Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Google Doc is In

Today's class illustrated both the promises and the pitfalls of Google Docs. It's a spectacular collaboration and peer review tool. Barbara Monroe uses 'em as wikis, even though they're not entirely meant to be wikis (after using another wiki tool, Wikispaces.com, I would agree that Google Docs is actually pretty handy for wikis… as long as they're only a single page). Google Docs can get frustrating (and apparently, as a system, overwhelmed) when a lot of people are working on a document at the same time, but this doesn't really surprise me; any collaborative writing space is going to be messy with 12 people working in it at once). Having used GD before in 101, I can attest to the initial chaos of getting a bunch of people signed into Google and hooked up with a document the first time. An unavoidable technological nuisance. I wish that it had more fancy-shmancy document design features, but oh well. Ultimately, I'm a big fan of this tool.

The most interesting thing I heard in today's discussion was about the uniformity issue with collaborative composition, a difficulty that I've faced every time I've assigned collaborative writing. I have told my students many times that they need to craft uniform voices and styles, but they're not very good at doing it. Maybe they're lazy or not giving themselves time for that crucial last step. But maybe it's harder to do than we're giving it credit for, and thus we need to spend time teaching it. I know that today, after we had finished writing, I looked back over our document and imagined revising it for a consistent voice and design, and was daunted by the prospect of doing that alone. I think that part of the drafting process for collaborative work should be uniformity revision.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Fantasy of Fantasy

Cybertypes, identity tourism, cosmetic multiculturalism… for someone who’s suspicious of academic kludges, Lisa Nakamura sure is full of ‘em. But the thing is: they work for me – they make sense immediately, the way good theory should do. It’s one of the many things I like about Nakamura.

Because there are so many things, I’m just going to focus on one: nostalgia.

I love what Nakamura says about nostalgia vis-à-vis new media and race. Here’s a passage I used in my paper on racism in WoW:

As machine-induced speed enters our lives – the speed of transmission of images and texts, of proliferating information, of dizzying arrays of decision trees and menus – all of these symptoms of modernity create a sense of unease that is remedied by comforting and familiar images of a “history” and a “native” that seems frozen in a “different time and a different place. (7)

Re-reading Chapter 1 this time, a later passage also stuck out:

As Susan Stewart defines nostalgia, it is a “sadness without an object.” Nostalgia is “always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, that past continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack” (23). … Cybertyping keeps race “real” using the discourse of the virtual. The object of digital nostalgia is precisely the idea of race itself. As Renato Rosaldo defines it, nostalgia is “often found under imperialism, where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed,” and is “a process of yearning for what one has destroyed that is a form of mystification (quoted in hooks 25). Cybertyping works to rescue the vision of the authentic raced “native” that, first, never existed except as part of an imperialist set of narratives, and second, is already gone, or “destroyed” by technologies such as the Internet. (26)

Nostalgia, in this sense, is the dominant feeling of the fantasy genre. For you non-geeks out there, the fantasy genre is that spic-and-span Medieval Europe that’s populated by swords and sorcerers and so forth. Tolkien is its great granddaddy, though in games, its direct ancestor is Dungeons and Dragons. As you’ll soon discover, it’s the setting of World of Warcraft. It’s also the setting of 94% of MMOGs. So fantasy’s popularity in games makes it interesting enough to me, but what Nakamura made me realize is that it taps into a nasty set of Western ideologies – ideologies about imperialism and racism.

[Amusing note: MS Word put the Fuzzy Red Line of Misspelling under “cybertype,” but not under “kludge.” The politics of the program(mers) revealing themselves?]

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

We’re only as multiple as the Man lets us be; or, gender and the play of identity

By “the Man” I really mean “the system,” but I thought the metonymy was apt since we’re talking about patriarchy and sexism.

I don’t have a helluva lot to say about these readings, not because they’re not important, but because I’m distracted by my Reading Lists, the ultimate mixed tapes of the Ph.D. student, who are calling out to me from behind every instance of “composition,” “pedagogy,” “rhetoric,” and “Internet” that I see. They demand to be added to. You’re right, Lauren: grad school is terribly hard, and what’s hard about it (for me) is that there’s just too much important stuff out there written.

The theme of today’s articles is that when we gleefully flee the subject positions our boring old biological bodies offer us and run to the Internet, we find many of the same old subject positions already there, waiting for us. This is because we can’t entirely escape our names (Romano), our bodies (Hawisher/Patricia Sullivan and Laura Sullivan), or our discourse practices (all three). As feminist and social constructivist teachers, though, we have to at least disrupt the status quo, hard as it may be. Romano puts this well:

Positioned institutionally as constructivists, as instigators of student writing, and as the parties responsible for assuring its value, teachers may wish to distinguish between virtual space and discursive space, taking action to assure an ample range of discursive positions for all students. The above ample excerpts demonstrate the delicacy of so doing – the small turns of phrase by which the instructor carefully, gingerly, makes offers to students of possible selves. Even so, he is not able to extricate himself from his connections to these selves and from his own responsibility for their being. (265-6)

Since we’ve all administered discussions with students – on- or offline – we all know how hard it is to invite students into other possible selves, especially on the fly. (I’m reminded, too, of our discussion on Tuesday about the bewildering speed of chat discussions.) Another complication, of course, is that students often don’t want to try out other selves; as Laura Sullivan notes, “In addition to structural changes, internal changes in both men and women will have to occur before cybersexism will disappear” (201). Which brings be back around to online spaces and their opportunities for new selves: between what these spaces do or don’t allow in terms of gendered identity construction, our commitment to challenging the status quo, our students’ willingness to try, and the larger cultural constraints working on everything/-one, revolutionizing gendered subject positions is fraught indeed.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Buncha Chatty Kathies

…but especially Katie.

I agree with Donna that synchronous chat – especially between as many people as were on it today, can be overwhelming and exhausting and frustrating. But I had a blast – it was playful, and if it wasn’t directly productive (in terms of accomplishing the goals Chelsey and Jim were trying to accomplish), it certainly showed us how difficult it is to pull off. Here are some of the other things I found interesting.

Poor Chelsey. You tried to rein us in, but you pretty much failed miserably. I could sense your frustration, and I could easily imagine feeling that way if I was the one in charge. But our collective rejection of your authority perfectly illustrated Faigley’s point about authority tending to disappear (or at least get challenged) when the teacher’s not at the front of the room maintaining a physical authoritative presence. In a chat space, the teacher is just another name in the room.

My conclusion about this is not that I would avoid using chat as a teaching tool; instead, I’d use very small groups, and give them goals ahead of time, and let them work on their own without me. Maybe outside of class time. As for the goals, they could do whatever they wanted to get to them. At the end, they'd turn in the chat record but also some kind of reflective piece (blog? memo?) on how they accomplished their goals. They'd have to make meaning out of the chaos.

But the chaos itself was interesting… and worth writing about too. I found it interesting how fast I had to read (and in two directions – up and down) and write. Every time I jumped in to write something, the conversation moved on without me, and many times my post was outdated by the time I posted it. It was an incredibly fast conversation, and at times, it was actually 2 or 3 conversations. It was fun to see how we adapted to the speed: some of us “yelled” in caps, some of us started addressing whom we were responding to in our posts, some of us sat back and waited a while between posts. All of us wrote smaller messages at the end than at the beginning. I see advantages and disadvantages to the speed thing w/r/t teaching with chat. The main advantage is that it makes people read and write on their toes – it’s speed rhetoric. The main disadvantage is that it discourages (no – prevents) the kind of careful reasoning and word choice that we value in academia. I’m not sure that’s a reason not to use it, though.

The construction of identity stuff I saw too, but I’ll let someone else riff on that.

-Critter out.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Passions and pedagogies in the crisis of modernism

Ahh, the crisis of modernism. For those of you who haven’t taken a class from Victor V., the crisis of modernism and postmodernism are one and the same. His point is that modernism’s not over yet – it’s in its death-throes, and as its child fights its way into our common sense, the parent and child exist together for a while, duking it out. Think of the battles between Luke and Vader: spectacular, messy, hands lost on either side.

I made the (smart, as it turns out) choice of reading Sirc in tonight’s optional pieces, and I’m going to get to him and make him converse with the other three at some point. But first, I need to write down the fantasy that Sirc’s article made me have about my dissertation and possibly all of my future academic work.

Sirc is basically making an argument for applying postmodernism to composition. Instead of single authors pouring their individual geniuses onto blank pages, Sirc envisions authors writing by bricolage (which term I was amazed to never see, btw) – selecting bits and pieces of meaningful scraps and putting them together into a new meaningful whole. He wants composition to be “choosing rather than fabricating” (187). Such forward-thinking writers would, by taking the “means of production” (i.e. publication) into their own hands, wrest control of texts from the textual authorities, the gatekeepers, the Wardens of Taste: academics. The ideal locale for this pomo writing, Sirc suggests, is the Web. (And he wrote all this before Web 2.0!)

So okay, here’s the fantasy Sirc’s article made me have. What if my dissertation was an evolving web text? The hypertext parts are exciting enough: I have this vague sense of not just hyperlinked documents, but visual representations of 3-d interconnecting pieces, arranged into little chapterlets with my stories and musings offshooting to videos, pics, audio, other sites, etc. But I’ve batted around the hypertext parts before. What usually turned me off to them was that I couldn’t imagine wanting to read a single-author hypertext, especially one that’s book-length. What occurred to me tonight was, why would it have to be single-author? What if I published sections of my diss as I worked on them, inviting commentary from not only my committee but anyone else who cared to read and comment, like my wife, or my best friend, or other gamers (academic or not)? Gamers are some of the most prolific writers on the web. They’re also frequently the least well mannered, the harshest critics, the most enticed to flaming; but hell, one has to develop a thick skin in academia anyway. I would use these public discussions to revise my ideas; I’d probably keep the originals and the revisions up so everyone could see the ideas evolve. It would be academic conversation in real time.

And it would still be academic, or at least my part would be. It would still involve all the research and critical thinking that an ordinary academic book would. One of the problems I have with Sirc is his air of utopianism, of anything-whatever goes. I’m not against research; I’m certainly not against academic rigor; and I’m really not against informed taste, either (though I acknowledge that all such “taste,” as well as the “information” behind it, is culturally constructed, upheld by loci of power, ultimately subjective, & c.). These are parts of academia that I respect and like. But in my fantasy, the parts of academia that I don’t like – its disconnection from the outside world in terms of where it’s published, the voice it’s written in, and the audience it’s “conversing” with – disappear, because the medium just steps around them.

And therein lie the problems. People don’t like to give up power, especially people who work extremely hard to attain positions that give them very little power in the first place. My fantasy dissertation circumvents all of the standard hoops and features of academic publishing, the biggest being peer review and print publishing. The latter is hooey and is on its way out anyway, but I understand, at least abstractly, the merits of the former. Actually, I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss print publishing, since its ethos is still very much real. And as someone who not only wants to finish his Ph.D. but then get a job afterward, I am concerned with ethos. Of course, in inspirational movies, and in Sirc’s essay, the guy who’s rejected for his crazy-seeming-but-actually-awesome ideas winds up victorious in the end, vindicated by history. (Of course, a lot of those guys were fucking miserable in their lifetimes.) Would my fantasy idea get rejected? Is it awesome, nuts, dumb? Maybe y’all can help me out with that.

In the meantime, let me hastily attempt to do the assignment this blog’s supposed to have been accomplishing. Actually, as I look back over Yancey’s piece (my second-favorite of this group), I notice some ways that Sirc and my fantasy-babble that he inspired can relate. Early in her article, Yancey notes,

Never before has the proliferation of writings outside the academy so counterpointed the compositions inside. Never before have the technologies of writing contributed so quickly to the creation of new genres. The consequence of these two factors is the creation of a writing public that, in development and in linkage to technology, parallels the development of a reading public in the 19th century.

Literacy today is in the midst of a tectonic change. (298)

I think Sirc is celebrating this tectonic change, the new compositions of the writing public that’s outside the academy. I think I’m fantasizing about academic work that reaches outside to this writing public while still maintaining the better qualities of academic work. This work would reveal and reach out to the multiple literacies that Yancey mentions (or that the New London group handily combined into “multiliteracies”), not only because they’re fun and interesting, but because they’re “social in a way that school literacy all too often only pretends to be” (302). In many ways, Yancey says, the composition we’re practicing now already incorporates “multiple genres remediated across contexts of time and space” (308); apparently, we just need to acknowledge this fact in our writing and teaching. Yancey’s concept of remediation is not entirely dissimilar to Sirc’s concept of choosing, in that they both involve altering some already-existing text(s) for a new context and purpose. And as she says about hypertexts towards the end of her piece, “In sum, the potential of invention is a function of delivery, and what and how you arrange - which becomes a function of the medium you choose - becomes who you invent” (317). Delivery, arrangement, choice, bricolage. Synthesis. Research. Who will I be able to invent?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Loving our Frankensteins

Baron didn’t do much for me, other than provide some interesting historical trivia about the history of the pencil, but Hesse and Wysocki/Eilola were really interesting. About those, then:

Hesse’s redefinition of “essay” was interesting in the sense that it claims as the only definition of “essay” the type of essay I have always found most interesting: the one that presents the point of view of an intelligent, curious writer who is trying to make sense of some small slice of the world. I liked this line in particular:

In fact, one characteristic quality of contemporary essays is the attempt to cast the widest net of associations possible, then struggle to bring the gathered ideas into some meaningful relation. (36)

Which reminded me of a passage in David Foster Wallace’s guest-editor introduction to 2007’s Best American Essays, which does quite a bit of intelligent, amusing moodling over the definition of “essay.” As part of his attempt to define the term, Wallace delineates fiction from (essayistic) nonfiction:

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder – because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses – it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc. (xiv)

Both writers are getting at basically the same thing – that an essay corrals a bunch of contemporary life’s stray informational sheep into some kind of interesting/relevant/urgent sweater. What an ugly, bleating metaphor. Here’s why I find this important vis-à-vis technology: that this goal, done well, is going to remain an important one in a culture of more and more Total Noise. We need smart people to make sense of it all, preferably stylishly.

There’s lots of interesting stuff in Wysocki/Eilola, and I’m going to winnow it down so I can go watch Battlestar Galactica. Here’s a passage I’d like to tentatively answer.

If “literacy” is a deceptive promise of basic skills that on their own will fix someone’s life, why do we wish that to use this term when we speak of the relationship we desire for our students and other s to have with newer technologies? (355)

Um, because what more can we as English teachers give them? They’re totally right about the myth of literacy as a panacea to poverty, powerlessness, etc., but that’s a systemic problem. I suspect that we English teachers can only solve one little part of that – ironically, the “literacy” part.

That being said, I loved their answers to their questions of how we might rethink our knowledge and use of information and escape linear, book-based literacy:

This is not about handing books to children or high-school dropouts or the underdeveloped, and hoping that they will pick u enough skills to be able to lose themselves in reading (and so to come back with different selves that better fit a dominant culture); it is instead about how we all might understand ourselves as active participants in how information gets “ rearranged, juggled, experimented with” to make the reality of different cultures. This involves, of course, understanding our selves within the making and changing. (366)

Rearranging and juggling, seeing all of the screens at once, piecing together disparate pieces of information, bricolage – all this stuff sounds kinda like what Hesse and Wallace are talking about with essay writing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Man invents the gun, but you can take it back from him

I found all three of tonight’s readings to be relevant and useful reminders of the true connections between technology and power, and between technology and literacy. Not much stuff I hadn’t heard before, but good reminders, and good places to turn to for reference in the future.

The New London Group’s piece reminded me a lot of stuff that Bob Eddy introduced us to in 501. Their claim on page 17 that “Just as there are multiple layers to everyone’s identity, there are multiple discourses of identity and multiple discourses of recognition to be negotiated,” reminded me of one of Bob’s favorite sayings: “We’re all multiple amphibians.” It’s a little strange in its redundancy, but I like it. It reminds me that as a teacher, I need to help students figure out how to negotiate a variety of discourses and rhetorical situations. This is especially true as the Internet keeps adding popular arenas in which to read and write. It also reminds me that it’s okay (and maybe even, hopefully, smart) to have my hands in a lot of disciplinary pies. The stickiness of all those pies makes me anxious sometimes.

Ohmann I enjoyed at first because he was so jovial and interesting with his history of “literacy,” and -then because he so quickly descended into unadulterated curmudgeondom. I could picture him, sitting there at his typewriter in 1985, ears steaming with rage the more he thought about how supermarket checkers were being made dumber by no longer having to add up grocery prices. His rage gave him some good lines. Viz.:

Technology, one might say, is itself a social process, saturated with power relations around it, continually reshaped according to some people’s intentions. (26)

Which makes me think of Foucault, and Marx, and the way all things are historically situated and shaped by power and moolah.


Graduates of MIT will get the challenging jobs; community college grads will be technicians; those who do no more than acquire basic skills and computer literacy in highs school will probably find the way to electronic workstations at McDonald’s. I see every reason to expect that the computer revolution, like other revolutions from the top down, will indeed expand the minds and the freedom of an elite, meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce that have been hallmarks of monopoly capitalism from its onset. (28)

What about WSU grads? Actually, he’s probably right. I wonder what he’d say about U.S. corporations’ use of tech laborers overseas.

Then there was:

Apparently, eighty percent of home computers are used exclusively for games… I bet many of them will fall into disuse, like other new toys. (28)

This one gave me a chuckle. Thank God it hasn’t come true!

One more, from the bottom of the page I’ve been on and the next one (apparently, Ohmann was on a roll at this point):

And [computers’] other main use in the home, besides recreation, most likely will be to facilitate the marketing of still more commodities, as computerized shopping becomes a reality. (28-9)

Well, he was right about that one. Which reminds me… where’s that book for class that I ordered from Amazon?

I need to quit this and go play some of those soon-to-be-disused videogames with my wife – we tend to prefer Azeroth to Pullman (especially in January), so I guess Faigley was right about online life being more attractive than RL. But I did want to mention that I really liked the hopeful ending of Faigley’s piece, how he reassuringly said that we teachers of literacy will adapt to new types of communication by “teaching an increasingly fluid, multimedia literacy” (40-1) in the interests of democracy. Made me feel good.