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.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Hypertext and the Crisis of Modernism

If I remember my reading from a comp theory class I took as an M.A., I recall a description of student-run classes in the 60s that began with utopian ideals (in the vein of hippyish, touchy-feely 60s thinking) but quickly proved to be complete disasters. There was no direction; the classes were anarchic; nobody learned anything. Likewise, the so-called "student-centered" online class discussions often prove to be just as messy and directionless, as Faigley and Cooper illustrate. Sometimes that's good, but sometimes it's just a mess. I appreciated Faigley's article for pointing out the positive and negative possibilities of online discussions. I appreciated Cooper even more for providing a solution (or at least citing Ira Shor's solution) to the problems of postmodern discussion, a role for teachers that involves neither repressing our students nor completely relinquishing power: the "problem-poser who leads a critical dialogue in class… Teachers pose problems or presente generative themes – they bring the complexities of everyday life into focus – and listen to student responses" (158). Barbara Monroe said this another way the other day in our Teaching Lit class: we need to construct our classes around questions whose answers are really up for grabs.

I think about what those questions might be in my current class, 402.

  • What are the rhetorical problems you face in your field?
  • What are the ethical problems you face in your field?
  • What's the best way to convey this technical information about X to audience Y?
  • How does technology affect communication in your group for this project?


Most of my thinking as I read Cooper revolved around her claim near the beginning that "What has been called the postmodern condition is a messy and partial transition that we are still in the midst of from old modernist ways of thinking and acting to postmodern ways" (142). Victor is fond of saying something like this: that we're not really in postmodernism yet; we're in the crisis of modernism. And thus, we're in the midst of a maelstrom of notions about how the world works. It's nice to hear this idea again from time to time, because it explains a lot of the confusion I feel about my own identity, knowledge, power, responsibility, etc. It also helps me understand what happens in WoW.

Cooper's essay explained the "transition in assumptions" about "knowledge, language, and the self," "power," and "responsibility" clearly enough so that I could simultaneously read her essay and mentally apply it to what I've seen in WoW. Obviously, people experiment with decentered selves when role-playing, through their (often multiple) avatars. That one was old news. Responsibility I had already thought and read about a bit too, in terms of the ways that some players obviously feel free in the context of their avatar identities to break social boundaries in their interactions and discussions in the game. What this usually means, of course, is that they feel free to act like assholes. (I find it more interesting, in some ways, though, that I (and I would wager, most players) feel a certain responsibility for my avatar's online ethos, if for no other reason than because I'm always inhabiting one avatar, and he takes a long time to level up, and so I don't want to make a lot of people hate him/me. There's an investment involved that's too great to blow on some flame war.)

The stuff that really interested me, and that I haven't figured out very well yet, is the discussion of power. Cooper writes,

"The modernist assumption that still structures most of our language about power is that power is a possession, that some people have it and can give it to others or share it with them or help them gain it. In contrast, Foucault argues that power functions not as a possession but as a relation, and that it attempts to stabilize power relationships that are favorable to one party that result in power appearing to be a possession." (145)


I have a hard time wrapping my head around this one, because I think I'm still usually using that modernist assumption. I think a lot of people do. My thinking about power in WoW usually involves players vs. Blizzard: Blizzard has all the power, and players have to abide or risk punishment/banishment from the game. We sign EULAs when we install the game that basically give Blizzard the right to do whatever they want to our characters. When one player does or says something another player doesn't like, the offended party can (and often does) tell on the offender to Blizzard, and hope for punishment. There are many more details that I won't go into now. The important thing is that I usually see power here as something possessed by Blizzard (and very much in contrast, I realize, to the ways that power worked in the LambdaMOO featured in Julian Dibbel's famous essay). But is it a relation? I'm not even sure what that means.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Seeing the Invisible

Consider how the issues Banks and Walton raise can be viewed through the lens of Selfe and Grabill.

Walton argues that the history of Black folks in the U.S. vis-à-vis (White-controlled) technology has been one of exclusion/alienation at best, and subjugation at worst. Banks notes more or less the same thing, but then describes a Black social-networking site in which designers and users combat typical (White-centered) notions of website construction and interaction. Selfe and Grabill establish the statistical social realities that govern what Walton and Banks are talking about: that U.S. technology use varies predictably with socioeconomic status and racism. Viewed through this lens, Banks’s account of BlackPlanet offers a particularly meaningful strategy of resistance to the Net’s dominant participants and their participating methods.

Eesh – can you tell I was struggling with that? Now lemme move on to some stuff in Selfe that I found particularly compelling.

Selfe’s article knocked me over – and I look forward to reading it again more closely – because it hit me where I live. Of the two camps of composition teachers – those who use computers in their classes and those who don’t – I definitely fall into the former, and until now, I’ve maintained a certain degree of smugness about it. I’m young. And hip. And tech-savvy. And willing to try new techie shit whenever possible. I thought this was enough until now. Selfe proves me wrong. Both groups are “meaningless camps,” she writes, “Both groups feel virtuous about their choices, and both manage to lose sight of the real issue. Computer-using teachers instruct students in how to use technology – but, all too often, they neglect to teach students how to pay critical attention to the issues generated by technology use” (108). Issues that, as all of the readings here have pointed out, are deeply embedded within issues of justice.

I realized that I have indeed committed this sin: I demand that my students type stuff, I hold class in the AML, I use WebCT/SharePoint/Writing Studio to hold my files and my students’ portfolios and the occasional discussion board. I get annoyed when this stuff doesn’t work – when students can’t get around the site, or when they have formatting trouble, or when the site doesn’t do what I think it should do – but I’ve never spent any time analyzing the significance of these problems with my students. I haven’t paid critical attention to the technology I’ve been using. I’ve let it get invisible.

The immediate question for me now is: how do I start doing this in my 402 class this semester? As I was reading Selfe, I thought about how critical study of technology in a technical communication class seems so important that I should make it a several-week unit. Yet I’ve already planned my units out. It seems, then, that I’ll have to work it in here and there. Any suggestions, anyone?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Truth is Power; Power, Truth

Truth is Power; Power, Truth

I hadn’t read this piece by Foucault before, and while I found it really interesting in terms of social theory, ideology, rhetoric, etc., I struggled to link it to a class on teaching with technology. I’m sure this is my fault, and you others will come up with something brilliant. The old internal light bulb did flash, however, at a few passages:

1. The bit on page 112 about history being discontinuous. Foucault asks, “How is it that at certain moments and in certain orders of knowledge, there are these sudden take-offs, these hastenings of evolution, these transformations which fail to correspond to the calm, continuist image that is normally accredited?” Which made me think of digital technology, an area of knowledge in which it is impossible not to argue that we are caught up in a hastening of evolution. I think back to my family’s first computer – a Compaq Portable – and laugh.

I suppose my dad was an early adopter of PCs, and I suppose I am too, sort of (true early adopterdom requires more money than I have). The thing is about being an early adopter, is that there are upsides and downsides. The upsides we all know; the downsides I’ve found surprising. One is that I always feel behind the bleeding edge, because the bleeding edge is moving so damn fast. Another is that I often feel that same sense of panicked pulled-in-multiple-ways urgency that I get when I’ve got too many windows open at once: the anxiety of hypertasking, the fear of missing the current great killer app, the hope that just…this…next…gizmo…will…solve…everything.

A third downside to early adopterdom is that when it’s applied to teaching with digital technology (hereafter shortened, a la popular usage, to just “technology”), it’s frustrating being ahead of the curve and waiting for the school and my students to catch up. I’d like to go all-electronic and ditch paper, but not all of my students have access to printers, and not all of them have laptops. I’d like to paste my beautifully designed course calendar into Sharepoint or eLearning, but they won’t let me. I’d like to find a single content management system that does everything I want it to, lets me customize its interface, and functions consistently. This last one is, as of yet, impossible.

2. I also liked the stuff at the end about regimes of truth, but I can’t quite connect that up to teaching with technology in ways I’d like right now. I’ll ask about it in class if I remember.

Now on to Giddens.

And here’s my reaction to Giddens: huh?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Michel, my belle

… with panopticism, is the discipline-mechanism: a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come. (209)


 'Discipline' may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a 'physics' or an 'anatomy' of power, a technology. (215)



Why read Foucault at the beginning of a course on teaching with technology? Um, so we understand our place in a system of surveillance and discipline?


Actually, I'm more or less serious: in his list of institutions that developed because of/with/through Enlightenment notions of power, schools are always present. We read Foucault because he's talking about how power uses technology for its own ends. Technology for him was architecture, machinery, writing; in our class's case, it's computers. And what were computers (and the Internet) developed for? And what are they still mostly used for?


The panopticon is a place in which the person in power can see all of his subjects without being seen by them. How are classroom technologies panopticons? Class management systems like WebCT or Writing Studio let the teacher see when his students have logged on, what they've posted, what they've read, etc. But they can't see the teacher's activities. Of course, the panopticon goes both ways; Foucault notes that prison guards' superiors (or rulers from outside, or the public even) can view the guards, see how they're doing at viewing their prisoners. Here's a contemporary, close-to-home analogue: the English Department takes (some of) the ePortfolios that 101 instructors use to evaluate their students and puts them on a special website viewable by the powers-that-be in the college's administration. They do this to show the administration that we know what we're doing.


Here are my questions for the class:


  1. Foucault argues that "Our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance; under the surface of images, one invests bodies in depth; behind the great abstraction of exchange, there continues the meticulous, concrete training of useful forces" (217). Does this work for digital technology? By making wikis, blogging, discussing Buffy, playing fantasy baseball, are we training ourselves?
  2. Come to think of it, a blog is like a panopticon: it lets the viewer see the writer's thoughts, but the writer can't see whom has read her work or when. Yet blogs are voluntary (class assignments notwithstanding… though there we get back into the school as discipline). Are blogs a type of voluntary surveillance? Are bloggers putting themselves in a panopticon?