Not As a Trusted Guide

Halfway through Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, one of the many wishlisted titles I picked up at last month’s Networked Humanities conference. Stewart’s slow jumps aggregate to an “idiosyncratic map of connections between a series of singularities” (4). A colleague, when he saw the book at the edge of my desk late last week in a place where I would be sure to remember to carry it home for the first interlude of Winter Break, characterized Stewart’s writing as “prose poems.” I can see that. Similar to ornamented essays, i.e., stylistically adven-turous felt-arguments.

And like I said, I’m only halfway through. Slow jumps read slowly. As much as by anything else, I’m struck by–affected by–Stewart’s reconfiguring of pronouns.

I write not as a trusted guide carefully laying out the links between theoretical categories and the real world, but as a point of impact, curiosity, and encounter. I call myself “she” to mark the difference between this writerly identity and the kind of subject that arises as a daydream of simple presence. “She” is not so much a subject position or an agent in hot pursuit of something definitive as a point of contact; instead, she gazes, imagines, senses, takes on, performs, and asserts not a flat and finished truth but some possibilities (and threats) that have come into view in the effort to become attuned to what a particular scene might offer. (5)

To write not as a trusted guide seems at first to go against professionalism and rhetorical ethics, but instead of turning into fanciful indulgence, because it finds gravity in description, it shifts ethos to ethos-oikos, a kind of redistributed or network-strewn, banal registry. A contagious style, Stewart’s.

He noticed frost on the Honda Element outside and put off a morning jog, wrote a blog entry, ground beans for pressed coffee. “March was always warmer than this.”


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.

World as Text

Picked up this clip, “The Child,” from infosthetics this morning and found it striking enough–for its geotypography–to justify pasting it on. This is what the world would be like were it purely textual. The premise is simple enough–a couple in New York City rushes to the hospital where their baby will be delivered. Only, is the baby a word? And wouldn’t NYC have more words?

Anyway, I say it’s worth stowing in your playlist as a conversation troubler the next time culture-as-text, thick description, or an everything’s text worldview comes up.

Connors, 1982, “Modes of Discourse”

 Connors, Robert. “The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse.” On Research Writing: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998. Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999.

Big Idea
Connors historicizes the ascent and decline of the modes of discourse as a
widely favored, pervasive scheme for organizing FY composition from the early 1800’s until the late 1960’s when
modified approaches and the process movement, bound up with phenomenological underpinnings
in many cases, threw off the charm of modal curricula. The modes of discourse commonly included Narration, Description, Exposition and Argument, although variations included Didactic in place of Expository (Newman), Pathetic (Parker) and Speculation (Quackenbos). Connors’ essay offers a fairly clear chronology of the modes, their brief reign, and the forces that brought about their gradual (and yet ongoing) unraveling: single-mode text books, especially ones centered on exposition, and what Connors calls “thesis texts”–texts purporting a central, masterful method for engaging students to write powerfully, effectively. He details the causal relationships from a classical belletristic set of modes, to Newman’s
A Practical System of Rhetoric in 1827, to Winterowd’s condemnation in 1965, “that the modal classification, ‘though interesting, isn’t awfully helpful.'” 

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