WIDE-EMU Update

We’ve concluded the first phase of WIDE-EMU Conference logothe WIDE-EMU Conference—Propose, which yielded 38 proposals from 56 conference participants. Proposals arrived from four states (Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky), fourteen colleges or universities, two high schools, and three National Writing Project sites. The planning team met via Google Hangout yesterday afternoon to discuss Phase Two and delegate various tasks to prepare for the October 15 unconference. For example, we will contact all participants soon with an explanation of Phase Two, provide examples of the online pieces due between now and Oct. 1, and draft a schedule for the day of the event.

We also looked at the summary data from the form-fed Google Spreadsheet. The automatic tallies helped us quickly plot the number of rooms we will need. The spreadsheet summary isn’t as of yet especially easy to share online, but here are cropped sections representative of the graphic elements.

Proposal type pie chart
Student status pie chart
Proposal influx graph

The last graph shows when the proposals arrived. I speculated that the graph probably follows a law of calls (for conferences or CFPs), and Bill pointed out that in the final 36 hours we received the same number of proposals we’d received since we opened the call. So that would suggest the number of proposals in the final x days equals the number of proposals in the final x hours (there are barriers operating here, e.g., the number of proposals received in the last 1 day are not equal to the number received in the final 1 hour; the function remains murky). I don’t know of any other public datasets on proposal submission distributions in time, though, so somebody will either have to point me to those or we’ll have to wait until the next WIDE-EMU Conference to run the experiment. Come to think of it, for how much is made of acceptance rates, it would be interesting to see acceptance rates cross-referenced with the proposal influx, wouldn’t it?

Law of calls or not, that’s the latest.

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.

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.