Is Food Studies an Inquiry Paradigm? 🍱

Mid-February scatters into stolen moments as the semester’s Week Five tides rise. There are classes to prepare and teach and observe, micro-interim administrative hand-offs to receive (push exchange yields soon thereafter to pull exchange), and a pair of stout reading lists for different awards and recognitions. The hours hand waves in its dinky circles, hello-good-bye, hello-good-bye, again, though time’s passing isn’t so much doldrum-thrum as labored, more-so than usual, for three fitfully stacked oncoming weeks.

Duty-whines aside, in and among those stolen moments, I am provisionally sizing up and laying out interlocking puzzle pieces toward a conversation and workshop session I’m due to lead in April with the Food Studies group, framed primarily by the question, “Is Food Studies a Discipline?” Provisional intuition says that it is not, or, rather, that where the Food Studies label circulates and sits, there are semi-baked artisanal cracker crumbs and runaway shreds of cheese that only almost made it into the pimento cheese, but there is not as of right now any large-scale organizing will of the sort that a cohering and widely shared theory would be useful for. I could be wrong! Depending upon how long cast is the shadow of this disciplinarity question, it’s early, and I am an interloper in that my own engagements with Food Studies are recent and probably naive, as such. Nevertheless, this question is intriguing enough to me to follow for a while. To engage it further, I have checked adjacencies (as a bowler needing bumpers might do) with Visual Studies and Writing Studies. I mean that because Visual Studies and Writing Studies have, each in their own time, rallied a not insignificant measure of attention and energy at their own disciplinarity questions, there are cross-checks and angles by which to compare, albeit lightly and with due consideration of all the ways such comparisons become complicated.

Approximately a decade ago, with the publication of Farewell to Visual Studies (Penn State UP, 2015), James Elkins sent into circulation an adapted version of an introductory lecture from 2011. The short piece consists of two elaborated lists, a list of farewells to unfulfilled promises (“Farewells”), and a list of “things [he’d] like[d] to see visual studies become.” Returning to the question I am considering, as a Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies academic transposing the disciplinarity question now onto Food Studies, I’ll post Elkins’ list once as it appears in Farewell to Visual Studies, and again with modifications posed as a rerig for Writing Studies and Food Studies.

List of farewells for Visual Studies (Elkins):

  • Visual studies should be harder to do.
  • Visual studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
  • Visual studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary visualities.

List of farewells rerigged for Writing Studies:

  • Writing studies should be harder to do.
  • Writing studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
  • Writing studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary composing practices and compositions.

List of farewells rerigged for Food Studies:

  • Food studies should be harder to do.
  • Food studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists.
  • Food studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary foods.

List of absences for Visual Studies (Elkins):

  • Images need to start arguing.
  • Visual studies needs to make more adequate use of its images.
  • Visual studies needs conversations about its own history.
  • Visual studies shouldn’t bypass non-art images and scientific images.
  • Visual studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the making of images: like art history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the making of art.
  • Visual studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
  • Visual studies is confused about ideological critique.

List of absences rerigged for Writing Studies:

  • Writing needs to start arguing.
  • Writing studies needs to make more adequate use of its texts.
  • Writing studies needs conversations about its own history.
  • Writing studies shouldn’t bypass non-creative writing and scientific writing.
  • Writing studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the doing of writing: like media history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the doing of writing.
  • Writing studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
  • Writing studies is confused about ideological critique.

List of absences rerigged for Food Studies:

  • Foodstuffs need to start arguing.
  • Food studies needs to make more adequate use of its dishes.
  • Food studies needs conversations about its own history.
  • Food studies shouldn’t bypass non-culinary foods and scientific treatments of food.
  • Food studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the making and eating of food: like culinary history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the making and eating of food.
  • Food studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics.
  • Food studies is confused about ideological critique.

In each list for Writing Studies and Food Studies, I have boldfaced the rerigged lines that seem to me to be worthy of entertaining, even momentarily, and I have italicized the lines that suggest instead a hint (or greater) of dissonance, surfacing a quality or condition that just doesn’t quite seem congruous with the network of activities and materials that correspond with the named field of study (albeit from my own small, humble, and unavoidably limited standpoint).

Having stepped through the exercise, it leaves me with doubts about whether it generates much in the way of new insight or possibility. Might not be map to follow if we want to venture farther into the maze. Heck, it does more in service of recalling the questions about what it means for Visual Studies to have given up the ghost, so to speak (coincidentally? not conincidentally? at the same moment when Visual Rhetoric was still gaining curricular and researcherly traction, almost as if Visual Rhetoric, even if it did not get big time sustaining uptake in any of the field’s prominent organizations or journals, was untroubled by the overtures about Visual Studies’ end). And so the light turns green on the EMF meter, but I don’t know if it blinkers toward anything significant for these other two pairings, writing and food.

I don’t know yet whether I will return to Elkins’ lists or make new lists of my own for the April workshop. I am thinking that I might instead switch to an approach influenced by Steven Mailloux’s 2000 RSQ article, “Disciplinary Identities: On the Rhetorical Paths between English and Communication Studies,” where he cited Janet Emig’s 1982 CCC article, “Inquiry Paradigms and Writing.” Here’s that long excerpt from Mailloux, citing Emig:

The changed rhetorical conditions of disciplinary formation become strikingly evident in the 1982 volume of College Composition and Communication. The February issue alone contains Janet Emig’s “Inquiry Paradigms and Writing” and Maxine Hairston’s “The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing,” as well as reviews of rhetoric and composition collections that refer explicitly to disciplinary paradigms.’ Addressing her fellow researchers in composition studies, Emig argues that “our responses concerning the nature, organization, and evaluation of evidence reveal our inquiry paradigms, both those we elect to inhabit, and those we may even help to create” (64). She then goes on to elaborate the most important characteristics of an inquiry paradigm:

1) a governing gaze [a steady way of perceiving actuality]; 2) an acknowledged, or at least a conscious, set of assumptions, preferably connected with 3) a coherent theory or theories; 4) an allegiance to an explicit or at least a tacit intellectual tradition; and 5) an adequate methodology including an indigenous logic consonant with all of the above. (65)

Emig demonstrates how these characteristics inform disciplinary research into writing and how such phenomenological and ethnographic paradigms contrast with traditional positivistic paradigms, which sometimes are “simply, globally, and, of course, mistakenly” identified with “The Scientific Method.” Not only does Emig cite Kuhn in explaining her notion of “paradigm,” but she also clearly distances composition from traditional notions of science out of which came the scientific rhetoric used by teachers of public speaking earlier in the century.

The phrase “inquiry paradigm” rings nimbler than “discipline,” in part because inquiry paradigms haven’t imposed their ordering functions so deeply into the higher ed org charts (i.e., stabilizing, yes, but also overdetermining to the point of entrenchment in many cases the delineations walling off common questions by walling off departments and programs), and so it may turn out to be a better choice for inviting engagement on the question(s) about Food Studies and what, if anything, coheres its domain of activity. The governing gaze can refer, simply, to an in-common-ish attention structure sufficient for cooperative guidance (and corresponding leadership). Each of the other criteria–set of assumptions, coherent theories, an intellectual tradition, and an adequate methodology–steer me more toward uncertainty and less toward crisp, identifiable anchors, whether the ponderables are posed for visuality, food, or writing.

For this preliminary go-round, I’ll let this end with a ‘good enough’ nod; it’s gotten me thinking in ways I wasn’t before. Nothing conclusive, not yet. Senses of new and reshaped possibilities. And there is time, pocketed in dips and dives intermittent throughout the next couple of weeks, yet with sufficient momentum that I can pick these ideas up again with the goal of chilling the aspic for setting it more firmly by mid-late March.

Goose Meat For Tenderness 🪿

Food Writing preparations for Thursday’s class session sidewinded unexpectedly to Agriculture Canada’s 1970 (revised) volume, Methods for Sensory Evaluation of Food. The small internet-archived book has just 64 pages, and most of them provide models for Likert ratings and corresponding statistical lookups so as to go easy on calculator-keying. Especially telling about the book’s time and place are selection of foods features in the examples: peaches, “fish-potato flakes processed under two different sets of conditions” (16), and, here, “three samples of goose meat” (30).

I don’t think I want to go the meandering long-haul distance on this one; it’s too tangential to our focus on whether and to what extent, if so, food evaluation is plausibly indexical, relatable from one person to the next, communicable, and so on.

Without venturing too far into the numbers, I want to pose as a methodical backdrop categories of appearance/aesthetics, aroma/scent, taste, texture and consistency, temperature, and overall flavor, which I understand to be a more integrated and holistic sensory impression, whereupon each becomes inflected with the other (much of which I have adapted from sites like this). From this context, we have a system of a certain sort, and yet, this is meant to provide an antecedent for the more active and applied part of the class, which will include sampling an apple, mandarin orange, or banana, listening again to “Are You Really Appreciating the Apple? from Savor, and “Eating an Orange” from A Pebble for Your Pocket, and then, through writing and conversation, engaging reflectively on the relationship between experiential knowledges and the techniques, associated with mindfulness, in this case, for granting greater (or is it simpler, if intensified) saturation to the sensorium, while eating. I know, I know, 99 word sentence. Blog forgive me. I am mulling over the contrastive frames for experiential transposition, and that sets up promisingly in this first model, assigning ratings to discrete qualities, as compared to the mindfulness meditation that invites spacetime flux, the cosmos in a bite of tender goose meat, or GMO fruit, as the case may be.

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.

Are the Artificials Expressive? 🐂

Stepping into AI discussions since November 2022 has felt to me like stepping into a mixed gravity bounce house, enthusiasts bounding miles-high right next to cautionaries clinging clutch-knuckled to whatever handles avail themselves of the seeming-eternal humanistic basics.

Me, I’m just doing what I can to check the conversations, keep walk-jog sideline pace, or possibly bounce high enough for an occasional dunk-thought, sort of like those tenth grade lunch breaks when the gymnastics spring boards were theatrically repurposed so that everyone who wanted one could have an attempt at reaching the rim. Just a touch! I hope that’s not too much mixing, from bounce house to springboard-boosted basketball, considering I am over here trying to make a point about artificial intelligence, large language model “writing,” and the scoops of words masquerading as discourse from ChatGPT.

I was listening to a podcast—Ezra Klein, I think—while driving to Virginia from Michigan on August 2, and although the podcast wasn’t about AI, per se, the discussion of First Amendment law and free speech got me puzzling through a question about whether AI-generated prose is legally expressive. I am not the first; I am also not a lawyer. But. To illustrate, consider this: a local politician is running for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Not being much of a speech writer, they tap GPT4 on its non-shoulder, prompting it to return for them an applause raising statement about democratic values. The AI returns a lukewarm soup of a statement, and it just so happens to include in it a damaging and slanderous falsehood about another local official. Litigious gloves are off. Legal teams are enlisted. And the candidate mea culpas with the grandest of agentic shifts: “GPT4 made me say it!”

It reads to me as one of the most ground floor conditions, a lower order stases: Is AI expressive? Is ChatGPT responsible, legally or otherwise, for its so-called writing?

If no, then follows a corresponding set of questions about what writing qua “content generation” actually boils down to. Humans are, arguably and correspondingly, small(er) language models (SLMs). Certainly this doesn’t mean that an SLM can’t every so often augment their repertoire of inventional, compositional, and interpretive range with a sidekick LLM, a backdrop behemoth spitting possibly everything ever. But my hunch is that the SLM should be cautious about surrendering its language to this other phenomenon overmuch, or all-out ventriloquizing the LLM as though its expressions will be satisfactory, sufficient, or both, just because it is big.

Writing, as a verb, doesn’t shield itself especially well from contending, sometimes mismatched, activities. In fact, three decades of writing studies scholarly activity has worked mightily to expand writing, sparing writing its alphabetic-linear reduction, and pluralizing it loftily with overtures of multimodality. Much of this has been good and necessary and warranted, but there has been a trade-off. The trade-off is the you can fit a whole lot of yes-that-too under the baggiest of umbrellas, and then along came the LLMs. I wouldn’t argue that anyone should revert to exclusive or narrow-banded definitions of writing, tempting as it might be (e.g., only a pencil-holding activity, or a thing that happens when a human hand makes a keystroke). But I would say that the lines have blurred between “content generation” and “writing” in ways that are not always helpful for demarcating reasonably distinctive activities and in ways that risk promoting shortcut mindsets when writing is presumed to be ready-made, extractive, and infinitely/generically scoopable from an allegedly ever-improving LLM.

Collin recently referred me to Alan Jacobs’ recent entry, “on technologies and trust,” which aptly sketches the position that we wouldn’t ever think of enticing prospective students to cooking school only to tell them that everything they learn will be derived from HelloFresh boxes. A similar logic extends to graphic designers from templated fallbacks. While the masticated options might be appealing to the uninitiated, they are not quite the same as learning by practicing when that practice entails selection, decision, trial and error, and so on.

I am not convinced that LLMs are expressive, and I want to work on making evaluative sense of AI more forwardly in these terms.

A final illustration: In April an HVAC technician visited the house for routine maintenance on the heat pump leading into the air conditioning season. Before leaving, he started to tell me about how he used to manage a big game preserve in Tennessee, though it closed, and so he changed careers. He then went on to tell me about his daughter who was taking an interest in cattle AI because she had a friend who was working with ranchers in Texas; the friend was finding cattle AI quite lucrative, he explained.

It took me a while to figure out that large-scale livestock procreation, too, has an artificial alternative; that’s “cattle AI,” for us non-ranchers. I think about this often as a checkpoint in conversations about AI and content generation. Might be, cattle AI is for cows what ChatGPT is for writing–artificial, expedient, not to be mistaken for the other embodied, developmentally-dependent, organic-contextual (more than mechanistic) act.

Fourth Mug ☕️

Four mugs for coffee, now three, where has the missing one gone? No big, no mood, we do not even need it today. Everyday mysterious disappearance, though this one feels temporary, more a misplacement than a vanishing. La, la, la, love. Trust. Senses knew it well enough to conjure its absence. Memorable qualities of the mug: same shape and size as the others, only brown-rimmed, not grue-bleen moss, orthodontial ivory, or #b84040 baked orangery-crimson. I only drink from the blue-green one; this morning I have what I need, hot temporary. 
[Goodman, 1979; Puddle of Mud, 2002; Julavits, 2015]

Rinse in River Lethe

A year’s end knocks. Oh, you’re early! Nevermind. Lost track of time. January soon. Knocks again. Annual report is due. What happened. Why? Pause, take stock, reflect. Rewind the tape but play it back at 1.5x normal rate, skip ahead, skip to the end, yawn because hyper recall is fatiguing and sometimes also boring. River Lethe’s feeding forks are vacant oblivion, forgetting, usually with negative connotations. Remember though, forgetting, too, is a clearing, a gift, and an inevitability. Maybe there can be more lethegraphy, forget-writing, gone-noting, in the new year. 

Baked Into Pretzel Shapes 🥨

Administrative work, in my experience, insinuates a contortional gravity into a career. This hypothesis from talking around, asking, noticing local noticings, observational. It’s not that admin wrecks you or explodes you to pieces, but its consequences can be harshly palpable. Sudden stress. Drone of email habits. Repeat questions. Repeat questions. The company you keep becomes less intellectually basket-o’-rangey-musical-instruments on ideas and possibilities; bureaucratic constraints, budgetary entrenchments, efficiencies talk–all of these shunt the counter-myth that administration can be intellectual work, guided by research and shaped by disciplinary experience (if not expertise). You check your pulse sometimes. Is this burnout I am feeling? Is this fatigue after ten consecutive years administering writing programs, first at EMU and then at VT, working under six department chairs, four deans, countless other interims and assistant-associate office holders, nearly all of them so new as to be striving on personal aspirations or so long in the rootrole as to be calcified and dreamless and forgetful. Graceless turnover; sandcastles not kicked but accidentally and clumsily stepped upon. Strikingest among the burnout symptoms in late May after year ten is the high saturation in what is motivating and what is not. Sharp contrasts, the outline of a work-life once forged around reading and writing, teaching and research. Sharp contrasts, yet another meeting with variations on title-holders late to a long-ago-begun conversation, intricate details about enrollment projections, about how labor advocacy is student advocacy, about a program’s becoming requiring (for it to go even middlingly well) horizons of development, mutualism, goodwill, and a reasonable forecast for resources. Reflection on a lull-ish early summer holiday weekend says look back and what have you become, what are you becoming–big you, polyvalent and yet-unfinished and imperfect–and then to ask is another year worth it. It had better be; it won’t be.

A Break

A break. For driving exactly 500 miles. For resuming a paused yoga practice. For making and sharing tacos on the smallest of corn shells. For studying the curls rising from French pressed coffee, French press being the only available in this Michigan spring breaking place. 42°16′4″ N 83°35′39″ W. 61F and a wind advisory because the troposphere is delivering late morning a wall of stiff winter air. A break for punch-listing several work to-dos. For review tasks needing caught up. For reading. For writing.

Try This

Figure 1. Try This: Research Methods for Writers book cover.

Quick entry—it’s late and kale sweet potato soup is bubbling. And I’m still in the late stages of moving, turning in keys and parking passes at the old place this afternoon, scooping expired field mice from the attic of the new place, fetching groceries, hooking up laundry machines, chopping onions, and so on. But a project several years in the works dropped yesterday at Try This: Research Methods for Writers, a textbook we hope sees uptake in rhetoric and writing classes. I could say A LOT about this book’s development. Once it was in the hands of Mike Palmquist and the editorial team at WAC Clearinghouse, its shape and timing were never clearer or crisper. I didn’t realize it, but I read today that this book is the 150th free, open access publication of the nearly 25 years WAC Clearinghouse has been operating. So it’s an honor and a wonder and a credit to so many that this book is circulating now, as it is. [N.b., not a ninety, but hope to get back to a few more of those soon, like tomorrowsoon, or the nextdaysoon.]

Step Back & Difficult Puzzle

Step back, consider how it’s going. Recline in an overpriced chair. Pause to sit on a bench outside if the weather allows. Walk. The practices of writing research and doing research thread ends into a knot, and the knot’s beginning-point and ending-point conceal themselves, each indistinguishable from the other. What researcher takes the time and care to label writing as writing and doing (otherwise, anything) as doing? Unwinding later will make for a difficult puzzle. Or else with a shrug and carry on attitude it won’t be necessary.