For the past few weeks, “graphicacy” has insinuated itself into the part of my brain where nagging curiosity comes from (the self-nagebellum), becoming the terministic equal of an ear worm: word worm. Term worm? Lexical maggot? Whatever. And there, for weeks now, it has wriggled, dug in.

I don’t recall encountering “graphicacy” before Liz Losh mentioned it casually in her presentation to EMU’s First-year Writing Program during her visit last month. I wrote down several things from Liz’s talk, but graphicacy was there on top of my notes, large and starred. It stands to reason that graphicacy keeps company with literacy. Both are –acy words, which means they are adjectives converted to nouns and that they name or identify conditions. Presumably these, too, are nominalizations, but they by-pass verbs, which is the problem I’ve been thinking about. We have reading and writing to verb literacy, but what verbs graphicacy?

I had to do a little bit of cursory sifting and searching for graphicacy, to start. It seems like the term was initiated in a mixed and sprawling range across math education (learning to plot points and interpret graphs), geography (facility with maps), and graphic design (technical-aesthetic savvy). Late last month, it surfaced in the context of a conversation about multimodal composition and the graphic rhetoric we have adopted at EMU, Understanding Rhetoric. This is the main reason it took hold for me: graphicacy seemed to gather an array of practices related both to understanding and making visuals. It sweeps into one pile an assortment of visual communications–graphs, maps, word clouds, comics, painting, photography, typography, data visualization–much in the same way visual rhetoric does. And yet, with graphicacy as with visual rhetoric, it feels like we are still missing a sufficiently encompassing verb to capture the array of practices.

At our Advanced WAC Institute on campus late last April (or was it by then early May?), I worked with a team of colleagues on a new (for us) configuration. With colleagues from Communications and Education, we put together an institute keyed on five complementary practices: writing, reading, critical (or I would say “rhetorical”) listening, speaking, and visualizing. The fifth term, visualizing, was mine to introduce to institute attendees, and it was the most difficult to identify with a verb that was adequate to account for the frame, which amounted to concept mapping, drawing/sketching as heuristic for arrangement, and creating occasions for students to work at the intersection of textual and overtly visual and designerly composition.

Because we called it “visualizing,” we began the sessions needing to backtrack and contextualize. With visualizing, we weren’t talking about conjuring brainbound images or about an indwelt priming of the mind’s eye to work on problems or particular ways of seeing. These were among the associations attendees made with visualizing. And this seemed reasonable. Visualizing wasn’t quite the right verb. But what is the right verb? What is the general verb comparable to writing, reading, listening, and speaking that relates not only to seeing but to creating visuals, especially in consideration of vector illustration programs and shape-based concept mapping software that bears only faint relation to drawing?

Graphicacy stirs this question yet again but does not quite answer it. But I hope not to call it “visualizing” ifwhen we convene the institute again next time.

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.

Halavais, Search Engine Society (2009)

A couple of months have lapsed since I read Alex Halavais’s Search Engine Society; in fact, I read it in June while flying to Santa Fe and back. I need to return my copy to the library, and I wanted to post a few brief notes. Search Engine Society is a terrific introduction to search engines. Halavais achieves a nice (and what I would describe as a successful) balance between accessible prose and theoretical rigor. That is, I found the book exceedingly readable, but I could at the same time see frequently enough the theoretical surroundings Halavais brought to bear. Certainly it left me with the impression this book could have been more forwardly theoretical in its examination of search engines, but that it seamlessly achieves both is one reason I will be assigning a chapter for undergraduates this semester and I will likely include the full book this winter in ENGL516: Computers and Writing: Theory and Practice.

At just more than 200 pages, the book includes an introduction and eight chapters: 1. The Engines, 2. Searching (which I will ask students to read in ENGL326: Research Writing), 3. Attention, 4. Knowledge and Democracy, 5. Censorship, 6. Privacy, 7. Sociable Search, and 8. Future Finding. Among Halavais’s opening acknowledgments are that data on searching practices is hard to come by. Public search engines capture a certain amount of data about queries and the IP addresses from which they are made, but we still have much to learn about how search is deployed privately, as when computer users look for files on their hard drives. The coverage of early chapters includes how search engines work, the history of searching the web, the known limitations of presumably whole-web search engines, the web-cultural importance of specialized search engines, crawlers, currency, the rise of social search, and much more. Again, what’s here might seem–to one with an advanced technical understanding of search engines–like a broad survey, but I would add as a counterpoint that there’s plenty here in terms of references and context to prime beginners to these–what I regard as an increasingly important set of issues.

I have adopted Ch. 2 for ENGL326 because it gets into issues of superficial or complacent (i.e., self-satisfied) search. Drawing on work by Hargittai and others, Halavais establishes how willing searchers are to scratch the surface. So, we will seek to extend questions Halavais poses, such as “How can you know which terms, or combination of terms, best targets the information you are after?” into our own work with Search Alerts and RSS. The chapter also gets into the value of serendipity for invention, the limitations of semantic search for different file types, re-finding, the invisible/deep web, “berrypicking” (Bates), and adaptive search: much, in other words, that will be of some use to students concerned with research writing.

Halavais’s last two chapters bear on my research interests, as well. His discussion of sociable search touches upon collaborative filtering and tracing associations and challenges conventional sensibilities about the search engine as an algorithmic mechanism (that subdues agency or that disguises and promotes a malevolent corporate agenda). I appreciated that the book confronts–though perhaps not with especially clear cut solutions–questions of cultural production intrinsic to search engines, e.g., “Who will know?” (190). The “who will know?” question echoed for me with Foster’s “I will not know,” with disciplinary assumptions about the adequacy of search and databases. Halavais concludes the book with the “who will know?” question, noting that “[t]he term ‘search engine’ is far too prosaic for the role that search plays” (190).

“Search personalization represents one of the most active areas of research, but, as with search generally, by privileging certain sources over others there is the danger that a searcher can become trapped by her own search history” (52).

“The internet and the web likewise have been disruptive to the way attention is aggregated and distributed, and so it is worth asking whether there is a similar ‘tyranny of the web'” (58).” Or, for that matter, whether attention fatigue is to blame for the “Death of the Web.” Interesting to think that a preference for a locatable web (via search, via attention-corralled, if gated, networks) yields, if not the death of the web, a catatonic (kata- -tonos), or toned-down, web.

Proust and the Squid

I finished Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain early this spring, and I have been meaning to revive the blog again periodically for reading notes, so catch as catch can. Initially, I picked up Wolf’s book because I wanted to know how she dealt with the endangered status of reading in the age of the internet, in terms of carrying through as both “story” and “science” of how the reading brain does neurologically what it does. Wolf’s book also figured into Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, and Carr has been drawing attention (on techrhet and from bloggers) more recently following the release of The Shallows. In Carr’s AM article, Wolf was cited as one whose foreboding research insights affirm Carr’s “I’m not the only one” suspicions about the superficiality of reading experiences at the interface. Carr wrote,

Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style
that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening
our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier
technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose
commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere
decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the
rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without
distraction, remains largely disengaged. (para. 8)

Continue reading →


A draft of my fall syllabus was due on Friday, so draft it I did. I’m slotted for a section of WRT195: Studio 2 for Transfer Students. It pitches itself as a “best of” blend, a rip-and-mix that puts the best of WRT105 and WRT205 into a single course for transfer students.

For several weeks, I mulled over using Pink’s Whole New Mind. I read Johnny Bunko, too, and thought about how I could fit that stuff into the course. But at the last minute, I went with another plan focused for now on the latest greatest literacy crisis and also on Googlization (while taking up some of Vaidhyanathan’s blogbook-in-progress). So we’ll read about and write around some of the stuff that happens when we ‘do a Google,’ size up some of the apps, and forage around for research projects concerned with Google’s construction of the web or the world, grand databases and privacy, Knol, directed and serendipitous search, and so on. So far, the course opens with a digital memoir of sorts (not quite a mystory, but maybe not too far off), some summary and critique work, a researched argument, and a translation (switching the argument into a 2.5 minute audio short or a Pecha Kucha slide-improv, I haven’t decided yet). Here’s the current plan, subject to minor revisions until I hear back from a coordinator later this week about whether it will fly.

I’m also slotted for ten hours per week in the Writing Center, or, I should say, doing Writing Center work online, as we continue stabilizing some of the consulting options piloted this summer. More on that when the batteries in this cordless keyboard are recharged.