Ideology of Wording

Don Angel’s viejito repertoire, it seems to me, implied a relationship to words that is distinguishable from the ideology of wording that is common in mainstream life to the extent that such life has been shaped by schooling. In this sense, there is much in schooling that encourages logos at the expense of the theatrical, distance at the expense of involvement. I am reminded of my own markings of student papers or my own student papers marked by teachers: “exact word?” “shift in diction,” “redundant,” “too wordy, tighten up,” “clarify!” “verb tense shift,” “awkward,” “dangling modifier,” “your thinking is not coherent here,” “is this logical?” “verb agreement problem,” “what?” and so on. During such practices the word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and discourse become objects of consciousness and begin to create what I am calling here an ideology of wording whose ultimate goal is the mastery of both discourse and the lifeworld that the discourse points to. An aspect of this ideology of wording is that the theatrical becomes a set of effects, important in their own right and in certain contexts but potentially deceptive in knowledge-making contexts. Indeed, much of Don Angel’s knowledge—curanderismo, stories of the supernatural, and divining practices—were so far off the professional logos map as to be considered merely theatrical. In this sense, Don Angel’s narrative style reinforced the marginalization of his narrative content from the professional and mainstream styles of the modern world. (65)

Ralph Cintron, Angel’s Town

Over the two-week break between semesters (more on the front end of it, actually), I spent a few minutes with Cintron’s Angel’s Town, mostly because I wanted to trawl back through a good ethnography to refresh my sense of why ethnography is so demanding, so time and methods intensive. The First-year Writing Program I direct now has a number of instructors who frame research as ethnography, which is another reason I felt compelled to pick this up.

Cintron’s “ideology of wording” has stuck, this passage has held on, since I read it a few weeks ago. The viejito—here set in relief against a schoolish ideology of wording—is a punning language game with so much vernacular nuance and layered innuendo that Cintron freely admits how incomplete any representation of must be. Nevertheless, this tension between viejito and an “ideology of wording” stands as a terrific example of the hard-to-mix qualities of academically situated discourse practices (i.e., writing, speaking, and “reading” in school) with their legacy logoi, and, on the other hand, the everyday rhetorics that operate powerfully and cogently elsewhere.

In both classes I’m teaching this winter, a grad seminar in Computers and Writing focused in particular on “ecologies of practice” and an undergraduate class in style and technology, I have felt like this passage is trailing me around, shadowing me. Cintron’s account of viejito parlays gets at something akin to an “ecology of practice” for how the exchanges bloom, transcending and exceeding mainstream language conventions. Grasping this, then, by studying the viejito up close, requires what Richard Coe would have described as an eco-logic, because their systemic manifestation that cannot be explained by analysis of isolated parts. And in the (online) style+technology class, there has been quite a bit of discussion wordiness (Holcomb and Killingsworth 47). Concision has its time and place, of course, but wordiness (or the charge of wordiness) constrains the kind of theatrical, involved wordplay Cintron notices and calls our attention to.

Finally, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Cintron’s contrastive pairings of logos vs. the theatrical and distance vs. involvement in the second sentence. The pairings accomplish some of the distinction that moves his analysis forward, but it also hints at a question about the tidiness and convenience of these conceptual frames. To break from this, for a second, for example, what might the combination of distance and the theatrical make possible? Is there already a distant-theatrical quality in Cintron’s (or, to be fair, any ethnographer’s) observing and filtering for insights? I’m interested in whether the distance-theatrical can advance other methods, too (or rather, by carrying out the distance-theatrical, explore other yet unasked questions). But this—as well as the tension between viejito and the ideology of wording—seems like a big deal for ethnography and especially for the kinds of ethnography attempted in first-year writing or by researchers who are just starting out in rhetoric and composition/writing studies.

Daily Bread

In her 1990 “A Personal Essay on Freshman English,” revised and published in 1998, Sharon Crowley writes,

In fact, I wager that Freshman English will continue to exist in its traditional form for a long time to come, despite the efforts of leftist composition teaches to alter its focus toward social change. I have several reasons for suspecting this. First, the traditional required course reassures taxpayers that their children are getting one final guaranteed dose of “correct” English. Second, Freshman English is a cheap way for university faculty to salve their guilt about their own teaching, which is discipline-centered and which forces students to accommodate to the discipline’s ways of knowing or to fail. Third, the emergence of composition studies has enabled a few writing teachers to do research, to publish professional discourse, to get grants, rank, and tenure, and thus to assume power in English departments and university politics. Freshman English is our daily bread. Newly enfranchised professionals will want to think twice before tampering with a sure thing. In short, I doubt whether it is possible to radicalize instruction in a course that is so thoroughly implicated in the maintenance of cultural and academic hierarchy. (235)

I suppose one of the worst things a novice, yet-untenured WPA can do during the first semester steering a large-scale writing program is to read every last word of Crowley’s Composition in the University, again. Another worst: to bring the new cohort of first-time writing teachers along on that reading. Worst meaning best, of course.

Here’s more:

The repetitive and repressive curriculum of Freshman English is directly linked to its institutional status as a required introductory-level course. Freshman English is attached to a huge administrative enterprise on almost every college campus in the country. Its very size subjects its administrators, teachers, and students to unprofessional and unethical working practices on a scale that is replicated nowhere else in the academy. (229)

But that’s where we’re headed this afternoon in ENGL596. Crowley’s rationale for the get-rid-of-it polemic resonate still today, and what better than an encounter-cumdissoilogoi (if you’ll please forgive the Latin-Greek mix!) with Crowley’s well-defined, hard-set stance to resolve, for now, why and to what ends we are doing what we are doing.

613M

PH613M

I changed offices this week, moved from the smaller, windowless interior office that is standard issue for junior faculty in my department to the larger, windowed outer office pictured here. This is one among the incentives for taking on responsibilities as Director of the First-Year Writing Program–a role I formally stepped into earlier this month. The larger office is warranted because it is spacious enough for meetings with small groups of 3-4 people, or that’s the main rationale for the up-sized office, I’m told.

There’s quite a bit of new work that comes with being WPA, and I have been daily trying both to tick items off a long task-list I’m keeping in Astrid for now and to keep short-term priorities in clear view. In the mix: (anti)textbook decisions, curricular fine- and coarse-tuning, drilling down on outcomes that read to too many–me included–as over-general goals, getting publishers to say anything-more? about their pricing and margins, scrounging for budget, setting up online spaces (e.g., WordPress and Mediawiki installs), scheduling for fall, prepping a summer materials PDF for new GA cohort, and on and on. I’m not sure how the size of this FYWP compares, but I’d guess it is larger than most with 140+ sections per year, more than 3000 students per year, and an instructional staff of more than 50.

Along with all of the challenges, the transition into this role is generative in that it is pushing me to re-think my research agenda, reconsider my teaching philosophy, formalize an administrative philosophy and plan (almost certainly rooted in chreods and chreodologies), and reflect on what worked well in my graduate education. I have every indication so far that EMU is a hospitable place for tending to the strength and solidity of the first-year experience and Gen. Ed. There are many smart, supportive people involved, which always helps.

I have half-kidded on Twitter that in addition to Writing Program Administrator, WPA means Writing Program Atavist and Writing Program Adhocrat: atavist for throwback tendencies (returning to my own TA training, unearthing relic teaching influences, leafing through the 1936 Sears catalogs as Jim Corder did, and finding it fixed, stale: “We mustn’t try to live forever with only the knowledge we now have.”), adhocrat for the gut-trusting making up of this thing as we go, leaning hard on practical wisdom and the proceed-as-way-opens Quaker maxim LWP has always been fond of. I’ve ordered a few other books about contemporary WPA thinking, but right now this is where I’m at.

Clocking Composition

The WIDE-EMU 2012 countdown widget ticked to single digits earlier today, which means I’m past due–delinquent!–with the Phase II teaser for a session called “Clocking Composition: Exploring Chronography with Timeline JS.” My co-presenters, Joe and Jana, have written smartly about what we have planned, and when we met a couple of weeks ago, we decided the Phase II piece may as well be a timelinear representation of the conference program, which is what we’ve created, since I would be working on the ordinary program, anyway.

I’m more or less pleased with the result. I suppose I’ve tempered my enthusiasm because I’m still learning quite a bit about Timeline JS, figuring out whether it’s better to tune style in-line or adjust it in the CSS files. Earlier today, for example, I asked a colleague to check out the time-lined version of the program and much of the text on the landing page was clipped, unreadable. I adjusted, and the new version should scale more elegantly to smaller screens, but, well, these are the nuances that take more time to get to know. I plan to continue experimenting with Timeline JS this fall in part because we”ll be using it for a project in ENGL505 soon.

Before next Saturday’s conference, I need to duplicate enough copies of the Timeline JS sandbox files (basically create about 10-12 .html pages and create the openly editable Google spreadsheets that will feed into each of them) and figure out the best way to make these accessible during the session. I doubt we’ll dig too deeply into how to set this up on a server or why to consider abandoning Google spreadsheets for JSON, but I suppose we can drift in these or other directions as suits all who attend next week.

The OOOist Writer and the Great Outdoors

I’m re-reading Chs. 4-5 of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology to prepare for the second meeting of our summer reading group this afternoon. Ch. 4, Carpentry, sets in tension writing and the making of things; Ch. 5 proposes wonder as a way of doing OOO, as a means of grasping the ways objects orient (124). Last week’s meet-up attracted seven readers, and I’ve heard we’ll have several more joining today. I’m not leading the group with any particular goals in mind. It has very simply been an opportunity to engage with a book–and a philosophy–that a handful of our graduate students have wanted to talk more about since Eileen Joy, Tim Morton, and Jeffrey Cohen visited for last semester’s JNT Dialogue, “Nonhumans: Ecology, Ethics, Objects.”

To prepare for today’s conversation, I’ve been dusting back over a couple of recent blog entries here and here and here (as well as the comments, which begin to explore some lingering questions I have about OOO), and I also took a look again at Bogost’s entry from 2009, “What is Object-Oriented Ontology? A Definition for Ordinary Folk.” The point about OOO needing a “simple, short, comprehensible explanation” leaves me wondering to what extent the elevator pitch has been satisfactorily laid down and also whether a short-form version can adequately answer to its skeptics (e.g., those who, upon reading a bit about OOO lead with,”Yeah, but what about X?”). I suppose what I’m thinking around is whether OOO can really be boiled down to a 100-word account and whether, especially considering what looks to me like a surge of interest in units/objects/things/nonhumans, there could be a coherent statement that many of the main participants would stand behind. Yet another way, just how raging are OOO’s debates, now? And how much are new/cautious/fringe enquirers capable of exploring those debates?

Looking again at Chs. 4-5, I felt this time like writing, as counterpart to carpentry, isn’t given much of a chance. Writing is a foil–a thin backdrop against which a preferable set of practices are cast. The generating question follows: “[W]hy do you write instead of doing something else, like filmmaking or macrame or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening?” In this context (and in this contrastive framing), writing is something of an attention or activity hog. It gets overplayed in the liberal arts; it gets over-valued in exceedingly strict economies for tenure and promotion. According to the chapter, these are cause for concern because 1) “academics aren’t even good writers” (89), and 2) writing, “because it is only one form of being” (90) is too monolithic a way of relating to the world. I generally agree with Bogost’s argument that scholarly activity should be (carefully!) opened up to include other kinds of making, but I’m less convinced that the widespread privileging of writing is the culprit here. It’s fine to say that academics aren’t good writers (though I’m reminded that we should never talk about writing as poor or problematic without looking at a specific text/unit in hand), but why would they be any better at “filmmaking or macrame or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening” or coding APIs?

So while I’m interested in the call for an expansion of what can be considered scholarly activity, it remains unclear to me why writing should be at odds or brushed aside with that expansion. Instead of “Why do you write instead of doing something else?”, I would rather consider “How is your writing and making and doing entangled?”, whether gardening, drinking beer, or even welding (the second slide here suggests that writing and welding are compatible, though paper-based dossiers are already heavy enough; also weld-writing does not correspond to slideshow-encoding). It’s a relatively minor tweak of an otherwise compelling set of arguments about scholarship-in-computational-action, and yet with just a bit more nuance, rather than concluding that “When we spend all of our time reading and writing words–or plotting to do so–we miss opportunities to visit the great outdoors” (90), perhaps we don’t have to scrap composition to get beyond the limited and limiting definitions of writing still in circulation. And this may be one of the reasons an object-oriented rhetoric remains a promising complement to OOO.

Resisting “Resisting Entropy”

Quick question: What’s the last “review essay” published in CCC you can name without searching?

I couldn’t come up with a title, much less the names of all of the books in any review essay. I recall reading Kris Blair’s piece (had to look up the title: “New Media Affordances and the Connected Life”) from CCC 63.2, but I could only remember three of the five books covered in that review: Dilger and Rice’s From A to <A>: Keywords for Markup because I already own a copy, and two others because I knew something beforehand about their authors and would claim an interest in their work. Otherwise, working from memory, I can’t come up with much–a vague recollection of another review essay by Schilb and one more by Villanueva on style. After reading the Villanueva review essay, I picked up a copy of Holcomb and Killingsworth’s Performing Prose, but that was as much motivated by a Twitter exchange with a colleague as by the review.

Thus, when I started to see an unusually high level of discussion circulating about Geoff Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy,” a review essay published in the latest issue of CCC (Feb. 2012, 63.3), my first thought was something like, “Well, this sure is an awful lot of activity for a review essay.” People were discussing it on Twitter, but I also received an email message from a student on the same day NCTE circulated the bulk email announcing the issue–an email message bringing up several questions and concerns based on things Sirc wrote. I hadn’t read the then-day-old review yet, but I hurried my pace in getting to it.

As far as I know, review essays covering multiple books began appearing in CCC seven or eight years ago. Before that reviews focused on single titles. The review essay provides readings of and recommendations for a small collection of titles, presumably titles that have come out in the last three or so years and that share a topical thread. And as I understand it, there are a few motives behind the switch to review essays: 1) they are more tightly packed than individual book reviews , 2) they promote a more rigorous appearing scope which in turn justifies known scholars to write them, 3) the known scholar bi-line gets people to read them, and 4) clustering multiple books into one review essay means readers will encounter book reviews at the edge of (and perhaps just beyond) titles they would have otherwise already been likely to check out.

I’ve read Sirc’s review essay, and although I realize it is poor cccarnival mmmanners to sidestep much substantive discussion of the article itself, all I want to say for now is that I appreciated the candor in his definitively recommending (or in not recommending, as the case may be) each of the four titles subject to review. The essay is polemic. Fine. It even toes the line between unapologetic critique and demolition-ball tear-down. But, despite however much or little I agree with Sirc in specific moments (i.e., there are points that resonate, others that trouble and confuse; I may well elaborate on a few in another entry), I know where he stands on these titles, and these titles become more decidable as a result. I want that nudge toward decidability from a review essay, and I suspect Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy” is one CCC readers will remember for awhile–both for the hot stove arguments the essay stokes and for the titles covered in doing so.

Loom

We’re halfway through the Spring 2011 term, three weeks (a w a r p, really) from wrapping up the two classes I am teaching, an online ENGL328 and a F2F ENGL121. I’m trying something different in the 121. The units of composition are what I’m calling research memos and tracings. The research memos (inventories, anticipatory speculations, plans) prepare us for the tracings, which are, as I think of it, mini-enactments of various methods, ways of inquiring. Memos and tracings alternate, one each week, until they amount to about 30+ pages of writing from which students will assemble a 10+-page “researched argument.” And the five tracings, five ways of inquiring, are 1. memory work (experiential anecdotes), 2. word work (definitional drill-down), 3. site work (scenic noticing), 4. interview, and 5. source work (consulting published articles). I realize the last one is usually the star in much academic prose, but I am adapting these to fit a pre-existing curricular framework enough that this version of the class will be simpatico with some of what’s already in place at EMU. Had I to add one more way, it would be 6. survey work, a class-authored survey whose questions we would compose and then answer and whose results we would draw upon as a form of evidence to hitch some assertions to in the researched argument piece. This will have to wait for the 15-week version of the course, although I cannot right now foresee when I will be teaching this course at the more generous, more contemplative pace.

Midterm. Already said this, but yesterday was roughly half-way and so I circulated a mid-term teaching evaluation using Surveymonkey (nine questions). In class we did our usual blind peer review (another entry for another day), looked at and discussed various memos, and then hovered for a minute on our program’s learning outcomes. I usually dis-identify with outcomes. Assessment isn’t my bag. I recognize the function of outcomes to be best and most when tacit and least. That is, I want them to be a faint shadow, necessary because they lightly guide us on our way, but not the sort of thing we need to dwell on explicitly, focally. I asked students to articulate with a drawn line a relationship they could see between any Composing Process Outcome or any Learning Process Outcome. There are eleven total. Now, to do this: Draw lines from two CPOs and two LPOs to four artifacts. Assign a unique letter to each of the four lines. In a paragraph, articulate the linkage. Sixteen students, sixty-four lines, sixty-four paragraphs. This provides all of us with a glimpse of what we understand to be happening so far. I compiled the results into this.

ENGL121 LO Linkages

What can I learn from it? Well, some linkages are more densely set than others. That is, eleven lines were shared by three or more students. The accompanying paragraphs add subtlety to the more general impression, but this begins to suggest consensus, or maybe an outcome bias of some kind. Three lines were shared by two students. Twelve lines were singularly identified. Out of 64 links drawn among 66 possibilities, then, just seventeen fell to the low levels of one or two, whereas 11 possibilities (out of 66) drew 73 percent response. Why? And what does this mean for what we do next? Are some artifacts too neatly mapped against individual outcomes? Are other outcomes too hazily defined?

In sharing this stuff and in publicly fumbling around with these questions, I’m not interested in rushing to conclusions, nor do I want to fixate excessively on the outcomes. I am merely trying to take an interest in them, in part because they figure prominently into institutional and programmatic assessment discourse and in part because, as one who mentors graduate students from time to time, I am thinking about how to keep outcomes lightly enough fitted to the FYC classes without them getting too much in the way.

Tough Room

Last week’s This American Life on Tough Rooms has been lingering in the back of my mind since I heard it—again, as a podcast to make time pass on the elliptical. The first segment on headline-invention meetings at The Onion struck me at the time as a fantastic clip for orienting the ENGL121 students I will have in the spring to the idea of entering the conversation. As usual, I’m mildly conflicted (and I have the luxury of time before this conflict must be resolved): it’s a bit more agonistic than irenic, but I am still thinking about its possibilities for framing how some of our in-class discussions could go. The idea of tough rooms could also be a useful counterpart to echo chambers. Could the two be joined to suggest a spectrum that has different consequences on either extreme—too much believing or too much doubting?

I’ve also been thinking about a sequence in ENGL121 that would adopt in turn composing logics associated with Grammar A (conventions; writing mythos; “Inventing the University”), Grammar B (Winston Weathers; crots), and Grammar <a> (Rice; networks; hypertext). I don’t know yet how I would position the three in relation, but I can faintly imagine a promising sequence that would help us gain traction on their differences, their respective strengths and limitations, etc.

Another List

Last time I ended by asking about Elbow’s believing/doubting-game, “Do absurdity and hyperbole gain traction in the predominance of a doubting manner?” I think what I meant was, Do absurdity and hyperbole function most powerfully when we hold a doubting mindset? If believing goes along with things, grants ideas a chance, then absurdity and hyperbole must lose some of their shock effect under those conditions. Believers wouldn’t find them unbelievable; believers would assent (temporarily) in these moments when critique is on hold.

Later in the article, there comes another list even more ramshackle seeming than the basketball-themed chunk I worked through the other day.

There are more personal emotional fears that reinforce the monopoly of the doubting game and which must therefore be explored here. I think we all fear, to a greater or lesser extent, being taken over, infected, or controlled by a bad or wrong idea. The believing game asks us, as it were, to sleep with any idea that comes down the road. To be promiscuous. We will turn into the girl who just can’t say no. A yes-man. A flunky. A slave. Someone who can be made to believe anything. A large opening that anything can be poured into. Force-fed. Raped. (185)

Reading the essay (again, reading to decide its fit in a class I will soon teach), I hovered on this paragraph slightly longer than most because I found it difficult to play the believing game with it. Promiscuity, slavery, rape: here as tropes these are excessively blunt for explaining the risks in preferring one intellectual manner over another.  Because Elbow’s list-work deals out these references in quick succession, I attempted to read it as a dare–a lure configured deliberately to remind readers that our believing has its limitations and that such limitations are often due for direct contemplation (e.g., attending to how hyperbole works on us). The paragraphs that follow confirm Elbow’s concern for believing as an inroads to dangerous ideas–dangerous ideas that the doubting game’s overeager critical impulse would shield from us: “What is needed is practice in learning to immerse the self gradually in the element perceived as dangerous–and it is just such a process that is constituted by the believing game” (186-187).  

Can Writing Studies Claim Craft Knowledge and More?

Robert Johnson’s recent CCC article, “Craft Knowledge: Of Disciplinarity in Writing Studies,” argues that “craft knowledge” can function effectively as a warrant for disciplinary legitimacy.  He sets up “craft knowledge” against an Aristotelian backdrop of techne, or arts of making, and advances a view of “craft knowledge” as a solution to still-raging disputes over the disciplinary status of writing studies (notably not “rhetoric and composition”).  “Still-raging” is casting it too strongly; unsettled and ongoing are perhaps better matches with the characterization of those disputes in this speculative discipliniography–an article that imagines felicitous horizons for the field. As I read, I wasn’t especially clear whose conflicted sensibility would be rectified by invoking craft knowledge. Among Johnson’s concerns with the status of writing studies are 1) that it does not carry adequate clout (or recognition, for that matter) necessary for grant writing and 2) that it does not influence neighboring fields whose inquiries would be, by the input of those trained in writing studies, enriched.

On the problem of disciplinary status for grant writing, Johnson writes,

When the traditional disciplines–the so-called established fields of inquiry and production–work in an interdisciplinary manner, they in most cases still hold onto their disciplinary identity. This is painfully evident for those in writing studies when applying for external grant funding.  On the application forms from such agencies as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and even the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), for example, applicants must identify their resident discipline in order to be eligible. (680-681)

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