Until Finally a Carrier Stumbled

Especially the second paragraph:

Close to large tinajas [water pockets or pools] the trails converge like strands of a spiderweb coming to the center, and within a few miles of water, broken pieces of pottery tend to appear alongside. Mostly the pieces are plain: thick-rimmed, ochre ceramics called Colorado River buff ware. Clay vessels would have been hauled back and forth until finally a carrier stumbled. The stumbles added up in places so that over hundreds upon hundreds of years pottery became evenly scattered, in some places pieces on top of pieces. Along with the pottery a small number of shells might be found, brought from far oceans probably for adornment, wealth, or ceremony. Along one of these trails I picked up part of a shallow-water cockleshell, its delicate hinges still intact after being carried hundreds of miles from the Sea of Cortés.

I started calling these trails waterlines. Waterlines are the opposite of canals, moving people to water rather than water to people. This bestows a formidable significance on the origin itself, the tinaja, because that is where you must go. Must. It comes and goes over the year, or  over the days, while the location always remains the same. You can put your finger down and say here. Of all this land, all this dryness, all of these mountains heaped upon mountains, here. (31)

Childs, Craig. The Secret Knowledge of Water. New York: Back Bay Books, 2000.

For the talk I’m giving next month at Macomb CC, “Writing Desert Survival Kit,” I’m leafing Childs’ Secret Knowledge, struck by the shard trails, anticipating the desert metaphor (much like food deserts) as accounting for what diminishes, dehydrates, and becomes perilous in crawls across the writing barren, writing spare curriculum. Waterlines, in this extended metaphor, however, introduce a centripetal and extracurricular counterpart, desert traversals, travels that surfaces and circulate writing (also supporting it). These tinajas are comparable to the writing center, which, if you decline to provide a formidable writing curriculum (e.g., explicitly guided and supported writing experiences in every year of university education), you’d damned well better fortify your tinajas.

Keywords in Threshold Concepts, #4c15 Poster Presentation

I’m in Tampa this week for the 2015 Conference on College Composition and Communication–an event I’ve been attending every year (except one) since 1999. This year I proposed (and was accepted to present) a poster, and after several hours of finessing for more white space, shifting elements around, and tinkering in Illustrator, here’s what I’ll be standing next to for 75 minutes this afternoon.

Keywords in Threshold Concepts: Time-Binding and Methodologizing Disciplinary Lexicon by DerekMueller

Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA)

A few weeks ago, I attended a “Regional Faculty Conversation” about the new Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA), an effort to update and improve seamless transfer among Michigan’s community colleges and public colleges and universities. There were three such conversations across the state in three days. I attended the four-hour get-together at Washtenaw Community College along with approximately 50 faculty and administrators from other programs in SE Michigan (e.g., Jackson College, Schoolcraft, Washtenaw CC, Henry Ford, Wayne State, Saginaw Valley State, UM-Dearborn, and EMU). The new MTA is an update to MACRAO, which has been the acronym used to name a comparable agreement initiated 42 years ago (though not updated since) and also for the Michigan Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admissions Officers.

The MTA was approved by the state-wide Council of Presidents last September, and it is scheduled to begin this fall. According to those who led the conversation, the state legislature prompted the update to MACROA in 2011. Generally, the agreement is a good idea. It is student-friendly and it stands to encourage efforts across two- and four-year colleges to make sure their lower division courses bear family resemblance. It brings Michigan into alignment with comparable efforts in other states. And it is long overdue. Forty-two years should not pass without such an agreement being revisited, but that’s the sort of thick-crust stagnation that becomes possible absent any high education authority in the state.

I’m writing a bit about MTA, though, and translating my notes into this entry, because the agreement includes a significant change related to writing. This slide sums up that change. Additional materials from the meeting are available at the Michigan Center for Student Success website.

Essentially, the highlighted lines indicate that the old agreement, MACRAO, required students to complete a two-course sequence in writing. MACRAO is clear about this point: students had to complete six credit hours in English Composition. The MTA, however, allows students to satisfy the agreement (and therefore, to become eligible for a full general education waiver) with one composition course and a second course in composition or speech. The new requirement requires less writing, and yet we are at the same time hearing continued pleas for more writing on all sides, particularly among campus stakeholders.

It might not seem like much, but this change creates conditions at odds with the design of first-year writing programs premised on a Comp I and Comp II sequence, in which Comp I offers foundational experience with writing in college and Comp II builds upon and extends those experiences to include research-based academic writing. The new MTA appears to create a path into the university along which students could satisfy general education never having explicit, direct experience with research-based academic writing. Stop for a moment to consider this. I mean this as a fair characterization of what the MTA sets up, and I would urge caution before weighing in with axiological conclusions, tempting though they might be. Late last summer, Michigan WPAs wrote, signed, and sent a letter expressing concerns about this change, but the Council of Presidents approved the MTA and assented to its Fall 2014 implementation in spite of the request for more consideration of the change to writing and input from faculty colleagues with expertise, training, and experience in rhetoric/composition/writing studies and writing program administration.

This preamble should be enough to catch others up on a few of the concerns that continuing faculty conversations might address.

  • At the May 15 Regional Faculty Conversation, there was quite a bit of discussion about convening a subcommittee who would suggest changes to the MTA that would clarify the focus of the composition course required to satisfy the MTA. Without such clarification, the MTA (as written) appears to allow one-credit writing courses (i.e., nothing explicitly prohibits this). It also allows combinations of Comp I and speech. Comp I could be online, accelerated, basic skills focused, or just about anything ranging from computationally scored five-paragraph themes to full-on project-based and portfolio-assessed courses. The subcommittee would, as much as possible, define common ground for the composition course. But would its input be incorporated into MTA? At the May 15 meeting, it remained unclear whether revisions, amendments, or footnotes could be introduced after this fall. Notably, the MTA doesn’t include any explicit provision for updates or future revisions.
  • Input throughout the process was either mishandled, miscommunicated, or never regarded as especially important by those organizing and leading the project. It’s not clear. Perhaps there was a sense that representation was adequate? To be fair, input would have slowed the process down, and it would have been resource-intensive to invite and involve more people. Math faculty were able to convene a group who collaborated to define the expectations for the math course. But writing did not receive a comparable invitation until recently, after the agreement was approved. Pressing this point–why, exactly?–brought to the surface different characterizations of how the MTA developed, from one version suggesting it was measured and deliberative, evenspread over the two years it was developed to another version indicating that the change to the composition requirement happened at the last minute.
  • The rationale for the change to writing is also difficult to pinpoint. Nobody would confirm it at the May 15 meeting, but it has elsewhere surfaced speculatively that the last minute change was an effort to bring Michigan State on board with the agreement. That is, because MSU only requires one composition course and a speech course, it creates conditions amenable to transferring to or away from MSU, which, once it was on board, was the largest public university in the state to participate in the agreement (i.e., University of Michigan does not). Whether or not this is valid, the changes to the writing requirement should have been based on something more substantive, e.g., evidence from participating institutions about how students with or without a two-course writing sequence during the first two years of college fare relative to their counterparts who do not take two writing courses. If they graduate at equal rates, maybe there isn’t anything more to consider here (aside from the caveat that high-achieving high school students oftentimes by-pass the two-course sequence because of exemptions and waivers).
  • Authority for the agreement remains ambiguous. That is, Michigan does not have a higher ed authority, and the MTA does not come with an implementation officer (even temporarily; its implementation is steered primarily by a 13-page handbook and a few similar documents, including FAQs and checklists. Who should programs contact for an authoritative stance on whether or not a program can require a course for MTA-eligible students, provided that same course is required for all FTIACs? The MTA seems to be rolling out with loose consent, and the agreement itself, as written, doesn’t spell out strict conditions that adopters must follow. For instance, at EMU, we’re told we can continue to require Writing Intensive courses as a fixture in General Education, but we cannot require all students satisfy ENGL/WRTG121: Comp II or its equivalent because that’s considered a “proviso,” and provisos are prohibited by the MTA.

That’s enough for now. Like I said, I don’t see much urgency in guessing how this is going to play out. I put my name in for the committee and would consider pitching in if and when such a group convenes. I suspect we already have more consensus across programs than we have had much chance to explore, much less articulate. And in fact, one of the most promising take-aways from the regional faculty meeting was a sense that we could begin exploring something like a SE Michigan alliance of writing programs that would help us tremendously toward articulating what we hold in common curricularly and also bench-marking for the persistent WPA arguments concerning part-time lecturer (over)reliance, full-time lecturer teaching loads, course caps, and so on. Other than that, as far as the MTA is concerned, we will continue to seek better institutional data that can tell us how FTIACs who take the two-course sequence compare with FTIACs who take only ENGL/WRTG121: Comp II compare with transfer students, in all matters of retention and graduation rates as well as performance in upper division WI courses. Better data will help us understand whether we have cause to be concerned, whether we have exigency to make further adjustments to the writing curriculum at EMU.

Now: Visual Rhetorics

The visual rhetorics course I’m teaching this semester is by now well enough plotted to pass along a link, finally. I haven’t taught the class before, which only means that its materials this time are spun provisionally from many influences–an independent study and qualifying exam at SU, Michael Salvo’s syllabus, Dànielle DeVoss’s syllabus, and good conversations with CGB just after the new year. Its large arc follows from photography to document design to infographics and data visualization. I remain cautiously optimistic that these three sub-arcs will fit together okay within the fourteen meetings we have. No surprise, but I’m supplementing heavily with PDFs and assigning as required texts only Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Handa’s edited collection, and Cairo’s The Functional Art. One project involves writing (and designing) Ch. 10 for the Cairo book–a “missing” chapter focused on visual rhetoric. There’s an ignite presentation set up to articulate in short-form one’s emerging visual-rhetorical priorities and interests in relation to one of the people interviewed at the end of The Functional Art. And then there is a loose-fitting, build-your-own-collection portfolio whose creation and assembly is spread as evenly as possible throughout.

I’m still trying to figure out the role of in-class workshop blocks devoted to self-paced attempts with Photoshop and Illustrator. And I can’t quite decide how formally and explicitly to dwell on technical matters and rationale related to different image file types. Against these uncertainties (or yet-unmade decisions), I count as one advantage that I have had all but three of the fourteen students in class before, and it’s a terrific bunch who will assert their preferences whenever I’m slow to decide.

Woolgar and Cooper, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence?”

I stumbled across Steve Woolgar and Geoff Cooper’s article, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence? Moses’ Bridges, Winner’s Bridges, and Other Urban Legends in ST&S” (Social Studies of Science, 29.3, June 1999), a few weeks ago as I prepared for a session of ENGL516:Computers and Writing: Theory and Practice in which we were taking up, among other things, Winner’s chapter from The Whale and the Reactor, “Do Artefacts Have Politics?” Reading the chapter yet again, I thought I would try to learn more about these well-known bridges. I’d never seen one of them, after all.

Woolgar and Cooper’s article is one of those I wish I’d read years ago. It opens with an unexpected event: Jane, a student in a grad seminar, challenges the premise of Winner’s artefact-politics example. In effect, she says the clearance-challenged bridges are passable, that they don’t actually prevent buses from traveling the parkways on Long Island, that Winner’s claim is a “crock of shit.”

Woolgar and Cooper turn next to Bernward Joerges’ investigation of Winner’s bridges, their history, and the legitimacy in Winner’s attribution of politics to these artefacts. Rather than accepting Joerges’ position that Winner’s example crumbles because the actual bridges allow buses to pass, however, Woolgar and Cooper suggest the bridges-articulated wield a certain “argumentative adequacy” that is not necessarily eclipsed by the bridges-actual (434). In fact, they say that proof of Winner’s error is difficult to come by, despite the bus timetable they ultimately obtained, despite Jane and another student’s efforts to corroborate the effect of these bridges on bus traffic.

The important recurrent feature in all this narrative [about efforts to corroborate the effects of the bridges] is that the definitive resolution of the story, the (supposedly) crucial piece of information, is always just tantalizingly out of reach…. For purposes of shorthand, in our weariness, in the face of the daunting costs of amassing yet more detail, or just because we’re lazy, we tend to ignore the fact that aspects of the story are always (and will always be) essentially out of reach. Instead we tell ourselves that ‘we’ve got the story right.’ (438)

Following a discussion of urban legends and technology, Woolgar and Cooper conclude with several smart points about the contradictory aspects of technology, that it “is good and bad; it is enabling and it is oppressive; it works and it does not; and, as just part of all this, it does and does not have politics” (443). They continue, “The very richness of this phenomenon suggests that it is insufficient to resolve the tensions by recourse to a quest for a definitive account of the actual character of a technology” (443). And, of course, once we can relax in efforts to trap a-ha! an “actual character,” we might return an unavoidably rhetorical interplay among texts and things, between discourses and artefacts. Winner, too, has built bridges, “constructed with the intention of not letting certain arguments past” (444). Periodically inspecting both bridges-actual and bridges-articulated is also concerned with mapping or with accounting for the competing discourses, the interests served by them, and so on: “Instead of trying to resolve these tensions, our analytic preference is to retain and address them, to use them as a lever for discerning the relationship between the different parties involved” (443). And, importantly, this is a lever that produces a different kind of clearance, “under which far more traffic might flow” (444).

Note: There’s much more to this, including Joerges’ response here (PDF), which I have not read yet, but I nevertheless find the broader debate fascinating, relevant to conversations about OOO we’re having on our campus in preparation for Timothy Morton and Jeff Cohen’s visit next month, and–even if I have arrived late–a series of volleys I need to revisit if and when I return to Winner’s example in the future.

Teach Your Children

Ph. is taking an online class this summer: LS211: Introduction to the Humanities. It’s a class I know well. I first developed the online version several years ago2002 and taught it a handful of times, including every summer during my tour de PhD. I was the course developer for, I don’t know, seven years right up until I landed in Ypsilanti.

Now two years later, I encouraged him to enroll in this particular course because he needs it for his major, and I thought there was a chance the main textbook might still be in use and a few crumbs of the course I’d designed might be lingering in the new version. All this amounts to is a faint hunch that we could have some conversations about the course materials–in-family supplemental instruction.

You can imagine my surprise–and horror–when Ph. received as a welcome email an message I wrote many years ago as a template for other instructors to adapt when welcoming student into the course. What a peculiar turn, this message in a bottle, from me to students in the early oughts, then with details removed as a template from me to instructors of the course, then minimally modified from an instructor to Ph. late last week.

The class begins for Ph. today. In fact, he just shared with me a Google Doc with the major project assignment (because I was curious; plus he is working in my office today), and, indeed, it is the very assignment prompt I created a half decade ago. I’m baffled, conflicted. I mean, I know it was work-for-hire. I know the other school “owns” these course materials. I know they are entitled by contract law to redistribute and make money on every scrap of material I put into that course. And even though this situation hints at odd and unsettling pedagogical practices (for a course–ironically–we paid tuition for), and even though I am not crazy about the idea that Ph. would be taking a course dependent upon such an aging bundle, I am nevertheless reassured by what feels like stepping through a wormhole, i.e., that the course is solidly enough developed that materials I wrote and assembled several years ago could still be sound today. It’s a principle to teach by, I suppose: create classes you would like for your children to take one day (and understand that if you sign a contract releasing work-for-hire, you just might end up paying tuition for them to take it).

Wicked and Tame

This afternoon I finished re-reading Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004), which we’ve picked up in ENGL516 for its tightly applicable yet expansive heuristic: functional, critical, and rhetorical literacies. For Tuesday we’re also looking at a complementary tier, network literacy. There’s not a lot I want to recount or highlight about the Multiliteracies book in general this time through, but one specific section drew me in more this time than when I first read the book a few years ago.

Under rhetorical literacy, the section on deliberation (152), Selber refers to a 1973 article by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Both professors at Cal-Berkeley, Rittel (Science of Design) and Webber (City Planning) differentiate between wicked problems and tame problems. Selber summarizes their position this way:

Although tame problems can be enormously complex, their complexities are largely technical in character, as are their solutions. In contrast, wicked problems are more intractable in that wicked problems do not have single solutions, only interim and imperfect solutions. Adjustments in tax rates, changes in school curricula, procedures to reduce crime–these problems can all be understood, addressed, and resolved in countless ways because there are elusive social dimensions that muddy the causal waters. (153)

Selber continues for another page or two to apply the wicked/tame distinction to challenges facing interface designers. That design planning and implementation is wicked, not tame, reminds us of the important limitations of technical rationalism for addressing situated social problems at a variety of scales (e.g., poverty to usability). I am inclined to accept the proposition that follows for Selber, which is that deliberation ensures a humanistic perspective in response to HCI challenges. Among questions that remains for me, I still wonder after tracking down and reading the Rittel and Webber article whether deliberation makes a wicked problem less wicked. In other words, what does deliberation do to the problem? Does it make it appear more tame? Does it blunt (or defer) its wickedness? I find it easy to value deliberation, but I wonder whether deliberation sometimes seduces us to conceiving of wicked problems as tame.

To enlarge the context–and with it these questions–a bit further, here is one point when Rittel and Webber compare tame and wicked problems:

The problems that scientists and engineers have usually focused upon are mostly “tame” or “benign” ones. As an example, consider a problem of mathematics, such
as solving an equation; or the task of an organic chemist in analyzing the structure
of some unknown compound; or that of the chessplayer attempting to accomplish
checkmate in five moves. For each the mission is clear. It is clear, in turn, whether or
not the problems have been solved.
Wicked problems, in contrast, have neither of these clarifying traits; and they
include nearly all public policy issues–whether the question concerns the location
of a freeway, the adjustment of a tax rate, the modification of school curricula, or the
confrontation of crime. (160)

They also say that wicked problems are notoriously difficult to “define” and “locate” (159). Perhaps this is what deliberation increases–our means of defining and locating problems, of sorting out “what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition” and “finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies” (159). Curriculum, which both sources list, is a fine example. But so is just about any composing situation, isn’t it? Writing and rhetoric strike me as deeply, constantly, willingly entrenched in wicked problems, and perhaps only in reductive notions of techne and in formulism do we find disappointing instances of writing-understood-as-tame(d).

For a closely related thought-exercise, I scraped from the Rittel and Webber article the ten traits they assign to wicked problems. Selber draws correspondences between the first three and interface design problems, which profit “from a more rhetorical and less rational view of things” (154). Others on down the list might prove more difficult to align with interface design, specifically, but they do match up intriguingly with other problems encountered by writers.

  1. “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (161)
  2. “Wicked problems have no stopping rule” (162)
  3. “Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-and-bad” (162)
  4. “There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem” (163)
  5. “Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly” (163)
  6. “Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan” (164)
  7. “Every wicked problem is essentially unique” (164)
  8. “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem” (165)
  9. “The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution” (166)
  10. “The planner has no right to be wrong” (166)

The original article is worth a read, particularly for the way they elaborate each of these qualities of wicked problems. The degree of overlap between composing problems and wicked problems piles up, making this both a theory of problems/planning worth returning to and one I wished I’d noticed (and also deliberated) more fully a long time ago.

New Scissors

I could use a pair of scissors right about now to remove the last scrap of packaging on another (new) pair of scissors. The problem-solution I’m describing is something like Cut It Forward, shears’ equivalent to Pay It Forward. Or, Do unto Fiskars, a gift-economy rule among craft tools and other similar objects.

Then again, what do I even need scissors for?

Extracting book shipments? Rescuing single paragraphs, sentences, or words from printed drafts via old-way cut/paste techniques? Non-symbolic games of Rock, Paper, Scissors (which, if I was lucky, might produce the rare play of double scissors, which, although a draw, would solve the initial problem)?

Most Polluted?

<snark>Every so often I go looking for examples of astonishingly astonishing
web design. With that said, I’m no standards-waving design puritan, and I admit
I am attracted to departures from conventionality (unusual CSS tricks, and so
on). This morning an email arrived with a link for PTA listserv subscribers to
the Syracuse City School District
web site
, a site so overstocked with informative tidbits that it can only be
described as belonging to the "dump it in, anywhere" school of design, a school
matching with the old industrial mindset that caused Lake Onondaga to be so
choked with mercury and other debris that it for many years won acclaim as the
U.S.’s most polluted. I get it that the school district is complex,
but…my oh my. Just try to find anything here (e.g., the media release

To be fair, I have done little in this entry other than pot-shot on the site (and remember a link for future returns). And, to be even fairer, I don’t even need anything from it today. But this craggy little hike through the cluttered SCSD corner of the web got me thinking that it
might be interesting in a class to look around for the most polluted school
district web site in the U.S. (or in a given state) and then to work on improving its usability.


Here is a piece of mail that arrived today: a postcard from a thoughtful, support-for-when-you-really-need-it company
called Academic Ladder. The absence of a bona fide postage stamp makes me think this
came to me via
bulk mailing, but in case it was sent to me alone, I share it here for posterity’s sake. 
Also, these are some of the design elements that might powerfully reach out to
other late-stage dissertators:

  • "STRUGGLING", all caps and in a blood-curdling font you probably don’t
    have installed on your home computer (my guess: TrueType Chainsaw
    Massacre Smear Italics 48).
  • Why don’t you have the font installed on your home computer? 
    Apparently, you are writing the dissertation using a steno notebook and No. 2
    pencil.  Getting started involves tearing off and crumpling whole
    sheets of paper that you keep on the desk as you work–the origami of
    unshakeable frustration.
  • The offer: A "free" toolkit with everything a late-stage dissertator
    needs to know about "How Academia Messes with your Mind (and what to do
    about it)" and "Find out if you have Ph.D. Imposter Syndrome!"

What’s that? No, in fact, it’s nobody’s business whether I
ordered a toolkit. That’s not what this entry is about. Anyway, it’s my CCCC
presentation I’m struggling to complete today.