Second Days

Second days of sabbaticals. I’ve known only one second day: today. The fifth. As worklike as day one, with the exception that digressive minutiae are more appealing than before–trimming fingernails, sweeping the floor (not that it needs it but for that one speck of mud maybe, which spotted me spying it as the tea kettle took its sweet time steaming from audible boil to pressure-sent whistler). Trim and sweeeeep. Then back in the chair to do office-chair office chair things. Ever nonmagical, more stylistically cumin than cayenne.

Tried to write with some background music, but that was a Johnny J.R. Cashbust. Too distracting, Cindy. What is truth? No earthly good for getting shit done. For the last sprint, I found some wordless Buddhist harpy strumtracks to cycle through iTunes, and that was enough songburst to get this upticking chapter to–what?–nearly a second section in. Put much finer points on a couple of phrases in the first section (stylistic cayenne!), extending it by 155 words and launched the second section with 906 words (maths: 1061). At daybreak I thought maybe I would blaze all the way through to 1500 and dust the second section off, but no, and it’s fine. Dandyfine. I’m also learning to relax about the goals, trust slow and steady and whatever draftmess piles up one day is suited to smoothing the next. 

I regard this now as a banality dispatch, but will post anyway. Oh, okay, so I worked on the book again today. That’s what sabbaticals are for. Nonmagical, butt in chair, putting down words that, truth is, range from geez have I been thinking about this for one helluva long time to geez I have no idea on earth what I’m trying to say to geez this is such an old and familiar friend, this idea, to geez is this the best register for warm-accessible reception both by newcomers to the field and by established scholar-colleagues to geez it’s happening and its taking shape is not limited to my fingerstrokes/keystrokes only. 

Not As a Trusted Guide

Halfway through Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, one of the many wishlisted titles I picked up at last month’s Networked Humanities conference. Stewart’s slow jumps aggregate to an “idiosyncratic map of connections between a series of singularities” (4). A colleague, when he saw the book at the edge of my desk late last week in a place where I would be sure to remember to carry it home for the first interlude of Winter Break, characterized Stewart’s writing as “prose poems.” I can see that. Similar to ornamented essays, i.e., stylistically adven-turous felt-arguments.

And like I said, I’m only halfway through. Slow jumps read slowly. As much as by anything else, I’m struck by–affected by–Stewart’s reconfiguring of pronouns.

I write not as a trusted guide carefully laying out the links between theoretical categories and the real world, but as a point of impact, curiosity, and encounter. I call myself “she” to mark the difference between this writerly identity and the kind of subject that arises as a daydream of simple presence. “She” is not so much a subject position or an agent in hot pursuit of something definitive as a point of contact; instead, she gazes, imagines, senses, takes on, performs, and asserts not a flat and finished truth but some possibilities (and threats) that have come into view in the effort to become attuned to what a particular scene might offer. (5)

To write not as a trusted guide seems at first to go against professionalism and rhetorical ethics, but instead of turning into fanciful indulgence, because it finds gravity in description, it shifts ethos to ethos-oikos, a kind of redistributed or network-strewn, banal registry. A contagious style, Stewart’s.

He noticed frost on the Honda Element outside and put off a morning jog, wrote a blog entry, ground beans for pressed coffee. “March was always warmer than this.”

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).

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)

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Quickly, Quickly

Spring Break begins tomorrow. No beach-side cabana and umbrella-garnished cocktails in my foreseeable future. Just life at a slightly altered (i.e., re-charging) pace until classes resume on March 8. I believe this is the earliest Spring Break I’ve ever had.

In classes, we wrapped up a three-week unit on wiki writing today. The assignment went something like this: for twenty-one days, assume various roles in the production of a wiki–facilitation, discussion, research, entry writing, editing, and coding. Last semester I set up groups. This semester I didn’t. My aim with the wiki assignment has always been to immerse in the mess, to dive in, or, for the more cautious, to wade through some quick compositional emergence, or distributed, self-paced, collaborative writing. All the while, we should keep in mind the question of what is stylistically available in wiki writing. There is no single answer to this, of course, but it seems like wiki writing often (I am tempted to say “always”) returns to an “average effect,” more studium than punctum.

I’m not sure we fully achieved the mess I had in mind. A snow day on February 10 threw off the early development of the project. Facilitation and early discussion was cut short. Twelve days into the project I brought graphs to class–a simple activity distribution curved, as you might have guessed, like a long tail. A few had done much work; many had done much less, just like on Wikipedia. Also, the graph reflected two data-sets, one for number of edits and one for frequency of logins. So that everyone processes the assignment by a distributed pace rather than a climactic pace, the prompt encouraged logging in and making identifiable contributions every other day or so. Halfway in, this wasn’t quite working. But the graph confronted us with the problem, and, consequently, it moved us collectively nearer to the quick-writing messiness I had in mind. For the remaining nine days, the wiki came alive–to the tune of 38 contributors, an impressive blur of edits, revisions, and rearrangement.

Certainly we gained some experience with wiki writing–wiki writing connected with our continuing inquiry into style and technology. And, for the most part, I stand by this approach (i.e., will try it again), even if it still has a few wrinkles to smooth out. I prefer it to a common alternative, which is something like wiki-as-showcase, where the wiki functions as a platform for sharing individually authored pieces, where collaboration is predefined, where discrete contributions carry over into some kind of portfolio or autonomous collection of best works (many variations on this, to be fair). The showcase approach to wiki writing is fine, but I want to continue to think through the near-aleatory, massively collaborative chaos available in wikis and to think through the this chaotic approach for a school assignment and for the question of what is stylistically available. How? I’ll begin by reading and commenting 36 or so reflective essays over the next couple of days.

Short Sentences

Tomorrow in ENGL328, we’re working with “Short Sentences,” the first chapter in Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. The chapter presents four basic sentence types or kernels: equations with be, equations with linking verbs, transitives, and intransitives. In the first half of the chapter, Tufte attaches numerous examples to each type of short sentence. I find the types to be fairly intuitive and, perhaps because they are short, easy to identify. Only the equations with linking verbs give me pause because the linking verbs tend to stoke a deeper philosophical question concerned with being and transformation, i.e., whether the subject is altered by the piling on of noun complements.

In the second half of the chapter, Tufte switches scales, moving from the local logic of these four sentences to their paragraph-cumulative effect, whether one type is deployed repeatedly or whether they are working in combination with other types. Here the idea is basically that the two equative types stroll along at a slow pace, intransitives elicit slightly more movement or action, and transitives deliver the most bang because they maximize one thing’s verbing of another thing (the direct object, required for the transitive form). Tufte’s paragraph-long examples highlight the cumulative effect of these short sentence types in context.

A couple of tweets from students today have forewarned me (whether they were meant for me or not) that we will have a fair amount of skepticism to work through tomorrow. As far as I can tell (from their own short sentences, of course) the value of this framework is in doubt. That’s fair. And, in fact, I’m glad to see that they are not only reading Tufte but tweeting about it before class. I think of Tufte’s opening chapter as offering both an analytic method and a heuristic, or generative guide, for revision. The analytic method amounts to a vocabulary and a set of techniques for differentiating sentence types. It’s difficult, without seeming enamored of current-traditionalism, to say that grasping such principles as these helps writers. But it does offer us a scheme for talking about prose style, for pinpointing in yet one more way a sentence’s distinction.

Also, I’m interested in establishing tension between Tufte’s approach and Lanham’s Paramedic Method, which we will look at for Wednesday. Lanham, after all, insists on the importance of concrete subjects and action-packed verbs. Tufte’s attention to equatives and to pacing lends something of value to the subject-verb or character-action patterns so conspicuous in Lanham’s method (also in Williams’ Style). So, while I recognize the value in keying on vivid subject-verb couplings relatively early in sentences, I also appreciate Tufte’s recognition that equative forms may bear strategically on the acceleration (or idling speed) of a passage.

Verbal Sauce

I’m between classes: two sections of ENGL328: Writing, Style, and Technology. Today was our third meeting in the first section. The third meeting of the second section happens in 90 minutes. The only trouble with teaching two sections is that the session details collapse into one another. That is, I reconstruct an approximately full experience from bits of each, roughly as if the 150-minutes, divided in two, amount to a singular 75-minutes of layered memory. A memory so blended, so woven I cannot account for what happened in one section distinct from the other. No, I’m not complaining. Not that at all. I am taking the long way, the curving route to say that the 90-minute window between classes is the only time I can keep the sessions separate-in-mind. Confusion creeps in after.

I walked up from the third floor a few minutes ago thinking about the idea that a first class session is insufficient for grounding an initial impression. I mean, I left those first meetings last week with a reasonably strong, favorable impression of each group (perhaps I recalled them only after, in a “best of” blend). Seriously, the initial impression takes three sessions. After three meetings I can remember many names. We have a sense of the mood, the pace, the projects, and so on.

Verbal sauce? Well, preparing to teach this course has required for me quite a bit of reading on style. I’m learning a lot. And I’m really working to approach the course as an inquiry into the style-technology hyphen: their pedagogical-practical-experimental linkage(s). Style: from the fluff-stuff distinction, from perpetual literacy crisis alarmism, from its attachment to syntax or design. And technology: from the aging-unseen apparatuses, from technology as panacea, and from the onset of electrate logics. Create a collision, an encounter between style and technology, then understand it from the inside, by writing through it.

Restyling 2

Spent a few hours this weekend restyling the blog. I’m almost satisfied with the new front page. The internal pages and archives will have to wait. They’re still functional because they pull from the style sheet, but I have to shift attention to the other, more pressing work I’m doing this summer or it will mount into a punishing backlog. More about that soon.

The latest design makes better use of Cron rebuilds. I’ve installed MT-Twitter (Brandon Fuller, I.O.U. $10), created a blog to archive the activity stream, and then ported that blog’s contents to the EWM front page using the multiblogs feature. I’m still on the fence about Twitter. Not sure I will do anything worthwhile with it (I haven’t adjusted to the different signal-noise ratio, and I’m not certain I want to). But I have an archiving process in place, just in case.

I also created a new logo, new banner, and new favicon a couple of weeks ago. Is. helped me, which explains the spectrum of yellows. And then I dumped some of the clutter (calendar, Google Reader shared items, etc.) and shortened the horizontal navigation bar by making better use of a thin above-banner menu with various app icons. I customized the graphics for the search form, too, but I might redo those when I have the chance, make them slightly smaller. I’m not satisfied with the banner, but I plan to return to that and the other unchecked tasks later on.

If you have any impressions (wow! or sux!), I’d love to hear them. It’s still very much a work-in-progress, but I’ve tried to make the most of since it’s also a way to avoid my other, more pressing work in progress.

Twitter Totter

I sure hope Maureen Dowd’s optometrist didn’t read what she wrote at the end
of her Tuesday newspaper column,
"To Tweet
or Not to Tweet"

I would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey
poured over me and red ants eat out my eyes than open a Twitter account. Is
there anything you can say to change my mind?

My guess is that a honey-sweetened eye-flesh-eating episode would not
bode well for the continuation of her syndicated column. Opening
an account is worse than this? No. Dowd’s position is ridiculous, and
this hypothetical alternative to opening an account would prove painful and unwise.
Nothing against red ants; I’d take Twitter over Dowd’s daring stunt in the
Kalahari any day of the week.

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