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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academics and their “ivory tower” audiences

James Mulholland argues in The Guardian that “We must recognise the value of the esoteric knowledge, technical vocabulary and expert histories that academics produce.” And ends with the following pithy advice, “So academics, stay in your offices. Write books that few people will read. The results might be more significant than any of us first recognise.” Who can disagree? We should recognize the value of the esoteric, technical, and expert. And we do not know the future; we do not know what significance the work we do today might have later.

However I’m not writing here to support or disagree with Mulholland but rather to remark on the strange nature of this commonplace argument and his particular performance of it.

The idea Mulholland specifically opposes is the “call for academics to publicise their work often place importance on making complex research more accessible to general audiences.” And that “Humanists like myself are regularly forced to consider what the public wants.” It’s not that he is suggesting that academics should give no thought to the public, but rather that catering to the public shouldn’t be made to define or constrain the nature of our scholarship. Upon close analysis, the argument is not as polemic as the tag line about saying in your office would seem to suggest.

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on the value of being a WPA for research

I think it’s easy to say there’s little or no scholarly value in the administrative burdens of running a writing program for a rhetorician, like me, whose area of research is not related to program administration or assessment or even really composition studies. That’s what we would likely say of the many administrative jobs academics might take on in departments. It’s easy to say, and probably true, that the book I’m still working on would have been published years ago if I hadn’t spent the last six years as a WPA.

So perhaps I am just looking for the silver lining.

But I have another, long and clunky title for this post: the longer I do this, the more Latourian I become. And the reason for that has much to do with the obligations of being a WPA. So here’s a detour through Latour.

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Kindle, screen reading, and the limits of academic literacy

The other day I was reading a dissertation chapter and I noticed a quote for which the student was still looking for a page reference. On a lark, I copied and pasted the quote into a Google search, and there it was in Google Books. It was a reflexive action for me these days as I have a couple dozen scholarly books on my Kindle and most of them don’t come with page numbers when I cut and paste the quotations. I have to go searching for pages in Google Books by search for the quote. So this started me thinking about how antiquated the citation apparatus is. I know that’s an old story, a familiar complaint. Page number is really an antiquated piece of location data though, right? Especially when really of our articles and most monographs are available digitally and there really could be far easier and more precise forms of location.

But that’s not really what I wanted to write about today. I want to muse on the next thought I had, which was the following. Probably the common objection to the suggestion above is that although scholarship is findable online, it’s not really practical to read it on the screen. This is a viewpoint I’ve heard many times. I’d almost say it is an academic commonplace.

It may be possible to do some light summer reading on a Kindle or browse a webpage but the close reading required of scholarly texts can’t be done there. It’s a viewpoint that might take as evidence some of the research that has been done with students on their ability to retain information from the screen as compared to information on the page. I don’t doubt the claims of either my colleagues or these studies. I’m believe them when they tell me they struggle with reading on the screen. The thing is, if I told you that I struggled with reading on paper, would you say that was a problem with the technology or would you say that I had a reading problem? I assure you the argument would be the latter.

It’s not unreasonable to imagine that reading skills are like writing skills in the sense that they aren’t universal. This is obvious in terms of content where no one is surprised that I can’t read and understand highly technical texts in a discipline distant to my own. As the activity-genre theory folks would argue, you really have to be part of that activity system to do that reading (and writing). But can we extend this argument to shifts in media ecologies? That is, is it the case that the shift from printed book to Kindle, for example, is so significant that one may have the ability to read and understand in print, but not on the screen? Your first inclination may be to say “no,” probably because you are implicitly asserting that the texts are identical. But they are clearly not identical: one is printed; one isn’t. And our colleagues and these studies have all demonstrated that there is a difference.

Some of the complaints about screens have to do with the physical limitations of eyes. I’m certainly not going to argue that we might not continue to develop screens that provide better affordances for human vision. On the other hand, it would be silly to suggest that print cannot create its own eye strain. There’s a reason large print books exist. However many of the complaints about screens have to do with the embodied experience of reading (e.g. the feel of the book, etc.) or the amount of words one can scan on a page. Not surprisingly, the capacities of a human reader plus a Kindle or a website is different from the capacities of a human reader plus a printed book. Being literate in one context is not the same as being “literate” (if that’s still the right word) in the other.

What’s the upshot? Probably that saying you can’t read a scholarly text on a screen or Kindle maybe isn’t just about the technology.

the curious skeuomorph of the Facebook conversation

facebook_chatI recall where I first encountered the work skeuomorph, in Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, which she defined as “a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but refers back to a feature that was functional at an early time. The dashboard of my Toyota Camry, for example, is covered by a vinyl molded to simulate stitching” (17). A good definition, though the OED offers a more general definition: “an object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in other material.”

Somewhere in there is a good description of conversations in Facebook. As you know, conversation on Facebook is uncommon, not rare perhaps, but uncommon. If you read your feed basically it is a series of non-sequiturs: people talking past one another, unaware, and incapable of knowing that they appear beside one another in your feed. Conversation happens, when it happens, in the back and forth of replies. In most cases, at least in my experience (I haven’t done a study or anything), replies are written as if the author had not read the other replies to the feed. Most of the time reading those other replies seems unnecessary as the nature of the reply is an expression of sympathy, laughter, congratulations, or something like that. In other words, the reply isn’t really a gesture to start a conversation.

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Yancey, teaching for transfer, and a theory of writing

I saw Kathleen Yancey speak last week at RIT about her latest research on teaching for transfer. I find the focus on transfer is a little curious but important to discuss. Fundamentally, almost tautologically, the purpose of teaching and learning would be to acquire knowledge and skills that have value in contexts beyond the one in which they were first encountered (e.g., the classroom). On some basic level, this is how mammalian memory functions. One might say that all social institutions are built upon the human biological capacity for memory, a capacity that is altered by symbolic behavior, writing, other media, and various data storage, networking, and retrieval processes.  And when I say altered I mean that quite literally in that the plasticity of the brain means that it is shaped by these technosocial assemblages.

Anyway, schooling is obviously one of these assemblages which has some specific ideas about how it would like human memory to function and what the successful “transfer” of knowledge or skills from one context to another would look like.

For whatever reason (and one could go into the historical reasons for it), composition studies among all academic fields has been particularly wedded to the notion of transfer, specifically to the idea that writing instruction in FYC will transfer to future college courses and make students better writers in those contexts. It has been a troubling promise and there’s a fair degree of skepticism about the utility of what might be transferred from FYC to other contexts. There’s one thing that we can all know for sure, however, and that’s that humans definitely bring ideas about writing and writing practices with them from one situation to another. Otherwise, students wouldn’t show up writing 5-paragraph themes in our classes.

So there’s no doubt that when students leave FYC and enter some future class that requires writing (or enter a workplace that asks them to write, or write for other reasons) that they will “transfer” memories, concepts, and practices. Yancey talked a fair amount about this, noting both the theories of writing students bring into a class and the theories of writing that might already exist in a given course, discipline, workplace, etc.

I am going to speculate that nothing I’ve said is especially controversial to this point. Let’s see if I can rev it up a bit.

Given all these conditions, in a composition classroom I think one is faced with two basic options.

  1. You can teach students academic writing as it interests you (and as you have expertise/authority with it). If you’re in English Studies (which you almost certainly are), then that’s probably essayistic writing. Maybe its rhetorical analysis, maybe its literary or cultural analysis, but you get the point.
  2. You can teach students how to investigate and adapt to new writing contexts. You could say this is rhetorical analysis and maybe it falls in that category, but there’s plenty of rhetorical analysis that wouldn’t do this.

Not surprisingly I’m going to explore the second option here, but I want to give some more attention to option 1. As we know, part of the longstanding problem of FYC is the perception that it has no content. That void has been filled with literary texts, thematically-organized essays, cultural theory, and most recently composition scholarship itself. This desire for content has always been more or less at odds with a desire to focus on process. We seem stuck on the treadmill of a fairly generic, recursive set of activities (invent, draft, organize, revise, polish). The curious thing is that the selection of content seems to have almost no impact on that writing process. That is to say, generally speaking, that none of the content that we bring into the classroom seems to have any relevance to how we think about the practice of writing itself.

Now let me return to option #2 by way of this slight detour. In her contribution to Thinking with Latour in Rhetoric and Composition, Marylin Cooper poses the following questions:

What if writing teachers and their students thought of research as empirical and experimental— as producing new knowledge, not reporting what is known? What if they thought of the facts they discover as provisional, part of a trajectory of knowledge, and not as final truths? What if they thought of the readers of their texts as colleagues who provide necessary validation of their facts, not as editors? What if they thought of their goal in writing as the direct perception of reality, rather than as defending a point of view?

Latour’s “second empiricism,” which  he details in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, is an expansion of a more familiar refrain in his work: an exhortation to listen to actors, to follow them, to seek to describe what they are doing, and not to leap ahead to theorization or explanation or argument. Cooper is following that out here in her essay and envisioning a writing practice that is empirical and experimental.

How does this connect with that second option? Basically, we’d be talking about a composition course where the activity was a (second) empirical investigation of writing and writing practices. This isn’t exactly what Cooper has in mind, and I will admit that it has the same potential to be “boring” as any academically-minded, disciplinary course does from anthropology to zoology.  So sure, it could be boring, or not. But the purpose, as noted above, would be to develop a rhetorical-analytical skill specifically designed to assist in adapting to new writing situations.

Is that all rhetorical analysis? I don’t think so. A lot of rhetorical analysis can be formalistic (a kind of rhetorical version of new critical close reading) or cultural-critical or very theoretical/philosophical. Those are all fine intellectual and academic activities (as are literary studies and cultural studies for that matter), but for this particular purpose, one is first and foremost looking for an empirical description of writing and writing practice, perhaps beginning (and ending) with one’s own.

I would hypothesize that when one did that, one would discover a number of actors significantly involved in any writing activity, human and nonhuman. This might interestingly shift the traditional focus of composition–which has been on individuals and then subjects–into a wider media-ecological perspective. One effect of this shift would be the development of different descriptions of process. That is, one would actually have course content that informed our understanding of how writing happens.

alt-ac careers and the purposes of humanities doctoral programs

Marc Bousquet has a piece in Inside Higher Ed on the topic of alt-ac careers and the disciplinary-institutional motives of departments and universities in relation to them. I really don’t disagree with him, particularly when he writes:

faculty like having graduate programs and, perhaps more to the point, administrators need them. For faculty, grad programs confer status, provide emotional gratification of several kinds and legitimate the teaching of fewer, smaller classes. Crucially, however, administrators need doctoral programs across fields to maintain the institution’s Carnegie classification.

He suggests this is a cynical explanation for the motives of having doctoral programs even when there are clearly not enough tenure track jobs for all the students. But I don’t think it is really all that cynical at all. Faculty enjoy teaching graduate courses and graduate students. On it’s face, there’s nothing wrong with that. Similarly, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with administrators seeking to improve the reputation of their institutions by having such programs. And as long as students freely enter those programs without illusions of what they offer, then I’m not sure there’s any malfeasance here.

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digital rhetoric and the resident web

Two lion cubs.
Vulnerability is charming until it grows up and stalks you through the savanna.

Donna Lanclos and David White offer some remarks in Hybrid Pedagogy, on “The Resident Web and its Impact on the Academy:” the “resident web” being that portion of online spaces which “involve the individual being present, or residing, to a certain extent online,” i.e. social media. Their argument is, in part, a familiar one, indicating that “New forms of scholarly communication and networking, manifested as digital tools, practices, and places such as blogs and Twitter, create a tension between the struggle to establish one’s bona-fides in traditional ways, and taking advantages of the benefits of new modes of credibility, many of which are expressed via the Web.” And it’s that last part which interests me here, the “new modes of credibility.” What are those?

As Lanclos and White describe, “When someone is followed on Twitter, it can be as much for the the way they behave — how they project character and a kind of persona — as it is for the information they can provide.” And what kind of character/personae is attractive?

Acquiring currency can be about whether a person is perceived to be vulnerable, not just authoritative, alive and sensitive to intersections and landscapes of power and privilege: As Jennifer Ansley explains, “In this context, “credibility” is not defined by an assertion of authority, but a willingness to recognize difference and the potential for harm that exists in relations across difference.” In other words, scholars will gain a form of currency by becoming perceived as “human” (the extent to which ‘humanness’ must be honest self-expression or could be fabricated is an interesting question here) rather than cloaked by the deliberately de-humanised unemotive academic voice.

My first thought here goes to Foucault’s investigation of technologies of confession in The History of Sexuality. Foucault discusses the Christian confessional but I’m thinking more about his investigation of writing as a confessional technology. My second thought is of Kittler, in Grammaphone, Film, Typewriter, where he remarks on the pre-typewriter perception of a connection between the fluidity of handwriting and a kind of honesty of expression. It’s hardly news that social media from LiveJournal blogs through Facebook and YouTube to Instagram or YikYak and beyond has been a site of confessions. These sites have generally offered a feeling of spontaneous utterance that is associated with honesty and confession.

What I think is curious here is Lanclos and White’s assertion of the development of academic status through these rhetorical practices. As they point out, impersonal objectivity has been, and really remains, at the foundation of academic knowledge. Even in discourses where subjectivity is hard to mask, like literary or rhetorical analysis, arguments must be built from textual evidence, scholarly sources, and established methods. So what role can these confessional performances play in building academic reputation?

To be “honest,” I am skeptical. There’s no doubt that the ability to create and maintain weak social bonds (i.e. networking in the non-technical, social sense) is valuable in almost every professional enterprise, and in academic terms that means building relationships with potential editors, reviewers, collaborators, hiring committee members, and more generally an audience for one’s work. In some respects this was more true in the 50s and 60s, when academia was more of an old boys network, than it is now. Clearly in those days, informal social bonds were largely created maintained face-to-face, which we still do and, as far as I can tell, is the primary reason for having conferences. As such, I don’t mean to suggest there is no value in building such relationships. And there may even be some prejudice, some semi-conscious subjective preference, to find those with whom we build such bonds to be credible. In effect, the sense that someone has confessed, has bared their soul, has exposed their neck to our teeth, makes us more inclined to believe them. Perhaps it just the curse of being a rhetorician, or maybe its some congenital incapacity on my part to trust others (oh look, that was almost a confession), but if you were investigating something that really mattered to you, would these kinds of confessions really sway your judgment?

Lanclos and White end by asserting that

As scholars we need to put aside anachronistic notions of knowledge being produced by epistemologically neutral machines and embrace the new connections between credibility and vulnerable humanity which the Resident Web brings. In tandem with this, as institutions we need to recognise this shift by negotiating the new forms of risk online and supporting increased individual agency without reneging on our our responsibility to protect and nurture those in our employ.

I can certainly agree with the first part of the first sentence. There are no epistemologically neutral machines for knowledge production. From a Latourian perspective that would make no sense. If you have a machine for the purpose of producing knowledge, how could it do/produce knowledge and have no effect (i.e. be neutral) on the knowledge? It would be like having a movement-neutral automobile. However, the connections between credibility and vulnerable humanity are not new, though the capacities of the Resident Web do shape this longstanding rhetorical practice in new ways. Furthermore, I’m not sure what is being asked in the imperative that we need to “embrace” these connections. Embrace itself is an interesting word choice as it suggests an affective response as opposed to say respect, acknowledge, value, reward, or some other similar verb.  And I’m not really sure what that last sentence is asking for. I think it is suggesting that academia needs to protect its students, staff, and faculty from the potential risks of social media (with which we are now all familiar). Of course I’m fairly sure that that doesn’t apply to “confessions” or honest expressions that we find racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive, because those bastards should clearly be pilloried, right? In other words, I don’t see how this happens, at least not in a general way. As their article does point out, these are (rhetorical) performances. Vulnerability here is a genre, just as the speech in a confessional is. Maybe we need to “embrace” this genre. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it is simply a recognition that academics are increasingly exposed.

I suppose I would push back in the other direction, a direction Lanclos and White only briefly point toward when they note that the resident web “largely takes place in online platforms run by multinational corporations.” Foucouldian confessions were part of a disciplinary culture. Digital confessions might be articulated more as part of a Deleuzian control society. They become modulations in an algorithmic fed-forward subjectivity. Maybe we shouldn’t embrace such things. Maybe instead we need to be more cautious and at the same time more experimental in our skepticism over the value of the performance of vulnerability as a rhetorical strategy.


Sherry Turkle and the pharmacology of phones

family distracted by technologySherry Turkle’s recent piece in The New York Times, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” appears to take on the key points of her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation (also reviewed in NYT.) Turkle reports on a decline in empathy, particularly among younger people, which she asserts is a result of emerging technologies–social media and especially smartphones. While she cites some research in support of this claim (research which itself only suggests there might be a connection between technology and decreased empathy), Turkle also says “In our hearts, we know this, and now research is catching up with our intuitions.” An interesting rhetorical appeal since so often research demonstrates counter-intuitive discoveries.

But here’s a more interesting line from Turkle: “Our phones are not accessories, but psychologically potent devices that change not just what we do but who we are.” Indeed, though the distinction between doing and being is not so easily made or maintained. The point though is that we are changing. We’ve always been changing, though maybe now we are in a period of more rapid change. She writes that “Every technology asks us to confront human values. This is a good thing, because it causes us to reaffirm what they are.” And I wonder at the choice of “reaffirm.” Why re-affirm? Because human values are never changing? Why not discover or construct?

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