making a graduate seminar pedagogy

For the first half of my career, I rarely taught graduate courses, but since I’ve come to UB, it’s become a central part of my job, especially teaching our Teaching Practicum.  In the last couple years I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with what I’m doing, so I am resolved to change it.

Basically I do what was done to me. Almost uniformly, my graduate courses were class-wide discussions, with 10-25 students in the class. The professor talked 30-70% of the time, depending on the prof, sometimes lecturing but rarely delivering anything specifically prepared in the sense we conventionally think of the lecture.  Mostly it was just speaking in response to students, who get more or less air time depending on the prof.  As for the student participation, it typically followed the 80/20 rule with 20% of the students doing 80% of the talking. The larger the class, in  my recollection, the more this percentage held true. Smaller sections tended to have a more equitable distribution of participation, or at least that was my experience.

So I do the same thing. There’s an assigned reading. I have some notes on things I want to discuss about it, but we generally go where the conversation takes us organically. My goal is to keep my mouth shut as much as possible. My success at that varies. However largely I imagine the student experience is the same as the one I described for myself.

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de-baits in the digital humanities

The LA Review of Books has published 4 interviews so far in an ongoing series on the digital humanities conducted by Melissa Dinsman. The series promises “Through conversations with both leading practitioners in the field and vocal critics, this series is a means to explore the intersection of the digital and the humanities, and its impact on research and teaching, American higher education, and the increasingly tenuous connection between the ivory tower of elite institutions and the general public.”

At this point, I am not interested in resolving the following questions:

  • What is the nature of the digital humanities’ relationship with neoliberalism?
  • What does it take to be a real digital humanities scholar?
  • Can/should digital humanities save the rest of the humanities?
  • Is/are the digital humanities anti-intellectual?
  • Is/are the digital humanities racist, sexist, or guilty of some related ethico-political violation?
  • And, of course, what is/are the digital humanities anyway?

I have been interested in the rhetoric of these conversations as they occur in journals, in the press (like LARB), at conferences, and across social media.

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slow of study and study of slow in academic life

The recently published book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, is probably too easy a target. As comes up in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, few are going to feel any sympathy for tenure-track, let alone tenured, professors, least of all those who work most closely with us: graduate students, adjunct faculty, administrators, and so on. From a greater distance, one might legitimately ask who has greater job security or greater latitude in defining their work than tenured faculty?

The answer is not many.

Pleas for sympathy aside, there’s little doubt that the academy has changed a great deal in this century. The book refers to this change as corporatization. Certainly we’ve become more bureaucratic, more economically driven (both in terms of how students view their majors and how administrations value departments and programs), and been transformed by digital culture (like the rest of the world). Stereotypes notwithstanding, there is growing empirical evidence that faculty work long hours (61 per week on avg) and that a significant number experience stress and/or anxiety in their work.

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Technical Writing Lecturer at UB’s School of Engineering.

I thought some of you might be interested in this position:

Position Summary

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) seeks candidates for a Lecturer position, beginning with the 2016-2017 academic year. We are particularly looking for candidates who can operate effectively in a team environment and in a diverse community of students and faculty and share our vision of helping all constituents reach their full potential.

The successful candidate is expected to develop a Communication Literacy 2 course (EAS 360), a central component of the new “UB Curriculum” for General Education. The aim of this course is to prepare students to successfully communicate, across a range of professional genres and media, to technical, professional, and public audiences; to produce communications individually and as part of a team; and to produce communications that are consistent with ethical engineering and applied science practice. All engineering and computer science undergraduate majors will participate in the course. The successful candidate would be expected to teach six sessions of the course per academic year. The lecturer will work closely with school and department leadership on course development as well as on accreditation-related assessment, and to coordinate activities with other aspects of the undergraduate engineering experience. The lecturer may also be involved in other professional and scholarly activities including developing proposals for educational funds to aid in pedagogical advancements.  

Position Category:


Minimum Qualifications

An M.A. or M.S. in English, Communications, or a related field, with a focus on professional/technical communication or composition. The Masters degree must be conferred before appointment.  

Preferred Qualifications

Demonstrated experience teaching technical or professional communication at the college level or experience in the practice of technical or professional communications. A Ph.D. in English, Communications, or a related field, with a focus on professional/technical communication or composition.  

Salary Range

$45,000 – $70,000

students can’t write and other slow news days

Making the Facebook rounds of late is this article that makes the titular observation that “Poor Writing Skills Are Costing Businesses’ Billions.” Huh. Maybe so. The article, posted a week ago, cites three reports on this situation… from 2004, 2006, and 2011.

Maybe the situation hasn’t improved. Probably not. I doubt anything systematic has been done to address the issue, despite these and many other reports. Besides, “______ can’t write” is a timeless classic. It hardly requires evidence.

Here’s the number from this report that I love. Businesses are spending $3.1B annually to instruct employees in writing. That’s a number from the 2004 report. So I’m not sure what that means, except  you could easily teach a writing course to every college student (~20M people) in America for that money. But here’s really the one thing you’d want to say about this:



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paleorhetoric and the media ecology of flint knapping

The feature article in Scientific American (subscription required) this month addresses the role that flint knapping (the practice/art of making Stone Age tools by striking one rock against another) might have played in the development of the human brain, language, and even teaching. (And here’s a related article in Nature if you prefer more academic prose.) Here’s the gist.

The basic idea that toolmaking shaped the human brain is not new. It’s at least 70 years old and ascribed to anthropologist Kenneth Oakley in his book Man the Tool-maker, though one might observe that the notion of homo faber is centuries old. It was discredited among behavioral scientists in the 1960s when it was observed that nonhuman species also used and even made tools. As the article recounts, “As paleontologist Louis Leakey put it in his now famous reply in 1960 to Jane Goodall’s historic first report of chimpanzee tool use: ‘Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.’” In abandoning tool use, behavioral scientists turned to complex social relations. Without putting too much pressure on a single sentence, one can see some of the difficulties here. First, why would tool use have to provide evidence of human cognitive exceptionalism in order for it to play a role in our cognitive development? That is, why would the fact that other animals use or make tools serve as evidence against the role of tools in forming our brains? In fact, wouldn’t it work the other way if we could see this effect across species? Second, why would tool use and “complex social relations” be exclusive rather than mutually reinforcing parts of an explanation for human cognitive development? That is, the discovery of better tools puts pressure on (and facilitates) the formation of more complex social arrangements in order to use those tools, which leads to further tool development, and so on: and all of this shapes human cognitive development. We certainly see that in the Industrial Age.

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Slavoj Žižek on Objects

Slavoj Žižek offers the following recent critique of Levi Bryant and object-oriented ontology, which evoked a single question for me:

What are we arguing about again?

I think I get Žižek’s argument. I don’t think there’s really anything new or unexpected in terms of an argument made from an idealist, Lacanian viewpoint. I understand he objects to Bryant’s use of Lacan in The Democracy of Objects and that ultimately the argument comes down to “if you accept Lacan’s theories then OOO doesn’t make sense.” So I suppose this could be an argument over an interpretation of Lacan, which honestly I could not care less about. Also, I’m not interested in defending OOO from Žižek’s critique.

So why am I writing about this here?

There are a couple points on which I’d like to make comment.

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What would a new materialist composition program be?

Sure, there are many possible answers, which is why this is “a,” as in one of many, rather than “the.” That said, we’re familiar with plenty of other kinds of programs, classes, and pedagogies as they take the shape of particular theories, the strands that Fulkerson identifies: critical cultural studies, expressivism, various “rhetorical approaches” (argument-based, genre based, academic discourse, etc). To these we might add the CHAT-inspired Writing About Writing approach and a number of new, empirical approaches such as Yancey’s “teaching for transfer” and the “threshold concepts” of Naming What We Know.

While there’s a growing body of new materialist rhetoric, I haven’t seen a great deal dedicated to pedagogy or curriculum (maybe I’m looking in the wrong places). There’s the scene that ends Nathaniel Rivers and James Brown Jr’s “Composing the Carpenter’s Workshop,” which starts like this:

It is November 2015, and you are visiting what you thought was a college composition classroom. However, something seems to be amiss. In one corner, a group of students pass around a long wooden cylinder that they constructed using a lathe (they were able to get help from a professor in the Art department to gain access to the equipment). In another corner, a group huddles around a 3D printer as a strange looking blue plastic object emerges (it looks like a helmet). You find out from the professor (an excitable, bespectacled man with curly hair and a wry smile) that a third group is not present; they are across campus working with a group of architecture students and blowing glass. This happens a lot in this particular class. The English department has not yet approved the professor’s grant proposal for a workshop that would offer students the ability to work in various media. The proposal has been met with curious stares thus far, but the professor is undeterred. He tells you and anyone who will listen that these students are merely taking advantage of “the available means of persuasion” and attempting to gain insight into the “vacuum-sealed.” Whatever that means.


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the accidents of openness and safety in digital spaces

While I haven’t been very active here of late, I have been writing a fair amount on the topic of openness. Similarly the theme of safety has become a familiar one in academic circles; safety comes up often in relation to students and classrooms but also, as it does here, in terms of creating safe digital spaces. Sean Micheal Morris posts today in the Digital Pedagogy Lab discussing the intersection of these themes.  As he observes “For all its posturing as a liberational space, the Internet remains entirely too hegemonic.”

I wonder if we still imagine online spaces as liberatory. Once upon a time, it was easier to imagine the virtual world as separate from the “real world,” where no one would know that you were a dog and such. Certainly we do not see social media that way any longer. In fact, it’s value often lies in the lack of separation. However, inasmuch as the Internet is part of the world, it’s part of the world. There’s no reason to expect the Internet to be more or less subject to hegemony than anything else.

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On the future openness of the MLA

I’m writing today about two unrelated events–unrelated that is except in that they both concern the MLA. The first is the election of Anne Ruggles Gere, a rhetorician, as second vice-president (which means she will rise in two years to the position of president). The second is an open letter from Eileen Joy, medievalist and founding director of Punctum Books, to the MLA on the openness of MLA Commons.

I will confess that I do not know the history of MLA well enough to know if a rhetorician has ever held the position of president or indeed if one has ever been up for election. As you may know, the curious thing about this election is that all three candidates were rhetoricians, which signals the clear intent of someone to have a scholar from my field in that position. Why? I can only guess. Certainly MLA has had an ambivalent relationship with rhetoric and composition, partly having to do with disciplinary schisms between literary studies and rhet/comp and partly having to do with issues related to adjunct labor (which are inextricably tied to the composition courses adjuncts typically teach in English). Undoubtedly there are some scholars who see themselves in both literary studies and rhetoric; there are some rhetoricians who feel very comfortable in an MLA context; there are a good number of people in my field who want to be better represented and respected by the MLA and its members; and there are also many rhetoricians who are indifferent and/or fed up with MLA and would be happy for our discipline to be completely separated from that organization. For years, rhet/comp and professional-technical writing jobs have comprised 40% of the jobs in the MLA job list. And there are rhetoric jobs in communications that wouldn’t be listed there. It’s not hard to imagine there are as many folks in these fields as there are studying American or British literature. And that doesn’t begin to count the vast number of contingent faculty teaching writing. As such, the implications of MLA (in terms of members, policies, and practices) as coming to represent rhetoric in a roughly proportional way would be significant.

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