What’s the Word? 🧮

For a few years, maybe more, I have at times in my teaching practice opened a class session with a round of “What’s the Word.” “What’s the Word” is a segment from ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, a sports talk show featuring broadcast journalists Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, and, when one of the two of them is traveling or vacationing or otherwise unavailable, a substitute counterpart who balances the exchange and the screenspace. For 30 minutes in the 5 o’clock hour out east, the show is led along with a ticker-tape and marked by time intervals; clock-keeping governs the otherwise spirited dialogue. This clip will give you an idea:

It’s a toss-up whether students in classes I teach know the show or have any frame of reference for the premise. We watch the video, and proceed thereafter, usually with some solo word-whatsing, which then gets transferred to a marker board or Google Slide, and after this, we read them, and we talk about our neologisms, puns, and coinages. It’s not as if streamers and confetti fly from overhead, but it’s usually fun to play with words.

“What’s the Word” can with brevity open and span worlds1Similar to Thich Nhat Hanh on mantras, which are magical (or rhetorical) for how they can instantly transform reality., querying how the week is going, how a project (or some dimension of it) is unfolding, or how a reading resonates or fails to resonate, what instigates a click or a eureka. It sits in a single class meeting, so it’s not quite ENGL1999: Writing One Word, which I have (only half) jokingly pitched as a prototype for self-set minimalisms with labor and workload. “What’s the Word” fits into the discursive-unitroscope, which runs from the small to the large, and these measures include the Four Word Funk Review (variation on Four Word Film Review from back-back in the day), Fives, or lists of five what’ve-you-gots that then play into ranking and re-ranking, sharing out, writing rationales, and so on, and Nineties, which are a micro-genre adapted from Berlant & Stewart’s The Hundreds, and which amount to 90-word clips, give or take five words, that can, if they must, jump to the next multiple of 90. In other wordcounts, 85-95 is permissible, but above 95 the writer has to take it to 175-185, and below 85, it’s not a ninety because that’s where the cork edge of the dart board ends and you’ve dinged the drywall. I’m two years along in fairly routinely layering nineties into my teaching practice, and the results have been positive enough to continue, sometimes prompted, sometimes unprompted. I have yet to incorporate the indexing moves that elevate The Hundreds from distinctive and memorable to a book I consider truly one of a kind. Could be that’s what the future is for.

I’m thinking about “What’s The Word” this afternoon because we’re reading the first 28 pages of Han’s Non-Things for Monday evening, a book, which, in itself and in translation blooms a terminological cornucopia. We’ll have just an hour on Zoom for discussing the opening section, before we switch to open review of in-progress blog carnival entries. “What’s the Word” seems to me right-sized for the hour, for sorting out de-fleeification, or digitombed rhetorics, or smart-phoniness, or like-iod addiction.


  • 1
    Similar to Thich Nhat Hanh on mantras, which are magical (or rhetorical) for how they can instantly transform reality.

Carrying the Ball Around

On the elliptical Thursday, lolling slowly-idly through spacetime (i.e., winding across 3+ miles, ending up nowhere). Reeaading Elbow’s “The Doubting Game and the Believing Game–An Analysis of the Intellectual Enterprise,” the well-known appendix essay in Writing Without Teachers (1973) and an essay I am considering assigning for the first meeting of ENGL516 next month. In a future entry, I may have more to say about the essay, its premises, and whether anyone still reads it or finds the believing/doubting dialectic useful anymore. But it’s this passage on basketball that (today) still strikes me as odd-fitting:

If you are playing basketball and someone starts carrying the ball around without dribbling or keeping score wrong, what you do next is not part of the game but part of real life. You can shoot him, you can try to have him locked up, you can cry, you can say you won’t play with him tomorrow, or you can try to persuade him to start playing again by talking to him. Here, I think, believing game has an inherent advantage over the doubting game. The activity of the believing game (trying to share perceptions and experiences) is more likely than the activity of the doubting game (trying to find holes in the other person’s view) to keep people willing to talk to each other if the game breaks down. (174-175)

This must be a pick-up game.  There are no referees, no arbitrators of the game’s rules outside of the game itself. In fact, decorum is, in this case, so delicately kept by participants in the game that it is possible, if anyone in the game decides it is the best solution, to shoot the rule-breaker. That the miskept score or the carrying of the ball would warrant–under any circumstances–shooting the rule-breaker creates dissonance with the idea of hermeneutic propriety (the gains to be had in a generous intellectual manner more willing to try on ideas than to rush into critique). So it’s the extremism of the scenario that, in this particular passage, distracts me from the larger point Elbow seeks to make. The point is that the believing game could restore basketball-rationality to the scene. But it is startlingly difficult to believe these alternatives to verbal negotiation.  Locking up the rule-breaker? Crying? This list leaves me with doubts about whether the believing game holds up when absurd, hyperbolic alternatives enter into play.  Another way: do absurdity and hyperbole gain traction in the predominance of a doubting manner?