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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Algorithm objects: people are the things they do

mathematical equation.We do things. It’s an interestingly Latourian idiomatic expression, a kind of dancer and the dance moment. And in the moment of that linguistic confusion, we become those things: consumers, workers, believers, lovers, and so on. Not in an permanent sense though, always moving from one thing we do to another. One of the things we do, increasingly and often without much thought, is interact with algorithms. Sadly there’s no convenient “-er word” for that, but it is a thing we do nonetheless.

In a recent Atlantic article Adrienne Lafrance reports that “Not even the people who write algorithms really know how they work.” What does she meant by that? Basically that no one can tell you exactly why you get the particular results that you get from a Google search or why Facebook shows you one set of status updates rather than another. (I notice I get a very different set of updates on my phone Fb app than I do from my web browser.) And of course that goes on and on, into the ads that show up on the websites you visit, the recommendations made to you by Amazon or Netflix and other such sites, etc.

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microaggression, victimhood, and digital culture

Take as evidence these two recent articles in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf, “The Rise of Victimhood Culture” and “Is ‘Victimhood Culture’ a Fair Description?” These articles take up research by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning (“Microaggression and Moral Cultures“). As Campbell and Manning observe:

In modern Western societies, an ethic of cultural tolerance – and often incompatibly, intolerance of intolerance – has developed in tandem with increasing diversity. Since microaggression offenses normally involve overstratification and underdiversity, intense concern about such offenses occurs at the intersection of the social conditions conducive to the seriousness of each. It is in egalitarian and diverse settings – such as at modern American universities – that equality and diversity are most valued, and it is in these settings that perceived offenses against these values are most deviant.

They also make the fairly obvious observation (which I’d like to explore further in a moment) that

As social media becomes ever more ubiquitous, the ready availability of the court of public opinion may make public disclosure of offenses an increasingly likely course of action. As advertising one’s victimization becomes an increasingly reliable way to attract attention and support, modern conditions may even lead to the emergence of a new moral culture.

However, the part of the article that becomes the focus of Friedersdorf’s articles comes at the end, where Campbell and Manning contend that while historically we have had an “honor culture,” where typically people resolve disputes unilaterally, often through violence (think duels), and a “dignity culture,” where people turn to third parties (e.g. courts) to resolve disputes but would tend to ignore microaggressions. Today we find ourselves in what they term a “victimhood culture” which is

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Genre, media formats, and evolution

Mackenzie Wark has a useful extended discussion of Lev Manovich’s Software Takes Command. If you haven’t read Manovich’s book, it offers some great insights into it. I think Manovich’s argument for software studies is important for the future of rhetoric, though admittedly my work has long operated at points of intersection between rhetoric and media study.

But here’s one way of thinking about this. How do we explain the persistence of the “essay,” not only in first-year composition but as the primary genre of scholarly work in our field and really across the humanities? Indeed we might take this question more broadly and wonder about the persistence of scholarly genres across disciplines and beyond. That is, we might ask why genres of scientific scholarly articles have not changed much in the wake of digital media or newspaper articles or novels and so on.

Or maybe we should ask about the photograph.

Manovich's media lab image wall.

It’s likely that you have some recent family photos hanging somewhere in your house. They were probably taken with a digital camera, maybe even with your smartphone. But sitting in that frame, they probably don’t look very different from photos that would have hung there thirty years ago. The photo may not reveal to you the complete transformation of the composition process that led to its production. That transformation has led to the erasure of some photographic capacities that were available to chemical film that do not exist for digital images. However, as we know, most of those compositional activities are now simulated in software. Additionally, many new capacities have emerged for photographs, most notably, at least for the everyday user, the capacity to share images online.

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rhetorical throughput

One of the projects I have been regularly pursuing (and I’m certainly not alone in this) is investigating the implications of rhetoric’s disciplinary-paradigmatic insistence on a symbolic, anthropocentric scope of study and entertaining the possibilities of rethinking those boundaries. I’ve been employing a mixture of DeLanda, Latour, and other “new materialist/realist/etc.” thinkers, always with the understanding that these theories don’t fit neatly together and with the understanding that I’m not in the business of building a comprehensive theory of the world.

I’m interested in rethinking how rhetoric works to maybe get a new way of approaching how to live in a digital world.

So take for example this recent piece of research from Experimental Brain Research, “Using space and time to encode vibrotactile information: toward an estimate of the skin’s achievable throughput” (paywall) by Scott Novich and David Eagleman, or perhaps just watch Eagleman’s TED talk where he asks “Can we create new senses for humans?”

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academic “quit pieces” and related digital flotsom

Before I get into this, I should try to make a few things clear. This post isn’t about the structural problems facing higher education right now (issues of cost and access, the changing cultural-economic role of universities nationally and globally, or shifts in media-information technologies that are reshaping our work). It’s not even about the increasing politicization of those problems as they become bullet points in campaign stump speeches or the subject of legislation. No, this post is really about the rhetorical response to these exigencies among academics and in the higher education press (and as the two become difficult to separate).

So I am willing to accept that things are as bad as they have ever been in higher education…. well, at least for a century? Of course, Bill Readings published University in Ruins in the nineties, detailing the increasing corporatization of the university. In the eighties, when I was an undergrad, students on my campus protested in the hundreds or thousands for a variety of issues related to apartheid, the CIA on campus, and, yes, tenure and rising tuition. Of course, as the song calls us to remember, students in 1970 were shot and killed by national guard at Kent State, resulting in a national student strike. Maybe the Golden Age of the American university was in the 50s when women were English majors, commie professors were pursued by senators, and non-white students had their own colleges. Look, I assume you all know this history at least as well as I do. So what’s my point? It’s not that “the more things change the more they stay the same.” I’m willing to accept as a premise that things are worse now than they have been in the last half century as long as we are all also willing to accept that there is hardly some ideal moment to point back to either.

My interest is in this post is in the rhetorical responses to this situation, specifically our near-viral interest in “quit pieces.”

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