Small Stacks

A couple of reading lists, nine titles ordered and delivered to Halle Library on behalf of the First-year Writing Program, and then another pile, an odd-stack, maybe I’ll get to these this summer and maybe I won’t, read bottom to top and top to bottom, shuffled and reshuffled depending on where I leave a copy, depending on what time I have, depending on mood and disposition and weather and gut bacteria, depending on nothing much at all sometimes.

For Halle Library, nine titles.

I am reminded upon posting just the one photo (above) that reading habits run a fickle, snaking course–meandering and irregular, never especially disciplined-seeming except perhaps in their continuing, on-going. Anti-library, nomad-habit, ambivalence, juxtaposition, re-reading, crumb trails, low on fucks or high, intention and purpose or their lacunae, and then add to it finishing up with writing one’s own books, with others or solo, mid-careering, wondering only but so effortfully what’s next and why would this be next but not that. Not the most strenuous May-June ever, litotes.

The Little Mushroom the Englightened Yogi Secretly Stayed With, Untroubled

Implicitly (until now) there is some kind of faint jostling between these stacks, different microlibraries, hints of interest and curiosity washed back by life and distraction, laziness and Netflix, accidental and well-intentioned anti-library, I meant to read you. I really did. I was going to. I was going to read everything.

There’s much missing here, too, another gift, Murakami’s The Strange Library, a couple of books from Ypsilanti Public Library due last night by 11:59 p.m. whose deadline I beat by an hour to renew–a miracle–even though they’re all read, finished, complete, ready for the return slot. Read with greater urgency the books that go back, temporary visitors, ones who would if they could but who cannot stay.

Graphicacy

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.

Blank April

  • I’m looking forward to April. Yesterday I was finally able to erase the markerboard above my desk where I list various tasks, responsibilities, and leaden-strum obbligato. Wiped clean, the markerboard.
  • There’s still work to do in April, but it’s a breeze compared to March. Besides the early launch of allergy season, March brought two manuscript deadlines (one a draft, the other a revision), the MASAL Conference, and CCCC in St. Louis, to say nothing of the ongoing teaching of three classes. By some miracle, nothing slipped through the cracks. Or if it did, I apologize and have not noticed.
  • For the first time in I don’t know when, I don’t have any more conferences on the horizon. Blank April, blank May, blank June, blank Indefinite, as far as conferences go.There’s a half-cooked prospect floating around out there for a CCCC 2013 proposal, but I’m ambivalent about conferencing in Las Vegas. The conference falls on D.’s birthday and at a time of year it’s unlikely any of us–D., Is., or me–will be on Spring Break. Plus the call for papers doesn’t exactly light my fire (a common sentiment felt by others, as echoed among at least a few Twitterers).
  • Is. has her swimming lesson extravaganza in a couple of hours, which means families of the lesson-takers all get into the pool for a 40-minute I’ve-not-worn-this-Speedo-in-months splash.
  • Although the conference-coast is clear, another co-authored manuscript is due June 1. It requires shaping and drafting yet. Next week I should probably write it on the markerboard. All of the work–a kind of service-oriented research-in-action–has been done (or is continuing), so its writing is largely a matter of describing and arranging. I should also add the finishing touches on ENGL326 online, a course I will teach in early summer, to the whiteboard, but for now–for a few days–I’m too pleased with having a blank board to so much as lift a marker.
  • I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 drafts of things to comment on by the end of the day on Monday (or thereabouts…this might really mean “Wednesday afternoon”). Twenty of them will get 5-7 minute .mp3 files from me, which I record not only to mix things up but also because I enjoy the idea that these audio comments occasionally surface during social events when iTunes is set to shuffle and the audio track hasn’t been deleted. Livens up the party, I’m sure.
  • I’d like to finish three or four books in April: Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (I’m two chapters in and liking it very much), Mieville’s Embassytown (a treat for meeting March’s many deadlines), Clark’s Supersizing the Mind (thinking about whether/where this fits for ENGL505 in the fall), and Fox’s Aereality (because I anticipate leaning again into mapping and geographies in a couple of projects on the middle-deep horizon). Probably won’t get to all of this, but if I do, oh, if I do. What if I do?
  • Despite the pollen, I will continue running, too. I have a couple of races on the schedule–the Big Bay Relay in Marquette, the Ann Arbor-Dexter 5K. I’m still sorting through what running does, how it is potentially meditative, etc. Lots of layers to this, and the unordered list doesn’t lend itself to much elaboration here and now. I’m also returning to Native Vision (for the final time?), which is held early summer in Tuba City, Ariz.
  • And finally I’ve volunteered (and was sort of asked) to write my grandmother’s obituary this weekend. She died peacefully on March 21, a consequence of cancer(s) whose pathways and concentrations went largely undocumented (i.e., unmedicalized, uncharted). I learned of this on the first morning of CCCC, just minutes after I’d finished a 4-mile run around the arch and also just minutes before a couple of different presenterly/speakerly roles and so felt its intensities extremely privately. But writing an obit is yet another occasion to reflect and remember and maybe I’ll come back to this in a few days to say more about the memories, her influence, about her good great life.

If Style

Two full days this week—Tuesday and today—occupied with reading and reviewing student work means I am almost (almost) finished with the spring term. Today’s workday consisted of reading final projects and exams for ENGL328—a pleasurable enough undertaking all unto itself that it was not exactly a relief when my dentist’s office called late morning to offer a wait-list invitation for a 1 p.m. cleaning. Needed a break anyway: sure, I’ll take it.

Talkative hygienist talked: about a pain-free gum-poke test she would administer, about the relatively unkempt upper-outer-left region, about how that was because I was right handed, about the Chinese lanterns she’d used to decorate the vacation Bible school classroom where she’d spent that morning, about how I was her first patient of the day, about slow-notice children who saw and asked about the Chinese lanterns for the first time today, about how it makes no sense that EMU needed to raise tuition this year, about etc., about etc. For the price of clean teeth, an hour of arhetorical listening, I kept thinking. And then back to the office for two hours or so of more work.

Gems from the exams included one poignant opening paragraph that described exactly what I understand to be the value of this version of ENGL328. Another had the momentarily-profound-seeming typo, Elements If Style. And then there were sentences that rattled around in my head all day after I read them; one about how for the interdependence of writing and living this was a class in “radical biology,” another about how teaching well means constantly sending sound lines through the water. Rattling1: an inversion of Rich’s “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it,” as “You must live as if your reading and writing depended on it.” What is a pulse, anyway, if not streaming cardiovascular inscription? Rattling2: for the adrift, academically and otherwise, sonic confirmation that there is an uneven floor beneath these immediate surfaces. And so, yes, a delight to read, a short term near-complete, and, next, in less than 1000 minutes, summer vacation, a few weeks of summer R&R (Rest and Relaxation, better described as Reading and Research).

What in the Antilibrary Grumbles?

In The Object Stares Back (1996), James Elkins writes

In my living room there are two large bookcases, each one eight feet tall, and they have about five hundred books between them. If I step up to a shelf and look at the books one by one, I can remember something about each. As a historian once said, some stare at me reproachfully, grumbling that I have never read them. One may remind me vaguely of a time when I was interested in romantic novels. An old college text will elicit a pang of unhappiness about studying. Each book has its character, and even books I know very well also have this kind of wordless flavor. Now if I step back from the shelf and look quickly across both bookcases I speed up that same process a hundredfold. Impressions wash across my awareness. But each book still looks back in its own way, answering the rude brevity of my gaze, calling faintly to me out of the corner of my eye. At that speed many books remain wrapped in the shadows of my awareness–I know I have looked past them and I know they are there, but I refuse to call them to mind. (73-74)

I read this in the hallway of Rackham Hall yesterday where I sat for ten minutes–not staring back, ironically–as ENGL328 students filled out end-of-semester course evaluations. But what was on my mind as I read this was the workshop I was scheduled to lead at noon today for EMU’s Nelson Faculty Development Center, a workshop titled, “How to Curate a Digital Antilibrary: An Introduction to Google Reader.” The antilibrary comes from Taleb’s characterization of the unread portion in Umberto Eco’s personal collection of 3,000 books. Those unread items project felicitously some horizon of possibility. The antilibrary is not antithetical to the library; it is its premonition, its ghost from the future.

I can’t decide about the relationship between Taleb’s conception of “unread” and Elkins’ idea here that even those books that are technically unread (whatever that means) are well-enough known to grumble for their having been neglected. At first I thought, Elkins has no antilibrary. But that’s not quite right.

Instead, his books are always a little bit read: read through their titles, through an author’s or publisher’s reputation, through a book jacket, or even more fundamentally (as objects) through an assumed to be recognizable materiality. These are bound, shelved books, after all. Consequently, they never rightly, properly fit in the antilibrary, do they?

Elkins takes a hypothetical step back: “I know I have looked past them and I know they are there, but I refuse to call them to mind.” This refusal is a curious game, striking for its thin, wispy relationship to rapid cognition, or thin-slicing. The refusal is a sort of will to indeterminacy, to unknowing, to disassociation. And I guess that’s what I’m thinking about now, having read this, having talked earlier about digital antilibraries: the persistence of an antilibrary requires one part a refusal to look at what is already in the collection, one part embrace of the potentialities in the nearby-but-unknown, and another part thrill in expecting a future in which those materials-awaiting will still be there for taking up.

Time Enough for Slow Reading

Reports like this make me fidget. An appeal to the slow toward “meaning and pleasure” strikes me as less a call for “slow reading” as an idyllic, life-of-the-mind practice and more as a call for “slow[er] reading [than you do when you must hurry].” While I understand the urge to foster thicker, more patient relationships between readers and whatever they read, the “slow reading revolution” seems to me to frame of texts by default according to a filter-first logic, an already-filtered logic. The aim is not revolution, really, but involution by temporal variation, by changing speeds. According to Clay Shirky’s discussion of filtering and publishing in Here Comes Everybody and elsewhere, filter-then-publish aligns with broadcast and with editorial gate-keeping, screening that happens before publication. When user-generated content comes along, on the other hand, these events are reversed.  Publishing happens first, filtering after. For readers, then, the trouble with the web is that both varieties of content slosh around together (an indistinguishable stew): streams are not already separated into cooked content (i.e., filter-then-publish) or raw content (i.e., publish-then-filter). Filtering is crucial in a digital age not only because we need it to survive experientially this growing delta of user-generated content but because the already-filtered is drifting in its midst. These conditions require of online readers a heightened “filtering imperative” all the way up.  And yet my first, admittedly glancing, impression is that “slow reading” assumes filtering to be unproblematic or already settled–a given. Filtering is not exactly reading, right?, but filtering is pre-reading–a flitting relationship that, I would argue, cannot be as slow-probative-sluggish as slow reading advocates would like. Steven Johnson, in his introduction to The Best Technology Writing of 2009, differentiates the slow-fast as “skim and plunge,” allowing for nimble readers who can change speeds as skillfully as Kobe Bryant setting up a blow-by step. Slow reading advocates would appear more concerned more with plunge than with skim. Beyond “slow reading,” I am interested in filtering and in making these skim/plunge changes of speed explicit with students.

I don’t want to mischaracterize the slow reading movement. Nor do I want to seem disparaging or unfair in writing through, as I have done briefly here, a few of my impressions: viz., I have a book on my night stand that I have been reading at a pace of two pages a week for almost three years. Snails, that’s slow. Sometimes I skip a week. Or two. Even slower then. I wish I could quit the book, but there is no hurry. Such a dragged out reading as with this book is like watching a nature program in which a tortoise flips sand over its freshly laid eggs. Flip. Flip. Flip. Or the episode with a sloth reaching for that one succulent cecropia leaf still a meter beyond its lethargic reach. It just seems to me it’s possible to teach a “closer connection” or some deeper involvement with texts via read-alouds and memorization than by invoking a superficial opposition to the assumed-to-be-frenetic character of “reading” online.

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 →

Moving Meditation

I was out of town and more or less offline late last week when the
July/August Atlantic Monthly hit newsstands with its front cover blazing
the title of Nicholas Carr’s
article, "Is Google
Making Us Stoopid?" (the "Stoopid" is much sexier on the actual cover than it is
here because the letters are done colorfully and in the Google font).
Jeff and

Alex
posted thoughtful responses, and I am sure there will be more.

Carr’s article, if you have not read it yet, hops along like Level 1 on
Frogger (which, coincidentally, was released in 1981): without much exertion,
the argument leaps from personal anecdote to the role of media in shaping
cognition to the insidious effects of too much easy access to information via
Google: drumroll…

"[A]s we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world,
it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence" (63).

Carr welcomes skeptics but also fends off all-out dismissals of his deep
wariness of the changes he has experienced first-hand. He begins the article
with his own reasons for believing this "flattening" to be endemic and imminent
for Google users: 1.) he is more and more easily distracted in his own attempts
to read anything longer than a couple of pages and 2.) what was once
pain-staking research is now available to him almost instantaneously. With a
simple search, he can quickly summon great heaps of material on [enter search
terms]: "And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for
concentration and contemplation" (57).

Continue reading →

Second, Subsequent Streams

Revisions have been challenging. Having resolved myself to more
drafting before squaring with revisions, the commented drafts of my
dissertation’s introduction and first two chapters tend to taunt me. I haven’t
figured out how to fit it in, how to make room for it given the other regular
paces. I’d been meaning (for a couple of weeks) to get through some of the
first-stage directorial comments to those early chapters, mostly because I want
them to be ready for the rest of my committee sometime in Marchpril and also
because I have at least one other reader who I’m trying to get them ready for.
So I took a leap head-long into the "When will I revise?" problem on Saturday,
and spent most of the day with it.

The introduction was fairly easy. It’s elastic: short, overviewy, and
without glaring needs. It was manageable to get through all of the
comments, and make appropriate adjustments, leaving aside the summaries of the
last two chapters (5, 6) because are yet unwritten. But working through
Chapter One was somewhat more daunting; I expected this since it is much thicker
than the introduction. I got through all of the superficial stuff, and ended up
with a list, indexed by page, of what is left: two placeholder notes (no work
required), four easy changes (citation adding, a one-sentence gloss on this or
that), seven moderately difficult changes (almost all of which require some
re-reading of sources), and one major change (a section that I will probably
re-write from scratch with a slightly different–simpler–focus). It is
helpful to have the index; but I don’t know when I will get to it. Perhaps
in Marchpril. Or Mayune. (Ay, clearly, we need a better vocabulary for two-month
units).

I am not in panic mode about the demands of revision, the frequency or scope
of the changes due (I know because I have not been tempted to add exclamatory
emphasis to any of this.). But I still don’t know how to work those
revisions into what has been, out of necessity, a fairly compacted daily
schedule. In this room-for-revision conundrum there lingers a problem of
rhythm-breaking, and it’s difficult to embrace that challenge when it’s been so
challenging just to establish a more or less even writing rhythm (the dailiness
of dissertating, call it). Perhaps as much as anything, blogging has prepared me
for the dailiness, but I still feel somewhat spun-around (i.e., vertigahh!) by
the prospect of taking revision very seriously while drafting. To say
nothing of other projects needing attention. So maybe if I stack all of it
in a tidy pile on the deepest corner of my desk, it will still be there when I
get to it in a couple of weeks.

Flight

At the end of a semester, I’m usually in the mood for a change–something
different. Weeks and months of pacing produce the deep craving for
interruption–a break from duty-rhythm (in itself, a comment on rhythm of
another scale). I am almost there; after tomorrow (the same day I finished with
my q. exams one year ago) I will lay off for a week, ease into some
consequence-light reading, nap, snack, take walks, watch a couple of Netflix
DVDs.

Why not pick up something I wouldn’t read but for the desire for a break?
Okay, I already did this week. I was moping around the office the other night, nearly giving in to boredom, when D. handed me a copy of Sherman Alexie’s
Flight

(cloud)
and said, “Here, read this.” What is it? Juvenile
literature for book club. One hundred and eighty pages; a couple of one-hour
blocks on the couch between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Quick read. Good,
too.

Flight is Vonnegutsy through and through, the story of Zits, a pimply,
edgy foster kid whose one-two of violence and defiance keep him bouncing from
one terrible foster home to another. The book speeds Zits on a Billy
Pilgrimage as he comes unstuck in time, drifting on a Ghost Dance in and out of
a series of violent encounters: Custer’s last stand, Gus’s (conflicted)
traitorous revenge, and a couple of others.

"You let him out of his cage?" I ask.
"Well, his wings were clipped."
"A clipped-wing bird ain’t a bird," I say.
"All right, all right, Dr. Earth First, I’m not the one who clipped them.
He was clipped when we bought him. And it wasn’t like we bought him to
be a tiny little Thanksgiving dinner. We loved that bird. I
loved him. My daughter named him Harry Potter."
"That’s cute."
"Damn right, it’s cute. You want to hear the cutest part?"
"Yeah."
"I’m the cook of the family, the domestic, and Harry Potter loved to sit on
my shoulder while I was cooking and insult my food."
"No."
"Yes, my wife and daughter told him to say Too much salt and I’m being
poisoned
and I want pizza instead."
"That’s hilarious."
"Yes, it is. And there’s more. You see, my daughter’s favorite
dish is pasta-anything. So I’m always boiling water. And Harry Potter
is always sitting on my shoulder."
"Oh, shit," I say, already guessing the end of the story. (145-146)

Flight mixes in commentary on cycles of violence, innocence, and
karmic retribution; combines a believably awkward teenage protagonist with his
genuine ‘whatever’s and filthy language (enough that it wouldn’t surprise me to
hear about the language-chastisers complaining it off the shelves of school
libraries). Maybe it’s not quite a Slaughterhouse
Five
of 2007 (the ending is, after all, too nicely buttoned down given the
upheaval of everything before it), but it is close: disturbing, insightful, layered. Close enough that you should
pick up a copy if, like me, you are interested in a break that includes reading
some stuff you wouldn’t have any other opportunity to read.