Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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cognition’s earthrise

19 February, 2015 - 12:03

If you do not know then Wikipedia will happily tell you that the 1968 photo known as “Earthrise” (unsurprisingly taken by an astronaut) has been called the “most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Why? Presumably because it presents the Earth as a cohesive yet fragile entity. In any case, “Earthrise” captures something about the ecological turn in the humanities from ecocriticism to ecocomposition.  The general ecological/environmental movement asks us to rethink our relationship to the world. The world is not ours to exploit nor is it simply the backdrop for our history. Perhaps it should be obvious by now that we are actors on a global scale in our ecology. Ecohumanities movements take up these environmental concerns but also adopt an ecological view toward their traditional objects of study. E.g., what does it mean to view composing as an ecological process? In short, one decenters the human from traditionally anthropocentric studies of what we have so firmly understood as human activity that we have called them the humanities.

Distributed cognition moves in this direction with thinking. Typically when I see discussions of distributed cognition, they are more along the lines of extended mind, of tools for thought. That is, they illuminate how various technologies allow us to engage in cognitive activities we wouldn’t normally be able to do. Think of a calculator or even, a la Walter Ong, how writing technologies shape our thinking. However one might also conceive of distributed cognition as the way humans and machines interact to undertake cognitive tasks no individual human could accomplish. Edwin Hutchins’ classic example is the docking of a naval vessel, but I’m thinking Wikipedia.

Eco-cognition would seem to be another matter altogether. One might think of the noosphere. Indeed some have compared the ecocritical concept of the anthropocene with the noosphere, as both point to a shift where human cognitive-technical capacities develop to a point of have an impact on the global ecology. The noosphere suggests the emergence of some collective human consciousness, a shared ecology of human thought. The noosphere though does tend to keep the human at the center. Another angle would point toward panpsychism where all objects are thinking or at least might be thinking.

I have a slightly different interest. If thinking is real, then why would it not join other real things and processes in an ecology? If thinking is distributed then it partly, maybe largely, happens beyond the purview of our conscious experience of it. Just as our subjective experience of ecology in general is incomplete, so too is our subjective experience of cognition.

So perhaps cognition needs a kind of “Earthrise” moment, one that captures the shared yet fragile context in which we think.

Categories: Author Blogs

rhetorical organization and Latourian modes of existence

12 February, 2015 - 13:15

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.

Latour brings up organization as one of his “modes of existence.” Combined with attachment and morality, organization represents his effort to displace social explanations founded on a spectral notion of The Economy.  (I haven’t given it much thought but it might be interesting to match these three with the rhetorical modes of persuasion: pathos/attachment, ethos/morality, logos/organization.) In my reading, the key point about Latour’s organization is that it both easy to trace and paradoxical: “Easy, because we are constantly in the process of organizing and being organized; paradoxical, because we always keep on imagining that elsewhere, higher up, lower down, above or below, the experience would be totally different; that there would have to be a break in the planes, in levels, thanks to which other beings, transcendent with respect to the first, would finally come along to organize everything” (389).

This certainly applies to the way we approach organizing writing. We are constantly in the process of doing it. And yet organization is always somewhere else. It’s not here in this word or sentence or paragraph. Where is it? I was just here, organizing. To make that happen I have a script, which I am above and below. Take the example of the book I am working on (or avoiding working on by blogging instead). As Latour would point out, I am the writer of the script I will follow. (That’s not to say I have free will. It is instead to say that I am made to act or in this case, made to script.) I am also the person who must carry out the script: above and below. And yet “Organization never works because of the scripts; and yet, because of the scripts, it works after all, hobbling along through an often exhausting reinjection of acts  of (re)organization, or, to use a delicious euphemism from economics, through massive expenditures of ‘transaction costs.'”

This is where I want to think about the glitchy character of real rhetorical relations. There’s always this patchy, hit or miss quality to communication (as there is to all relations). There are these extensive, ecological assemblages with which we are contending as both writers and readers. We have scripts to follow, but we have many competing scripts to follow, so many different ways to be organized.  I do not mean to suggest that a text cannot be well or poorly composed, organized or disorganized. Instead, the point is that organization is not some meta-entity, some transcendent being, that comes along to impose itself.

Thinking back to yesterday’s post on digital literacy… If one of the many complaints lodged against digital communication is its unsuitability for the tasks of “rigorous” academic work. Yes, I know, you’d think we could get past it. But I think we still struggle with imagining how fully digital scholarship would operate, would be organized (as opposed to the skeuomorphs of the PDF essay for example). Though we should know better, I think we still imagine something transcendent in the organization of the essay that allows it to be academic. What happens when we discover that the essay turns out to be like the façades in those fake Western, Hollywood movie sets? There’s no transcendent organization there, just more texts and readers, editors, publishers, computers, offices, meetings, reviewers letters, libraries, databases, etc. etc. Digital scholarship gets organized in the same way.

In fact, if we want students to produce well-organized essays, we might think in similar terms about the networks, assemblages, and ecologies in which they compose. That’s not to say that student-writers are not actors in this matter, that they are not made to act. They are actors following scripts, scripts they have a hand in authoring.


Categories: Author Blogs

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

11 February, 2015 - 14:27

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.

Current definitions of literacy only account for the gaining of new knowledge, skills, and attitudes, but do not include the deeper components of intention, reflection, and generativity. The addition of aptitude and creativity to the definition emphasizes that digital literacy is an iterative process that involves students learning about, interacting with, and then demonstrating or sharing their new knowledge.

I do think this recognition that digital literacy is an ongoing process of learning rather than a one-time knowledge dump is an ongoing theme in the report. The report also divides strategies for addressing the challenge into areas of policy making, faculty leadership, and practice. So it points to new policies being established by governments and new learning standards built by professional organizations. It recognizes the importance of ongoing professional development for faculty (though this ties into the Report’s “wicked challenge” of figuring out how to reward teaching), and providing support for students from coursework to online resources.  Undoubtedly there is a lot of energy and effort going into this challenge. Far more than there was a decade ago, which is good news. At UB, our revised general education program is very conscious of the task of supporting students’ digital literacy, and that’s a significant step in the direction of “improving digital literacy.”

I remain concerned about the use of the word “literacy.” I am concerned that it leads people to imagine that whatever digital literacy might be is somehow analogous to print literacy (or just plain old literacy). So let’s call it digital literacy instead. You might ask how much listening/speaking and reading/writing have in common? Something, for sure. I’m sure if we strapped you into an fMRI we’d fine some common areas of the brain lighting up for both activities. And maybe overlaps with digitally mediated tasks as well. I find that observation rather unsatisfying though. Reading books and writing essays as a means for becoming digitally literate is analogous to having a first-year composition course where one sits and talks about writing but never actually writes anything. It’s great to talk about writing and it’s useful to read about digital literacy too (as you are doing now), but at some point you have to do it.

And what is “it”? The report acknowledges that digital literacy is a shifting target (which is why we need Horizon Reports in the first place). We can speak broadly of a few general goals:

  • finding and evaluating “good” digital media and information
  • using digital media/technologies to communicate and collaborate on an informal and real-time basis
  • composing digital media

As we might already argue with our legacy writing instruction challenges, these are not generalizable skills. They are specific to networks, assemblages, communities–however you want to think of that.  In fact, if improving digital literacy is a solvable challenge that would be great news because it might mean we could leave behind the apparently not so solvable challenge of improving print literacy.

Still it’s not so useful to just take the air out of someone’s balloon. Even if improving digital literacy proves to be more intractable, at least these folks are taking a whack at it. And so am I. I know my arguments on this blog (and certainly in my more formal scholarship) can prove to be rather abstract, but I do think our challenge partly lies in our abstractions of rhetorical practice, specifically in our anthropocentric notions of symbolic behavior that imagine that regardless of the technology/ecology in which we are immersed, rhetorical action begins and ends with humans.

So, for example,  faculty development is clearly an issue. But teaching professors how to use WordPress or whatever isn’t the issue. If you could magically turn the faculty into highly expert digerati, you’d still be left with sending them back to their disciplines, their curriculum, and their classrooms. You can’t really teach digital literacy in an environment that is ultimately about listening to lectures, taking notes, reading textbooks, writing essays, and passing exams. If faculty can recognize how their curriculum is shaped around certain technological networks/ecologies and the kinds of cognitive/subjective behaviors that emerge and are territorialized within them, then we have a starting point.

Let me put this differently… To what extent is your course and its objectives founded upon the affordances of reading and writing texts on an essentially individual scale (i.e. individual students silently reading or writing texts)? That’s was the focus of print literacy (though we can certainly contest the notion that such things were every really “individual”). Adding a WordPress site to such a course isn’t going to improve students digital literacy. Sure the faculty do need the skills, but they need to use them to rethink curriculum and pedagogy are a far deeper level. Not so solvable, though I wish it was.

Categories: Author Blogs

really thinking: rhetoric and cognition

6 February, 2015 - 14:52

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.

  1. All objects have the capacity to express and be perturbed by expression (though that capacity is not always realized).
  2. Those expressions are themselves autonomous. These are the ontological conditions of what I term a “minimal rhetoric.” I’m not interested in drawing boundaries between rhetorical and not rhetorical, except to argue against the boundary that limits rhetoric to human symbolic behavior.
  3. The relations of expression and perturbation create the capacities for cognition and agency. Again I’m not interested in drawing boundaries regarding which objects have these capacities. Assuming that you ascribe to a theory of evolution then you ascribe to the capacity of thought and agency emerging from nonliving entities.  As Latour would say, through interaction we are “made to act,” which would include being made to think.
  4. I also draw on DeLanda here. The specific development of biological cognitive capacities emerge from their simplest form through interactions with objects. As those capacities develop, the ability to be express and be perturbed expands. We (biological critters) expand our senses into larger spaces, and, with memory, into time as well. That works both backward and forward as we develop the capacity to generate nonsymbolic scripts (expectations of what will happen next). What we can get out of this though is that cognition is an activity that emerges through relations with others and that the increasing capacity of an object to think can be traced in those terms.
  5. So thinking joins a hypothetically infinite range of capacities available to objects through their interactions with others. It’s as real and material as any other activity. It is not ontologically exceptional, even though we tend to value it. As such there’s really no reason to build a universe around the perceived strengths or limits of thinking. When I consider an apple, I engage in an activity with certain capacities over others. When I eat the apple, I engage in an activity with certain capacities over others.
  6. Thinking through an interaction with language (symbolic behavior) produces capacities of its own. The whole process might be speculatively explored, as DeLanda does, as emerging from mechanism-independent processes. Of course no one empirically knows how language came about. From my perspective what’s important is understanding symbolic behavior as co-emergent with cognition as real activities that are ecological. By that I don’t mean that they are related to “everything,” but that there is an extensive network of relations, limited only by our capacities for perturbation, that are at play.

I’m not sure if these claims strike you as obvious or absurd. It would suggest that rhetoric cannot be limited to symbolic behavior or to culture (as opposed to nature) or to humans. It would suggest that looking for cognition in the brain or in language or in society will only offer partial pictures. A realist rhetoric can assert that it is not limited to human thought or symbolic behavior, but it does need to be able to account for them in a way that doesn’t lead one back to idealism or empiricism.

For the mainstream, postmodern rhet/comp person, I suppose symbolic behavior is cultural and ideological. It can overdetermine subjectivity and agency. The only possible escapes are through the indeterminacy of language or the chance that critical thinking produces enough resistance to overdetermination, but there’s never really any outside here. I call this the “agent complex:” which is really like the Higgs Boson problem for postmodernity. Posthuman rhetoric offers in turn a “complex agent,” one where complexity theory describes how agency can emerge in a non-deterministic way.

To end by circling back to DeLanda and Latour, both idealism and empiricism want to impart thought with special ontological powers: to create a space to act free from relation and/or to create an objectively true model of the world. Realism sees thought as another capacity for action, another means of construction or instauration, where acting outside of relation makes no sense and knowledge is always constructed without necessarily being fictional.

Categories: Author Blogs

literary studies, modesty, and a second empiricism

3 February, 2015 - 11:48

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.

So here’s my question. Whether it’s an article like “Why critique has run out of steam” or books from We Have Never Been Modern to An Inquiry into Modes of Existence I’m just not sure where the “modesty” starts showing up. There’s not a great deal of modesty in the argument that what the humanities have been doing for the last couple decades is a load of bollocks. Now, it appears that the literary scholars cited in the article want to hold on to the hermeneutics of suspicion, so maybe that’s where the “modesty” lies: they are modest in their criticisms of their predecessors. Maybe, but somehow I don’t think that’s the point here.

Maybe this is modesty in reference to the “modest witness,” that foundation of scientific method. If so, then this wouldn’t make too much sense with Latour, who would want to account for the many hybridized actors that allow for the construction of modest witnessing. This might make sense inasmuch as the main thrust of this article is to report on a constellation of literary methods that foreground description over interpretation. However I think it is too subtle a connection in the end. As “modest” as the witnesses of scientific experimentation may be, the words modest and science are not generally associated.

No, instead, there’s a very strange kind of modesty that is suggested here. As Williams writes, “surface reading and allied approaches seem to return to an older orientation of criticism, one that sees its mission as more scholarly than political.” Those of us in the humanities business understand exactly what this implies.  To be “political” is to share not only in a kind of leftist political view but also to assert that humanistic interpretation (e.g. literary criticism) is a direct form of political work with a primary obligation of seeking to achieve some political objective. That is, this isn’t simply a wishy-washy way of saying “everything is political;” it is an insistence that humanities scholars conceive of their work as directly participation in an emancipatory project of some kind. Personally, I would suggest that it is debatable the extent to which all humanists really thought (or think) of their work in these direct-action political terms. That said, there have, in my experience, always been a fair number of true believers out there ready to put anyone to the question if their political commitments appeared in doubt. But the modesty here is not even a suggestion that the scholars do not have these political commitments. Instead, it is a suggestion of one of two possible positions: 1) that literary criticism is an ineffective method for achieving political change (imagine that) 2) the focus on interpretation as politics obscures the study of literature.

Either way, Williams ends with the following:

It remains to be seen, though, whether surface reading and allied approaches re-embrace a more cloistered sense of literary studies. I’d like to think that criticism has more to do than accumulate scholarly knowledge, at the least to explain our culture to ourselves, as well as serving as a political watchdog.

Today’s modesty may not bode an academic withdrawal from public life. It may simply register an unsettled moment, as past practices cede and a new generation takes hold. The less-optimistic outlook is that it represents the decline of criticism as a special genre with an important role to investigate our culture. While realism carries less hubris, it leaves behind the utopian impulse of criticism.

Maybe this is good news for realist ontology. Apparently it is no longer arrogant to abandon postmodernity. Apparently there’s no hubris in describing the “modes of existence.” But let me briefly take issue with some of these claims… not in the name of these literary critics but for this more general project of realism or, at least, a Latourian “second empiricism.” In many ways, these approaches are less cloistered. Who is more cloistered than the traditional humanist typing out yet another rehearsal of a critical position, who sits in his/her office with the same old set of books because there’s no point in empirical evidence anyway, no reason to leave the office?

I’m not sure what difference is suggested between accumulating scholarly knowledge and explaining our culture. Of course, in the tradition of postmodernity explaining culture doesn’t require doing scholarship because one already knows what culture is before one begins. It’s deductive reasoning where one already knows what the rules of culture are. Postmodern scholarship never led to an understanding of culture; it just began with one.

Of course what is ultimately at stake here are ideological commitments: scholarship as “political watchdog;” the “utopian impulse of criticism.” These are familiar critiques/attacks from my perspective.  In my 20+ years in academia, it’s always been the case that there are scholars who will insist that everyone must do what they do and share in their theoretical-ideological perspective, To do otherwise is to become some horrible, anti-intellectual, capitalist dupe or collaborator. To which I have learned to say “don’t feed the trolls.” At the same time, I think it is unfair to accuse Latour of not having a political project. Maybe you don’t agree with it, but that’s another matter. It’s true that it isn’t “utopian,” but how can any postmodernist be utopian?  I suppose if one is modest because one does not believe that one’s scholarly work in the humanities (writing scholarly articles, teaching classes, going to committee meetings, etc.) is taking the world on a direct path to utopia, then I’m a modest guy.

Categories: Author Blogs

investigating the Yik Yak attack

29 January, 2015 - 14:47

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?

1. I don’t think we would say that anonymity directs people to free, unfettered action. As such, instead we might seek to uncover the actors and relations from which these rhetorical practices emerge. In my brief forays into Yik Yak, it appears that anonymity does not dissuade users from wanting attention. Users still want to perform and perform well. They want to interact, and they get taken up by the situation. As Latour would say, they are “made to act” or maybe yak in this case. This is not in any way an excuse or defense, but simply a suggestion that it would be wrong-headed to take these anonymous remarks as evidence of what the students “really think.”

2. That said, the web clearly bisects the conventional classroom and deterritorializes its operation. To use DeLanda’s appropriation of assemblage, we would observe that the physical aspects of the room–the orientation of the chairs, the lighting, the chalkboard, etc. etc.–all establish a specific territory which is expressed on a non-symbolic level. These territories are coded further by any number of symbolic interventions from the class schedule to university policies about student behavior, as well as systems that establish social relations between faculty and students. All of these items can also serve deterritorializing and decoding features, as when the lights buzz and flicker in a distracting way, the chairs are uncomfortable, the chalkboard squeaks, class scheduling creates conflicts, or students and faculty decide to start acting in ways beyond their established institutional roles. Similarly the appearance of wifi or cellular data connections in a classroom has the potential to function in a territorializing/coding fashion, when we use the technology toward pedagogical ends, for example. And, in this case, it can deterritorialize the classroom, potentially to such a state that the professor says she cannot proceed.

So what does that tell us about what should be done?  The actions available to institutions are fairly obvious. They can geofence campuses to prevent Yik Yak use. They can prohibit use of devices in classrooms. They can track down and punish offenders. You might say all these actions presume that what the students did was wrong. Maybe, but in this context they reflect the operation of an assemblage in reasserting its territoriality. It’s desire to continue to persist.

Here’s a relevant part of this for me though. Let’s say the same group of students met after the class and made the same comments to one another verbally in private. Or that they used SMS to text one another the same messages, but not in a public forum. Or that they wrote them all out on a piece of paper. These are all very hypothetical situations as part of my contention is that they did what they did precisely because of the environment in which they were operating. Compare those examples with them taking that piece of paper with their comments, making a bunch of photo copies and handing them to their classmates as they left the classroom. Or shouting their comments during the class itself.

Where does this Yik Yak activity fall among these more familiar, mostly “pre-digital,” forms of communication? We can say that it is wrong to say hurtful, sexist things in private, but saying them in public is a different offense, and directing them toward a specific person who is in the audience is yet another. It is likely that the students failed to imagine that their professor would be in their audience. If they had,  we could guess they would have behaved differently, even if they still felt protected by anonymity. Of course that’s only speculation.

Perhaps it would be interesting to “peek” into the EMU Yik Yak community and see if any self-correction takes place or not. Because EMU is not the only assemblage at work here. Yik Yak forms its own assemblage, right? Even though each user typically forms his/her own Yik Yak community based on the phone’s specific location, there is a Yik Yak EMU community. Of course it isn’t nearly as solidified as the college, so it’s hard to suggest that it would operate with some collective intent in the way a college could set a policy. Still I imagine there are many students who would think their peers actions here were unwarranted. As it is, I see back-and-forth on Yik Yak when someone makes a really offensive statement.

So it would be unsurprising for professors collectively or an institution to make some move to reterritorialize their assemblage by geofencing Yik Yak or engaging in some similar move. On the other hand, as Jeff Rice points out, stories like this one are not the norm on Yik Yak, which is typically more banal than anything else, even if the anonymity does lead to a degree of crudeness. Ultimately some mechanisms of social interaction arise to regulate behavior. Even primates demonstrate that!

Categories: Author Blogs

economics and the English job market

9 January, 2015 - 14:32

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.

It’s not hard to imagine how this happens. Some might like to argue that it is a rational process. The best candidates are those who get into and graduate from the best programs. They’ve already been filtered, though the narrowness of the top six hiring one another does seem a little incestuous. (It would be interesting to compare this with other disciplines.) Others are more likely to see this practice as a problem. As onerous and outdated as the current MLA job search practice is, it was implemented to replace a far less fair, old boys network of hiring.  One could argue this study reveals that network is still in effect.

But I’m not here to contend with that issue today.  Instead I want to address faculty at tier 3 or 4 institutions. More than half of you got your degrees from schools in the top 2 tiers. If Colander’s study is accurate, your students aren’t likely to get jobs in the top 3 tiers or win prestigious post-docs. In the top 2 tiers it’s not unreasonable to train students with the idea that successful grads will go onto the positions much like one’s own: research-intensive, low-teaching, doctoral programs, and strong undergrads. But in tiers 3 and 4 this just isn’t the case, but you already knew that, right?

So here’s an extended quote from Colander:

the best explanation of the current job market situation is that English programs are populated with students who love the study of English and want to combine that love of English with some way to make an acceptable living. Students who are not independently wealthy need to have some way to combine their love—the study and teaching of English—with a job that provides sufficient income to live. For many students, even relatively low-paying part-time and adjunct jobs, combined with other part-time, better-paying private-sector jobs ideally using their English skills, are evidently preferable to giving up the study of English. From an economist’s free-choice perspective, if that is what students choose, a program focused solely on actual job training should prepare them for that life as well as possible. Training would be designed, among other things, to prepare students to put together the combination of jobs that is most likely in their future. This is not to argue that the situation they will face is a desirable one, or that the institutional structures governing academic employment should not be changed. But that is a separate issue; job training should focus on preparing students for the institutional reality they will likely face. To my knowledge, no programs do this.

Numerous possibilities exist to address this goal. Most people do not know how to write well, and if more English PhD programs provided training in preparing students to do freelance consulting, analytic writing and composition, rhetoric, copyediting, proofreading, general editing, or tutoring, in addition to the study of literature and literary criticism, their students would have a set of skills that are more marketable than those needed to advance in a research university. The very fact that job placement is thought of primarily in terms of tenure-track academic jobs is suggestive of the problem.

But then, if you’re faculty at one of these institutions, these things have probably crossed your mind. The suggestion that departments should design their programs to prepare students for their future lives as contingent labor is a little shocking (which is not to suggest the situation is desirable, ahem). Though it is easy to respond with anger to Colander’s suggestion, I think what is more to the point, perhaps with the cold, dismal eye of the economist, is what people, both students and faculty, are willing to sacrifice in the name of love: in this case, the love of literature.  Personally I don’t think I can go quite where Colander is going and set up a doctoral program that recognizes that many of its students will  have no better professional future than the one with which they entered the program. He tosses out the idea of non-academic jobs. Fine. Let’s put a pack of economists to the task of identifying current non-academic jobs for which a PhD in English (or some reasonably modified version of such) is a required or at least preferable qualification.

What is reasonable, at least to me, is thinking about how tier 3 and 4 institutions might revise their curriculum to prepare graduates for the kinds of academic jobs they do land.  Again, dog-bites-man I think.

Categories: Author Blogs

Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities: a new essay collection

9 January, 2015 - 08:19

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

Some liner notes:

The digital humanities is a rapidly growing field that is transforming humanities research through digital tools and resources. Researchers can now quickly trace every one of Issac Newton’s annotations, use social media to engage academic and public audiences in the interpretation of cultural texts, and visualize travel via ox cart in third-century Rome or camel caravan in ancient Egypt. Rhetorical scholars are leading the revolution by fully utilizing the digital toolbox, finding themselves at the nexus of digital innovation.

Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities is a timely, multidisciplinary collection that is the first to bridge scholarship in rhetorical studies and the digital humanities. It offers much-needed guidance on how the theories and methodologies of rhetorical studies can enhance all work in digital humanities, and vice versa. Twenty-three essays over three sections delve into connections, research methodology, and future directions in this field. Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson have assembled a broad group of more than thirty accomplished scholars. Read together, these essays represent the cutting edge of research, offering guidance that will energize and inspire future collaborations.

Stuart A. Selber, author of Multiliteracies for a Digital Age “Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson have produced a volume that interrogates the most important questions facing both rhetoric scholars and teachers who are interested in the digital humanities and digital humanists who are interested in the rhetorical dimensions of multimodal texts. Avoiding the negative aspects of territorialism and disciplinary politics, the contributors remix theories, practices, and methods in new and exciting ways, mapping productive relationships between rhetorical studies and the digital humanities and illuminating how these areas intersect and interanimate one another. This volume should be required reading for anyone who cares about the future of writing and reading.” Collin Brooke, Syracuse UniversityRhetoric and the Digital Humanities is a landmark collection for scholars in rhetoric and writing studies. Its attention to procedurality, coding, scholarly communication, archives, and computer-aided methodologies, among other things, maps many of the important changes in disciplinary terrain prompted by the emergence of the digital humanities. It’s also a compelling demonstration of the role that rhetoric and writing studies can and should play in discussions about digital humanities. This book will provide colleagues across the disciplines with a strong sense of the ways that rhetorical studies might intersect with their own work.” Matthew K. Gold, Debates in the Digital Humanities “An important and timely exploration of the many ties that bind the digital humanities and composition/rhetoric. Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities is a much-needed book that will stir conversations in both fields.” The Table of Contents Introduction
Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson

PART ONE  Interdisciplinary Connections

1 Digital Humanities Now and the Possibilities of a Speculative Digital Rhetoric

2 Crossing State Lines: Rhetoric and Software Studies

3 Beyond Territorial Disputes: Toward a “Disciplined Interdisciplinarity” in the Digital Humanities

4 Cultural Rhetorics and the Digital Humanities: Toward Cultural Reflexivity in Digital Making

5 Digital Humanities Scholarship and Electronic Publication

6 The Metaphor and Materiality of Layers

7 Modeling Rhetorical Disciplinarity: Mapping the Digital Network

PART TWO  Research Methods and Methodology

8 Tactical and Strategic: Qualitative Approaches to the Digital Humanities

9 Low Fidelity in High Definition: Speculations on Rhetorical Editions

10 The Trees within the Forest: Extracting, Coding, and Visualizing Subjective Data in Authorship Studies

11 Genre and Automated Text Analysis: A Demonstration

12 At the Digital Frontier of Rhetoric Studies: An Overview of Tools and Methods for Computer-Aided Textual Analysis

13 Corpus-Assisted Analysis of Internet-Based Discourses: From Patterns to Rhetoric

PART THREE  Future Trajectories

14 Digitizing English

15 In/Between Programs: Forging a Curriculum between Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities

16 Tackling a Fundamental Problem: Using Digital Labs to Build Smarter Computing Cultures

17 In, Through, and About the Archive: What Digitization (Dis)Allows

18 Pop-Up Archives

19 Archive Experiences: A Vision for User-Centered Design in the Digital Humanities

20 MVC, Materiality, and the Magus: The Rhetoric of Source-Level Production

21 Procedural Literacy and the Future of the Digital Humanities

22 Nowcasting/Futurecasting: Big Data, Prognostication, and the Rhetorics of Scale

23 New Materialism and a Rhetoric of Scientific Practice in the Digital Humanities

Categories: Author Blogs

when rhetoric gets real

8 January, 2015 - 09:39

In Pandora’s Hope, Latour tells the story of being asked if he “believes in reality.” His response was something to the effect of not realizing that reality was something one needed to believe in. Elsewhere Graham Harman has written of an email exchange with Manual DeLanda, who wrote “For decades admitting that one was a realist was equivalent to acknowledging [that] one was a child molester.” Harman’s response?  “The past tense may be too optimistic, since it is not clear that those decades lie entirely behind us.” That was 2007. Since then we’ve been up, down, and around the hype adoption cycles of speculative realism, new materialism, the “nonhuman turn,” etc., etc.  To be honest, I’m not sure if the result has changed the situation Latour,  DeLanda, and Harman describe.

Rhetoric is in an odd situation is relation to these matters. On the one hand, rhetoric is classically interested in human symbolic action. It’s stereotypical detractors would declare rhetoric to be idealist to a fault, uninterested in “reality” or “truth” and squarely focused  only on what people think and what they can be persuaded to think. On the other hand, rhetoric is equally invested in the ideas of the public and the marketplace, of justice, deliberation, and so on.  In other words, rhetoric recognizes the very real, material effects of symbolic action. One assumes those effects are occurring in reality. Of course, to be an idealist does not require denying reality. It simply means that one’s access to reality is subjective. As the correlationist would put it, one only sees the world as it relates to oneself.

What does it mean to call rhetoric “real”? To start, there are two interrelated takes on this. To be a realist is to assert the existence of a mind-independent reality that exists beyond empirical observation. As DeLanda notes, this means that the realist’s “first task is to delimit the kinds of entities that it considers legitimate inhabitants of the world.” Some parts of the real world exist only in relation to humans (e.g. my university) while others (e.g. mountains) do not, and still other things may exist only in human minds (e.g. arguably heaven and hell, though clearly some may argue that ideas have mind-independent realities as well or think these things exist in the same way mountains do). Certainly one could say that there are rhetorical practices that are as dependent upon humans as a university would be. So a realist would be faced with three options for rhetoric:

  1. Rhetoric exists only in human minds; it is not a legitimate inhabitant of the world.
  2. Rhetoric is real but dependent upon humans to exist.
  3. Rhetoric exists independent of humans. If there suddenly were not humans, there would still be rhetoric.

So let’s say I adopt position #3, with the recognition that there are certain rhetorical practices that would fit #2. Such a statement would be speculation. One would have to establish means for investigating the claim, as DeLanda does with his concept of quasi-causal mechanisms. There are other theories out there, of course.

What are some of the implications of this position?

  1. Rhetoric precedes humans and thus symbolic action. Rather than rhetoric being invented as a way of using language, language emerges as a capacity of rhetorical interaction.
  2. Rhetoric is not an exclusively human trait. It is not evidence of the ontological exceptionality of humans. It is not evidence of a human-social-cultural world that is ontologically separate from the natural world.
  3. Human practices of rhetoric emerges, of necessity, in relation to nonhuman rhetoric. There is no purely human or social rhetoric.
  4. Because human practices of rhetoric rely upon nonhumans (of all kinds), those practices shift along with our nonhuman relations (the obvious example being media technologies).
  5. Though human practices shift over time and space, there is no inherently human rhetorical practice that can be threatened by these changes.
  6. That said, human-nonhuman relations (networks, assemblages) shape rhetorical practices, which in turn have other real effects.

In my view, as rhetoricians, and teachers of rhetoric in particular, we proceed everyday as if we believe #6. When we ask students to sit in a circle; when we do some freewriting to give students a chance to think through a question or “get the juices flowing;” when we ask students to put away their cell phones; when we require students to write in one genre rather than another; when we write on the chalk board, use a handout, or show a video; do we not do those things because we believe the nonhumans involved shape our capacities for rhetorical action?

If I add into this something like Andy Clark’s extended mind, then what is asserted here about rhetorical practice might be broadened to all those things that we might conventionally view as the product of human thought. I tend to think of it this way. Thoughts are real. They can be measured empirically, if partially, by fMRI and other technologies. They have real effects, like this blog post. Thoughts may be ephemeral, short-lived, but so is a gust of wind. Is the gust real?  Are subatomic interactions occurring in “planck time” not real? Thoughts are just things in the world. Some emerge in relation to humans; others do not. At the very least we would say some other animals think. In my view, even if we limited rhetoric to a subset of things that humans think (which I would not), this would not make rhetoric any less real.

Instead one might ask the reverse question. Is rhetoric a kind of thought? Or is thought a kind of rhetorical relation? That is, do rhetorical relations create the conditions for the capacities of thought and agency?  If I asserted that the minimal requirements for a rhetorical encounter were an expressive force and an object capable of sensing the expression, would that presuppose thought? I don’t know. I am not particularly interested in studying the rhetorical relations among rocks or quasars or even among a flock of geese or a stand of trees, but I’m also not interested in declaring a priori that such investigations are out of bounds.

I am interested in investigating nonhumans participating in human rhetorical practices, media technologies in particular, though not exclusively. Take for example, the image attached to this post which depicts guest workers in Djibouti seeking cell signals from across the sea so that they can phone home.  How can we study the ways such nonhumans participate in our rhetorical and cognitive activity? The idealist can only look into the human mind (which I would not term as a legitimate inhabitant of the world); perhaps one can say something about capitalism. The empiricist (e.g. the cognitive rhetorician or the activity theorist) is limited to the observable world, to her qualitative methods. So one might observe and interview these guest workers, and I will not deny the usefulness of that work. However the signature difference with the realist (and DeLanda puts this well) is that one does not view the knowledge one creates as a representation of either a mind-dependent (idealist) or mind-independent (empirical) reality but as a construction, a composition (as Latour says in his manifesto), that has effects. As such one can go beyond the empirical representation or cultural-critical interpretation of these guest workers to speculate on the networks of relations that produce this event.  As Latour observes, when we create scientific knowledge we change the world. Of course we do, why else would we go to all that work?

And this brings me back to the native heart of rhetoric: effecting change, persuading.  Though in many ways the study of rhetoric appears distinctly suited to idealism, when we think of rhetoric as practice, as know-how, in a way that philosophy can never be, it has realist roots. If rhetoric isn’t the know-how to interact/compose with objects to have real effects, then what is it?



Categories: Author Blogs

Star Wars, empires, WPAs, and postcomposition

8 December, 2014 - 14:11

I’m working on the fourth chapter of my monograph, where the focus will be more on pedagogy, and I’ve been reading Sid Dobrin’s Postcomposition, which is a great book in my view. Basically I agree with Dobrin. Our discipline has defined itself, and the study of writing, in terms of subjectivity, and more specifically in terms of teaching subjects (i.e. students) to write. In doing so, it has developed a resistance to “theory,” that is, a resistance to postmodern theory. Dobrin doesn’t pull many punches in this regard, especially when it comes to his discussion of the WPA organization or wpas (i.e. people serving roles like mine). In some respects, his argument reminds me of Sirc’s in Composition as a Happening where we point to the formation of the discipline some 30-40 years ago and wonder if we might not have gone in a different direction.

Here’s the line from Dobrin that inspires the title of this post:

Empires often form in part by using a rhetoric of safety, espousing protection of individual difference under imperial rule. Unification and standardization are imperial tools for consolidating rule. Disparate locals fighting individual institutional battles are willing to offer votes of confidence to a ruling system if that system stands as an ally (underhanded though it was, this was specifically how Palpatine was able to gain control over the Senate and achieve a vote of nonconfidence int he Republic, leading eventually to the formation of the Empire). Hence, the immediate benefit of empire is the manner in which the homogenizing force is able to counter previous oppressions of individual entities. In this sense standardization and homogenization become better systems than those previously in place. The history of composition studies’ oppression is countered in the building of Empire. (107)

FYC is created based on a perception of student need/deficiency. From the start, it’s about the students. Dobrin’s point is that composition builds its disciplinary empire (such as it is) on meeting this student need and then later on the administration of the vast programs of TAs and adjuncts deployed. In this chapter, picks out Richard Miller’s 1999 PLMA article “‘Let’s Do the Numbers': Comp Droids and the Prophets of Doom,” which makes the argument that rhet/comp doctoral programs should focus on WPA administration, since that’s where the jobs are.  By chance, another Star Wars reference? Though here Miller is referring to a Cary Nelson article in which Nelson refers to the attitude of faculty at elite institutions who view teaching writing in terms of

Rhet/Comp Droid assembly lines. These dedicated “droids,” so many literature faculty imagine, will fix comma splices, not spaceship wiring. But why give Rhet/Comp Droids extra leisure time? What are they going to do with time off? They beep and whir and grade, that’s all. They’re not training for research.

Better a droid than a stormtrooper I suppose. We seem to be mixing analogies here. Nevertheless there seem to be several inter-related elements here:

  • the discover of a widespread and significant student need for writing instruction
  • the invention of a course (FYC) and the invention of a class of instructors to teach the course (TAs/Adjuncts)
  • the invention of a discipline that manages these and validates them through research

Dobrin suggests shifting research away from student-subjects and pedagogy and toward the study of writing itself as an ecological process (a la Guattari): an ecocomposition. That points at both the first and third bullets. Change the conversation. He also argues for a the elimination of our reliance on contingent labor to deliver FYC. He doesn’t really call it an abolitionist argument, but abolishing the FYC curriculum is one way to achieve that goal. Though what happens to composition studies if there is no FYC?

So I’m coming at this from a similar angle as my book basically comes from the position of suggesting that our discipline (and higher education in general) struggles to address digital literacy because of its commitments to view symbolic behavior as an exceptional characteristic of human-ness. In other words, when we say “writing” we struggle not to see human writers. If, on the other hand, rhetoric viewed itself as studying the nonhuman activities/objects we call writing (broadly conceived), including the relation of humans with writing then it would come at these issues differently. Maybe that sounds like a Jedi mind trick. I don’t know. I think it means something like this. Academic-disciplinary writing networks/activity systems/assemblages involve humans. They have various mechanisms for establishing this involvement. As rhetoricians we might study these mechanisms (among many other things). And we might teach people about these mechanisms. But we don’t necessarily need to be the mechanism and we don’t need to be the managers of the mechanism either.

I am maybe a little more sympathetic to the wpa than Dobrin. I agree that the wpa is not a position from which to launch revolutions. That said, at UB the Senate just approved a revision to our general education curriculum. If it is implemented as proposed, we will be replacing our part-time adjuncts with full-time NTT positions teaching writing in the disciplines across the campus. Fear not, there will still be an army of TAs for a wpa to oversee in the FYC program. Not revolution but decent reform, if seen through to the end. Any venture of this size is going to need administration. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong in that. As I see it, the problem FYC has often faced (depending on the campus) is that the instructors are part-time (even the TAs) and not integrated into a discipline. A smaller number of full-time disciplinary instructors could offer a very different curriculum and culture, one that would very much change the role of the wpa. However it wouldn’t be easy because we don’t really know what we would put in place of FYC. Even the “writing studies” approach, which purports to introduce students to discipline, is still a discipline defined by the study of FYC.

What would a disciplinary replacement for FYC look like if it wasn’t an introduction to composition studies but an introduction to writing studies otherwise shaped? How would it define itself in relation to the broader goals of general education (assuming it would still be a required general education course)? Who would teach it and by what method? Would we still need small classes? What would we do with the TAs that we displaced? How would we meet their needs?

I imagine I’ll touch on some of those questions in my book, though not really the last ones as those are questions that necessarily have local answers.


Categories: Author Blogs

changing the ends of scholarship

26 November, 2014 - 09:32

A continuation of the last post on graduate education…

As I think more about it, it’s fairly obvious that this is all part of a larger system with graduate curriculum as the obvious start point. Graduate coursework is also folded into later parts of the process from the perspective of the faculty (who teach their research). I’ll take it as a given that the production of scholarship is a necessary feature of the academy, though it should be clear that the relationship between faculty and research is a historical one that could, in theory, change. Obviously the demands on faculty to produce scholarship vary by institution and over time. That variation comes in terms of content and method, not just in amount. It also varies in terms of genre, which makes sense as genre would be interwoven with content and method. These variations occur natureculturally (to coin an obnoxious adverb).

I’ve written about this matter many times. It’s one of the primary themes of this blog and my scholarship. In English Studies, really across the humanities, our research practices are woven in tight and specific ways with 20th-century print culture and technologies, as well as persistent values about symbolic behavior and cognition stemming from the modern world. Put as a question: why do we write single-author monographs? Answer: cuz. There’s no real reason other than the cybernetic, territorializing forces of institution and history, which admittedly are quite powerful. Lord knows no one really wants to read them. But we believe in the totemic power of the monograph. It is undoubtedly a particular kind of scholarly experience. It has heft, or something. It represents long hours of sustained, focused, introspective and productive thought, and that is what we value I think: a particular model of the “life of the mind.”

It’s not possible to snap one’s fingers and change these things, but things have been shifting for a long time, at least 30 years. Funding for higher education, the availability of tenure-track positions, the popularity of the humanities, the viability of the academic publishing marketplace, the changing demographics of student populations, the emergence of digital media: yes, things have been changing for a while, and that doesn’t even begin to address changes within disciplines. Those are extra-disciplinary drivers.

So let me just offer a hypothetical. Let’s say we worked in small groups and published research collectively. No doubt it would be painful initially. Then in the future we hired faculty on the basis of joining one of these groups and we admitted graduate students to participate in these groups. Those students wouldn’t need to produce single-author dissertations because that’s not the kind of work any of us would be doing. Instead, after being trained, they’d go off and join similar research groups elsewhere as professors. If you don’t like that hypothetical, that’s fine. It isn’t meant as a serious proposal. Instead it’s meant to illustrate the ways in which the problems we have with graduate education are interwoven with the larger activity systems of humanities research. We don’t have to be what we are. We certainly don’t have to be what our academic predecessors were.



Categories: Author Blogs

What’s worse? Coursework or dissertation?

25 November, 2014 - 20:16

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.

But that’s not really what doctoral programs are about. Instead, as near as I can figure, the graduate curriculum is a tool for creating a particular kind of intellectual, disciplinary, scholarly community. In that community, professors carry out their research and discuss their research with their students in seminars, and students attend seminars and pursue their own research interests under the guidance of faculty. Let’s just postulate that this is a good thing worth preserving, or at least that the community is worth preserving. Maybe there would be a way of supporting this community while shortening the years of coursework and also making the dissertating process more efficient. But then that really points to back to the central disconnect. The reason for making the path to the Phd shorter and more efficient is to reduce the demands placed on students and the risks they take in relation to the job market. But if we want to do that, then we really need to be asking very different questions.

Categories: Author Blogs

writing and the speed of thought

23 November, 2014 - 12:02

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.

However, over the years, I’ve also come to find that an exhausting, unpleasant, and unsustainable process. Also, it is perhaps not the most productive approach. In composition studies, mostly through CHAT and video game studies, we’ve become familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. In neuroscience, flow states have become associated with transient hypofrontality, a concept that’s been around for about a decade I believe. What is that? Basically (and I will not pretend to more than a basic understanding), transient refers to a mental state that comes and goes. Hypofrontality references a reduction in the operation of the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for all of our higher order cognitive operations, including symbolic behaviors). Transient hypofrontality is commonly associated with certain practices like mediation, hypnosis, runner’s high, and the use of certain drugs (e.g. LSD). It is also associated with flow states. This appears counter-intuitive. Typically we imagine that we are at our most capable when our prefrontal cortex is fully engaged, not when it is operating in a reduced way. Transient hypofrontality suggests a reduction in our attention. As the article linked above suggested, athletic performance causes hypofrontality because physical demands are reflected in cognitive demands for implicit (i.e. unconscious) mental systems. I think that’s why I enjoy exercise. If you push yourself hard enough, you literally lose your capacity to think.

What does this have to do with writing and particularly with writing practices that are intertwined with exploration and invention (as opposed to more transactional and mundane writing practices)? Writers have used a variety of strategies from drug use to automatic writing to activate hypofrontality. That’s nothing new. And there’s research into writing and flow states. However I’ve always thought about it as speeding up. Now I wondering if it is better to think of this as slowing down. Not as fully activating the brain and putting it all to work, pushing it to its limits, but calming the mind.

Categories: Author Blogs

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

10 November, 2014 - 12:12

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.)

From the perspective of first-year composition programs one ends up mostly with idealist curricula which focus on subjectivity, culture, representation, and ideology and view “the writing process” in those terms (i.e as something we think rather than something real that we observe). Because things like ideology and culture are not directly observable, empirical approaches to composition tend to focus on a smaller scale, perhaps genre for example, which is not to say that they also do not assert theoretical constructs like ideology. Empiricism allows for both, as we see with CHAT which combines Marixan philosophy with empirical methods.

So what about realism? Realism as DeLanda defines it sit opposed to idealism and empiricism on a fundamental question. Idealists and empiricist both decide a priori what makes up the world. It is either “appearances (entities as they appear to the human mind) or directly observable things and events.” Realists, however, do not know a priori what the contents of the world may be for the world may contain beings that cannot be observed. As such, realists must speculate. Now from here DeLanda goes into his particular version of speculative realism. As it happens I think his approach is especially useful for considering the role realism might play in composition studies, specifically by his claim that “knowledge is produced not only by representations but by interventions.”

What does this mean? Basically, in DeLanda’s realist philosophy what is real is not a priori, transcendental, or essential. It is emergent in the relations among things. As such, we can know things not simply by representing some transcendental truth but by intervening, and thus making or constructing knowledge. This to me is very sympathetic with Latour. It also results in an epistemological division between “know that” (representation) and “know how” (making).  This has a clear pedagogical implication:

Unlike know-that, which may be transmitted by books or lectures, know-how is taught by example and learned by doing: the teacher must display the appropriate actions in front of the student and the student must then practice repeatedly until the skill is acquired. The two forms of knowledge are related: we need language to speak about skills and theorize about them. But we need skills to deploy language effectively: to argue coherently, to create appropriate representations, to compare and evaluate models. Indeed, the basic foundation of a literate society is formed by skills taught by example and learned by doing: knowing how to read and how to write.

DeLanda’s argument ultimately suggests that realists are better poised to deal with questions of know-how. We see a similar view in Latour and even in some of the object-oriented ontology interest in carpentry.

Conventionally in composition studies we encounter a problem of translation in trying to shift from idealist knowledge about rhetorical theory (e.g. logos, pathos, ethos) or empirical knowledge about process (e.g. we know that writers have these practices) to teaching how to write. Empiricists end up trying to argue that disciplinary representational knowledge about writing (i.e. knowing that writing works in certain ways) can be a useful tool in learning how to write in a particular situation. This is the writing about writing approach. Idealists similarly suggest that knowing that ideology and culture operate in particular ways in relation to discourse will make us better writers…. somehow. Realists, on the other hand, actually have a different set of ontological-epistemological options available to them. For the realist it isn’t about theory and knowledge on the one hand and practice on the other, with no reliable way to get across the divide. Instead, know-how has its own theories (of intervention), its own ways of determining significance (of what makes a difference). Know-how can be taught just as reliably as know-that.

So the realist compositionist might say rather that discovering and teaching the “know-that” of our discipline, can we teach the “know-how” of our discipline, which might be where the practice of rhetoric (as opposed to the idealist or empirical study of rhetoric) lies.


Categories: Author Blogs