Pixel Thoughts: Put a stressful thought in a bubble and watch vanish. A soothingly brief, simple exercise in scale and perspective.
Pixel Thoughts: Put a stressful thought in a bubble and watch vanish. A soothingly brief, simple exercise in scale and perspective.
I changed offices this week, moved from the smaller, windowless interior office that is standard issue for junior faculty in my department to the larger, windowed outer office pictured here. This is one among the incentives for taking on responsibilities as Director of the First-Year Writing Program–a role I formally stepped into earlier this month. The larger office is warranted because it is spacious enough for meetings with small groups of 3-4 people, or that’s the main rationale for the up-sized office, I’m told.
There’s quite a bit of new work that comes with being WPA, and I have been daily trying both to tick items off a long task-list I’m keeping in Astrid for now and to keep short-term priorities in clear view. In the mix: (anti)textbook decisions, curricular fine- and coarse-tuning, drilling down on outcomes that read to too many–me included–as over-general goals, getting publishers to say anything-more? about their pricing and margins, scrounging for budget, setting up online spaces (e.g., WordPress and Mediawiki installs), scheduling for fall, prepping a summer materials PDF for new GA cohort, and on and on. I’m not sure how the size of this FYWP compares, but I’d guess it is larger than most with 140+ sections per year, more than 3000 students per year, and an instructional staff of more than 50.
Along with all of the challenges, the transition into this role is generative in that it is pushing me to re-think my research agenda, reconsider my teaching philosophy, formalize an administrative philosophy and plan (almost certainly rooted in chreods and chreodologies), and reflect on what worked well in my graduate education. I have every indication so far that EMU is a hospitable place for tending to the strength and solidity of the first-year experience and Gen. Ed. There are many smart, supportive people involved, which always helps.
I have half-kidded on Twitter that in addition to Writing Program Administrator, WPA means Writing Program Atavist and Writing Program Adhocrat: atavist for throwback tendencies (returning to my own TA training, unearthing relic teaching influences, leafing through the 1936 Sears catalogs as Jim Corder did, and finding it fixed, stale: “We mustn’t try to live forever with only the knowledge we now have.”), adhocrat for the gut-trusting making up of this thing as we go, leaning hard on practical wisdom and the proceed-as-way-opens Quaker maxim LWP has always been fond of. I’ve ordered a few other books about contemporary WPA thinking, but right now this is where I’m at.
Earlier this month, I disregarded office-hour responsibilities (“Will return by 4:30 p.m -DM”) on a Monday afternoon and went over to Ann Arbor for David Weinberger’s talk, “”Too Big to Know: How the Internet Affects What and How We Know,” based on his soon-to-be-released book of a similar title.
It’s worth a look; the talk hits several important notes, particularly in light of the information studies slice of ENGL505, a rhetoric of science and technology class I’m teaching right now. In 505, we finished reading Brown and Duguid’s The Social Life of Information earlier this week, and although several aspects of the book are dated, that datedness is largely a function of print’s fixity. I know this isn’t big news, but because Weinberger’s talk works with a related set of issues, their pairing (for my thinking as much as for the class) has been worthwhile.
A couple of quick side notes:
A couple of CCCC talks about big-T turns started me thinking again about “worm turns,” a phrase I read just before the Atlanta trip in Randy A. Harris’s introduction to Landmark Essays in the Rhetoric of Science. I understood worm turns at first to mean something like “micro turns,” or smaller-scale zig-zag patterns. But, no. Worm turns–so the commonplace goes–name something of an unexpected shift in momentum, as when a downtrodden underdog (e.g., Rockworm Balboa) bounds back into a position of strength. Worm turns: the weak worm, resurgent.
I didn’t know this until earlier today, but Chemist Mickey Mouse was once in a cartoon called “The Worm Turns” (1937), in which he activated more powerful physical profiles for worm, mouse, cat, and dog.
Ancient formulae: Courage builder: The weak made strong.
And another turn overleafed this morning on researchers who dig for non-public worms, worms whose windings suggest a facility for laying low, feeling their ways through the dig-it-all underlife:
But earthworm taxonomists don’t have it so easy. One has to dig for earthworms, and even though they are blind and deaf, worms are remarkably good at evading the probes and shovels of nosy scientists. There’s also the problem of knowing where to dig. An ornithologist can simply meander through a forest and look up; an oligochaetologist must keep an ear to the ground, so to speak, and try to divine the ideal earthworm habitat.
The oligachaetologist with an ear to the ground, listening for ideal conditions. The earthworms are scarce-abundant and a taxonomist’s nightmare.
Earthworms, although numbering only about 30 species in Illinois, play an important role in the decomposition of organic matter, mineral cycling, and the aeration, drainage, and root penetration of the soil; through this activity, they also provide suitable habitat for smaller soil fauna, particularly micro-organisms. It has been estimated that earthworms can ‘move’ up to 18 tons of soil per acre each year. Abundance estimates of earthworms have been as high as three million per acre.
Alan Liu’s MLA 2011 paper, “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” arrived this morning in Google Reader. Basically, Liu introduces the 4Humanities advocacy initiative and then argues that a lack of cultural criticism in digital humanities may thwart the growth of this emerging field. Making data and making things out of data may not matter if, when deploying these things, digital humanists have not been able to demonstrate their value.
This inquiring into the status and location of specific, identifiable ingredients, e.g., “cultural criticism,” does seem like a common enough quest when we are confronted with something new and in-becoming as is the case for digital humanities. Up for discussion, though, is whether “cultural criticism” ought to be one of the building blocks in this new domain and what, exactly, is at stake should digital humanists neglect critique. Liu positions as rivals “close reading” and “distant reading,” and while I have questions about this matchup (i.e., equivalency) in the context of Moretti’s work, Liu ends up suggesting an improved, harmonious, cultural-critical blend. Distant readings (e.g., abstractions, models, visualizations) need to be cycled back through a critical apparatus, or people will not find relevance in them. Liu puts it this way: “To be an equal partner–rather than, again, just a servant–at the table, digital humanists will need to find ways to show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world.” A cynical reading of this argument finds the presumed nuturalness of critical thinking and hermeneutics in the humanities overstated, and, likewise, it appears to minimize (or altogether overlook) the heuretic-inventive edge of distant reading.
Still, for traditional-minded humanities scholars given to digital treatments of rare and special texts, this makes a certain sense. These methods and insights related to them should scale into other domains. But will their value go missing if that scaling–a scaling of “cultural criticism,” at that–is not fully realized (a rhetorical challenge, indeed)? Keeping in reach the advocacy motives of 4Humanities, the talk also hearkens to broader concerns about the dwindling cultural status of the humanities in general. If humanists’ digital expertise is not valued in other domains because those folks are capable of data-mining, coding, etc., then, in one scenario, what awaits is the continuation of a value-it-how-you-will interpretive enterprise. Much is at stake in how the digital humanities goes, in other words. We can expect its failures and successes to have residual bearing on the humanities more traditionally understood. This thinking is a degree removed from Liu’s central assertion. I think it’s as likely the case that digital humanities, for its investment in computation, is not as much at risk as the non-digital humanities. If the digital humanities are going to be preservation-minded, in other words, perhaps they should be as much concerned with the heuretic and inventive aspects of their work as they are with the critical and hermeneutic aspects.
Earlier this week I wrapped up Steven Johnson’s latest, The Invention of
Air, a pop-sci biography of Joseph Priestley. The book was typical, enjoyable
Johnson: cleverly woven anecdotes, theoretical hints concerning networks and
ecologies of influence, and iterative trigger-phrases that pop just enough to
keep the narrative lively and fast-moving. I soared through the first 160
pages in-flight last Friday and then got back into the final chapters a couple
of days ago. And I liked the book very much, except that it slowed ever
so slightly near the end: the young, experimental Priestley was more provocative
than the aging, dislocated Priestley. The latter, it turns out, suffered late in
the religious and political aspects of his life because of the the same
"congenital openness" (190) (or "chronic intellectual openness" (142)) that
helped him become so influential on enlightenment scientific inquiry, and this
section of the book worked at a noticeably different pace than the one dealing
with Priestley’s tinkering with plants.
Johnson characterizes his own ecological approach to Priestley’s life with
the phrase "long zoom":
Ecosystem theory has changed our view of the planet in countless ways,
but as an intellectual model it has one defining characteristic: it is a
"long zoom" science, one that jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline
to discipline, to explain its object of study: from the microbiology of
bacteria, to the cross-species flux of nutrient cycling, to the global
patterns of weather systems, all the way out to the physics that explains
how solar energy collides with the Earth’s atmosphere. (45)
The "long zoom", thus, is both a description of Priestley’s intellectual
manner and also Johnson’s method of developing the biography. "Long zoom"
is an idea Johnson incubated in an NYU seminar he taught on Cultural Ecosystems
and through an invited talk he gave to the
Long Now Foundation in 2007 (according to footnotes in TIoA). I
doubt that The Invention of Air does full justice to the concept as
Johnson thinks of it, but the project does, on the other hand, seem to enact the
"long zoom." In the passage above, the reference to scale-jumping exposes one of
the rough edges of the concept. The "zoom" also comes off as predominantly
vertical, along the lines of the orders of magnitude, more than horizontal or
some combination of the two (viz. networked); it is not, in other words, a "long
pan" or "long track" (here I’m thinking of the extended camera metaphors–pan,
track, zoom–adopted smartly by Rosenwasser and Stephen when they talk about
inquiry, research, and modes of engaging with an object of study). I mean that
Johnson’s "long zoom," even though he does not say so explicitly in The
Invention of Air, seems to work both horizontally, vertically, and extra-dimensionally,
as suited to networked relations as to ordered magnitudes, and all the while
alert to the dangers in too recklessly skipping from one scale to another
Priestley comes to light as a "roving" intellectual (205), one whose "hot
hand" series of scientific breakthroughs culminated as consequence of a 30-year
"long hunch" he’d been following (70). The "long zoom"–a kind of
scale-shifting, one-thing-leads-to-another approach–allows Johnson to pin down
Priestley’s knowledge-making wanderluck. Yet, at another point,
Priestley’s success with hunches appears to be as much grounded in his "knack
for ‘socializing’ with his own ideas" (74) as a credit to his roving, generalist
sensibility. Where Johnson writes of Priestley’s affinity for socializing with
his own ideas, TIoA comes remarkably close to delivering a product
placement ad for DevonThink–almost to the point of making me thing I’d
read about it before (re: Johnson, not Priestley).
There is much more to say about The Invention of Air, but I’m out of
time, viz. paradigms and anomalies (44), coffee and coffeehouses (54), hack vs.
theoretician (62), ecosystems view of the world (82).
A couple of months ago, D., Is., and I were out strolling around the streets of Syracuse, along Colvin Ave., in fact, huffing up the big hill.
“I think it’s time to cut the blog loose and set it out to sea, put an end to it,” I said.
I went on to explain why I was thinking this way, although today I can’t recall what were the reasons so clear to me at the time (realizing recently that “chicken” won as the Big Word of the Month at EWM in September was a sobering reminder of the conversation). This is just to say that merciful blogicide has crossed my mind. It’s not like the blogosphere of 2008 has half the pulse it did for me 2005 or 2006.
Wired’s Paul Boutin pressed a similar point today, suggesting in an article titled “Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004” that blogs are out of fashion, succumbing to some of the latest online developments:
Writing a weblog today isn’t the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It’s almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.
There’s some obvious polemic framing at play here, some baiting, some stick-poking, as if to imply, “Yo, bloggers, still at it?” To which I say, “Maybe.” And, “For now.”
Yet, as composition studies is distinct in its penchant for ‘borrowing,’
we are also, in my opinion, unrivaled in our proclivity for
self-examination. I am not arguing that this is an unimportant
activity, but only that the costs are indeed high when self-scrutiny comes
at the expense of taking up other critical concerns and of making other,
more innovative and far-reaching forms of knowledge (775).
This appears in the final section of the essay, the part titled "Conclusion:
Banishing Echo and Narcissus." Here, Kopelson takes exception with the
field’s self-reflexivity, the growing heap of self-interested and self-absorbed
assessments of where we are or where we are heading. There is an
unidentified villain here, and I wondered as I read whether Kopelson has any
favorite ‘misses’, accounts that get it terribly wrong or that are built up on
marsh-lands of mushy data.
Reading this section and the quotation above in particular, I had the
sense that Kopelson wasn’t as interested in "banishing" Echo and Narcissus
as in giving them overhauls, in renewing them, even in teaching them how to
resonate and reflect less recklessly. In other words, what is
wrong with many self-reflexive disciplinary accounts (or "discipliniographies"
to lift and bend a term Maureen Daly Goggin introduces in Authoring a
Discipline) is that they succumb to a localist impulse. That
is, they un-self-conciously extrapolate from local experience and anecdotal
evidence onto the field at large, projecting some local knowledge onto the
expansive abstraction that is the discipline (however we imagine it to be).
The localist impulse can take many different shapes; often it is akin to reading
patterns through the course of an individual career (i.e., "in my thirty years
at Whatsittoyou U.") or by cherry-picking from an exceedingly thin selection of
data (titles of conference presentations or tables of contents for teacher
training manuals). We all do this to some extent–making sense of the field at
large through our local, immediate experiences, but it is dangerous to arrive at
conclusions about the field (or world) at-large solely by examining one’s own
What I’m getting at is that I don’t have any beef with the disciplinary
practice of self-examination. Perhaps there are more than a handful of
fields in the academy that would benefit from more of it. I hold history (the calling of others who’ve navigated this canyon) and
reflection in high regard (perhaps not to the ill-fated extremes of Echo and
Narcissus). Resonanceresonanceresonance and reflection are valuable, especially for newcomers,
for the "new converts" Kopelson mentions. But they will not be successful–or
very useful–until they get beyond that localist impulse, until they involve
earnest field-wide data collections and collaboratively built databases. I
don’t know how well this matches with Kopelson’s "innovative and far-reaching
forms of knowledge," but it is increasingly where my own interests lie.
If those far-reaching forms of knowledge included disciplinary data (even simple
stuff, like how many programs offer undergraduate writing majors), they could
generate insights about disciplinarity. In the meantime those full-view
insights will continue to elude us as long as we leap from local knowledge to
widespread pattern, without addressing sufficiently the intermediary scales.
Kopelson, Karen. “Sp(l)itting
Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition.” CCC 59.4
(2008): 750-780. [Carnival]
I haven’t been taking great notes while reading Prairyerth, but I did
dog-ear a page for this:
There are several ways not to walk in the prairie, and one of them is
with your eye on a far goal, because then you begin to believe you’re not
closing the distance any more than you would with a mirage. My woodland
sense of scale and time didn’t fit this country, and I started wondering
whether I could reach the summit before dark. On the prairie, distance and
the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as
difficult to penetrate as dense forest. I was hiking in a chamber of
absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seemed every time I
raised a step the earth rotated under me so that my foot feel just where it
had lifted from. Limits and markers make travel possible for people:
circumscribe our lines of sight and we can really get somewhere. Before me
lay the Kansas of popular conception from Coronado on–that place you have
to get through, that purgatory of mileage. (82)
"That purgatory of mileage"–the horizontal vista of Chase County draws Least
Heat-Moon in. The expanse of long grasses is at times disorienting.
He feels lost, but knows that no line can be walked for five miles without
crossing a road. He is a journalist, a chronicler, a gatherer of stories.
Sometimes he consults a map, such as when he stands in Cottonwood Falls with "an
1878 bird’s-eye-view engraving of the town" (52), but he also–sector by county
sector–sketches his own. This last point is important, I think. It
is the practice where his methods live up to the "deep mapping"–an ethnographic
presence in graceful suspense (not unlike North’s ten years of "walking among"),
part Geertzian "thick description," but also meta-, also interested in the up
and out–the topography. This prairie topography can be experienced on
I’m mulling over the relationship between Least Heat-Moon’s "chamber of
absences"–the "distance" and "openness" of the prairie topography and (yet
again) de Certeau’s "wave of verticals," the "scopic drive" he chides after
looking out onto NYC from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. What
is strange–exciting, even–is that Least Heat-Moon cannot figure out how to
organize his book until he appropriates a form from the grid of his hand-drawn
maps. About maps, de Certeau says, "They allow us to grasp only a relic set in
the nowhen of a surface of projection…. These fixations constitute procedures
for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice" (97). If
I may put that last sentence through a tumbler, what if, "the trace left behind
is the practice" or "the trace left behind invigorates the
practice (of walking in the city/prairie)"? This windy adventure forks yet
again at the distinction between the general-use map (with common place names,
consensus, etc.) and that other, more self-selective attunement (an
experiential, even egotistical sketch).
About my own chamber of absences: I am warming up to the idea that none of
this belongs in Chapter Five. But I nevertheless find myself happily stuck (not
stranded) on the problem of "What about maps as a (databasic, interested)
writing practice?". I don’t know. Yet there is a promising something
(a fantastic thingamabob) at the theoretical fulcrum between de Certeau’s
high-up perch (fraught with verticality) and Least Heat-Moon’s more moderate,
walking-the-prairie sensibility (fraught with horizontality). I would be
thrumming again on matters of scale, I suppose, to wonder whether that’s all it
amounts to when Least Heat-Moon breaks into his intimate portraits of
people and places, interrupting with his private, deliberative excursions to the
various plateaus or flint shelves for reorientations from time to time.
Don’t we all need (or at least desire) such reorientations?
Anokye, Akua Duku. "2007 CCCC Chair’s Address: Voices of the Company We
Keep." CCC 59.2 (2007): 263-275.