What’s the Word? 🧮

For a few years, maybe more, I have at times in my teaching practice opened a class session with a round of “What’s the Word.” “What’s the Word” is a segment from ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, a sports talk show featuring broadcast journalists Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, and, when one of the two of them is traveling or vacationing or otherwise unavailable, a substitute counterpart who balances the exchange and the screenspace. For 30 minutes in the 5 o’clock hour out east, the show is led along with a ticker-tape and marked by time intervals; clock-keeping governs the otherwise spirited dialogue. This clip will give you an idea:

It’s a toss-up whether students in classes I teach know the show or have any frame of reference for the premise. We watch the video, and proceed thereafter, usually with some solo word-whatsing, which then gets transferred to a marker board or Google Slide, and after this, we read them, and we talk about our neologisms, puns, and coinages. It’s not as if streamers and confetti fly from overhead, but it’s usually fun to play with words.

“What’s the Word” can with brevity open and span worlds1Similar to Thich Nhat Hanh on mantras, which are magical (or rhetorical) for how they can instantly transform reality., querying how the week is going, how a project (or some dimension of it) is unfolding, or how a reading resonates or fails to resonate, what instigates a click or a eureka. It sits in a single class meeting, so it’s not quite ENGL1999: Writing One Word, which I have (only half) jokingly pitched as a prototype for self-set minimalisms with labor and workload. “What’s the Word” fits into the discursive-unitroscope, which runs from the small to the large, and these measures include the Four Word Funk Review (variation on Four Word Film Review from back-back in the day), Fives, or lists of five what’ve-you-gots that then play into ranking and re-ranking, sharing out, writing rationales, and so on, and Nineties, which are a micro-genre adapted from Berlant & Stewart’s The Hundreds, and which amount to 90-word clips, give or take five words, that can, if they must, jump to the next multiple of 90. In other wordcounts, 85-95 is permissible, but above 95 the writer has to take it to 175-185, and below 85, it’s not a ninety because that’s where the cork edge of the dart board ends and you’ve dinged the drywall. I’m two years along in fairly routinely layering nineties into my teaching practice, and the results have been positive enough to continue, sometimes prompted, sometimes unprompted. I have yet to incorporate the indexing moves that elevate The Hundreds from distinctive and memorable to a book I consider truly one of a kind. Could be that’s what the future is for.

I’m thinking about “What’s The Word” this afternoon because we’re reading the first 28 pages of Han’s Non-Things for Monday evening, a book, which, in itself and in translation blooms a terminological cornucopia. We’ll have just an hour on Zoom for discussing the opening section, before we switch to open review of in-progress blog carnival entries. “What’s the Word” seems to me right-sized for the hour, for sorting out de-fleeification, or digitombed rhetorics, or smart-phoniness, or like-iod addiction.


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    Similar to Thich Nhat Hanh on mantras, which are magical (or rhetorical) for how they can instantly transform reality.

CCCC Proposal Keywords

Not much especially revelatory or surprising in my mentioning that I am happy to see keywords added to the CCCC 2015 proposal system. I love the idea, see it as an important and long overdue addition to the process and also a promising source of new semantic patterning studies (e.g., corroborating proposal language, theme, keywords, and more). I had the good fortune of working with Joyce Carter at last year’s Stage II review in mid-June, and, as we assembled solo proposals into panels, the prospective usefulness of a secondary classification system surfaced again and again, and we talked quite a bit about how a modest set of keywords could, without adding much to the work involved with preparing proposals, suggest otherwise quiet or subtle threads across proposals.

Here’s the recent video from Joyce describing the what and why of the new keywords field:

A week ago Saturday, the Saturday of #4c14 in Indianapolis, I was at the Cross-Generational Task Force meeting, where we spent a few minutes talking about the importance of recommending a semantic baseline for the keyword associated with cross-generational proposals. We settled on XGEN. Simple and with no hyphen. Other variations might have been “cross-gen,” “x-generational,” “cross-generational,” “X-GEN,” and so on. Could be twenty or more variations. Some of these variations might still sneak onto proposals, despite the suggestion of XGEN, and that’s okay. All variations will be useful as descriptive keywords, right? That said, the semantic variation risks restricting their usefulness to description, which is the main reason we agreed upon XGEN as a the preferred indexical token. With it, we improve the term’s prospects of functioning both descriptively and relationally.

I don’t know whether other groups will follow this model. I look forward to seeing how this will go. How might groups wishing to sponsor a keyword do so? With email blasts to listservs or to SIG and Standing Group membership rosters? Sure. These approaches will probably work just fine. But I was also considering, after seeing Joyce’s video and after the task force meeting (and the follow-up email to WPA-l), how a simple collector, such as an openly editable Google Doc, might support broader efforts to articulate common keywords that are both descriptive and relational (or indexically reliable across the set). In the spirit of give-things-a-try, I’ve created just such a document at #4c15 Proposal Keyword Collector (reference), and will add to it as I see suggestions pop up on WPA-L or elsewhere. It’s openly editable, too, so if you have an idea for a more or less sponsored keyword that would cohere presentations across these secondary classifications, please feel free to add to it.

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.

Of Worm Turns

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.

Title Case

Reviewing application guidelines the other day for this year’s Undergraduate Symposium, I noticed an explicit request for project titles to be submitted in title case. The deadline is this Friday, the 14th, and I have heard from a couple of students who are proposing projects, who are asking me to be their sponsor, etc. I sponsored one presenter last year. Might be two this time around.

I’m sure I’ve thought about title case before, but somehow it looked different this time. Why should the phrase pique new question(s), I can’t say, but it did?: Where does title case come from? Who set these rules? Why? Is its appeal purely aesthetic?

I could find quite a few pages listing out the basic rules, but nothing on why these rules make sense in the first place. I mean, why not capitalize every word in the title? Why should articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions–is there no sense of fairness?–appear always in lower case? Okay, maybe I can understand the lowly status of articles. Articles get plenty of moments in the sunny A-slot where they stand prominently before nouns. If there are any dogs, any outcasts here, they are prepositions and coordinating conjunctions. After all, with the latest revaluing of prepositions (e.g., Lanham’s at/through; CGB’s addition, from), you’d think title case–and the keepers of title case standards–could allow for the immense, even expanding, conceptual weight born by (I almost wrote “of”!) these low-ranking parts of speech. On the other hand, it’d be a shame to have a proposal rejected for trying out a reformed version of title case.

Added: If you can resist clicking on the advertisements, Titlecase.com will convert titular straw into title case gold.

Notch for Orange, Notch for the Belt of Verbs

Syracuse’s home win over the Hoyas earlier today inspired thoughts of a
verb to add to the belt:

The Orange clowned No. 8 Georgetown, 77-70, in front of a
season-high 31,327
fans at the Carrier Dome.

Clown as verb: to subject to ridicule, to cause another to appear silly, etc.
Unlike evidence and discourse (as verbs), it is improbable that I will ever sneak clown or
clowned into the academic prose.

Nevertheless, in celebration of the upset, go on, add it to your belt of

Previously on B.

Belt Belt Belt of Verbs

Today is Start-of-Semester Day in Syracuse (even if I don’t teach until
tomorrow). How better to celebrate the occasion than by adding a verb to
the belt of
verbs (and thereby contributing to the Greater Verbiage)?

He’d discourse on the animals’ diets, reproduction, life spans, their
interesting and unusual characteristics. (48)

A rare sighting of discourse as verb. Tracy Kidder wrote this about
Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains (a book which I will think of
as Verbs Beyond Verbs from this point forward).

Chreod: Alignment of Set-ups

Reading more than writing today, I planned to get down notes on another run
through Porter, Sullivan, et. al.’s "Institutional Critique," (re: my own little
life raft in postmodern geography) the same for Richards’ short piece on "The
Resourcefulness of Words," from Speculative Instruments (re: wandering
resourcefulness, another spatial, and I would say networked,
consideration) , and the same, yet again, for Miller’s latest (Spring
2007) RSQ essay on automation, agency, and assessment, "What Can
Automation Tell Us about Agency?"–not for the diss., this last one, but because
I need to know more about it before responding to an email marked urgent.
Only, rather than note-making, the day turned to night, and my efforts grew more
digressive when I sought out one of Miller’s references to Latour, an article I
hadn’t heard of called, "Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of
a Door-Closer" (Social Problems 35.3). Here is Latour, er, "Jim
Johnson," at his most playful. Terrific. Coincidentally, I also have an
special place in my heart for compression

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