Ken Macrorie

By way of WPA-L and Twitter, I learned yesterday that Ken Macrorie passed away earlier this month. Macrorie was, among other things, an innovator, a teacher well-known for parodying the most “dehydrated” approaches to English Studies, for railing against mechanical prose, for cracking jokes on hyper-cantankerous pedagogies and their perpetrators.

I encountered a little bit of Macrorie in CCR732, our course on curriculum. We didn’t read all of Uptaught. I don’t even think I own a copy (it might be packed, if I do). But copies are surprisingly cheap on Amazon: used for 25 cents plus four bucks S&H. They’re worth more than that. I also had three or four conversations with my first MA adviser about the I-Search paper, Macrorie’s self-styled take on the research paper, research freed up to personal aesthetics, intensities, delight, etc.

In addition to reading Mike’s and Jeff’s recent entries, I went back and looked at a couple of entries where I wrote about Macrorie’s stuff. And I was glad I did.

Small-crowd Mentorship

Monday is our grad program’s “Community Day,” a day of pre-semester conversation to set up the collegial mood that will sustain us throughout the year. I am both happy and sad (not tearfully so): it will be fifth and final such gathering I attend at SU.

I’m slotted in the afternoon for an informal ten-minute spiel concerning “experiences finding and working with mentors and building relationships.” And I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit lately, especially about the options available given such a specious invitation. I’ve had experiences. I can identify several really terrific influences–a long list of folks, academics and non-, who have shepherded me in various ways through this program of study.

Best to list a few? Name names? Cut straight to anecdotes? I have considered this, thought about zeroing in on three off-site mentors who helped me to think differently about what I was setting out to do back in 2004 when coursework got underway. Maybe begin with John Lovas….

But the list is long, and I expect that there will be a lot of this sort of thing on Monday–naming of names, recounting how thus-and-such has been such a beacon, etc. It’s hard to avoid. We’re largely accustomed, it seems to me, to talking about mentoring relationships at the scale of person-to-person.

Fine, so I will probably do some of it, too. Only a little bit. Because I’m also interested in getting at a larger proposition–that my program of study, because of non-directed networked writing practices, has been shaped tacitly by a large number of people (viz., the blogroll and reciprocal Delicious network). Many of these encounters are fleeting, serendipitous, casual, and gift-like. An aggregated subscription to 20 or so Delicious users’ links, a pseudonymous comment posted to Yellow Dog, a syllabus for a course at Purdue, a blogged call for a conference. None of this is especially directed at me, and yet, at the very same time, much of it is and has been. Is this mentorship? Seems so. It’s a sort of opt-in presencing, a manner of dwelling, of doing stuff not because anyone said you should. And I am tempted to say that those passing characterizations of online narcissism, vanity, or self-aggrandizement (wherever they lurk, usually in “that’s not for me” conversations) tend to dodge, downplay, or under-value this point about tacit, small-crowd mentorship I am trying to develop. I can’t definitively put a finger on what sustains it. Desire? A blend of interests (self-interest among them)? Whatever it is–in terms of mentorship–it has left me with a sure sense that my program of study would have been drastically different without it.


Over the weekend I finished up Connie Willis’ 1996 novel Bellwether
It was the between-semesters pleasure-read I made space for.  I overheard
C. and
M. chatting about it one
day this spring; decided it’d be worth a quick read if it made both of their
lists. And so reading lists spread.

Basically, Bellwether is the story of a diffusion researcher, Sandra
Foster, and her work on fads.  Foster is concerned with hair-bobbing and,
as well, with other inexplicable flare-ups of activity.  She maps the 
flashes of pop anomaly in space and time, works to discern the forces figuring
into the genesis and spread of fads, runs statistics to trace patterns and
trends.   Each sub-chapter leads off  with a blurb on a specific
fad–coonskin caps, mah-jongg, diorama wigs–and the narrative is laced with
allusions to Robert Browning’s

Pippa Passes
.  I was familiar enough with the Pied Piper of Hamelin; in
fact, reading Bellwether reminded me of an encounter with P.P. when I was young:
Mom had a hair appointment in Rosebush and it was the only kids book (only one I
remember, anyway) in the waiting area.  Read and read and read that story. 
The references to Pippa Passes were unfamiliar and something of a pleasant
surprise.  Pippa, as framed second-hand in the novel, is an elusive,
fantastic figure–one who influences others from the obscure periphery, whose
passing song carries from a distance and leaves its mark without Pippa
full-knowing.  In this sense, Pippa mirrors the annoying office assistant,
Flip, who unwittingly proliferates fads while fumbling through her duties as an
office assistant at HiTek, the lab where Foster works.  And a third
mirroring: the bellwether itself, as an exceptional looks-like-a-sheep,
smells-like-a-sheep leader who impacts the herd without much cognizance of her
persuasive impact.

I don’t think I’ve ruined it yet–for those who haven’t read this one. 
S. mentioned recently that she finished Doomsday Book by Willis;
is the first I’ve picked up, but I look forward to reading more
of her stuff, perhaps during a future between-semesters break (now that my
summer course on genre theory has officially started–today).

Here’s just one more keeper on research-mapping models from
.  There’s a place mid-way through where Foster is at a
friend’s house for a birthday party. The friend’s kid, Peyton, is in her room as
a punishment, and Foster goes in to use the telephone–a conversation with her
rancher friend who ends up providing the sheep herd for research.  Rather
than skulking through the punishment, young Peyton appears to be doodling, but
instead she’s line-charting–with a series of squiggles–her Barbie’s
predilection for this or that (shopping, riding mopeds, dating) because
"everybody’s doing it."

It was a map, in spite of what Peyton had said.  A combination map and
diagram and picture, with an amazing amount of information packed onto one page:
location, time elapsed, outfits worn.  An amazing amount of data.

And it intersected in interesting ways, the lines crossing and recrossing to
form elaborate intersections, radical red changing to lavender and orange in
overlay.  Barbie only rode her moped in the lower half of the picture, and
there was a knot of stars in one corner.  A statistical anomaly?

I wondered if a diagram-map-story like this would work for my twenties data. 
I’d tried maps and statistical charts and computational models, but never all
three together, color-coded for date and vector and incidence.  If I put it
all together, what kinds of patterns would emerge? (122)

Meme-fluence, Elaboration, Chains

When I read

Chuck’s entry
this morning, I turned to the 123rd page of four different
books, three of which I had slated to read from throughout the day today (yah,
bring on the meme police bc I didn’t follow the rules).  Well, that’s
way to get to the 123rd page: start there.  Fifth sentences of each
went like this:

No. 1: "In other words, over the course of ages or over the course of an
individual’s biography, the ‘life’ of the work resides in the history of
individual reading-events, lived-through experiences, which may have a
continuity, but which may also be discontinuous with only a varying ‘family’
resemblance" (123).
No. 2: "He generously agreed" (123).
No. 3: "So we analyzed the discourse itself, finding the revealing words, the
signature expressions, the tell-tale grammatical forms" (123).
No. 4: "Lately, however, he had been avoiding the popular discos and the hottest
nightclubs" (123).

The books, differently ordered: Bruner’s Acts of Meaning, Barabasi’s
Linked, Watts’ Six Degrees, and Louise Rosenblatt’s The Reader,
The Text, the Poem

And nicely enough, the juxtapositions got me thinking about a few things. Now
that I’ve read all day long, I’ll leave notes here about two of them.

Watts and Barabasi open their books on network theory with anecdotes about
vulnerability.  Watts starts with the "cascading failure" of the power grid
in the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1996; Barabasi begins with the
upheaval of Mafiaboy’s efforts to incapacitate Yahoo with a hack-load of "ghost"
queries.  Watts shifts into a narrative on the formative days of his
research project at Cornell; Barabasi gives us an example of network robustness
in the dissemination of early Christianity a la the apostle Paul.  Watts:
emergence and "How does individual behavior aggregate to collective behavior?"
(24); Barabasi:
Konigsberg Bridges
.  And then, together, Erdos and Euler, Milgram,
graphs, as if surfing tandem on scroll waves.  Almost.

Notably absent from Watts’ accounting for the premise of six degrees is
Hungarian writer

short story from 1929, "Chains" or "Lancszemek." Last night,
after my first class session involving Linked with 205ers, I was rooting
around the web for way to get my hands on a copy of "Chains."  Didn’t find
much.  I mean there are plenty of references to it, but I didn’t find much
of anything beyond references, mentions. Barabasi’s notes tell us that he
doesn’t think it’s ever been translated from Hungarian into English.  I’m
just curious whether, as Barabasi speculates, the degrees of separation idea
stemmed from the fiction of Karinthy.  He evens supposes that Erdos and
Renyi might have read the story and found, in it, a sufficiently sticky
premise to stimulate their later mathematical work.  I wouldn’t say it
diminishes Watts’ project or points to a gap in his research, but
it does leave me wondering about "Chains."