A Dimensional Hiatus

The latest bedtime storytime jags come from Moers’s The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, a fantastic slingshot across Zamonia, equal velocity-measures zany, smart, and surprising. Tonight, Bluebear began his transition away from the Nocturnal Academy and out of life, what is it now?, six?, The Gloomberg Mountains. To leave the school, he has to make his way through an especially disorienting labyrinth. Bluebear walks on and on until walking gives out, Fitbit.

For several hours I remained lying on my back, spreadeagled with my gaze fixed on the roof of the tunnel. I had made up my mind to dematerialize, vanish without a trace, rust away like a piece of old iron, and thus become an integral part of the Gloomberg Mountains. It seems that rusty tunnel walls have an unwholesome effect on overtaxed brains. I would never had entertained such an idea under normal circumstances, but anyone who has brooded for hours will feel, in a truly physical sense, what it’s like to rust away. It’s a strange but far from unpleasant sensation. You surrender to the forces of nature, utterly serene, then slowly turn metallic. Your body becomes coated by degrees with fine, rust-red fur and starts to crumble. The rust eats into you, ever deeper. Layer after layer flakes off, and before long you’re just a little mound of red dust to be blown away by a captive puff of wind and scattered along the endless tunnels of the Gloomberg Mountains. That was as far as my dire imaginings had progressed when my shoulder was nudged by something soft and slimy but not unfamiliar. It was Qwerty Uiop.

‘What are you doing here?’ he inquired anxiously.

‘Rusting away,’ I replied. (175-176)

Rusting away, I replied. Rusting away. But his school-friend Qwerty, from the 2364th dimension, comes along, sort of glop-bumps into him, and mentions that he has found a dimensional hiatus–a portal he knows by smell will, when he plunges into it (if he can summon the courage), jump him to another dimension. But Qwerty hesitates to jump, afraid of the unknown.

I won’t spoil it. It’s enough to take a quick snapshot of this rich bedtime reading, of Bluebear’s post-Nocturnal Academy disorienteering, his will to dematerialize, to rust, and his friend, Qwerty’s, rescue-interruption, motivated by his own crisis about risking a known dimension for an unknown dimension.

Reason enough to continue reading.


At this time of year–because it is semester’s end, the last Friday of Fall 2010 (before final exam week)–I am thinking again about patterned precarity. “Patterned” because the academy’s clock punctuates our lives with fairly arbitrary (if systemic) endpoints. That semesters end means for many students an intensified two-week window near the end of time when a flurry of deadlines, for admittedly complicated reasons, amount to a heap of dustbin deliverables and an even taller heap of stress. I know I am generalizing: it doesn’t always go this way, nor does it have to go this way. But often it does. End of semester grunt/strain/anguish is palpable, thick in the air.

Especially so this semester, it seems.

E., my friend in Kansas City, shared an anecdote with me once about the learner’s mindset and the thrill of close calls. The story I (mis)remember goes something like this: in Kaffa, the region of Ethiopia known as the original growthplace of coffee, there emerged an astonishingly widespread practice among teenagers of something like “fender glancing.” Fender glancing is a game of chicken with moving cars. Basically, participants in this activity enjoy a rush by close brushes with automobiles. A near miss is invigorating–literally life-giving. I made it! As you might imagine, this does not always turn out well. Almost being hit by a car–when the choreography goes badly–can be lethal or at the very least bone-breaking. E. explained how he saw many correspondences to this in those he was teaching (to play soccer), particularly when they were bored.

Thrill seeking isn’t a new discovery or even a new cultural phenomenon elucidated by the derivative (i.e., friend of a friend said; an admittedly lazy, heard-about method) anthropology above. But it nevertheless reminds me about revaluing the relationship between what happens all along, in a given semester, and what happens at the end, as well as rethinking how practices in a given course must spill beyond the time-bounded container of fifteen weeks. In other words, for teaching, how can we redistribute intensive encounters so that a class doesn’t reduce to an ultimate showdown at semester’s end?

Program Investment

With the weekend after my graduate program’s visiting days trailing to
a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about program ownership and investment.
Wednesday night through Saturday morning, we hosted a group of prospective
students, much like we do every year in late February or early March.
Because I was on the graduate committee last year, I was heavily involved in the
process, and two years ago, as a first-year student, I made every effort I could
to welcome the prospective students, to spend time with them, answer their
questions, and chat about the culture of our program, the styles of various
faculty members, the challenges that come along with teaching undergraduates at
SU, and so on. This year, however, I missed meeting any of the students on the
first day because they were scheduled for various meetings throughout the day
and the more casual evening events conflicted with an indoor soccer match on
Ph.’s schedule. The second day, Friday, was loaded up with my preparations for
the pre-CCCC talk. Finally, at the evening get-together and again at a
breakfast on Saturday morning, I had the chance to get to know each of them a
bit better. A terrific group, really. We’d be fortunate to have them

Continue reading →

Brooke, 1988, “Underlife and Writing Instruction”

Robert. “Underlife and Writing Instruction.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 229-241.

Brooke in 1998: "Now that we, as a field, understand this, perhaps the task
of the next ten years will be to imagine programs which increase the self’s
possible roles, widening the ways literacy is used in the celebration and
establishment of viable, sustainable communities" (241).

Big Idea
In his 1987 essay, "Underlife and Writing Instruction," Robert
builds on the sociological trope of "underlife" to characterize classroom
behaviors in writing instruction. Brooke’s is a comp-related rendering of
Goffman’s Asylums and Stigma bent on ethnographic studies of the behind
the scenes substrata of discourse in the writing classroom.  Brooke
contends that writing instructors must understand the fundament of "underlife"
because such scales of disruption underscore our aims in composition: attune
students to identity-staked information games, help students to ride out the
grand vacillations among systematized roles, create ways for students to try on
more transgressive, contestatory, even counter-hegemonic agilities (as opposed
to stances) toward critical literacy and toward disruptive rhetorics. Brooke
teases out an interesting distinction between contained underlife
(resistant yet functional within the structure) and disruptive (attempts
to undermine and reset the institution) underlife.  His ethnographic method
amounts to classroom observations; he taps into the murmur and buzz among
students–the hum of quiet interchange unnoticed by the

Wondering About
Reading this essay against a recent wrangle on techrhet this week, I carry
forward a strong impression that Brooke’s work should resurface more
frequently, that it might inform tendencies in writing instruction that bow to
the pressures to vocationalize students, to make them over into so many obedient
widget-makers.  I probably ought to back up and explain.  Basically, a
lister on techrhet left a link to
this article from Fox News
.  The article makes a case for the risky
messages about identity inherent in cryptic email addresses. For example,
bigballz@aol.com probably isn’t appropriate for a resume.  The article
summarily suggests that the most decorous, normal candidates get jobs:

“There’s no way we’d ever consider hiring someone
with a silly e-mail address," said a human resource manager at a major
financial institution, who wished not to be identified.

The bottom line, experts say, is that job seeking is
a sales game, and resumes, cover letters, e-mails, Web sites and voice mail
messages are all part of the ad campaign applicants put out about themselves.

"People have to remember that they are a
product," Holland said. "You are the most important product you will
ever represent.”

The article link and the exchange that followed was lively,
interesting.  As unsettled as I am by list culture, I even participated
with a remark or two.  By and large, it was far less about inappropriate
email addresses than our senses–as writing instructors–that we ought to steep
the classroom in hegemonic forces, that we ought to shape curricula to the
pressures that bear down beyond academe, that we ought to mold our pedagogies to
the market realities, and that anything short of best preparing students for
future employment shortchanges them and reflects poorly on academic programs and
institutions.  Nutshell of a much meatier issue, here.

With that, I want to return to Brooke with the question, "underlife, under
what?"  In other words, once the teacher and the students relish in
disruption, what is the glue that congeals whatever subordinates them? What is
that pressure?  Its source?  "Underlife," especially as
Brooke characterizes it through his observations, suggests students are
incredibly savvy about playing "information games" in the classroom,
about being moderately dutiful, about appealing to the teacher’s biases,
about wooing the teacher’s approval for successful acts.  And that, I
guess, is the connection between the Fox article and Brooke: 1.  Students
are incredibly adept at negotiating identities and making plays on
representations of themselves that will win favorable regard.  2. 
Writing classrooms, unlike many places, ought to be a space for tentative
explorations of identities, consequences, transgression and subversions of
convention.  3.  Rhetoric is inherently tensional.  A lack of
discursive resistance (no need to compel assent, move, affect, charge,
communicate) is more or less a-rhetorical.  Yes?  

Brooke’s essay helped me think about recent recastings of  backchanneling–the
fuzzy ring of communication that carries off through media channels (blogs, IM,
conversation) following a formal speaking occasion. He notes students who work
on assignments during class or who "disrupt" the teacher-centered
classroom by talking with peers while the teacher is also talking.  So I
want to tuck Brooke away for his ethnographic methods and his conclusions about
"underlife"–a term that, perhaps, has been left back in 1987. 
It seems to be a useful term in application to blogging.  For my own
recall, I want to drop in bell hooks and Antonio Gramsci, too.  Teaching
to Transgress
and Gramsci’s Notebooks on hegemony seemed to run
faintly (and without specific mention) through Brooke’s essay.  And I
probably ought to look up Goffman’s Asylums and Stigma.  I hadn’t
heard of it until now; rings of Foucault and Bentham. 

One last note: Early in the essay, Brooke drops in mention of "real
academic success."  It involves the development of a particular kind
of identity according to the line that follows.  But this idea of roles and
disruption doesn’t get framed in terms of "real academic success"
later in the essay.  And I wondered about that.  Lots of side issues
might attach to it: grade inflation, WAC, the parsed worlds of
academe/outside.  But the adjective real stuck with me as I read,
especially as I read Brooke in light of the sanitized self arguments
churning through the techrhet list.  


"Writing involves being able to challenge one’s assigned roles long enough
that one can think originally; it involves living in conflict with accepted
(expected) thought and action" (229).

"My understanding of ‘underlife’ stems from Erving Goffman’s books Asylums
and Stigma
, although the concept has long been accepted in sociology. 
As presented in these books, the concept of underlife rests on three assumptions
about social interaction. First, a person’s identity is assumed to be a function
of social interaction.  Second, social interaction is assumed to be a
system of information games.  Third, social organizations are assumed to
produce roles for individuals which imply certain kinds of identities" (230).

"In Asylums, Goffman studies the underlife of a major American mental
hospital, and comes to the conclusion that underlife activities take two primary
forms.  First, there are disruptive forms of underlife, like those
engaged in by union organizers, ‘where the realistic intentions of the
participants are to abandon the organization or radically alter its structure.’
Second, there are contained forms of underlife, which attempt to fit into
‘existing institutional structures without introducing pressure for radical
change" (231).

"No one but the complete fanatic completely associates herself with only one
role–instead , the self is formed in the distance one takes from the roles one
is assigned" (232).

"The purpose of these evaluative comments, it seems, is the same purpose as
the other underlife activities–to assert one’s fundamental distance from the
classroom roles" (235).

"In ‘Reality, Consensus, and Reform,’ Greg Myers shows how wanting to teach
writing as a freeing process has historically been in conflict with (and
undercut by) the ideological purposes of the educational institution, and argues
that writing teachers need to recognize that ‘our interests are not the same as
those of the institutions that employ us, and that the improvement of our work
will involve social changes’ (170)" (237).

"Alongside these suggestions for classroom reform are powerful indictments of
the traditional writing classroom for being teacher-centered rather than
student-centered, focused on the product rather than process, being oppressive
rather than liberating" (238).

"When we look at writing instruction from the perspective of underlife, it
appears that the purpose of our courses is to allow students to substitute one
kind of underlife for another.  Instead of the naive, contained form they
normally employ, we’re asking them to take on a disruptive form–a whole stance
towards their social world that questions it, explores it, writes about it"