CCCC Atlanta Rewind, Part II

I don’t think there will be a part 3 in this series, but I wanted to post in a consolidated location the various pieces I brought to Atlanta last week. Steve offered a careful play-by-play of many of the meals and local excursions I was a part of. And he mentioned in the entry that we had a fairly small audience at the N.30 session. With that in mind, I figured I may as well render my talk into an overdubbed video and post it to YouTube where it will surely get a couple of more views in the year to come.

But first, Steve’s video, which initiated and enframed our roundtable:

Below is my contribution to the roundtable. To continue experimenting with YouTube’s closed captioning, I uploaded the full script of my talk as a text file. I’m impressed at how capably YouTube creates alignments between the video’s audio track and the text. Also, all of the oooh-aaah cloud photographs come from the recent New York Times installation, “Up in the Clouds.”

And finally, here’s the poster I tacked up in the Computer Connection room and that I’ve posted in a half dozen places already.

3.33 Ways: Tracing Rhetorical Style from Prose to New Media

The accompanying a/v playlist (linked from the QR codes) is available over here.

CCCC Atlanta Rewind

My first CCCC was in Atlanta, 1999. I was an MA student at the time, and UMKC provided a generous, competitive stipend to two students who would attend the conference and return to lead a colloquium of sorts on the experience. Thus, traveling to Atlanta for the first time in over a decade lent to this go-round a strongly felt personal call for reflection, blinks of memory, and quite a bit of thought about the living I’ve done during that interval (from adoption, marriage, and parenting to a PhD, cross-country moves, and settling into EMU). Last week’s conference, while all Atlanta, was mostly 2011, but it was also a little bit 1999. (This would be a fine place for a complaint about the hotel wifi, no?)

I attended

  • the Master’s Degree Consortium of Writing Studies Specialists
  • enough of Opening General Session to hear Gwen Pough’s address
  • my own share of the A/B poster session
  • a Marriott lunch with several friends and colleagues
  • D.38 The Future Anterior of Rhetoric: Potentials For Rhetorics Built on Material Relations
  • a Syracuse faculty/alumni/student event
  • I.04 Texas Topoi and the other Common-Places: The Importance of Writing Geographies
  • J.37 Contesting Methodological Boundaries in Rhetoric and Writing Research
  • as an information technologies area facilitator, L.21 Think-Tank for Newcomers Developing Papers and Sessions for CCCC 2012
  • M.34 Revisualizing Composition: Mapping the Writing Lives of College Students
  • and the roundtable I was a part of: N.30 A Department in Exile: The Challenges of Contested Spaces and Roles

I was present at something for eight of the fourteen alphabetized session slots, and I was involved with presenting or taking a leaderly role in half of those (as poster presenter, roundtabler, and think tank facilitator). This means I was a member of the audience in just four out of the approximately 450 sessions, or 1% of them. A tiny slice, as samples go.

I have no idea whether this snapshot is typical, or even whether it is useful to think of the CCCC experience as potentially typical. In 1999 I was in the audience for twice as many sessions and I enjoyed far fewer unplanned conversations than I had last week. In 1999 I ate alone a few times; I ate alone just twice this time (both breakfasts, waxed bags of some Starbucks pastry on the go). I didn’t experience the conference as cliquish in 1999, exactly, but neither did I grasp what I was missing out on or feel all that deeply concerned for whether I was missing out on something. That was true this time, as well. I missed a handful of sessions I would have liked to attend. I missed connecting with several friends and former colleagues I would have liked to visit with for a few minutes. Maybe next year.

On the drive home from Atlanta to Ypsilanti, I read Alex’s “#cccc11 Conference Thoughts,” and I share some of his concerns related to sustainability, especially along the lines of what’s worth keeping (or attending to yet again), what’s worth shedding, and how can a conference with a singular (if too heavily played) theme each year achieve a balance suited to such a vast range of attendee interests and motives. In other words, for the conference to have something for everyone, the program must anticipate demographic segments that are not-me (by institution type, history at the conference, teaching-research balance, research agenda, etc.). That is, most of the CCCC–true, too, of any comprehensive national conference–will not on paper appear to be a fit with any individual’s interests. Add to this the banding together that operates both in paneling up and in audience migration according to schools of thought, favorite theorists, and other varieties of kinship (e.g., friendship, graduate cohorts, home institution), and the result is an unavoidably segmented conference experience. I’m not sure whether there is an easy solution for this, but neither have I ever followed through on the thought I’ve had a time or two to randomly generate a personal conference itinerary. Maybe next year.

What can I say about the panels I attended? I heard some papers I found thoughtful and incisive and others that left me deeply dissatisfied (that said, I count myself productively dissatisfied in such cases). The N.30 roundtable was the only session I attended in which everyone involved used some sort of projectable (i.e., a movie or slidedeck). A couple of panels stretched time’s seams to the limit, but that is not altogether uncommon. Of the entire conference experience, the poster session is the one that left me reeling the most: I probably had 30 conversations with all variety of faculty and graduate students from a great range of programs. Even more: many of these were with people I was meeting for the first time; people I might not have encountered otherwise. I’ve never experienced this degree of engagement in any other conference venue ever, and it leaves me thinking seriously about preparing and carrying in a poster in future years.

A couple of questions I am thinking about now? From D.38, What does new materialism allow us to do (differently)? From I.04, To what extent does school of thought rostering produce territorialization? And, What else implicates (or doesn’t) a city’s rhetoricity? And, What was the name of the play with Shit, the dog? From J.37, What makes surfacing decidable for a researcher? And, How much context is enough (when enlarging contexts)? And, To what extent is correctable black-boxing turning to verbal references for relief from self-evidentiary or natural-appearing visuals? And more.

In anticipation of next year, I don’t have a clear direction yet for a panel. I am considering developing a solo proposal related to an article I am working on. I’ve also taken on certain responsibilities with the Master’s Degree Consortium, and then another poster makes sense considering how this year’s went.

Writing Gateways
via.

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.

Good Ideas

I like much of Steven Johnson’s stuff, and undoubtedly I will pick up a copy of his latest book project, Where Good Ideas Come From, though probably not until next summer. As I watched this TEDtalk, though, I’m dissatisfied with how little work on rhetorical invention surfaces here. Johnson’s “liquid network” is an intriguing metaphor, indeed: drink together, think together…eureka! Or, sometimes, “I’ve got nothing. May I have another?” But I wonder whether this “natural history of innovation” will do much more to advance thinking about how good ideas happen than did Karen Burke LeFevre’s Invention as a Social Act (1987), a book whose premises have by now become a given for contemporary rhetorical thinking. This “noodling around” and “hacking” is fascinating stuff, especially when such innovative acts are paired with vivid, thoughtful anecdotes, a storytelling strategy Johnson deploys with distinction. Since Johnson is great at making theoretical concepts accessible, maybe this new project will be a good fit with existing work on invention. On the other hand, absent some acknowledgment of a larger family of ideas related to invention, e.g., “systematic serendipity” (via Merton via Halavais, a concept we discussed yesterday in ENGL326) or contingency (an alternative to managerial rhetoric Muckelbauer develops smartly in The Future of Invention), the originary “where” from which good ideas come will remain partial, incomplete, problematically runny.

Allowing that I haven’t picked up the book (!), I look forward to reading it with these few provisional concerns in mind. In that sense, I guess this amounts to some sort of TED-motivated pre-review. Furthermore, I wrote it while sitting all alone in my campus dorm-office, which probably means good ideas here are few, far between.

“You Don’t Change Your Narrative”

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Are You Ready for Some Midterms? – MSNBC’s Political Narrative
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

What if remix culture (and concomitant sampling practices) are to blame credit for the willfully negligent truncations of context? Whether such truncations are on the rise, it is difficult to say, but they do seem to be more frequently in the news: 1) absurd fixations on narrative preservation/continuation, and 2) a bandying among television networks over how adequately a clip represents, synecdochically, the situation within which it arose. Samplers all, we cannot avoid the negation of context, can we?, so perhaps the best we can hope for is some rhetorico-ethical insight into why (and how) this happens, and, after that, some relief in laughter.

Theory Blackmailed, or Invention Hobbled?

Yesterday–day one of teaching in the new semester–did not quite go as planned, and in the wake of a couple of surprises, I didn’t get around to posting like I intended to in recognition of the nth annual RB of September. After a few years such postings carry a some heavy, if solitarily imagined, burden of tradition. Thus, “theory blackmailed”:

Many (still unpublished) avant-garde texts are uncertain: how to judge, to classify them, how to predict their immediate or eventual future? Do they please? Do they bore? Their obvious quality is of an intentional order: they are concerned to serve theory. Yet this quality is a blackmail as well (theory blackmailed): love me, keep me, defend me, since I conform to the theory you call for; do I not do what Artaud, Cage, etc. have done? –But Artaud is not just “avant-garde”; he is a kind of writing as well; Cage has certain charm as well… –But those are precisely the attributes which are not recognized by theory, which are sometimes even execrated by theory. At least make your taste and your ideas match, etc. (The scene continues, endlessly.) (54)

Why blackmailed? Translator Richard Howard could have selected a different connotation of “la chantage,” e.g., bluff, or intimidation. When the avante-garde serves theory, theory in turn may be said to hobble invention, to wrap it in a splint, to contain it. I read in this Barthes passage a concern for theory’s disciplining of innovation. Unexpectedly, this clicks with concerns in the Introduction and first chapter of Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention, a book I’ve just started. Related are questions about what becomes of “the attributes which are not recognized by theory,” put another, perhaps more helpful way, Can theory keep up with avante-garde performances? Must it?

Anyway, happy RB Day, twice belatedly.

Sklar, “Methodological Conservativism”

Yesterday morning I spent an hour or so finishing up the reading for a philosophy of science reading group that convenes at EMU later this afternoon. The group met a few times late in the winter semester, but their schedule was at odds with mine. I wasn’t able to attend a single meeting. A friend from last fall’s new faculty orientation has organized the group, and for a few different reasons, I agreed to participate. Among those reasons are 1) eclectic reading, 2) cross-disciplinary conversations, and 3) the possibility that I might at some point teach ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology. Philosophy of science and rhetoric of science and technology are more close siblings than twins, but I see enough resemblances to make these conversations worth checking out.

We’re working through Lawrence Sklar’s Philosophy and Spacetime Physics (1985), the Intro and Chapter One are up for this week’s get-together. The introduction is divided into “The Epistemology of Geometry” (4), “The Ontology of Spacetime Theories and Their Explanatory Role” (8), “Causal Order and Spatiotemporal Order” (15), and “Reflections on These Essays” (19).  In that final section, “Reflections,” Sklar presents a few of key points related to his own methods and how to read the book. First, he nods to his earlier book, Space, Time, and Spacetime, saying readers would find some useful staging there, but adding that the current collection of essays should provide enough context to proceed without needing to begin at some earlier work on these topics.  Sklar adopts “a rather ‘dialectic’ means of investigation” (20), and appears wary of contextualizing spacetime philosophy only in terms of contemporary developments in physics. Instead, he explains, “the essays try to show that the work of theoretical science takes place in a context in which various philosophical presuppositions are, consciously or unconsciously, continuously being utilized to reach theoretical conclusions” (19). Those “philosophical presuppositions,” then, are like trails of crumbs scattered unevenly out of various arcs of thought. The context Sklar prefers would allow us to do a better job of noticing flecks and textures in this mélange rather than deferring to philosophically to whatever is trending scientifically these days. Sklar reminds readers that “a good way to approach this book would be to read through the essays from beginning to end, not worrying about the places where full comprehension is elusive” (21). Noted: not worrying.

C. 1, “Methodological Conservativism”
The chapter begins with a passage from John Barth’s novel, The End of the Road. I’ll share the entire epigraph, since it nicely encapsulates the problem Sklar addresses in the chapter, i.e., how to decide.

Don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost. You’re not that strong. If the alternatives are side by side choose the one on the left; if they’re consecutive in time, choose the earlier. If neigher of these applies, choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetic Priority–there are others, and they’re arbitrary, but useful. Good-bye.

There are, of course, dangers in attempting to sum up a chapter like this that so deliberately comes at things from as many angles as possible, but, in effect, the chapter echoes with “continue believing what you already believe” or “don’t fall victim to alluring new theories that are at odds with personal knowledge” (there are moments early on when this reminds me of Polanyi…brief moments).  Sklar offers as an example that “There is nothing, as far as I can see, in the physical theory which existed prior to 1917 which would lead one to prefer a theory of curved spacetime to one with ‘universal forces'” (31). I write this as someone who has never studied physics, and yet the guiding principle, if I can reduce it to one, is that methodological conservativism wards against a breezy philosophical manner willing to believe something new when its warrants are at odds with what one already knows (confirmed empirically, or by direct sense experience).

Sklar writes elliptically (i.e., with oblong orbit) around these terms, allowing for possibilities that concepts like “conservativism” might not be quite right:

Obviously the application of the conservative principle is simpler and more decisive in the case where we are concerned with sticking with a hypothesis which we already do believe than it is in the case of selecting from among a set of novel hypotheses. So let us focus on this situation. Is the adoption of the rule justified or reasonable even in these cases? Clearly the rule does resolve a dilemma for us–it tells us to stick with the theory we have and not to drop it for one of the newly discovered alternatives nor to lapese into a skeptical suspension of belief. But is conservativism itself warranted? (32)

I guess the next question for me would be “What does a standard preference for conservativism obstruct, delay, or waylay?”  Sklar seems to have an interest in the consequences of too willingly believing what’s new, but there must likewise be consequences linked to the alternative he recommends. One clear gain is that methodological conservativism holds skepticism at bay, but I am, after reading, still wondering about the reach of these ideas, their implications.

In Part V of the chapter, Sklar situates conservativism in relation to five different belief justifications.  The justifications are
1. Justification by Intuition
2. Justification by Codification of Practice
3. Justification by Appeal to Higher Rules
4. Justification by Empirical Grounding
5. Justification by Appeal to Means and Ends
Justification itself aligns with a rationalist credo, and, in its philosophical orientation, this work gravitates toward empirical rationalism (I’m almost sure Sklar would trouble this characterization, even describing it as unhelpful “sloganeering”). 

A few more illustrative quotations/terms:
“A hidebound refusal ever to change one’s belief’s is nothing but irrational dogmatism. But the desire to maintain the beliefs one already has unless there is some good reason to change them is as rational as the programmatic commitment to maintain one’s social institutions unless there is some reason to revise them” (38).

lemmata (41): “a subsidiary position or proposition introduced to support or advance a larger proposition”

“I think an argument might go like this. Suppose we believe H1 and then discover H2 which is just as plausible, on all but conservative grounds, as H1 relative to present evidence. What should we do? The conservative tells us that considerations of utility recommend our sticking to our present belief. But that is not necessarily what utility does necessitate.  What we should do depends, first of all, on the relevant utlities in the particular case  of not believing anything, believing something and having it be true, and believing something and having it be false. Just how important is it (on either “practical” or “purely scientific” grounds) for us to have some belief or other? If it is not all that important, then the thing to do is to admit that one just has no idea which hypothesis is true and remain in a skeptical withholding of judgment until further evidence is in” (42).

“Conservativism is not just a minor ‘last resort’ principle invoked only when all other principles have failed to do the selecting job for us. Conservativism is, in fact, so deeply and pervasively embedded in our schema for deciding what it is rational to believe that once we have seen the full role that it plays we are likely to reject the alternatives to it of skepticism, which tells us to withhold belief from any of the alternatives, of permissivism which tells us it is all right to pick any one we choose, or of speaking of our choices as being ‘adoptions’ rather than beliefs” (43).

Sklar develops the idea of “methodological conservativism” for a particular philosophical quandary, but these ideas may very well generalize to other philosophical domains any time something new and something pragmatically known collide.  In fact, for rhetoric and composition, there are resonances here for how people talk about continuing to do what they have always done (Does methodological conservativism help explain current-traditional pedagogy, perhaps as entrenched belief-in-action?).  One other issue I’m weighing heading into this afternoon’s meeting is Why “methodological”?  Is this a method for philosophizing? A method for thinking? A method for deciding what to believe? And what, besides skepticism, permissivism, and semantic reframings are alternatives to this methodological orientation, not only in physics, but elsewhere, as well?

Can Writing Studies Claim Craft Knowledge and More?

Robert Johnson’s recent CCC article, “Craft Knowledge: Of Disciplinarity in Writing Studies,” argues that “craft knowledge” can function effectively as a warrant for disciplinary legitimacy.  He sets up “craft knowledge” against an Aristotelian backdrop of techne, or arts of making, and advances a view of “craft knowledge” as a solution to still-raging disputes over the disciplinary status of writing studies (notably not “rhetoric and composition”).  “Still-raging” is casting it too strongly; unsettled and ongoing are perhaps better matches with the characterization of those disputes in this speculative discipliniography–an article that imagines felicitous horizons for the field. As I read, I wasn’t especially clear whose conflicted sensibility would be rectified by invoking craft knowledge. Among Johnson’s concerns with the status of writing studies are 1) that it does not carry adequate clout (or recognition, for that matter) necessary for grant writing and 2) that it does not influence neighboring fields whose inquiries would be, by the input of those trained in writing studies, enriched.

On the problem of disciplinary status for grant writing, Johnson writes,

When the traditional disciplines–the so-called established fields of inquiry and production–work in an interdisciplinary manner, they in most cases still hold onto their disciplinary identity. This is painfully evident for those in writing studies when applying for external grant funding.  On the application forms from such agencies as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and even the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), for example, applicants must identify their resident discipline in order to be eligible. (680-681)

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When The Last Database

My CCCC talk from last Thursday:

When The Last Database You Search Is Not Your Own from Derek Mueller on Vimeo.

Our panel, D.24, was relatively well attended. I printed 30 handouts, and we probably had an audience with that many people or a few more. Bradley has posted his presentation already. Alex may well do the same soon. We talked on Wednesday afternoon over a late lunch about whether or not we would put them online, and we easily agreed that web traffic for presentations like these generates far more exposure to the ideas than the conference venue alone. Feels like a case of pointing out the nose-on-face obvious (will this video get 30 views?), but there are a couple of different discussions this week on WPA-L, a rhetoric and composition listserv/variety hour, about problems fairly typical at national conventions: crowded, over-attended sessions and their opposite, the one-member-audience (a generous friend or colleague, no doubt). Whether the fire marshal was turning late-comers away at the door or whether the carpet mites were the only audience on hand to listen and ask questions, why not post the talk?

A couple of other points: We remixed our talks, delivering them in turn, three by three. The Q&A was terrific; we took several questions and enjoyed thoughtful conversation for the last 30 minutes of the session. Finally, all questions, ideas, suggestions, and insights are welcome in the comments or via email.