Friday, June 18, 2010

Time Enough for Slow Reading

Reports like this make me fidget. An appeal to the slow toward "meaning and pleasure" strikes me as less a call for "slow reading" as an idyllic, life-of-the-mind practice and more as a call for "slow[er] reading [than you do when you must hurry]." While I understand the urge to foster thicker, more patient relationships between readers and whatever they read, the "slow reading revolution" seems to me to frame of texts by default according to a filter-first logic, an already-filtered logic. The aim is not revolution, really, but involution by temporal variation, by changing speeds. According to Clay Shirky's discussion of filtering and publishing in Here Comes Everybody and elsewhere, filter-then-publish aligns with broadcast and with editorial gate-keeping, screening that happens before publication. When user-generated content comes along, on the other hand, these events are reversed.  Publishing happens first, filtering after. For readers, then, the trouble with the web is that both varieties of content slosh around together (an indistinguishable stew): streams are not already separated into cooked content (i.e., filter-then-publish) or raw content (i.e., publish-then-filter). Filtering is crucial in a digital age not only because we need it to survive experientially this growing delta of user-generated content but because the already-filtered is drifting in its midst. These conditions require of online readers a heightened "filtering imperative" all the way up.  And yet my first, admittedly glancing, impression is that "slow reading" assumes filtering to be unproblematic or already settled--a given. Filtering is not exactly reading, right?, but filtering is pre-reading--a flitting relationship that, I would argue, cannot be as slow-probative-sluggish as slow reading advocates would like. Steven Johnson, in his introduction to The Best Technology Writing of 2009, differentiates the slow-fast as "skim and plunge," allowing for nimble readers who can change speeds as skillfully as Kobe Bryant setting up a blow-by step. Slow reading advocates would appear more concerned more with plunge than with skim. Beyond "slow reading," I am interested in filtering and in making these skim/plunge changes of speed explicit with students.

I don't want to mischaracterize the slow reading movement. Nor do I want to seem disparaging or unfair in writing through, as I have done briefly here, a few of my impressions: viz., I have a book on my night stand that I have been reading at a pace of two pages a week for almost three years. Snails, that's slow. Sometimes I skip a week. Or two. Even slower then. I wish I could quit the book, but there is no hurry. Such a dragged out reading as with this book is like watching a nature program in which a tortoise flips sand over its freshly laid eggs. Flip. Flip. Flip. Or the episode with a sloth reaching for that one succulent cecropia leaf still a meter beyond its lethargic reach. It just seems to me it's possible to teach a "closer connection" or some deeper involvement with texts via read-alouds and memorization than by invoking a superficial opposition to the assumed-to-be-frenetic character of "reading" online.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

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)

Have recent changes with CIP codes impacted this?  I don't know; I am not currently working on any grants.  But I did find the CIP 23.13 categories and language extraordinarily helpful last winter during my program's meetings for MA curriculum revisions. Perhaps this classification scheme will soon extend disciplinary identification options beyond the National Research Council to the agencies Johnson names. Certainly the codes are recent development and one that ought to propel writing studies in the direction of improved statistical tracking for disciplinary activities, like dissertation projects.

The second problem--reciprocity--amounts to disciplinary neglect: writing studies scholarship is not cited frequently enough outside of writing studies scholarship: "I see little evidence that writing voices are heard, let alone cited, by the scholars in [the history and sociology of science and technology]" (681).  This issue came up in the carnival two summers ago. I wish I could say with great confidence that we have a good grasp on what is being cited and where. I offer this not because I doubt whether Johnson is correct.  For a "most telling example," he points to How Users Matter, a 2005 edited collection from MIT Press: "Virtually no one in writing studies, rhetoric, or usability studies is cited" (681). A more comprehensive study of citation in neighboring/overlapping fields would, of course, ground such a claim even more deeply and, as well, serve as a basis for investigating what import field-external citation has on disciplinary legitimacy in other cases.

I'll let these notes rest here for now. I learned a lot from reading Johnson's Platonic and Aristotelean retracing of techne through five aspects of its four causes (676+), especially where he complicates ethics for the technite and the phronomoi (679). While I felt a bit distracted by the thicket of metaphors in the "Interlude" section (i.e., duck, swords, swipes, paths, forest, and soup), and while I am more at ease than Johnson seems to be with the idea of writing studies (or rhetoric and composition, as I prefer to think of it, unhip though this may well be), I do find disciplinarity enriched by the idea of "craft knowledge," whether we aim for interdisciplinary ventures, as Johnson would like us to, whether we continue to wage legitimation efforts with large-scale research agencies, or both.

Johnson, Robert. "Craft Knowledge: Of Disciplinarity in Writing Studies." CCC 61.4 (2010): 673-690.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bolt Fix

While driving to the grocery store last evening, I heard a sudden, distinct drumming of one tire against asphalt--an instantly deflating sound-report of a crisis likely needing repair. I pulled over, walked a circle around the Element, checked the tires, found nothing, drove a bit farther, heard it again: a pronounced clack synced with each tire's full orbit.

When I reached the Meijer parking lot, I walked the perimeter once more, and this time spotted the thumb-tip sized head of a bolt protruding from the face of the right-rear tire. Just after 7 p.m. on a Monday, so I guessed the odds of finding a repair shop open and accepting new jobs was very low. But this was a big bolt, and even though the tire appeared to be maintaining its full pressure, I wasn't all too keen on driving more than necessary before arranging a repair. I don't own a fancy Internet phone (might pick up an iPhone later this month...maybe), so I dialed D. and asked her to search out a tire shop proximate to Carpenter and Ellsworth. Belle Tire was closest.  I called, told a rep. named Mike about the desperate condition this poor tire was in, and he said, "Bring it over."

Belle Tire was open until 8 p.m.  They assured me they could make the repair before closing. Better, Belle sits next to a Kroger, so I was able to pick up groceries while they replaced the bolt with some kind of plug or patch. I returned at 7:50 p.m., loaded a few foodthings into the back of the vehicle, which had just been lowered to the garage floor, and listened to the cashier say something astonishing: "No charge. This one's on us.  Enjoy your night." Astonishing.

There's more. On the way back to the car, I noticed a lug nut missing from the front right wheel--a wheel not in any way involved in the repair work they'd done. I'd just had a brake service and rotation at another shop two weeks ago; possibly they neglected to torque one of the nuts. I stepped back inside and asked the cashier/tech whether they had an extra. He told me to pull up to the garage door again where they put on a new lug nut free of charge. Uh-stonishing.

Let this stand as a formal registration of my amazement. Recent Google reviews of this location have been overwhelmingly negative, but how can I be anything other than impressed? Even if the free service was a strategic attempt to attract me as a future customer, it likely worked. I often feel like car repair situations amount to rip-offs (most unsettling is the deplorable gaming of standard labor charges for jobs accomplished in fewer hours than itemized, e.g., a three-hour labor rate for a job that is ready in 45-minutes). Last night's complimentary assist by Belle Tire, however, stood in refreshing contrast to this pattern.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

World Cup Pool

Yahoo! World Soccer 2010
Group: Skitchy Pitch FC (Group ID #18444)
Password: ewm

World Cup matches get started in a little more than a week, and because I am a glutton for the slow agony that comes with choosing incorrectly the results of matches spread over many weeks, I've set up a friendly and low stakes (i.e., shallow consequences) pool for the event. You should consider joining. You get points for picking results in group play. Bonus points are tacked on if you get the score exactly right. When group play ends, there will be another round of selections based on tournament match-ups. If you have any questions for me, I probably don't know the answer. Nevertheless, you can reach me by email at dmueller AT

Monday, June 7, 2010

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)

I used Carr's article in the Fall 2008 semester as an an opening provocation for WRT195, a course concerned primarily with Google literacy, but returning to it now as I put together a few notes on Proust and the Squid, small pieces of the passage click much differently these two years later.  First, "worry" is exactly right.  "Worry" nicely sums up what Wolf does with respect to the impact of screens and networked digital media on reading.  At the first mention of reading the Internet, Wolf contemplates the "Google universe of [her] children" and then lists eight or nine worrying questions, e.g., "Can we preserve the constructive dimension of reading in our children alongside their growing abilities to perform multiple tasks and to integrate ever-expanding amounts of information?" (16). Even more striking, however, is the way she follows up the digressive paragraph with, "I stray with these questions.  But indeed we stray often when we read." The aside is curious, given that straying is one key source of trepidation with "reading" at computer screens: hypertext's ontology assumes straying.  Yet Wolf is not talking here about reading hypertext or "reading" at/through post-paperdigmatic interfaces; rather, she refers to an act akin to Proust-euphoric reading--sunlit afternoons curled in a window seat or hammock with Remembrance of Things Past. That "we stray often when we read" touches off a couple of by now well rehearsed problems for reading and cognition. It also demonstrates how straying is as much a function of the "text" as of the reader (i.e., Wolf launches the paragraph of questions). The greater concern for conventional reading, then, boils down to the excess of wandering protocols--dementions--in digital read/write domains.

Second, Carr's repetition of "style" stands out. What does it mean for a "style of reading" to be "promoted by the Net"?  This style puts efficiency and immediacy ahead of other stylistic qualities, perhaps not unlike Will Strunk's "little book" did when it unexpectedly blazed a trail for school-writerly consciousness in the U.S. with its slick, memorable maxims such as "Omit needless words." Of course, efficiency and immediacy are not rare values exclusive to wiki-quick or short-form writers of the web, as anyone in news journalism, technical/professional communication, or writing in the sciences can attest. And perhaps stylistic uniformity is cause for concern wherever it settles, although the web can hardly be described as stylistically normative for readers or writers. No matter, by the end of Proust and the Squid, Wolf expresses a compromising stance in the epic showdown between print pages and screens:

In the transmission of knowledge the children and teachers of the future should not be faced with choice between books and screens, between newspapers and capsuled versions of the news on the Internet, or between print and other media. Our transition generation has an opportunity, if we seize it, to pause and use our most reflective capacities, to use everything at our disposal to prepare for the formation of what will come next. The analytical, inferential, perspective-taking, reading brain with all its capacity for human consciousness, and the nimble, multi-functional, multi-modal, information-integrative capacities of a digital mind-set to nod need to inhabit exclusive realms. (228)

Wolf addresses reading the web briefly in a handful of other moments:
16: The paragraph of questions mentioned above.
77: Another paragraph of questions working through what it might mean for a knowledge-as-virtue tradition "to learn very, very quickly about virtually anything, anywhere, anytime at an 'unguided' computer screen."
85: On the "reciprocal relationship between emotional development and reading."  This is not explicitly about shifts in literacy's materiality, per se, but the issue is in some respects conspicuous by omission: the scene involves emotional development when a child reads a book (and only a book) on a parent's lap, not co-navigating a mobile device, gaming together, or reading something online.
132: Privileges a slow, methodical wandering associated with conventional reading; contrasts that with haste and a sense of sufficiency that comes with quick/short encounters. There are a couple of kinds of wandering operating here.
213: In the conclusion now, Wolf restates her valuing of a slow reading and explains differences with Ray Kurzweil's work on speeding up toward the singularity.
225: Leads into the compromised position above, but also wields strong judgments such as, "Many students who have cut their teeth on relatively effortless Internet access may not yet know how to think for themselves" (225).

I found the Proust and squid metaphors surprising for how disproportionately they are developed in the book.  Proust comes up quite often.  His notion of reading as "sanctuary" is commended consistently by Wolf, idealized even, and this historical "optimum case" for reading cements for Wolf's celebration of book-reading a formidable and unproblematic teleology--one that makes it much more sensible seeming to bombard interface-reading with wariness. The squid comes up much less often, only twice, in fact: on pp. 5-6 and again on p. 226.  Here is an excerpt from the latter:

In a book devoted to the reading brain it would be easy enough to skip over the contributions of a brain ill-suited to reading. But the squid who doesn't swim quickly has a lot to teach about how it learns to compensate. This is an imperfect analogy, to be sure, because the squid's ability to swim is genetic and a squid who can't swim quickly would very likely die. But if a poor-swimming squid not only didn't die, but went on to beget 5 to 10 percent of the squid population, one would have to ask what in the world that squid had going for itself that made it so successful despite the missing capacity. Reading isn't laid down genetically, and the child who can't learn to read doesn't die. More significantly, the genes associated with dyslexia have survived robustly. (227)

So the squid who adapts slowly to swim despite its genetic predisposition is analogous to the survivor of dyslexia who copes and in many cases thrives in textually intensive environments (note: dyslexia at the center of Wolf's research and this is reflected in the book).  But the squid metaphor does not pertain to the calamitous onset of interface-reading, at least not by the book's design.  Whether or not we should extend the squid's against-all-odds story to the web is, I suppose, one of the conversations Proust and the Squid would be useful for setting up.

Finally, in an effort to emulate Hipster Runoff's quizzotic style:
What do you worry about when you read old-fashioned books? When you read online?
Has your brain turned into goo because of Google Buzz, Twitter, or Wikipedia?
How many times did you stray from reading this entry before you arrived at these questions?
Will you buy Nicholas Carr's new book? Will you teach it in a class?
What about Wolf's book? Will you read it?
Has your writing style suffered because of the internet? Are you efficient and immediate when you write online?
How much Proust is on your summer reading list?
When you eat calamari do you contemplate whether the squid it came from was a skillful swimmer?

Friday, June 4, 2010

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.