rhetorical organization and Latourian modes of existence

Organization is a common topic of discussion in writing instruction. Often, students are asked to produce “well-organized” essays and organization is a familiar criteria for assessment. Organization generally refers to the rhetorical cannon of arrangement, but somehow it makes more sense to say to students that their essays should be well-organized instead of well-arranged. Organization also implies a denser connection, stratification, and perhaps even hierarchy than arrangement.

But that’s what I want to get after here.

Continue reading rhetorical organization and Latourian modes of existence

improving digital literacy: the Horizon Report’s “solvable” challenge

It’s been a few years since I wrote about the annual Horizon Report, put out by EduCause and the New Media Consortium, but the 2015 report recently came out. There’s a lot of interesting information in there, but I want to speak to one particular issue, digital literacy. Basically, the report identifies three categories–trends, challenges, and technological developments–and focuses on six items in each category. So there are 18 different items in the report, and I’m talking about one of them here.

The report identifies “improving digital literacy” as a significant but solvable challenge, one “that we understand and know how to solve.” I guess I’m glad to hear that. I suppose this might be a semantic matter. What do we mean by “improving”?  And what do we mean by “digital literacy”? In terms of the latter, the Report has an ambitious if vague definition.

Continue reading improving digital literacy: the Horizon Report’s “solvable” challenge

really thinking: rhetoric and cognition

I am at work on a chapter in my book that deals with cognition as it relates to a realist ontology and rhetoric, and I’m hoping this exercise will help me to crystalize my thoughts. I’m drawing on some familiar concepts (at least to me) from distributed cognition and extended mind to DeLanda’s fascinating and bizarre account of the development of cognition in Philosophy and Simulation. I also work through the research on writing and cognition going on in cognitive science, the neurorhetorical response to that, the sociocultural account of cognition in activity theory, and some of the posthuman accounts drawing on complexity theory in our field (e.g. Hawk, Dobrin, Rickert).

Obviously the question of cognition is central to our field, though the “cultural turn” has changed this into a question of subjectivity or agency. (I appreciate Dobrin’s admonishment that we focus on it too much.) My basic argument should be familiar within a realist ontological framework.

Continue reading really thinking: rhetoric and cognition

literary studies, modesty, and a second empiricism

Perhaps you were like me and didn’t catch this Chronicle piece last month when it was published in the run-up to MLA where Jeffrey Williams touts the “New Modesty in Literary Criticism.” What is this new modesty? Williams suggests that

Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make “interventions” of world-historical importance. Their methods include “surface reading,” “thin description,” “the new formalism,” “book history,” “distant reading,” “the new sociology.”

No doubt part of this is a gesture toward digital humanities with his mention of data and distant reading in particular. However much of it is not necessarily DH. Instead, there is an interest in a broader range of maybe empirical practices (though if you follow through on some of the article links in the piece you’ll see a lot of careful trodding around the idea of empiricism). However there is a fair amount of interest in Latour, which is where my interests come in.

Continue reading literary studies, modesty, and a second empiricism

investigating the Yik Yak attack

The Chronicle reported today on the abuse of faculty by students in a class via Yik Yak. Steve Krause writes about the event here (it happened at his institution, Eastern Michigan). And, coincidentally, Jeff Rice has a general piece on universities and Yik Yak on Insider Higher Ed.

The basic story in this most recent event is that some unreported number of students in a class of 230 wrote over 100 messages on Yik Yak during a class meeting. Apparently many of the messages were rude, insulting, and abusive.  We’ve seen this story before in the form of tweckling: different app (Twitter), same basic rhetorical effect. Of course Yik Yak allows for even greater anonymity that Twitter does. (Although, as we know, in the end, it’s very hard to be truly anonymous.) Nevertheless, student perception of anonymity certainly appears to have loosened social propriety.

Setting aside judgments of students, faculty, institutions, the designers of Yik Yak, “today’s modern, fast-paced society,” or whatever, what might be investigated in this event?

Continue reading investigating the Yik Yak attack

economics and the English job market

Who can resist a job market post during MLA season? Not Inside Higher Ed, though this one points to some interesting research done by economist David Colander (with Daisy Zhuo) and published in Pedagogy. I suppose it’s a dog-bites-man scenario. Colander samples hiring and job placement at a group of English departments and comes to the conclusion that graduates of top tier doctoral programs (Tier 1 ranked 1-6 and Tier 2 ranked 7-28 as per US News & World  Report) are much more likely to get jobs at the top 62 doctoral universities (and the top liberal arts colleges) than graduates of lower ranked programs.

I know, surprising stuff, right? Though the actual numbers are very clear: according to the study, less than 2% of graduates from tier 3 schools land jobs at the top 62 universities. Basically what you see is that the top schools hire their own. 57% of the faculty at the top 6 schools come from the other 5 in tier 1. Nearly 75% of the faculty at tier 2 schools come from the top two tiers.

Continue reading economics and the English job market

Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities: a new essay collection

Fresh off the presses, Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, edited by Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson, from University of Chicago Press (AMZN).

Here’s the abstract to my contribution, “Digital Humanities Now and the Possibilities of a Speculative Digital Rhetoric.”

This chapter examines connections between big data digital humanities projects (the Digital Humanities Now project in particular), digital rhetoric, and the philosophies of speculative realism (focusing on Bruno Latour). It addresses the critique that digital humanities are under-theorized and connects these critiques with those made against speculative realism’s use of scientific and mathematical concepts. Finally it proposes how a speculative digital rhetoric might contribute to a network analysis of informal, online scholarly work.
Keywords: big data, speculative realism, Bruno Latour, middle-state publishing, nonhuman

Continue reading Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities: a new essay collection

What’s worse? Coursework or dissertation?

Today, as I regularly do around this time in my Teaching Practicum, we discussed the job market. It’s not much fun as you can imagine. I think (I hope) that it is illuminating. I mostly do it because I want students to see the relationship between the job market and their development as teachers (as well as scholars). Today Inside Higher Ed also published this little number on how time is spent in graduate school. As the story relates, much of the focus on revising doctoral programs (at least in the humanities) has been on shortening the dissertation process, but study covered in the article indicates that the reason humanities degrees tend to take longer than other doctoral programs is because of the time devoted to coursework (4 years on average). So that’s 4 years to go through coursework and exams and 3 years, on average, to write the dissertation. And that’s down from where we were a decade ago.

This is another wrinkle in the ongoing humanities project of revising doctoral programs, which might rightly strike one as missing the point when the real problem is the lack of tenure-track jobs.  The lack of jobs is certainly a problem, but to say that it is a problem in relation to doctoral programs would require making the presumption that the objective of doctoral programs is to professionalize students and prepare them to do tenure-track jobs. There’s no doubt we are all happy when our students get jobs, and there’s no doubt that programs are at least partially evaluated for their success at placement. But if the point of doctoral programs is really to prepare students to be professors then they certainly have a funny way of going about it.  That is, since most academic jobs are primarily teaching jobs, most of the doctoral preparation (one would think) would be teacher-training. In reality almost none of it is. Most tenure-track jobs do not require faculty to produce books for tenure, so why all this effort put into the proto-monograph we call the dissertation? Honestly, if doctoral programs were transformed to be job preparation, then very little of what you commonly see would remain. Continue reading What’s worse? Coursework or dissertation?

writing and the speed of thought

When we first learned to write, we focused on holding the pencil and forming the letters. The attention given to the physical task of writing likely interfered with our ability to give attention to what we wanted to say. Later, after mastering writing (or, if you are like me, gave up on forming legible letters), the ability to write things down made it easier to develop more complex lines of thought. I think I experienced similar pressures on cognitive load when learning to type. And I still have a related experience in my need to focus on the virtual keys on my iphone.

When my writing experience is working well, the thoughts just seem to flow into sentences. I don’t have to stop and think about how to put a given thought into words. Everything seems to be clicking. I know where I want to go next but not in a fully conscious way. If I start to turn my attention farther into the future, toward the end of the paragraph or the bottom of the page or alternately if I start paying attention to the movement of my fingers on the keys then the whole mental state starts to collapse, as if it is a delicate wave structure. And I suppose neuroscientists might explain such states, at least partially, in terms of waves. Other times, I stop and plan, my mind reaching out for multiple connections as if I am gathering mental strength to hurtle myself forward into the stream of writing. Here my mind converses with itself, point and counterpoint, trying out different rhetorical strategies, poking holes in arguments, persuading itself. I become argumentative. I have, in the past, thought about this as a process of intensification, a kind of boiling over of the mind, where speed, connection, and argument leads to some change, some insight, where something new, with new properties emerges, like water that becomes steam, leaving the ground to float over a landscape of concepts. Continue reading writing and the speed of thought

The empiricist-idealist divide in composition studies (and the role of realists)

I’ve been thinking about this big picture disciplinary issues primarily in terms of my Teaching Practicum, but maybe it is useful to share this here as well. Manuel DeLanda has a helpful brief piece on “Ontological Commitments” (PDF) in which he identifies three familiar categories of philosophical positions on ontology: idealism, empiricism, and realism. I don’t see these as absolute categories but rather as historical ones that work most closely with modern Western traditions. As he summarizes:

For the idealist philosopher there are no entities that exist independently of the human mind; for the empiricist entities that can be directly observed can be said to be mind-independent, but everything else (electrons, viruses, causal capacities etc.) is a mere theoretical construct that is helpful in making sense of that which can be directly observed; for the realist, finally, there are many types of entities that exist autonomously even if they are not directly given to our senses.

The long history of rhetorical philosophy shares with most of the humanities a commitment to an idealist ontology. This is what is sometimes termed the correlationist perspective: the idea that we can only know the world as we relate to it; we can only know what we think, and perhaps not even that entirely. In the framework, rhetoricians study symbolic action and representation. However, composition studies begins with a fair amount of empirical research into cognitive and writing processes. In part this comes out of historical connections with education departments and perhaps the social scientific side of rhetoric (mostly in communications departments). When the post-process moment comes in the late eighties, one ends up with an idealist side (which would primarily include cultural studies pedagogies) and an empiricist side (with a variety of practices including CHAT, technical communication, and cognitive rhetoric). In most respects the former are more comfortable in English departments since literary studies is almost entirely idealist. (One possible exception there are digital humanities methods, which at least some might view as empirical.)

Continue reading The empiricist-idealist divide in composition studies (and the role of realists)