I-Search and Quantified Self

I am 70-percent committed to a plan for ENGL326: Research Writing this fall revolving around research networks. I’ve been reading over the syllabus and materials Geof Carter generously shared with me from a similar class he taught at SVSU recently. The basic idea here is to begin with a key (or keyless, as circumstances warrant) scholarly article in a given field of study (i.e., the student’s declared major, probably) and then trace linkages from the article to/through the various places (inc. schools of thought), times, affinities (inspirational sources, pedigree/halo re: terminal degree), and semantic fields (inc. contested terms) out of which it was written.  We will probably adopt a workshop model, maybe use CMap Tools for representing these research yarns, develop reading and research logs in something semi-private, such as Penzu, and, if things go well, lay some groundwork for a relatively focused going over of what entails “research” in their respective areas while also doing a lot of reading and writing, including some sort of an update or response to the first article. We could even write those in Etherpad for the way it lets us present a document’s evolution as video (video which invites a layer of commentary and reflection, a­­­­­s I imagine it possibly working out). If this sounds like June thinking for a class that starts in September, well, it is. Anyway, what good is early summer if not for breezily mulling things over?

Now, had I to begin again, I might create a different version of Research Writing tied in with the Quantified Self stuff. Monday’s entry on Seth Roberts’ work reminded me about this. Here is a small slice of Roberts’ article abstract, which is posted on The QS blog:

My subject-matter knowledge and methodological skills (e.g., in data analysis) improved the distribution from which I sampled (i.e., increased the average amount of progress per sample). Self-experimentation allowed me to sample from it much more often than conventional research. Another reason my self-experimentation was unusually effective is that, unlike professional science, it resembled the exploration of our ancestors, including foragers, hobbyists, and artisans.

Although the QS projects are rooted in quantification, they are not exactly bound to traditional science or notions of experimentation and measurement for public good.  Instead, they assume a useful blend between quantitative tracking and personal knowledge.  I don’t have in mind a QS-based research writing class concerned so much with “optimal living” or with diet and exercise, although I guess there’s no good reasons these things should be excluded from possibilities.  I’m thinking more along the lines of Quantified Self meets McLuhan’s media inventories meets Macrorie’s I-Search.  The class would inquire into data tracking, narrating spreadsheets, rhetorics/design of data visualization, and the epistemological bases of the sciences, while it “grabs hold of the word ‘authority’ and shakes it to find out what it means” (Macrorie, “Preface”). Again, just thinking aloud, June thinking for a class that, depending upon how things turn out this fall, starts in September 2011 or 2012.

Ken Macrorie

By way of WPA-L and Twitter, I learned yesterday that Ken Macrorie passed away earlier this month. Macrorie was, among other things, an innovator, a teacher well-known for parodying the most “dehydrated” approaches to English Studies, for railing against mechanical prose, for cracking jokes on hyper-cantankerous pedagogies and their perpetrators.

I encountered a little bit of Macrorie in CCR732, our course on curriculum. We didn’t read all of Uptaught. I don’t even think I own a copy (it might be packed, if I do). But copies are surprisingly cheap on Amazon: used for 25 cents plus four bucks S&H. They’re worth more than that. I also had three or four conversations with my first MA adviser about the I-Search paper, Macrorie’s self-styled take on the research paper, research freed up to personal aesthetics, intensities, delight, etc.

In addition to reading Mike’s and Jeff’s recent entries, I went back and looked at a couple of entries where I wrote about Macrorie’s stuff. And I was glad I did.

It’s Both A Pressure and Privilege To Be Here

Ken MaCrorie’s Uptaught
is funny as hell. We have about seventy pages of it excerpted for Tuesday’s
Curriculum and Pedagogy session.  It’s particularly interesting for how he
pits Percival the computer as essay-reader against the robotic, mechanistic
professorate.  MaCrorie (of I Search notoriety) comes around to a
method of spurring invigorated self-discovery toward students’ notice of voice,
intellect, conscience–blended.  But he’s ingenious for the way he parodies the
field, for the way he cracks on the serious posturing among those who "preach


Engfish teachers pass around to each other what they call
"bloopers" made by students in their papers.  They post them on
bulletin boards.  They send them to teachers’ magazines , which publish
them as humorous material to fill empty spaces in their pages.  Three of
the commonest slips are:

1.  His parents were having martial trouble.
2.  He took it for granite.
3. The boys were studing in the lounge of the girls’ dormitory.

In the column heading of a recent issue of an English teachers’ state
association newsletter appeared the words CALENDER. In the graduate school I
attended the English Department distributed to faculty and students a notice
containing the word GRAMMER. These bloopers were not posted or printed in
magazines as filler. (72)

Okay, so MaCrorie’s a hoot.  WTF’s the point?  We’re reading this
as a lens on the compositional redirect–stuff in the early sixties that carved
out a space for composition as the modern behemoth spillway in higher ed–the
conditions (Dartmouth Conference and NCTE’s The National Interest and the
Teaching of English) as the incubus for what’s since taken root.  And in
another class, it’s Sharon Crowley’s Comp
in the University
that takes up the stance (through polemicals and historicals…mostly
excessive historicals!) that we oughta cut the FY course loose. Perhaps. We.
Should.  To the sea.

I find the National Interest rationale especially interesting in light of the
resulting material strains felt by teachers who were by and large destroyed
(critically) in the NCTE’s report.  Stop it!  Material conditions suck
(onward).  That’s clear.  That hasn’t changed.  Teacher shortages,
class sizes, resources, technologies ("Composition, literature, and
language are taught more effectively in rooms which permit the storage of books
and papers, as well as the use of recordings, tape recorders, and other
audio-visual aids," goes the NTCE doc.) all were named in 1961 as musts for the bedding of
National Interest and the Teaching of English.  The whole "send it in
motion" pretense makes me think about the Russian space program,
particularly all of the animals that went, unknowing, into the beyond. 
Poor Laika.
Poor comp.

But material strains and abominable labor practices–it seems to me–are only
a few of the problems deserving attention (and leading us to seriously
consider Crowley’s plan–note, I’m only halfway through b/c the book hasn’t
arrived yet…only a six-chapter tease), and in the mini-paper (called Crowley:
A Response
) I’m about to write, I plan to call out the top-down tenure and
promotion meritocracy as one more of the fundamental constraints defining the
field as we know it.  In a field so notably self-conscious about its legacy
of inferiorities in English Departments and plodding with the cement shoes of a
broadly perceived service ethic, burdened additionally by what Donna Strickland
dubs the managerial unconscious , composition–of all fields (and, why not?,
others too)–needs ways to re-imagine the safeguarded meritocracies , especially in an era
where over-stocked archives and gobs of peer-reviewed information (spilling far
and wide, disciplinarily vast) make entrance into the field drowningly ominous
for all who approach.