansas City, working as NAIA Region V information officer, among other things.

I’m faculty at EMU now, where I’ve worked since 2009 and where I am beginning my fourth year as Director of the First-year Writing Program. It’s a large program, one of the largest cohesive academic programs insofar as we are responsible for curriculum and staffing of over 150 sections of WRTG120 and WRTG121 per year, sections that reach approximately 3,000 EMU students each year.

Early this morning I read about your media day press conference. Here’s the article: Eastern Michigan football survives rumors, with plans for progress. And then I went on a run, just a few miles around the neighborhood where I live three miles from campus. It was a great morning for a run; there is much to love about living in this area and about working at EMU.

As I ran, though, I was nagged by something you said on media day, something that was quoted in the Free Press article. For context, here’s the longer section where it appeared:

Athletic director Heather Lyke has broached the situation with open arms, fielding questions from concerned students and alumni, as has former interim President Donald Loppnow, current President James Smith and the Regents.

But Creighton said support from alumni and former players has been even better.

“It’s been the response to the riffraff in April from alumni that has been awesome,” he said. “People love this school and people love this football program.

“Guys put four, five years into playing college football. There’s life changing values, lessons, teammates, discipline, commitment, teamwork, overcoming adversity — it changes you.”

When you referred to “riffraff,” it comes as a poke, a finger in the chest of people like me, my colleagues, the students we work with. I want you to know I read it as such: a jab, an unkind instigation. When you say “riffraff,” it seems like you are referring to people who participated in campus dialogue in April about EMU’s subsidizing athletics at the university with 26 million dollars annually from the General Fund. In those dialogues, students expressed surprise at more than 10% of their tuition dollars underwriting athletics. And many faculty voiced concerns about that level of spending–what appears to many to be an unchecked and unquestioned rate of expenditure, calling questions of whether it is ethical, much less sustainable at a modest regional, public university like ours. Twenty-six million dollars a year is $500,000 per week. Not many universities–even the wealthiest–can afford to spend that kind of money for long.

Riffraff names “undesirable” people. It is a pejorative term, akin to name calling. Are we really riffraff for speaking openly and freely about what concerns us at the university? Maybe you would be willing to say more about who you are referring to? I hesitate–with great concern–to think you are talking about others whose work at EMU directly relates to teaching and to supporting student academically, or to the students themselves.

I’ll spare you idealistic platitudes about how open dialogue is vital to our institutional mission, or about the importance of noticing when some units at the university, such as yours, are supported by resources that far and away exceed units like the one I am responsible for. For perspective, consider this. The tuition dollars from the First-year Writing Program generate approximately 2.7 million USD per year for the General Fund. With last year’s 7.8% tuition hike, credit hours in this program alone brought an additional $260,000 to the university. We had a budget of approximately $15,200, which underwrites things like pizza lunches, the biannual Celebration of Student Writing, and $50 stipends for all in the program who attend a full-day professional development workshop in mid-August, our only such event of the year. We underspent that $15,200 by more than 25%, which is to say with a modest measure of pride that we are a frugal program and that we have been resourceful. Our new graduate assistants–there are thirteen this fall who will be teaching WRTG120, which some of your football student-athletes very well may be enrolled in–spend two weeks on campus in August without any compensation for their time besides parking vouchers and lunches for one week donated by a textbook publisher. And even though every section is full this fall, even though our program is nationally recognized as thoughtfully designed and even innovative, we just learned that we may be facing a 54% budget cut for the year ahead due to flawed budgetary projects. Granted, the current budget situation affects all of EMU (doesn’t it? I’m not sure whether you are hearing about 54% budget cuts in your program this year). And it points to only a tiny sliver of all we might say about how the expenditures and investments disfavor academic units, generally.

This message has already gone on too long, and although there are myriad other examples, illustrations, and anecdotes to point out, about our part-time lecturers not being paid until after a full month of classes, about how poorly paid are our graduate assistants who are entrusted with full responsibility for teaching classes, about aging technology infrastructure and declining support for the maintenance and refresh of the one laptop cart shared by our entire program–what I set out to convey to you, above all, amounts to two points.

First, I hope you’ll reconsider your characterization of those who are bold enough to call the question of EMU’s athletic spending as “riffraff.” Your program is the beneficiary of considerable institutional support, and as such, a degree of modesty and self-awareness would go a long way to improving goodwill. As a former student-athlete myself and as someone who worked in athletics administration at another university for seven years, I tend to be in support of athletics and all that it can offer. But this is incredibly difficult to do at EMU when what we see is a kind of spending-be-damned hubris. Whatever else can be said about the strengths and limitations of the programs we are responsible for, if we are colleagues, and if our respective goals are commensurable, then we need to do better than to name-call.

Second, it is incredibly, incredibly difficult to keep morale high in an environment like we have in EMU, where the two-tiered haves and have-nots are sitting side by side in a classroom. This dynamic reaches well beyond campus, as well, into community spaces, as well, where character and integrity circulate, not always favorably though oftentimes warranting notice and even raising questions. After one of my daughter’s soccer matches early this summer, I sat down with my dad and her at The Bomber for lunch. A group of football student-athletes, coaching staff, and eventually you along with your son, came in, sat down within earshot. Just before you arrived, some of the discussion loudly enough expressed for us to overhear was about drinking the night before, about how great it would be if The Bomber would serve up a pitcher of bloody marys. My daughter, who is now ten, gave me a hard look and asked what those were, why someone would want them with Saturday brunch. You see, there is consequence to the ways we conduct ourselves on campus and away from it, particularly when attired in (institutionally underwritten) green and white, when acting as agents of the university, when forgetting even for a moment that we are implicated in something bigger.

Just as you will, I will continue to do my work–to go to campus and be a professional, to boost morale, encourage and support top-shelf instruction in an aspirational if modest academic program, and to ask questions, sometimes hard questions, of the university I work for. I’ll urge everyone at EMU to do the same. And I am idealistic enough to think the university will be better for it. But I’m also idealistic enough to think we’ll all do better to undertake this if we are not, when we encounter dissent, willing to jab at those whose views differ from our own.


Derek Mueller


08.21.2016 (7:52 p.m.) Moments after I posted this, I caught one minor typo and made the change right away. I also reworded the description of the experience at The Bomber so as to be clearer that I was there with my dad and daughter. This is significant because I was direct witness to the remarks; they are not second-hand.

I received a note from an EMU administrator on Sunday calling attention to two factual errors. The first is that part-time lecturers this fall will be paid on September 15. My description of that problem was based on the way things were handled last fall, when part-time lecturers were not paid until after the first full month of classes. I am encouraged to know that this has been addressed and improved.

And finally, the budget cut I noted applies to one department’s SSM operating budget. What does this mean? For starters it means that budgets are being cut unevenly across the institution right now. This entry does not in any way mean to establish that a campus-wide or uniform budget cut of 54% is a certainty. -DM

Agawa Bay

Drove for seven or eight hours, crossing the Mackinaw Straits and the Saint Mary River, winding along the wonderfully scenic northeastern shoreline of Lake Superior with its thick greenery, steely juts, pebbly inlets, and watch out for moose signage every few hundred kilometers. Canadicity. Is that the right word for it? 

I knew Ontario allowed for roadside park and sleep alongside the TransCanada Highway, but I pressed on into Lake Superior Provincial Park before realizing the rules shifted and also that Wawa was another 100km ahead. Too far. Stopped at the welcome center for the provincial park to find it closed and with bear sighting posters in the window. And finally I found a park ranger who couldn’t have been more helpful, stepping me through all the options for hiking and camping, the fees for parking in a designated campsite, how to handle payment without Canadian currency, and so on. He even retrieved a more detailed paper map from his truck and delicately unfolded it onto the hood of the Element. Best option turned out to be Agawa Bay campground, a paid lot, since I’m Elementing this night and not having any regrets about it because no thank-you to tent sleeping among the bears.

Folk Route

North and then west, on the road in an hour or two, hugging L. Superior’s Canadian shoreline for a few hundred kilometers before pausing in Thunder Bay. Been to Thunder Bay before? I haven’t. Eventually, by the TransCanada highway, Winnipeg and Folk Fest. Intermittent dispatches here more than on FB is my plan.


My Own

The desire in me to be alone hasn’t changed. Which is why the hour or so I spend running,  maintaining my own silent, private time,  is important to help me keep my mental well-being. When I’m running I don’t have to talk to anybody and don’t have to listen to anybody. All I need to do is gaze at the scenery passing by. This is part of my day I can’t do without. (p. 14)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami (2008)

Six miles this afternoon. A sweat bath. Slow. There is a phase shift from that moment when the black flies hover and linger to when they dive bomb, touch skin for a taste of salt or land for a chance for more. Do you know if this phase shift is in a summer (e.g., June 15) or a day (e.g., precisely at 3:15 p.m. EDT)? I don’t. Or maybe it hinges on a body’s heat or slowness or sweatiness or fatigue. They can smell fatigue. That must be it. Whatever, it happened midway along this runroute, from no-touch flies to divebombs and landings. During mile five.



We invite proposals for the 2016 WIDE-EMU Conference, a free, one-day event on October 15, in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Please help us circulate the call widely. The complete call and details about the conference are online at https://sites.google.com/site/wideemu16/.

Phase 1–Propose–has just begun and continues through August 31. We are asking for proposals that will respond to the conference’s framing question: What does writing want?

As you will see on the web site and proposal submission form, we’re asking for titles/ideas for three kinds of presentations:

  • Talk: much like a typical conference presentation, only short-form. Propose a brief paper, a roundtable discussion, a panel, etc. Individual talks should not exceed ten minutes.
  • Do: a demonstration or a workshop. Propose a session focused on the “how to” related to a software application or pedagogical approach.
  • Make: produce something (or the beginning of something). Propose a session in which participants will “make” a web site, a lesson plan, a manifesto, a syllabus, etc.

During Phase 2–Respond–we’ll be asking proposers to expand their proposed ideas with something online to share ahead of the face to face meeting on October 15. What exactly this “something online” looks like is highly flexible: a blog entry, a slidedeck, a podcast, a video, etc. You could also think of this as a teaser or a preview for your session and a few of its key provocations.

The face-to-face conference will be on October 15, 2016 at Eastern Michigan University. We will announce the featured plenary speaker/activity later this summer.

Please visit the site at https://sites.google.com/site/wideemu16/, submit a proposal, and plan to attend. If you have any questions about the proposal process or the conference itself, please reach out to Derek Mueller at derek.mueller@emich.edu. We hope to see many of you of this fall.

Jagoda’s “Network Ambivalence” #optorg

Between EMU and WSU, several graduate students have set out to rebegin a reading group. The first meet-up of the summer is later today, and they’ve selected Patrick Jagoda’s “Network Ambivalence” as the reading. In the spirit of keeping with the group’s goals of teasing out a few notes before we meet, here goes nothing. Er, something. A few thoughts, reactions, ambivalences.

  • One leading premise here–an organizing question from Jagoda–is What is not a network? Jagoda suggests that networks have flourished into an encompassing mythology, engulfing a too-muchness in their applicability to all systemic phenomena. He details something akin to network normativity, fairly regular and predictable representations of networks as link-node or edge-node schematics. And these webs, according to Jagoda, with their ubiquity, coalesce into a “network imaginary-and a claim that reality itself is structured as a network” (p. 109).Two reactions: Mark Taylor contrasted networks and grids, and I find this distinction durably compelling (perhaps one of only a few ideas from Moment of Complexity that were sticky enough to hold on, for me at least, for a decade). Grids are not networks, exactly, and neither are networks grids. They operate according to slightly different structuring principles. Grids are more topoi-like, exacting predictable metrics of separation and juncture; networks are more choric, allowing a structural flexibility that neither abandons structure altogether nor regulates it into a rigid and ongoing pattern. Second, how we imagine networks has much to do with our vocabulary for deepening the concept. For instance, all networks are not equal, of course, depending upon whether we think of them as articulations of open systems or closed, or fluid structures or momentary snapshots/slices/cross-sections. That is, their durativity, encompassing thickness or thinness, volatility, and flows of resources, power, attention, and activity/energy have the potential of being anything but normative, regular, or degraded into a stagnant mythos. That is, relative to grids, networks are oftentimes decidedly queer. So, sure, at a glancing pass, networks might seem like they are normative, but that level of generality is not especially helpful for the work of involving networks in the description of complex systems.
  • Networks bear out a descriptive adequacy. They are limited in what they can account for, as are all attempts to engage depth-complexity, heterogeneity, relationships conducted irregularly amidst any messy, frayed ecology (usually my own interested in ecology or complex systems keys on material and discursive dimensions, though recent work that inflects such systems with traceable intensities or which attempts to visualize pulsatile and affective dimensions is fascinating, promising, though notably also not the only uses to which networks can be put). Oftentimes networks generate perspective on infrastructure, or on infrastructural activity. I mention this because networks could be considered infrastructuralism’s mouthpiece. Networks, however contingent we imagine them to be, speak for infrastructuralism, though sometimes only in a hushed whisper or using a language whose decipherablity is enigmatic.
  • It’s not an especially halting point of contention, but there is a baseline for networks here that suggests them as open, expansive, boundless (p. 111, bottom). Sure, we can imagine them that way, but why not counter this with iterations of networks that suppose them to be simplifying models, temporarily useful for peeking into non-obvious structural-relational systems, and whose outsides only matters but so much for now?
  • The second half of this short article entertains network much more as a verb and suggests ambivalence (in a special flavor) as a means of coping with networked ways of being. This reminds me of Jim Corder’s discussions of living with paradoxes, or buying into two seeming at cross-currents philosophies or worldviews. Jagoda frames this drawing on Berlant, as an “uncertainty, which does not require an evacuation of one’s passions and convictions, requires being present to an unsatisfying present” (p. 114). To extend this, Jagoda explains, “Ambivalence…is a process of slowing down and learning to inhabit a compromised environment with the discomfort, contradiction, and misalignment it entails” (p. 114). This is in some ways a call for reflection and noticing, but I am not quite satisfied with the relationship of agency and articulation to this means of coping. That is, what does being ambivalent look like? How does it speak or write? What are its rhetorical activations that are externalized–not merely as means of coping with a dissatisfying condition but as participates in change at whatever rates and whatever scales? I wonder this upon reading, though I don’t think it’s necessarily Jagoda’s aim to address it in this excerpt from his book, Network Aesthetics.
  • The final sections of the selection trail off somewhat, insofar as there is as an example of ambivalence reference to a video game called Speculation. Maybe it’s just me, but references to video games I have never played before, where they appear in academic writing, leave much to be desired. My experience is too limited here to follow along wholly convinced that Speculation performs this network ambivalence pedagogically, in the way Jagoda contends. So while I don’t want to seem dismissive of the example, neither is there any crispness to the frame for application. And to be fair, this is exactly one such moment where an article setting up and calling attention to a forthcoming book deliberately hints at the something more that, once we pick up Network Aesthetics, readers very well may find carried out more completely there.

As Sabbaticals End

I return to campus tomorrow, May 2, following a research leave that relieved me teaching and service responsibilities at EMU during Winter 2016. The four month leave allowed me to put the finishing touches on a collaborative monograph and to get the other book I have contracted with the WAC Clearinghouse #writing series substantially closer to a full draft. At the start of the sabbatical, the introduction and first chapter were already sent off, in the editor’s hands (these amount to 57 ms. pages). Over the past four months, I submitted three more chapters, which amounts to 129 ms. pages. I still have some work to do on Chapter Five, which I plan to send by the end of May, and Chapter Six, which I’ll turn over by the end of June. With that, a full draft of the monograph and then on to other things. I just turned off my email autoreply, and I’ll be in Pray-Harrold 613M tomorrow for most of the day, doling out numerous emails related to scheduling for this year’s first-year writing sections. Before the leave officially officially concludes, I wanted to capture a few impressions about the sabbatical, its accomplishments, and its occasional struggles.

  • Winter 2016 was only the second semester in 18 years that I didn’t teach a class. And the summer ahead, which is filled with administrative responsibilities, will be only the second summer in 16 years that I won’t be teaching a class. These patterns crept up on me; as I counted them and as I write them here, it seems like too much. I understand better than ever before the risks of burnout (or call it boredom, disinterest, complacency, checking out, whatever), and I have realized this winter how precariously close I have been to shrugging off many of the priorities I held when I started began down this career path during doctoral work.
  • As this was my first sabbatical, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect about work rhythms. The nearest I’ve come to having this kind of time to devote entirely to scholarship was all the way back in 2008 when I was working on the dissertation. A sabbatical takes some getting used to, and I suspect this is especially true when the leave is taken from a quasi-administrative post, such as directing a first-year writing program. The interim director and associate director did a fine job, as far as I can tell, but the hand off involved a fair amount of leading communication, pointers to where various documents were stored, how to handle everyday operations, and so on. Likewise, as the return from sabbatical approaches, there has been in uptick in email, requests for scheduling various things for the first half of May. I’m not sure I was especially well prepared for the fuzziness of transitioning onto sabbatical and back off again, particularly as relates to this administrative work. And the lessons about how to transition on and off more gracefully, although they are fresh with me now, probably won’t be especially helpful when my next sabbatical comes around.
  • I’m reasonably pleased with my productivity on sabbatical. I didn’t travel much–only a couple of out of town trips, primarily for conferences and an invited talk and workshop. I asked around, and some colleagues said things like, “don’t expect to get anything done during the first month” and “remember to rest.” These were helpful reminders, and now looking back, I suppose I could have worked harder and gotten more done, but I am more or less still on track with the timeline for the book, and I don’t at all have the sense that I squandered huge chunks of time.
  • Sabbaticals are isolating and on some days very strange. This much free time? I worked out. I read a few books that don’t have anything to do with my writing. I shitted around. Watched TV. Cooked. Dabbled at home improvement stuff. I regard most of this as run of the mill and routine–nothing here I would describe as radically transformative. The bouts of isolation got me thinking a lot more about social balance, about how much of my social world is constituted by work interactions, conversations with colleagues who are also friends. But sabbaticals are socially bizarre in that people want to leave you alone and respect your time, which is at the same time, of course, estranging from familiar routines and conversations that can prove supportive or generative. At one point I considered trying to convene some kind of writer’s group, but after talking to another colleague who was sabbaticalling at the same time as me, I decided better of it. No need to attempt to be a social leader at the same time my purest focus should be on the book’s development.
  • I can’t say yet whether I am fully restored, recharged, rested, and ready for what’s ahead. I jump back into the directorship of the first-year writing program, and while I was away there were a handful of institutional changes that make my return cautious insofar as I can’t quite tell how some of these questions will settle out (most of them relate to labor; who teaches composition as well as how composition sections are weighted for equivalencies). I thought long and hard beforehand about extending the sabbatical for four months through September 1, the start of Fall 2016, and while I could have chosen this alternative, by returning early I am able to earn additional pay in the summer months and continue as director.

Now having listed these few notes, they re-read to me as banalities, though not as too banal to post, if only so I can return to them in a few years when I put in for another research leave. And I think I will. That is, I know people who swear they don’t want or need a sabbatical, but as I have been reflecting on this time for the past ten days or so (the reprieve window of repatriation and conserving effortfully to make the most of what remained), I regard this time as invaluable to my well-being, to my research and scholarship, and to my sense of reinvigorated responsibility as a tenured professor. It surprises me a little bit that I am both excited to return to campus and that I got as much done as I did. I suppose that in itself is as much conviction as anyone can have about a sabbatical’s worth.

CCCC Vendor Booklists

It’s only a partial list–titles from Pittsburgh, Southern Illinois, and Parlor–collected into a PDF after gathering them at the most recent CCCC book exhibit. Got me thinking about how it would be nice to have such lists compiled and aggregable, year after year, a kind of time series list amenable to isolating years or small clusters of years just for noticing what was circulating at the time. I’d picked them up in the first place because we have a tiny sliver of funding for supplying rhetoric and composition/writing studies focused books to Halle Library on campus, but when I mentioned this to a colleague, she asked for the complied PDF, too, because it carries over readily to placing more direct requests to libraries for end-of-budget-year acquisitions.

2016 CCCC Vendor Booklists by DerekMueller

The Gaps

One more from Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) before I shelve it. On gaps:

Ezekiel excoriates false prophets as those who have “not gone up into the gaps.” The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the cliffs in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock–more than a maple–a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you. (274)

That third sentence from the end, squeak, turn the soil, a universe, but why just one? A pluriverse, maybe. Or pluriverses. These gaps and this turning, in them hints of gap statements, which imply needed inquiry, why hasn’t anyone thought of this yet, why hasn’t anyone done this research, explored shareably this wondering?

Mud Pack, Scrub

Something cathartic in stealing a couple of workblocks as a sabbatical dwindles to reface a website, update a blog, wade deep into the head-clearing work of CSS tuning. It’s every bit as much the work-in-progress it ever was, but even if it remains an unfinished mess, it is a more up-to-date unfinished mess, now living at http://www.derekmueller.net/. I didn’t have patience for an original rebuild, so I fetched a template from Pixelarity, customized it a bit, touched up the CSS, dropped it into place. Feeling pretty good about having decluttered some what had too long been lingering at the old site.

Web front April 2016
Browser Screenshot, webfront using customized Polaris template from Pixelarity.