rhet/comp ink

Smart Mobs reports on a new chip development that will boost Internet access speeds to 640 gb/s. That’s more than 30 times my current download speed through fiber and something like 100 times the typical high speed connection. The article suggests this will be available in about five years and that this speed is roughly equivalent to 17 DVDs per second.

I realize that’s an odd way to start a post that would seem to be about rhetoric and composition, but I’m thinking that maybe it should seem so odd. Five years is a long time for technology and markets but for PhD programs, that’s tomorrow. Students starting in doctoral programs in the fall will be looking for jobs in five years. If we’re going to train new faculty for that reality, we have to start next month.

Of course, this story is just one example of many such stories. We have know for a while (I would hope) of these impending changes. On the other hand, it’s a little bit like the frog in the slowly-heated pot of water who never realizes he’s about to be cooked. We may think we are in "it" right now, that we are already being overwhelmed by technological churn. And perhaps we are. But we are not in "it." That is to say that we are approaching a kind of symmetry-breaking, intensive mutation.

When we talk about branding rhetoric and composition, it’s interesting. It is maybe like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If we are to talk seriously about the future of the discipline it will lie in a near future for which few of us have even the most modest preparation. We comfort ourselves with the thought that colleges and universities are far too incompetent and conservative to change that quickly. It’s like the joke where you don’t need to outrun the bear, just your friends. Well, we can likely outrun our disciplinary "friends." But maybe that won’t be sufficient.

Imagine the interactive, rich media experience I can send to you at 17 DVDs per second. Well not me, but someone. Or more likely a whole production company of someones. These technologies point to a world where course materials will have serious production values as well as extensive real time interactive possibilities. And of course it will be many-to-many where students could upload hours of high-definition raw video footage (as well as other storage-intensive data). Students will be able to collaborate in real time over the web to edit information on a global scale for any number of rhetorical purposes.

And yet, in a few weeks, tens of thousands of FYC instructors will be assigning 500-word, individually-authored, text-only compositions. Those students, btw, will be graduating into this world I’m describing. We have already failed them.

If you really want to brand rhet/comp, it can’t be "ink" any more. We know that. We’ve said it a thousand times. The rhet/comp brand needs to be something completely different from the gulag of FYC resentiment. It can be "we’ll improve your students’ assessment scores by 20%" or whatever. It needs to be a completely different vision. It needs to be a future that people might desire so that we can offer something that people actually want.

And it needs to emerge from our sense of discipline by building on a valuation of ethos, of community, of political/social engagement, as well as our emphasis on rhetoric and the cultivation of a practice of composition. Not just writing now though, of course. No doubt there will be some disciplinary scuffles there over media and information. I say, join the party. You want to teach every incoming student to make a video, take a photograph, design a graphic. construct effective metadata, build a usable interface? Welcome to our world.

The task of preparing students to participate in this emerging information-dense world will not be a one or two course proposition. It will re-write the organizational patterns of the university. It will be somewhat like Howard Rheingold suggested in Smart Mobs: a divide between those who can participate in this new realm and those who do not. Some faculty will participate; others will choose to stay behind. But those who do participate will forge new institutional relations.

I already see this happening on my own campus where faculty committed to these issues come together across disciplinary boundaries, reconstructing CP Snow’s two cultures.

This is where R/C Inc ought to situate itself, as an Ulmer-esque emer-agency, poised to address problems that you can barely recognize and yet are looming.

Branding first-year composition?

So there’s an ongoing conversation in the WPA list about branding first-year composition. In part it’s the Rodney Dangerfield thing, but it’s also about protecting ourselves from external forces trying to take over our work and/or dictate to us. The problem, in some ways, as I wrote earlier, is that we’ve got around 75,000 people teaching FYC and only the tiniest fraction of those people are engaged in disciplinary practices of rhetoric and composition.

So we’re in a difficult position. Colleges and other faculty hold rhet/comp accountable for FYC but we really have little or no control over who teaches these courses or how these courses are taught. The idea of a brand is that the WPA or a similar body could establish best practices for running a program and then look to establish it at various institutions. If well-marketed then ideally the brand could grow.

I see the fundamental problem here as our attachment to the twin notions that a)student writing is poor and b)a good FYC program can make student writing better. The problem with the first statement is that it is relative and entire subject to perception. If I said college faculty writing is poor, could anyone refute that? Hand out faculty publications to your neighbors and see if they can understand them. It’s relative. Futhermore, as we know, student writing has always been perceived as poor. I don’t see that changing. I think it is a structural requirement of the teacher-student relationship that students are perceived as poor writers, regardless of what they write.

However the idea that a course (or two) can make students better writers makes even less sense. The vast majority of students don’t even want to be writers in the first place, so how can they become better writers? That’s like me taking a class that’s going to make me a better golfer. Well I don’t golf. I’ve got not interest in it. I’m not going to do it in the future. So what’s the point? And yes I know that students will be asked to write a couple of things in college (probably less than you imagine). But completing a few written assignments is not the same thing as becoming a writer. And there’s no golf seminar in the world that’s going to make me a better golfer when I happen to find myself on the course three years later for one round.

But then I got to thinking…

Continue reading Branding first-year composition?

more thoughts on rhet/comp disciplinary futures

More riffing on Kopelson’s CCC article. She notes from her study that "graduate student responses seem to suggest that it is what Janice Lauer has called the ‘spaciousness of rhetoric’ that can provide an ideal designation for all of what we (could) do, an appellation around which an array of disciplinary inquires and pursuits might best coalesce, and not because it best contains those inquires, but because it permits them to disseminate and disperse. As Brenda [one of the grad students] asked earlier, ‘what’s not rhetoric?’" Kopelson endorses this familiar notion of thinking of rhetoric as a broadly conceived field and encourages the idea of exploring the many possible spaces out there, as opposed to our continuing penchant for self examination. She writes that she is not arguing that self-exmaination "is an unimportant activity, but only that the costs of are indeed high when self-scrutiny comes at the expense of taking up other critical concerns and of making other, more innovative and far-reaching forms of knowledge."

I am intrigued by this notion of "far-reaching" and will come back to that in a moment. But first let me say that I get the whole resistance to the insistence that rhet/comp research be pedagogical and/or applicable to the classroom. I understand the desire to be recognized as a discipline and valued by other sectors of the university. I get all that. I also recognize the arguments made by folks like Kurt Spellmeyer that we need to make ourselves relevant to the culture and not become increasingly esoteric and irrelevant like some of the other humanities. We don’t need to go in that direction.

But I also see the following. FYC is a big business. 3000 4-year institutions, 2500 2-year institutions in the U.S. I figure there could be as many as 100,000 people teaching FYC in the fall (tenure-line, lecturers, grad students, adjuncts, etc.). I don’t know. That would be an average of a little under 20 faculty per institution. Maybe it’s 75,000. It’s a lot of people.

According to Ellen Cushman in her piece in Composition Studies in the New Millenium, there were 135 Phd’s in rhet/comp granted in 1997. For my informal purpose, let’s assume that is a good average for the last 20 years. That would be 2700 Phds. Given that number, I think it’s safe to assume there are fewer than 4000 rhet/comp Phd’s currently teaching in higher education.

Continue reading more thoughts on rhet/comp disciplinary futures

digital digs goes mobile

Spurred on by my own recent acquisition of an iphone, I’ve created a mobile version of Digital Digs (digitaldigs.mofuse.mobi) Now I just have to figure out how to detect devices and redirect folks there. There are a number of javascript options, but I don’t have time right now to play with all that.

pedagogy of rhet/comp job market imperatives

Following on Derek’s call for a carnival discussion of "Sp(l)itting Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition" by Karen Kopelson in the latest CCC. The article extends the conversation over the pressures in the field to bend research toward pedagogic applications, particularly in relation to dissertation projects.

I haven’t had an opportunity to read everyone else’s responses, so apologies if this has been covered elsewhere, but there is clearly a job market imperative here. Clancy mentioned her journey toward rhet/comp. My journey was quite pragmatic. I had an MA in creative writing, a strong interest in postmodern theory, and was in an experimental PhD program at Albany. One day I thought to myself, "hmmm… I think if I want to get a job, I’d greatly improve my chances if I did a rhet/comp dissertation." In the end I don’t think I did. I don’t think anyone on my cmte knew what I rhet/com diss would look like. But I did talk about writing and pedagogy and I did claim to be in rhet/comp. And so far it seems to be working ok. In truth, the thing that ended up making me competitive on the market was my facility with technology, and that remains the case to date.

The point I want to make though is a little different, but related in that it is about job market imperatives. There are something like 3000 four-year institutions in the US? How many of them really give a damn what your research is? 10%? I consider Cortland a very average institution in this regard: a comprehensive, masters-granting, public college. Yes, you have to publish to get tenure. You probably need to publish at least one article in a peer-reviewed journal. And after tenure… well, you know. If I had decided to pursue creative nonfiction and write essays, I could have done that. I hardly think Cortland is alone in this regard.

Including that pedagogic turn in a dissertation may indeed be a response to the importance placed in rhet/comp research on pedagogic application, but it is also a pragmatic, job-market strategy in a field where, quite honestly, the people hiring you are concerned with you as a teacher first and researcher second (or even third, following their estimation of you as a potential colleague). At a Phd-granting institution the kind of research you do would make a difference, and your success as a researcher could have an impact on the program as a whole. But that’s just not really the case elsewhere.

More on this later.

don’t make college cheaper; make it more valuable

I’ve been really behind the eight-ball past couple weeks and I missed this article by Vance Fried in Inside HigherEd. Essentially he is suggesting an entrepreneurial model for developing high-quality low-cost 4-year degrees for cost-conscious students attending moderately selective institutions. The basics of the model are a compression of the curriculum and major offerings, increasing class size, and not asking faculty to conduct research.

Basically it sounds like high schools with giant lectures. But I’m not going to go through all the negative attributes of this proposal. The bottom line is that if it is cheaper and the credential you get at the end of the day is as valuable in the market as a more expensive credential, then a lot of students and parents will go for it.

I’m looking at this from another angle. But first, think about the students. Insert caveat about generalizations. Of course students want to get good jobs… someday. They want their education to lead to a job but they don’t want an education that prepares them to work by asking them to, well, work. They mostly want to be students and live the student lifestyle. And who could blame them? You’re only young once and all that. Besides we know that even the ones who are dead certain they know what they want to do will probably be doing something different five years after graduation.

For many students I think going to college is analogous to moving to a hip neighborhood in a big city. You move there b/c you want to live there. You get a job, of course, b/c you need one. And maybe you move to the city b/c you like the kind of jobs too but you really are there for the life. Switch courses for job and you can see the role education plays for many, many students… at least until senior year. Now we can deride that if we want, but my point is to understand our "consumers." They say they want certain things and maybe those things play a role in their purchase, but what they really want and how they will really use their educational purpose is another story. And it’s the latter that is of import to faculty, at least from a rhetorical, audience-awareness standpoint.

Now, on to my alternate perspective.

Continue reading don’t make college cheaper; make it more valuable

Writing from my iphone

So yes, I just got my iPhone today and downloaded the Typepad app. It’s pretty cool I must say. I’m not sure how much blogging I’ll do from here. But thank god for error correction!

wither scholarship revisted

I haven’t had much time to write here of late. I have been very busy with my students on my digital age ning site. Right now I’m running a cyberpunk literature grad course there. And we’ve stumbled into a conversation of interest here I think. It began with reading Hayles essay on flickering signifiers, an early nineties venture into what would become How we became posthuman. There was some fairly strong negative reaction of the type you would be familiar with if you teach such things.

  • The language is unnecessarily convoluted
  • She’s "reading into" the texts too much
  • The same point is reiterated
  • It’s so difficult to read!

I don’t raise these responses to make light of my students! To the contrary, there response is something that we ought to consider with some seriousness. As such, we began a broader conversation about humanities scholarship in relation to their own work and writing (most of these students are public school teachers). And what do they say?

  1. That scholarship in their area of study (literary studies) doesn’t really have any impact on the real world (gosh, really?)
  2. That their own studies and academic writing has little or no relevance to their professional work as teachers (for the most part these are middle and high school English teachers, btw).
  3. That they get personal enjoyment from reading, discussing, and writing about literature.

There is certainly a sense that they believe literature might have value in the context of real world problems and that ideally there would be some connection between research and real world concerns, but they don’t see it. And realistically they don’t see it happening.

It’s hardly a new problem, right? But I would think it is a little depressing to a grad student in a program where you don’t see the content as realistically have value beyond personal enjoyment or the immediate context of the classroom. In this world, that is not enough. And it’s not that I don’t believe that literary studies has value. I believe it does. But our students struggle to see that value, even though, as English teachers, they are as close to being in our discipline as any profession could be. It’s the other side of the process from that faced by the humanities scholar who must recognize that her work drops into an ocean of media and scholarship with little hope of substantive readership or conversation resulting.  Our students stand on the shore of the information ocean without a sense of how or why to engage it.

At the Seneca Lake State…

At the Seneca Lake State Playground and Sprayground, first rule is to say if you have diarrhea then please don’t go on the playground, this was an exactly it is player confident. listen

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