As Sabbaticals End

I return to campus tomorrow, May 2, following a research leave that relieved me teaching and service responsibilities at EMU during Winter 2016. The four month leave allowed me to put the finishing touches on a collaborative monograph and to get the other book I have contracted with the WAC Clearinghouse #writing series substantially closer to a full draft. At the start of the sabbatical, the introduction and first chapter were already sent off, in the editor’s hands (these amount to 57 ms. pages). Over the past four months, I submitted three more chapters, which amounts to 129 ms. pages. I still have some work to do on Chapter Five, which I plan to send by the end of May, and Chapter Six, which I’ll turn over by the end of June. With that, a full draft of the monograph and then on to other things. I just turned off my email autoreply, and I’ll be in Pray-Harrold 613M tomorrow for most of the day, doling out numerous emails related to scheduling for this year’s first-year writing sections. Before the leave officially officially concludes, I wanted to capture a few impressions about the sabbatical, its accomplishments, and its occasional struggles.

  • Winter 2016 was only the second semester in 18 years that I didn’t teach a class. And the summer ahead, which is filled with administrative responsibilities, will be only the second summer in 16 years that I won’t be teaching a class. These patterns crept up on me; as I counted them and as I write them here, it seems like too much. I understand better than ever before the risks of burnout (or call it boredom, disinterest, complacency, checking out, whatever), and I have realized this winter how precariously close I have been to shrugging off many of the priorities I held when I started began down this career path during doctoral work.
  • As this was my first sabbatical, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect about work rhythms. The nearest I’ve come to having this kind of time to devote entirely to scholarship was all the way back in 2008 when I was working on the dissertation. A sabbatical takes some getting used to, and I suspect this is especially true when the leave is taken from a quasi-administrative post, such as directing a first-year writing program. The interim director and associate director did a fine job, as far as I can tell, but the hand off involved a fair amount of leading communication, pointers to where various documents were stored, how to handle everyday operations, and so on. Likewise, as the return from sabbatical approaches, there has been in uptick in email, requests for scheduling various things for the first half of May. I’m not sure I was especially well prepared for the fuzziness of transitioning onto sabbatical and back off again, particularly as relates to this administrative work. And the lessons about how to transition on and off more gracefully, although they are fresh with me now, probably won’t be especially helpful when my next sabbatical comes around.
  • I’m reasonably pleased with my productivity on sabbatical. I didn’t travel much–only a couple of out of town trips, primarily for conferences and an invited talk and workshop. I asked around, and some colleagues said things like, “don’t expect to get anything done during the first month” and “remember to rest.” These were helpful reminders, and now looking back, I suppose I could have worked harder and gotten more done, but I am more or less still on track with the timeline for the book, and I don’t at all have the sense that I squandered huge chunks of time.
  • Sabbaticals are isolating and on some days very strange. This much free time? I worked out. I read a few books that don’t have anything to do with my writing. I shitted around. Watched TV. Cooked. Dabbled at home improvement stuff. I regard most of this as run of the mill and routine–nothing here I would describe as radically transformative. The bouts of isolation got me thinking a lot more about social balance, about how much of my social world is constituted by work interactions, conversations with colleagues who are also friends. But sabbaticals are socially bizarre in that people want to leave you alone and respect your time, which is at the same time, of course, estranging from familiar routines and conversations that can prove supportive or generative. At one point I considered trying to convene some kind of writer’s group, but after talking to another colleague who was sabbaticalling at the same time as me, I decided better of it. No need to attempt to be a social leader at the same time my purest focus should be on the book’s development.
  • I can’t say yet whether I am fully restored, recharged, rested, and ready for what’s ahead. I jump back into the directorship of the first-year writing program, and while I was away there were a handful of institutional changes that make my return cautious insofar as I can’t quite tell how some of these questions will settle out (most of them relate to labor; who teaches composition as well as how composition sections are weighted for equivalencies). I thought long and hard beforehand about extending the sabbatical for four months through September 1, the start of Fall 2016, and while I could have chosen this alternative, by returning early I am able to earn additional pay in the summer months and continue as director.

Now having listed these few notes, they re-read to me as banalities, though not as too banal to post, if only so I can return to them in a few years when I put in for another research leave. And I think I will. That is, I know people who swear they don’t want or need a sabbatical, but as I have been reflecting on this time for the past ten days or so (the reprieve window of repatriation and conserving effortfully to make the most of what remained), I regard this time as invaluable to my well-being, to my research and scholarship, and to my sense of reinvigorated responsibility as a tenured professor. It surprises me a little bit that I am both excited to return to campus and that I got as much done as I did. I suppose that in itself is as much conviction as anyone can have about a sabbatical’s worth.

CCCC Vendor Booklists

It’s only a partial list–titles from Pittsburgh, Southern Illinois, and Parlor–collected into a PDF after gathering them at the most recent CCCC book exhibit. Got me thinking about how it would be nice to have such lists compiled and aggregable, year after year, a kind of time series list amenable to isolating years or small clusters of years just for noticing what was circulating at the time. I’d picked them up in the first place because we have a tiny sliver of funding for supplying rhetoric and composition/writing studies focused books to Halle Library on campus, but when I mentioned this to a colleague, she asked for the complied PDF, too, because it carries over readily to placing more direct requests to libraries for end-of-budget-year acquisitions.

2016 CCCC Vendor Booklists by DerekMueller

Must Begin with I

Along with several other colleagues in my department, I was invited late last fall to be posterized as a faculty researcher at EMU. It’s part of a banner campaign devised to connect campus and Ypsilanti, and to make abstract-seeming faculty more real-seeming, I guess. And it is an honor to be invited. Humbling, really. Like others, I had a couple of photos taken in late November. The email arrived yesterday asking us to choose the best one. I let D., Is., and Ph. weigh in; two-thirds of them agreed on #122. I think I look slouchy, tired, and over-stressed (i.e., like a first-year WPA!) in most of them and so didn’t quibble with the rec. #122 it is.

Next comes the harder part: along with formalizing a preference for a photo, we’re supposed to send in a one-liner–five words or less and must begin with ‘I’–that will function as a public research profile. Officially, it’s called an “integrated power statement”–but I’ll think of it as a bumper sticker-sized CV.

I’ll be the first to admit that my 4.5 years at EMU in research terms has been spasmodic at best–due in large part to a constantly challenging orchestration of service responsibilities, institutional and departmental dynamics, and herky-jerky, stop-start bursts of writing with more change of speed and more spills than bad Olympic figure skating. Whoosh! Whoa! Oh sure, I get it: that’s the nature of this work in many places.

But how does such a pattern of activity translate into four or five words of banner material? And what’s a more appropriate gesture–something with a university-ambivalent public in mind, something true to the specifics of a research agenda, or something attuned to undergraduates, prospective students, and their families? Fun to think about from a university outreach standpoint, but not especially helpful for settling on the best four or five-word string.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • I create clouds, graphs, and maps.
  • I visualize discourse networks.
  • I trace disciplinary networks.
  • I make scholarly networks visible.
  • I make rhetorical connections visible.
  • I map scholarly networks.
  • I practice digital rhetorics.
  • I strengthen weaker arguments.
  • I write in code and light.

I’m open to other suggestions and will wait for a few days before sending in my power statement. Comment away if you’re so inclined. Give me a better five words, starting with I. I’d considered tipping the statement toward directing first-year writing, but I have yet to root that work in what I think of as my research (so much heft in getting some Venns to overlap, you know?), so the power statements would be things like, “I fight the textbook-industrial complex” (five words?) or “I dream of budget” or “I large-scale assess.” Nothing especially powerful or integrated or researcherly in these statements. Of course, maybe if I come up with something really catching, really, really inspiring, they’ll invite me to be on another poster in a few years, just about the time I get the hang of more research oriented WPAing.

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.

Lessig’s #wireside Chat

I watched Larry Lessig’s “#Wireside Chat” live last Thursday evening, viewing it from Halle Library at EMU along with Steve and a few graduate students in his winter C&W course. I took a few notes during the talk; thought I’d translate them into something more coherent.

Lessig opened with an allegory: an extended narrative linking a dilemma facing cigarette smokers of yesteryear with a dilemma facing users of mobile devices and wireless internet, an allegory inspired by Christopher Ketcham’s recent article in GQ. Just as early reports on the cancerous effects of smoking tobacco were speculative and contested, so are today’s investigations into the insidious effects of wireless signals murky and tentative. Lessig cited Henry Lai, whose research on non-ionizing radiation has clarified a troubling pattern of self-interest: industry-funded research finds wireless to be harmless, while non-industry-funded research finds wireless to be harmful. The basic idea here is that research of this sort reflects the bias of its funding source. And this builds toward a crisis because 1) everyday people cannot know which research to trust and 2) the binaristic “debate” creates doubt such that reasonable people can think either way about the issue, rendering it undecidable.

From this, Lessig shifted to Part Two, a different debate concerning free culture. He credited a graduate student who “fed him” ideas from Aldous Huxley and John Philip Sousa about technologies threatening creative culture. Huxley worried about the ways broadcast media cemented audiences in read-only passivity. Sousa lamented similarly that the phonograph would hobble music creation. He expected that read-only (or listen-only) would thwart production and result in conditioned passive consumption. In the free culture debate, Lessig locates 2004 as a key shift: read-write culture was revived that year, with Wikipedia as its poster child. Lessig says “remix” is the best name to describe this shift.

In 2006, via YouTube, we witnessed another key shift, this time tied to video: the remix technique is further democratized. In numerous examples, we can see read-write in action. According to Lessig, “This begins to be precisely what Sousa romantisized.” At this point in his talk, Lessig rehearsed the legal developments around copyright, albeit in fairly sweeping terms (Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act to courts more recently “getting it right”). Lessig was obviously quite wrapped up in efforts to persuade the Supreme Court to the merits of free culture, but he described the results as an utter defeat. Lessig went on in his talk to discuss the way Disney invokes copyright law and uses their copyright extension lobby to block efforts by others to do as they did to Brothers Grimm. His discussion of Disney included a thoughtful aside about the remix premise of Little Einsteins–a program I’ve gotten to know well in the last 18 months. Finally, Lessig tried to create some fusion between his work on free culture and his interests, more recently, in congressional reform. He explained that the read/write movement does not have in Congress a receptive audience, but that we must continue to imagine YouTube as a powerful platform for forcing these issues. Emphasizing repeatedly the value in fair and free codecs and fair and free use, Lessig concluded his talk, urging his audience to “Continue the work to build the tools to make this culture free.”

I want to mention two things I was thinking of as the talk wrapped up and during the Q&A. The first is that this talk had all the markings of Lessig-in-intellectual-transition. It was abundantly clear that he is in a cross-over period, moving from his many years of hard work on free culture and Creative Commons, to something more directly concerned with Washington D.C. lobbying practices and corrupt politics. The appearance of this transition is not necessarily bad, but I think it created a muddle for a couple of key points, which brings me to the second thing I was thinking about. Lessig argued for the cultural force of YouTube, but it almost sounded like he envisioned in remixing practices a great political force, as well. In a fairly abstract way, I buy the premise that remixing can effect change, but I didn’t find in Lessig’s examples anything impressive enough to make an impact on the scale he seemed more genuinely interested in reaching (national government). I guess the question of impact circles back around to this: What are the most impressive or memorable examples of remix, and for whom are they impactful? Or else these: What exactly is the difference they are making in, say, political processes? How are they consequential? Other than something like a YouTube presidential debate (which isn’t exactly remix), what is an example of YouTube impacting a political process? Then again, maybe I am looking for consequences too much in the remixes themselves and not enough in the slow rise of cultural creation by these means. In other words, perhaps their impact lies in their collective affirmation of free speech.

There’s much more to say about the Wireside Chat, but these notes will do for now. I will be interested in revisiting this periodically to rethink the power of remix and whether we have in the months and years to come realized a different degree of impact in it than we have seen in YouTube’s first five years.

Irresistibility

Don’t worry; this doesn’t mean the Yoki series has been discontinued.
It’s just a blip in my plan.

Yesterday, I was watching Is. in the late afternoon. Ph. had an away
soccer match and so needed a ride to the school around 4 p.m.; D. was off on an
errand. I was sapped out, dragging. I’ve been off caffeine since
mid-August, but yesterday I suffered an ever so slight hankering and succumbed
to it, stopping off at the
local quick mart for a cold Dr. Pepper. Is. asked, where are we going? I said,
inside for a soda. She said, huh? And I said a soda, a pop. Growing
up in Michigan, it was always "pop." Is. thought I was talking about a
"fruit pop"–the name she uses somewhat interchangeably for 100% juice popsicles
and also for lollipops or suckers, which I’ve learned lately are shoved in kids
faces at every turn from the physician to the post office (today at the post
office in Fayetteville, a chocolate Dum-Dum). It’s constant.

Anyway, the two of us went into the mart, and, of course, all of the candy was lined up
at Is.’s eye level, a galleria of pops and things. She picked out a pomegranate
(?) Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop, and we were out the door again, me with my soda
and Is. with the candy. Indulged and temporarily satisfied.

The deal with the pop was that she had to eat a decent dinner before she
could have it. No problemo, said the look she gave me. And she did so, happily
working through the nutritional foodstuff before reminding me that the junk was
all-the-while hailing her.

And then we had a conversation about how, when I was a kid, the Country
Corner at the intersection of Remus and Winn Roads would redeem Tootsie Roll
wrappers if they had a star on them. Seems like I ate quite a few of
those.

I also told Is. about the commercial with the dippy kid who sought out a
partner for his "how many licks?" research study: the one where the turtle
admits his inability to resist devouring the thing before completing the
investigation and then passes the kid off to the overconfident and disastrously
lazy owl who gives it two licks before crunching down on the thing. Fade
to shrinking fruit pops with voiceover: "How many licks does it take to get to
the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop? The world may never know." Is.
was far more interested in hearing about the boy, the turtle, and the owl, than
in hearing me describe that commercial as my first exposure to flawed research
(that sort of sham inquiry that made it seem like the owl already knew the
answer he would give and instead performed the part only so he could consume the
object of inquiry, take it as his own, and so on).

Later, we checked it out on YouTube.

No shortage of innuendos here about research ethics and
consuming
inquiry (either way: of too much fondness for the objects or of destructive partnerships),
but suffice it to say that Is. did not ask me what the answer was (how should I
know?) and neither did I let on whether I thought the question from the commercial was any good in the first place.

Reanimation

The Reanimation Library
in Brooklyn (via)
offers a collection of discarded and found books not likely to be held elsewhere:
curios, out-of-print, wonders. Here librarianship is inflected with an art
aesthetic (perhaps more outwardly or radically than in the common case). There seems to be more than rarity justifying the in-status of the
books; but it is a sort of rare collection, one inflected with the idiosyncratic
impulses and tastes of the collector. The 600-book collection raises the question of whether it is
simply an installation called by the name of library. The mission
statement:

The Reanimation Library seeks to assemble an inspiring collection of
resources that will facilitate the production of new creative work and
promote reflection and research into the historical, legal, and
methodological questions surrounding the adaptive reuse of found materials.
It strives to provide the necessary space and tools to allow these
activities to flourish, and to foster a climate of spirited collaboration.

"Adaptive reuse of found materials" and so on: sounds like ideas that would
serve well as the guiding impetuses for a composition course–one I’d like to
teach, anyway. The Thingology entry refers to
this recent
report from the Minneapolis City Pages
; both of them mention
Dewey’s Nightmare, a
playwriting experiment tied to the Reanimation Library in which seven writers
wear blindfolds and pick one book each randomly from the stacks. Their
challenge, then, is to shape the random sample into something for the stage.
Quite a methodology, and one not unlike the stuff Sirc discusses in "Box-Logic":
the found collection, the interplay of contingent samples and selections,
renewal in re-coordinating affinities, pulsion, etc.

Don’t miss the
catalog
or the pile of
images.

‘Golden Age’ Reference

Off and on for the past few weeks I have been sleuthing around for reference
to "the golden age of composition studies." The phrase appears in quotation
marks in Lee Odell’s "Afterword" to his 1986 CCCC address in Roen’s collection,
Views from the Center. But those reflective afterwords are somewhat
informal; the phrase is not attributed to any source. What to do? I Googled
around and didn’t find anything promising (how I overlooked it, I cannot be
sure, although I bet ‘the’ article threw me off), but I didn’t give up. Instead,
I emailed Professor Odell. Research in Y2K08, yeah? He got
back to me the same day and said that the phrase, he thought, was credited to
Jack Selzer.

Tonight, I located the ‘golden age’ reference in an English Journal
article by Elizabeth Blackburn-Brockman (whose mother-in-law, you might be
surprised to learn, was middle school civics teacher and high school Spanish
teacher for D. and me both; in the civics class we had to memorize all of
Michigan’s 83 counties; I will not recite them for you here). That
article: "Prewriting, Planning, and Professional Communication," 91.2 (Nov.
2001). In the article, Blackburn-Brockman mentions almost the exact
phrase, "a golden age of composition studies," and attributes it not to Selzer,
but to Bob Root. She also cites Selzer’s 1983 CCC article, "The
Composing Process of An Engineer," which offered a processual analysis of
engineer Kenneth Nelson, much in the same spirit as Emig’s The Composing
Process of Twelfth Graders
from 1971. Could this be the golden age?
1971-1983?

The phrase from Root (whom I never met, but who taught in the English Dept.
where I took Freshman Composition in 1992 from his colleague, Phillip Dillman)
shows up in the Introduction to a collection of non-fiction he edited with
Michael Steinberg,
Those Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching: A
Sourcebook
(1996). Is there a copy in our Bird Library at Syracuse?
No, of course not. Seems it’s one of the few books we don’t have.

I considered emailing my program’s listserv to ask whether anyone had a copy
I could borrow, but rather than bother the list with a request, I figured I
would try the library’s interlibrary loan system, ILLiad. I haven’t used
ILLiad since 2005, so, of course, I couldn’t remember my password. I tried
to reset the password, and when I did, the system sent me a blank email message.
Here’s what was in the message: . Thus, here ends the
trail for tonight. I know where the "golden age" reference comes from, and
the source, to my surprise, is not quite as middle-of-the-road as I expected it
would be. That said, I do think Root knows composition studies, or at
least certain veins of it, very well, even if I couldn’t begin to speculate how
many CCCC’s he’s attended (more and more often, I tend to think of disciplinary
centrality in terms of trips to the flagship conference, whether verifiable or
guessed at; and yes, I know this is just one of many possible metrics).

Why, after all, am I questing for the golden age reference? Well, for one
thing, my own research has lately gotten me thinking more about the implicit
disciplinary prototypes underlying suggestions of disciplinary fragmentation
(viz., Smit’s endism or Fulkerson’s "new theory wars"). And so, if there has
been a golden age of composition studies, I’m curious about it, curious as well
about the idea of disciplinary ages (and whatever it is that makes them
seem plausible).

Writing Feverlets*

Curious about her critique of Derrida’s Archive Fever, I picked up a
copy of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History from
Bird Library, recalling it from another patron who had checked it out (v. sorry
about that). I deal briefly with AF in Chapter Three. Steedman
makes the point that AF is less about archives than about Derrida’s
concern for the slippage of origins (a theme in his other work) and the
inseparability of psychoanalysis from Freud (and also Judaism). She
writes, "The Foreword [to AF] carried the main argument, about Freud’s
Jewish-ness, and the contribution of Jewish thought to the idea of the archive,
via psycho-analysis" (7). Basically, Steedman is suspicious of Derrida’s
characterization of the fever (as a frenzied pursuit of origins which do not
properly exist). She complains that the concept of the fever is degraded in
translation from Mal d’Archive, and then she enthusiastically claims the
sickness Derrida mocks: "Archive fever, indeed? I can tell you all about
Archive Fever!" (17). Dust undertakes this "all about-ness" at fever’s pitch;
Steedman, all the while, works to correct (or tune, at the very least) Derrida’s
glancing consideration of the archive left behind in his treatment of other
concerns (psychoanalysis, Freud, and so on).

Continue reading →