Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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an archeology of the future
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digital humanities and the close, hyper, machine

18 August, 2016 - 16:47

As you may have seen, the LA Review of Books completed its series on the digital humanities today with an interview with Richard Grusin. I don’t know Richard all that well, though of course I am familiar with his work, and our paths did cross at Georgia Tech when I was a Brittain Fellow in the nineties. I have expressed some disagreement in the past with his arguments regarding the “dark side” of the digital humanities, but I’m not going to rehash those here. Instead I want to focus on this interview and connect it with some other ideas banging around in my head these days.

Grusin begins with this:

In the 1990s, I was really enthusiastic for this change because I was convinced that Western culture had undergone a major transformation in technologies of representation, communication, information, and so forth. It seemed to me that since education was not a natural form — it emerged at a certain historical moment under certain historical and technological conditions — and since those conditions were changing, we needed to change our response to it.

I’m not sure what to make of the past tense here. Is he no longer convinced there has been a “major transformation”? Certainly he still sees education as a historical process, and as such it would be only logical to assert that technological changes would result in educational changes–regardless of the degree to which “we” steered those changes. I put “we” in scare quotes as I’m not sure who is in that group. And, to be clear, education has changed a fair amount in the last 20-25 years. Maybe not as much as some other aspects of our culture, maybe not in ways we like, but it has changed.  And while we should (and do, extensively) discuss larger technological, economic, and other cultural forces that have shaped those changes, we (meaning those of us in the humanities, and English Studies in particular) should acknowledge our general, collective failure to rise to this challenge over the last quarter century.

If I were to summarize the response of English to the Internet over the last 25 years (roughly the period of my participation in the profession, starting in grad school), I’d say we ignored these changes at our peril and got steamrolled.

But on to the next quote, actually two quotes:

digital technologies in the classroom are really a way of engaging students, both in terms of talking to them about social media and in terms of objects of analysis. This is the life students lead. And as a teacher I think making what you teach relevant to your students is really important.

I think there are two places where digital work in the humanities is being done, and often being done outside the academy. One of these places is participatory culture. There has been an explosion of students writing online, be it blogging or fan fiction or whatever. And I think this is really one of the places where digital work in the humanities is being done as a result of changes in technology. We haven’t really made enough of a connection between this kind of participatory culture and the classroom, but I think we are moving in that direction. The other place is in the classroom. We think of the public in a kind of consumerist way. But our students are also the public.

In effect, here are the changes mentioned in the earlier quote. Humans interact in fundamentally different ways than 25 years ago. They routinely make things, share things, and do things that were largely unimagined in the 90s. This is as true of our students as it is anyone else, maybe more so. Undoubtedly those digital cultural spaces are replete with social, political, ethical, rhetorical, and aesthetic challenges. In other words, there’s plenty for us humanists to do there: plenty for us to study, to make, and to teach. I imagine that’s what Grusin was thinking himself 25 years ago. Maybe it’s too late now for the humanities. Maybe. But no one can really know that and there’s no point for humanists to act as if that were the case.

So when we think about the digital humanist engagement with these issues (and here I’m going back to the other part of the title of this blog post), we think about questions of the impact of technologies on literacy and thinking (or at least that’s where my head goes). I’ve been thinking about Katherine Hayles’ now familiar distillation of reading practices into the “close” (what you were taught in grad school), the “hyper” (what teenagers do on their phones), and the “machine” (what some many of the DH debates are about). As I was mulling these over in my head, I kept repeating them: close… hyper… machine… close… hyper… machine… Close, hyper machine.

Sure, it’s obvious. It’s that phone in your pocket. That machine that is close against your body, prone to spasmodic and hyper vibrations and tones. It’s that device you touch an average of 2,617 times every day. [I’ll give you time to insert your own joke here.]


The smartphone works as a good starting point for what interests me. However I also want to think about a more abstract machine, but one that is no less proximate, intimate, or excitable for its abstraction. Grusin notes his own enduring interest in mediation, and that’s what at stake here. The smartphone is one instantiation of an interface between the human body and the digital media ecology, but there are others. On the other side of that interface are a plethora of nonhuman interactions, and then, somewhere beyond them, there’s you, reading this text (that is, assuming that you’re a human reader). It’s important to investigate all those nonhuman interactions, but our relations with these close, hyper machines are equally pressing (pun intended). If we can think about media, documents, genres, software, hardware, discourse, symbols as these close hyper machines that activate our capacities for conscious thought (as well as other affective, subconscious, and unconscious responses), then I really think we’re on to something durable as humanists. That’s what I think Grusin was seeing in the 90s. Certainly other people were seeing it, other humanists (Ulmer comes to mind).

I know all this digital humanities talk is largely about something else. It’s about what literary scholars are going to get up to in the next decade or so. As I’ve said before, that’s not a problem to which I give much thought. I do find interesting the ways they articulate digital media when they argue for or against this or that. I wish I could say that now that this LARB series is over we could just put all that business in the rear view mirror.  Certainly we could use with a more productive discourse about how the humanities will operate in the digital world, maybe one that started by drawing on the rich existing conversations in media study, the cultural study of technology, and digital rhetoric about these matters.

buzz… buzz..

Categories: Author Blogs

risk, reward, and revolution in an object-oriented democracy

26 July, 2016 - 09:17

If you happen to go back and look at my posts from a decade ago (though why would you?), you’d find some very strongly-worded political commentary. Maybe it’s because I’m older or maybe it’s because social media is such a morass of political invective that it just doesn’t interest me anymore as a writer.  That doesn’t mean I don’t still have strong political views; I just don’t write about them. I suppose that decision is like a decision many people face today that gets discussed in terms of pragmatism, values, and feelings. Maybe I should be honest to the way I feel about my country, regardless of the facts or consequences. Maybe I need to vote my values recognizing that a pragmatic choice for a likely candidate I don’t especially like won’t get me what I want. Or maybe I need to be practical.

[A short aside on pragmatism. Everyone remembers the hanging chad Florida recount thing. People don’t really remember that in New Hampshire, Bush won by ~7,000 votes and ~22,000 people in the state voted for Nader. If 1/3 had voted for Gore instead, he’d have been President. You could say the protest vote almost worked if the point of the protest vote was to bring about radical national change. The Bush administration almost destroyed the United States with economic devastation, illegal wars, the abridging of human rights both at home and abroad, and so on. Trump is easily 10 times crazier than Bush. The only question I have is if far left voters think a Trump administration will stop short of causing a global depression through trade wars, a multi-continent military conflict among nuclear powers, and military occupation of American cities to put down protests. I’m not saying that a Trump presidency would necessarily be that awful, though I think it would be bad enough. I’m just wondering if the protest voters on the far left are hoping that the consequences of a Trump presidency would be so bad as to finally lead to a revolution.]

But I digress.

As I see it, the basic point of an object-oriented democracy is recognizing the way in which nonhuman actors produce political agency. I.e., we are made to act as candidates, voters, elected officials, and so on.  In Latour, it’s always about trials of strength, so some of those nonhumans can be fairly directly influenced by human action, like creating laws or forming committees and so on. Others, like climate change or markets, operate a different levels of complexity and power. We affect them, of course, but we can’t simply exert control of them in a trial of strength. So we gather human and nonhuman actors together for the purpose of producing knowledge, technologies, policies, laws, and practices that might have the strength to act. And here perhaps I diverge more into DeLanda than Latour: we participate in governments, markets, and similar assemblages that include humans but are not in themselves human or necessarily “for humans.” That is to say they don’t naturally exist for us, for our betterment, or to serve our interests. Figuring out how to thrive in these assemblages is what politics is about.

So here’s how “revolutionary” I get. We might reform the democratic process so that we have at least five viable political parties where no single party can acquire more than 1/3 of the popular vote. How would we do that? We’d probably have to just agree to dissolve the Democratic and Republican parties. Maybe that would be enough. We might cap an absolute limit on the amount of money any one political party can spend on candidates, preventing the formation of massive national parties. I’m not sure.

We need to reduce the power of the executive branch. I’m not sure if that would take rewriting the Constitution or if it is really more a matter of changing how we view the job ideologically. The point would be that the president would no longer set the direction for national policy, and I don’t believe there’s anything in the Constitution that would need to change for that to happen.

Here’s the tricky part. Rather than having a simply majority vote in the legislative branch, there would need to be consensus. Every political party with at least 10% of the representatives would need to agree to a proposal in order for it to pass. In other words, people would actually have to make concessions to one another; if you agree to this, I’ll agree to that. What a nightmare, right? Also, (just for the hell of it), we might say that every proposal would include some empirical measure for its promised outcomes (assessment for everyone!). Then we could really know if the efforts we were making were having their intended effects.

Or we could make it regional. We could divide the nation into five or six regions and say all the regions would have to agree to any national law.  That could be pretty crazy. Not as crazy as violent revolution in the hope something better comes out the other end but still pretty crazy.

We could just break up into a dozen or so separate nations with something like the EU to join us together.

To be clear: I’m only kidding about this stuff. I have no intention of defending such ideas. I don’t have confidence that the reformation of these kinds of political structures would result in justice, equity, or whatever other name one might call one’s ideological aims and values. My point is that we would require some significant structural changes to the legislative process to make the United States work differently, and even then who knows what would happen.

At the same time, none of that is an argument in favor of the status quo either. My only point is that this is the site of political change: the revision of the networks and assemblages by which capacities for political agency arise. Those revisions need not be partisan any more than the US Constitution is itself partisan for the way it describes the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.  Maybe, regardless of political leanings, we all just want to operate by a different set of rules.

Categories: Author Blogs

thinking with Manuel Delanda in rhetoric and composition

17 July, 2016 - 07:29

Perhaps you are familiar with the recent and excellent essay collection, Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition (edited by Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers). If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, but I’m not here to talk about it today. It’s just the inspiration for the title of this missive, where I playfully ask why don’t we have a similar book about Manuel Delanda?

The occasion for this post is the publication of Delanda’s latest book Assemblage Theory, which, if I were to compare it to a book of Latour’s it would be like Reassembling the Social, in that it represents an overview of the assemblage theory which Delanda has built over the course of his career in much the same way as Reassembling the Social is “an introduction to actor-network theory.” Though one could write a dissertation on the differences between Delanda and Latour, assemblage theory and actor-network theory have some key similarities in that they both find inspiration in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Latour terms himself an empiricist (of a sort) and Delanda importantly calls himself a realist philosopher and was among the earliest “new materialists.” Put from a different perspective, I imagine Latour and Delanda annoy many of the same people in very similar ways. That said, if a book like Thinking with Bruno Latour is part of growing interest in our field in new materialism (or as Lynch and Rivers put it”Rhetoric’s new thing is, in fact, things.”) then Delanda should be a part of that interest.

So why don’t we have a Thinking with Manuel Delanda book?

Pragmatically speaking, it isn’t hard to come up with an answer. Not that many people in our field know much about Manuel Delanda. Rhetoricians have been writing with some frequency about Latour since the 80s, and Latour is simply a more widely-cited and better known scholar across the humanities. So in market terms, I don’t know if a book with that title would really fly. But for my purposes that response just begs the question why don’t rhetoricians know more about Delanda?

I suppose Delanda’s work is strange and difficult. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines and A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History attend to matters fairly far afield from rhetoric and composition. They take up difficult concepts from Deleuze and Guattari. As the opening of Nonlinear History  notes, despite the title, it’s a book of philosophy not history. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy is, if anything, even more difficult in its deployment of scientific and mathematical concepts. It may be Latour that we most often (and appropriately) identify with science studies, but Delanda really takes up science and math in powerful but also very complex ways. And all of that seems quite distant from our disciplinary interests.

As you might imagine, I’ve long felt differently about this. My book The Two Virtuals took up Delanda’s work, and in ways that have only more recently come clear to me, there are important fundamental connections. Basically, the “two” virtuals in the title are the “virtual reality” we associate with digital media and the “virtual philosophy” that comes from Deleuze (and Delanda). In what I think is an obvious but still overlooked point, the “composition” in rhetoric and composition asks “how are texts made?” The answer to that question stands on one’s more fundamental ontological commitments. That is, any question about composing is a question of ontology. Our earliest disciplinary answers, which created the writing process, had empiricist commitments; our more contemporary, post-process answers about power, ideology, and discourse have idealist commitments. Delanda’s realist ontology is quite different from either (and it is different from Latour’s “second empiricism” though I think one might deploy both usefully, even if they are not fully compatible).

At it’s core, Delanda’s assemblage theory relies on two conceptions: emergence and exteriority.  This is an over-simplification, but basically emergence asserts that when an assemblage forms (from other assemblages, yes all the way down in the actual world), it takes on new properties and capacities that were not available to its components. Here are two examples: a single molecule of water cannot boil, but a pot of water can; a roomful of phds cannot grant degrees, but a university can.  In familiar terms, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The concept of exteriority goes the other direction. It asserts the ontological independence of the parts. So I am a professor at UB but I can leave that job and still be me (though a version of me with different capacities); a water molecule can be part of an ice sculpture but once it melts way it is still water. Delanda’s focus has been on exploring the processes by which assemblages form.

If Latour offers a powerful empirical practice where one can follow human and nonhuman actors to describe how particular rhetorical acts are composed (or instaurated, to use Latour’s term), Delanda provides a way to investigate the machines by which these assemblages operate. Just to think about something very familiar to all of us as an example: the scholarly article. Latour would offer us an empirical practice for observing and interviewing scholars as they compose and publish an article. One could consider the nonhumans involved in the composing practice and follow the network through editors, reviewers, and so on. One would consider how the author describes the genre of the article and how she is “made to act” but her relations with it. Delanda’s assemblage theory allows one to work at other scales however, both larger and smaller. The author composing an article is an assemblage. The interactions within her brain are assemblages. The discipline is an assemblage. The genre is an assemblage. Assemblage theory describes the mechanisms by which assemblages work, but importantly they are not mechanisms that convey specific characteristics to the assemblages that they form.

I know I’m not really doing justice to the concept here, especially when there are many other texts that take up this matter in far greater detail, including the occasion for this post, Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory. I’m hoping it’s a text that will lead to more engagement in our discipline with this work.

Categories: Author Blogs

sharing and caring in the social web

9 July, 2016 - 08:27

In the nightmarish scene below, a purple dinosaur commands that you “share your stuff:”

If you are of a certain generation, younger than I (or parents of that generation), then the refrain that “sharing is caring” might be echoing through your skull. In the world of Fb, of course, sharing takes on a whole new dimension.  As familiar as you might be with Barney, most of my colleagues would recognize the Marxian argument of Trebor Scholz‘s notion of “immaterial free labor.” As Scholz writes (in 2008), “People like to be where other people are. They enjoy using these platforms: from entertainment, to staying in touch with friends and family, to chatting, remixing, collaborating, sharing, and gossiping, to getting a job through the mighty power of weak links. It’s a tradeoff. Presence does not produce objects but life as such that is put to work and monetary value is created through the affective labor of users who are either not aware of this fact or do not mind it (yet). In short, sharing is producing, though we might also note recent concerns from Facebook that people aren’t sharing the personal details of their life as much as they once did but rather shifting to sharing web content. Though Fb might struggle to figure out what to do with this sharing practice, there’s much to investigate in this burgeoning habit of ours to share.

If your Fb is like mine, then the occasion of various violent acts–police shootings (now in both directions), mass shootings, terrorist attacks–have become all-too regular content on your timeline. If your friends are like mine, then they remark on their struggles to figure out how to respond or on the affective effect of the content. Some take up the political kairos of the moment. Some are angry; some are hurt. Others respond to the ethical obligation to express sympathy. No one would deny that there are bigger issues to address regarding these events than what happens on Fb: racism, terrorism, our cultural propensity for violence, etc., etc., etc. And yet, here we are, on Fb. Undoubtedly we are getting something from it. I will admit that it is elusive to me, at least on a subjective level. That is, I’ve never felt the desire or obligation to share, comment, change my photo, and so on in response to such events, or at least I’ve not felt it strongly enough to do it. So for me to understand it, I have to try to get at it from a more distant conceptual level without falling for the easy errors of such an approach to judge, criticize or explain away what others do.

So that’s what brings me back to the idea that sharing is caring. The “share” button doesn’t really mean sharing in the way Barney meant it. For Barney, sharing means giving something to someone else that they want and by doing so denying yourself that thing, like when kids share their toys. On Fb we mean something a little closer to sharing ideas, which others may not want and which, rather than denying them for ourselves, actually might make our hold on those ideas stronger. In that respect, sharing ideas is more like sharing a cold than it is sharing toys; so much so that we commonly say ideas can be viral. In a meta sense one might say that the idea of sharing has gone viral. Oddly we seem to like the notion of viral ideas. We are quick to share them. As the TED talks remind us, they are “ideas worth spreading.” I suppose I could (and briefly will) offer a pseudo-anthropological explanation where human societies have been held together by our ability to share information and that one’s standing in one’s community is bolstered by one’s sharing and reaffirmed when others value that sharing. In short, sharing is a mark of belonging and a way to belong. The more an idea has been shared the more likely it is to be shared again. And you can see this on your timeline where friends keep sharing the same information over and over. Do you friends really think that you don’t know about the global/national tragedy that happened yesterday? Of course not. So  why do they care to share?

Here I suppose I would turn, as I tend to, toward media-ecological, materialist explanations of distributed cognition and emergent capacities of agency (as Latour would say, we are “made to act”). In the world of Fb, when we encounter an idea (or more specifically a media object because we aren’t literally sharing an idea), we gain the capacity to share it. We can then look at the rhetorical forces involved that lead us to act on that capacity. On Fb, users are made to share. Not forced to share, but composed as agents capable of sharing, who inevitably will share given various other conditions.

If sharing on Fb isn’t quite what Barney meant, then maybe neither is caring. There’s caring as in caring for a child or caring for the victims of a tragedy. Then there’s caring as in caring about the presidential election: an expression of interest and value. It’s possible that sharing a news event could be an act of care in the first sense, but mostly I think it’s more in the second sense. If I share something I care about then it is an expression of my values and a way to mark my place in a community. Maybe that sounds cynical, and I suppose it could be cynical at times, but mostly it’s just the way we connect with one another. But just as we are made to share we are made to care. Not forced to care but composed as agents capable of caring, who inevitably will care about something.

What I get from all this and from the operation of Fb, especially recently in my timeline at least, is that it is probably worth investigating the way we are composed to share and care through our encounters with this platform. As apropos as Scholz’s warning about affective labor was and is, the rhetorical-cognitive-agential capacities that emerge through our relations with social media seem to be more pressing to me.

Categories: Author Blogs

changing your mind in social media

28 June, 2016 - 10:22

Have you ever persuaded someone to change their mind about something? Not just convinced someone to take your advice on a matter about which they were undecided, but actually shifted someone’s view from one strongly held view to another? It’s not that easy. It’s even harder to build a consensus within a community, even when many in the community might not have strong feelings about the subject at hand.  In social media though it’s nearly impossible. Or at least I imagine it’s nearly impossible; I don’t think I’ve every actually witnessed it. For example, have you ever seen someone change their views on our current presidential candidates during the course of a social media exchange? Of course, I don’t think we expect that to happen. The kinds of arguments that take place in social media are not really about persuasion, or at least not about persuading one’s opponents. They are some different kind of rhetorical performance.

When one thinks about how views are changed or consensus is built in a discourse community, one realizes that the rhetorical features of the texts involved are only a minor element in the process. For example, when a widely-held scientific theory is challenged and replaced, texts are certainly involved: journal articles, grant applications, laboratory records, and so on. But those texts are only part of a larger apparatus that lends strength to the claims made in the text and gives durability to the conclusions. Eventually grant programs shift their criteria, researchers and labs change their agendas, and curriculum and textbooks alter their content. Over time, the people involved change their views but not without all of these other non-textual structures in place. Without them, a journal article reporting on research and challenging an accepted theory is easily ignored.

Similar processes happen in other disciplines, in business, government, religion, law, and so on. In academic life the most familiar example of this occurs with first-year students. It’s the cliché of how the student returns home for Thanksgiving break only discover that s/he no longer quite fits in with his/her parents or hometown friends who have not gone off to college. Families pass along values and some will have duration, but once one is separated from the apparatus that gives those views duration, they can start to weaken. The student finds herself in a new apparatus on the campus and comes to share the values of that new community. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the same student might return to her hometown after graduation and slowly revert to those old values once the campus is no longer a part of her life.)

Social media provides none of the mechanisms that would allow for arguments to be persuasive or to have any durability. They can become part of other apparatuses and do. Integrated into a disciplinary community social media can obviously be a place for extending and shaping an existing conversation. It might shape that conversation as well by the way it impacts the dissemination of scholarship. Similar things might happen in other discourse communities where the members share enough genres, values, and objectives. However, one conversation moves beyond those fairly narrowly shared elements or one moves into more loosely-bound communities (e.g. networks of friends or participants in a hashtagged conversation) there’s not enough strength in the bonds and even the most elegantly worded and carefully argued text will have little strength.

Here’s what Latour writes in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence on politics.

According to the principles of this inquiry, every time we manage to isolate a mode of existence, a type of hiatus (here, the curve, the exception), a trajectory (here, autonomy, freedom), we also have to be able to define an explicit form of veridiction. We saw earlier how such a demand appeared incongruous in the case of political discourse: either speakers rationalize too much, or they overestimate irrationality. Might it be necessary to give up speaking truths on the pretext of speaking politically? Must one change oneself into a ghoul, as Socrates demands at the end of Gorgias, in order to be right, but only after the fact, emerging from Limbo, a shade judging other shades, a phantom judging other phantoms? No, of course not, since, dispersed in institutions, buried in practices, captive in our imaginations and in our judgments, there is a whole know-how concerning speaking well and speaking badly, acting well and acting badly in the political realm, which should make it possible to define the felicity and infelicity conditions of the Circle. Let us recall that to make this competence explicit is not to formalize it according to a different enunciative key but, on the contrary, to follow it in its own language.

Latour’s point rests on our notion that politics bears little resemblance to facts. Our current presidential cycle, to say nothing of the Brexit matter, has been rife with fact-checking and assertions that we now live in a “post-fact” society. Latour has long approached this matter in relation to climate change, which offers an excellent example of how hard it is for science to speak to politics or visa versa.  We cannot expect Science or Reason or some other mode to do the work of politics.

I think Latour might be overly optimistic in his assessment that we have the know-how to speak well in political realms. I suppose it depends on who the “we” is in that sentence. There’s a line. I think it’s in Virilio’s Art of the Motor but I may be misremembering about how in Europe the arrival of trains led many people to believe there would be increased understanding among the peoples of different nations as they would now be able to travel and interact more easily, but what the Germans realized was that trains improved troop movement and logistics. It would be nice to think that social media would similarly increase understanding but that has hardly proven to be the case. If anything social media makes us more divisive and more entrenched in our views. We can try to imagine some better, more civil way of talking, but in my mind the challenges are more object-oriented. How do we build structures that support felicity conditions, giving strength and durability to a way of speaking politically that might lead us beyond the shambles of political discourse we currently “enjoy”?

Categories: Author Blogs

Writing alone on the social web.

20 June, 2016 - 06:25

In The New York Times, Randall Stross opines on the pending incorporation of LinkedIn into MS-Word. Apparently the idea is to create an opportunity for people on LinkedIn to participate or assist you in whatever you’re doing in Word. As Stross writes

My version of Word, a relatively recent one, is not that different from the original, born in software’s Pleistocene epoch. It isn’t networked to my friends, family and professional contacts, and that’s the point. Writing on Word may be the only time I spend on my computer in which I can keep the endless distractions in the networked world out of sight.

I have to agree. It’s really difficult to imagine desiring an intrusion from the friendly experts at LinkedIn, or, god forbid, being asked to perform the role of expert yourself for one of your contacts there.

This got me thinking along a tangent though. Since the early days of web 2.0 and social media there has been this idea that writing would become a more social, collaborative experience. We have Wikipedia, of course, and the many more focused wikis one can find. And that’s a useful example of collaborative, networked writing. However I would imagine that on many wikis individual pages tend to be largely created by a single author, perhaps with some editors coming along to touch things up. The advantage of the wiki structure is that it is plainly subdivided, and thus one might approach them the way students generally approach group writing projects, by dividing the work into parts done individually. When we think of other forms of social media, the level of collaboration is very low: e.g. commenting on some’s FB status update. There’s collaboration in the sense that an asynchronous online conversation can be collaborative. FB is more like parallel play than it is a group endeavor.

Nevertheless we still seem to be left with this idea that writing should be more networked and collaborative. Not only that it could be, but that it should be. Where does this value come from? I’m not sure. I suppose from general valuations of the ideas of crowdsourcing, collective intelligence, and so on. If one approaches this perception from a genre studies perspective, one might say that whether or not multiple people should compose a text together largely depends on the activity system, genre, and objective of the composition. So for example, if there was going to be a shift in scholarly writing in the humanities to where the common approach was to have a half-dozen or more co-authors, then we’d have to start creating new genres, which would probably mean creating new research paradigms and methods as well. In other words, it’s not the kind of thing one just decides to do on a whim.

But there’s a more pressing point here I believe. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by the implicit anthropocentrism in this apparent push by Microsoft toward networked composing. That is, there is this notion that the media ecology is for us and should serve our interests. Of course, you or I might disagree with Microsoft’s notion of what is in our interest. We might critique the ideology of labor that informs their notion of how we should write. Nevertheless, it is still a human-centered notion.

However, the digital media ecology is no more interested in us than the dirt is in the worm. It doesn’t tell us we should collaborate or that we shouldn’t. In a Latourian turn of phrase, in our encounter with the media ecology, we write and are made to write. Like Stross I spend many hours with Word documents, “alone” (i.e. without other humans) and avoiding the temptations of social media and the web. But even if I turn to Facebook, Twitter, email or whatever, I am not suddenly less alone in human terms. I write this blog post for the web. I write a status update. An email message. I am still writing alone. And the digital media ecology in which I participate is largely indifferent to it all, just as the rest of the world I normally inhabit is indifferent: the toaster, the front lawn, the stop sign, the sidewalk, etc.

Of course we are all also interdependent and in that sense we never write alone; we only gain the capacity to write through our relations with others. But that is not an argument for this anthropocentric model of networked composing where “we” should write together. It is only an observation that, in fact, we never write alone. “Should” has nothing to do with it.

I am very skeptical of this LinkedIn/MS-Word model of networked collaborative composing. In fact, it sounds like a nightmare. After all, hell is other people LinkedIn contacts. But it’s not about that. Writing is already a largely nightmarish labor of wringing out and sorting out thoughts, of trying to organize and find something useful to say, of confronting some internalized demand of an imagined external audience.

Despite all that negativity, I am curious about the notion of writing with other humans in a more collaborative way, or at least, writing in a different network of relations than the one in which I participate now.

Probably not LinkedIn though.

Categories: Author Blogs

the ROI on con/tested #cwcon terms

22 May, 2016 - 06:48

I suppose this follows along on the previous post’s discussion of the name of “computers and writing.” This starts with the second town hall on the subject of professional and technical writing in relation to computers and writing. Bill Hart-Davidson offers this visualization in his brief talk, which you can read here. In his work with Tim Peeples, he depicts the interests/territories of professional writing (in blue) in relation to the interests/territories of rhetoric and composition. He then asked, how would we draw “computers and writing?” Or perhaps, as he also suggested, we might chart out the fields using different terms.

I think the tough question is where has C&W fit in curricular terms? I would say as a topic in FYC, as an elective or maybe a required course within a professional writing major, and, in a few places as a concentration in a graduate program. I’d say the shape would like roughly like the r/c space, except jacked up on technology and diminished on the curricular side.

I think it’s useful to ask what are we doing then and where do we want to go next? The implied answer of the Town Hall is “somewhere hand-in-hand with professional-technical communication.”

I then happened into a panel on digital research methods (G1). There Rik Hunter raised the question of ROI in terms of the learning curve  in acquiring the technical skills to pursue methods for answering questions about data. There’s no doubt there’s a real challenge in acquiring a significant new set of methodological skills after graduate school and before tenure. After tenure, it becomes a different matter, not easier necessarily but different. Another presenter on that panel (I believe it was Kerry Banazek) discussed the ontological commitments that underlie choices we make about empirical methods and the ethical values at stake. Tim Laquintano’s presentation led to a discussion of why it seems that our discipline (meaning R/C in general) tends not to test the claims made in scholarship through repetition of methods. To me these are key observations folding back into the town hall and our questions about names and, in my view, our terminology. Specifically I’d like to con/test some key terms for their ROI and the ontological commitments they represent.


Or you could say that this post is an opportunity for me to complain about the term “multimodality” and its anthropocentric ontological commitments. If we were going to put Computers and Writing/Composition on Bill’s chart and use multimodality as a term, we’d have to say something like, “this one goes to 11.”

While there’s a pre-digital history and variety to multimodality, as someone like Jody Shipka would point out, mostly we use this term to talk about the combination of different media in digital environments. We argue that we are all called upon to communicate in a variety of media, so we should teach our students about such things. And since computers and writing has mostly been an offshoot of composition studies, that instruction has been primarily in two places: in FYC and in the preparation of FYC instructors. Much like Kirschenbaum’s notion of digital humanities as a tactical term, I see multimodality as a tactic to recruit composition studies for the purposes of computers and writing/composition. In some ways the multi- leaves writing alone. It makes writing one of many, part of the multi-, but a secure and stable part. That’s not to say that adding a video or image to a text wouldn’t alter what you’d write, but writing still remains a stable, separate, and identifiable entity.

Multimodality is also human-centered. In fact, this is often specifically announced: it’s people first, not technology. Again, much to the relief of composition studies humanists. And I agree that multimodality, at least as it is deployed in our discipline, is heavily anthropocentric. It is the human perspective that makes the media modes multi-, that brings them into relation with one another in a phenomenological-subjective synthesis.

Is there another way? Many I’m sure. How about a material, media-ecological approach? For experimental purposes, let’s remove the human entirely and look at a quintessential multimodal webpage (like this one). There are media types (or file formats)–html, jpg, etc. There’s a database (this is a blog). There’s the browser and the hardware. One could keep going, down to the circuit boards and out to the server farms. We’ve played this game before, but multimodal doesn’t make much sense of it. It mutes those things that are not easily experienced by the human subject. And because it does that, it is able to stabilize “writing,” preserving it for composition studies. That is to say that the text on this “page” looks like the text on a printed page.

But it ain’t.

Though I taught and sometimes ran a professional writing major for several years about a decade ago (wow, has it been that long?), I don’t feel well-positioned to talk about the field, especially not about technical communication. However, I am very interested in the pragmatic future orientation of Rik’s discussion of ROI. And I see the conversation about professional-technical communication happening in that vein. I see two, maybe 2.5, possibilities.

  1. First and foremost, we create return through pedagogy and students, whether you want to think about that idealistically or in the crudest cynical terms of tuition dollars. Once one gets beyond FYC (and getting beyond I think is crucial for our field and the reason why we are talking about Prof-Tech Comm), one has to be able to show the value to the students before they take the class. That is, you have to persuade them to become majors. I think this isn’t just about pedagogy or research to improve pedagogy. It has to be about creating scholarship that they can see as valuable to them.
  2. It can be about creating roles for ourselves in larger collaborative efforts on campus. I’m thinking primarily in terms of research but it doesn’t have to be. Our colleagues have problems (or we could call them research questions) and we have expertise that can assist in addressing them. I don’t think of this as “service,” though in some instances it might be. Instead I see it more as growing our research interests in response to problems that others also see and value solving. The .5 part of this answer is that, in response to these problems, one then might build the kinds of entities, like ELI Review, that Jeff Grabill discussed.

I don’t have a roadmap for doing this. For me, contesting terms like computers and writing/composition or multimodality are ways of envisioning alternatives. In a media ecology where the institutional assemblages securing writing are deterritorialized both risks and opportunities increase. For me, a (new) material, media-ecological approach offers ways to articulate rhetorical practices (across media) that will create more value for students and in scholarship; it might also establish a zone of disciplinary expertise for digital rhetoric moving forward.


Categories: Author Blogs

robots and writing? a #cwcon update

20 May, 2016 - 23:29

After a few years personal hiatus, I’ve returned to the Computers and Writing conference, which is taking place just an hour down the road from me at St. John Fisher’s College. The conference, and really the field, find themselves at a moment of reflection with the retirement of several founding members, including Cindy Selfe, Dickie Selfe, and Gail Hawisher. Following on that moment, the conference began with a presentation of microhistories of the conference (which started in 1984 I believe).

In many ways, these histories were panegyrics, which is fine in itself. There is a time for all things, etc., etc. Many things have been accomplished and should be remembered. At the same time, I think there’s a reasonable question about where that history has led us. One way of thinking about that is to ask whether or not the title of the conference, “Computers and Writing,” or its sister journal, Computers and Composition, really still works. Maybe they do, but if so, it’s because we’ve accepted the significant mutation of computing in our culture over the last 30 years. We all know there’s more computing power in the car you take to the grocery store than there was in the Apollo rockets we sent to the Moon. We probably need to realize that the birth of “Computers and Writing” occurred in an era of computing closer to that moonshot than to your car’s manufacture. Today, computing is so ubiquitous that even discussions of ubiquitous computing seem passé. If, when this business started, computers and writing described students with word processing software or maybe local networks, staring at monochrome monitors, then today, what does it mean? I know Will Hochman will be discussing the matter of the conference title  in his presentation on Saturday, so we’ll have to see what conversation comes out of that.

As some will observe, the early battles of computers and writing to get people to recognize the compositional and rhetorical capacities of computers are over. We won in a landslide, though probably not so much as a result of our own efforts as the inexorable force of technological development. It’s likely that our closest colleagues remain the staunchest opponents to this reality. Needless to say (but said anyway), there are plenty more battles, but maybe the end of those battles means “computers and writing” has run its course. We’ve become a mainstream part of rhetoric and composition. Maybe.

In looking at alternatives, some are content with the “digital rhetoric” appellation. I find it acceptable. Maybe there’s a conference title in there. Of course I never really referred to myself as a “computers and writing/composition” specialist, so I don’t personally feel like I’m losing much. Before digital rhetoric, I would have gone with new media rhetoric. There’s also techno-rhetoric or even cyber-rhetoric I guess. However, I wonder if there’s a reason the field has eschewed “rhetoric” for so long, at least in terms of its title.

Despite the title of this post, I’m not seriously suggesting “robots and writing” as a replacement, though it has a nice alliterative ring to it. Instead it’s suggestive of Jeff Grabill’s keynote this evening. Grabill’s talk focused on the various robots being developed around writing instruction. He pointed to the destructive pedagogical consequences of many of these robots that promise to evaluate student writing at scale… provided of course that teachers shape their classrooms to suit what the robots can do. Grabill quite forcefully called out his audience to get involved in this situation, arguing that it is not sufficient for us to decide that our scholarly interests don’t really coincide with addressing the ways that writing instruction, especially at the K-12 level is becoming roboticized. Furthermore, critique is not enough. We need solutions, which is what Grabill has been working on with many others in the form of the ELI Review program.

I don’t doubt Grabill’s assertion that these writing robots lead to bad pedagogy that tends to hurt the most vulnerable of our students first and the worst. But let me set that aside for a moment.

Or more precisely, before we get to that, there’s a prior argument that I think needs to be made. It starts with recognizing that there are nonhumans (robots or whatever) that are reading and writing and that are shaping human rhetorical capacities. To be clear, they are not just mute extensions of human will. They are doing their own thing.

In the morning session, many of the microhistories pointed to a “pivot” that took place around 1993-4. You don’t have to be much of a historian to figure out what happened then that might have changed the way we looked at computers and writing. As I was discussing with a few friends over lunch, one might see a related pivot about a decade later around the arrival of social media. Somewhere around there it seemed like there was a tipping point in terms of the average rhet/comp tenure track position expecting a level of technological competence that would have made one a specialist in the previous decade (e.g. an ability to “teach with technology”). And while I don’t want to diminish the social media-mobile technology revolution, we are on the brink of, maybe already in the midst of, something far more substantive in the form of spimes, smart objects, robots, whatever you want to call them.

It’s tricky for us digital rhetoricians/computers and writing folks, because these things aren’t really media in any conventional sense, but they are rhetorical devices. And sure, one can say, as I have, in a new materialist vein that all objects might have rhetorical capacities, but this is something a little different. I’m talking about devices that are designed to perform rhetorical actions with us and other nonhumans. There’s nothing especially abstract, speculative, or theoretical about your smartphone’s rhetorical behaviors.

I think you have to understand this general situation before you can get to Grabill’s argument. Whether or not one gets involved directly in the struggle Grabill describes over the shape of writing education, it does seem like we require some new terminology (and concepts) to address an emerging situation with these technologies.

Honestly, I would be surprised if there was a title change any time soon. And I don’t have much at stake in the matter. I do think there’s a growing sense that “computers” are not necessarily what we are talking about and that maybe even “writing” is stretched to its limits. I suppose the danger is that we become so diverse in our interests that there’s nothing really holding us together except a somewhat illusory notion of our being “about computers.” While I feel comfortable with my own scholarly direction, I’m not sure how it fits into a larger picture or what that larger picture is or should be of computers and writing.

Categories: Author Blogs

looking at college from the other side

19 May, 2016 - 14:26

I’m sure many of many colleagues and gentle readers have been through this experience, but this fall my daughter is headed off to college. Briefly, her college application story goes like this: she’s a national merit scholar with a load of AP classes; she was accepted at three ivies and some other very good privates; they all ended up being too expensive in our eyes; she’s going to a public AAU university (not UB) with a full tuition scholarship where she’ll graduate debt free (and possibly in 3 years if that’s what she wants). Right now it looks like she’ll major in math and computer science.

But this isn’t really about her. It’s about me looking at a university through the eyes of a parent rather than a professor. So here are my observations/complaints.

  1. Let me echo Gardner Campbell’s criticism of the way we present classes to students in online registration formats. This could be so much better than it is. It’s like shopping in a supermarket where all the aisles are filled with stacks of identical white boxes with generic titles and fine print meaningless ingredients.
  2. In my daughter’s case, which is of her own making if she chooses to double major, all the courses she takes as an undergrad will be in fulfillment of either a general education or major requirement. There’s a lesson I’m sure one is supposed to learn about education there.
  3. Shopping for general education courses through laundry lists of distribution requirements. Would you like to take “Intro to #$%#@” or “Generic Title about my *&(% discipline”? My, my, it’s all so tempting and thought-provoking. Plus, with a 100+ classmates, they’ll be so many opportunities to make friends! Fortunately there are some more narrowly focused classes that are smaller in size that meet these requirements, but then they kind of put the lie to general education. I mean, if I can meet my general education requirement in the humanities by taking a class in the science fiction of the Czech republic.

I’ve spent the last 2-3 years working to reform our general education program at UB, so I really do sympathize. In fact, maybe it is knowing how the sausage gets made that makes me a little cynical (ok, more than a little). It’s also left me wishing that we could do better.

I know that from a faculty perspective it looks like there are thousands of sections of courses on offer each year at a university like UB or the one my daughter is attending. But that’s not how one experiences it as a student or as a parent helping a student. What I see is something more like Tetris. You start with a plan to meet the sequence of course requirements in your major, which means you have to take certain courses in a given semester. Once you put those in your schedule, then you’re looking at gen ed requirements, trying to figure out which titles might be interesting, and looking for ones that will fit into your schedule.

It’s really quite amazing how quickly the possibilities narrow down. In a way, it’s necessary, because how can one really make a decision among 1000 options. On the other hand, when you’re really deciding among 3 or 4 options… well let’s just say that as the professor of such a course you should hardly be surprised if the students who show up aren’t as intrinsically motivated as you’d hoped.

There’s little opportunity for native intrinsic motivation when the externalities of the curricular bureaucracy are driving the choices students make.

At UB we’ve tried to reform general education by making the courses students take more thematically relevant to one another and to the majors and other interests students have.  The other option, which was not available to us (not that we would have taken it), is to abolish general education altogether. I would be in favor of such a move, though it would be like congress trying to get rid of social security.

The thing is I don’t object to the content of these courses. In fact, I actually think it is worthwhile for students to take classes across the disciplines of the university. I just wish we could present them as something other than a legalistic set of requirements. How about using some persuasion instead? Of course that would mean trusting students to make decisions that benefit them intellectually rather than trying to stuff intellectual benefit down their throats.

If we did that though it would mean that we would miss out on the classic moment of academic irony where students are required to take a class where they are exhorted to think critically and take responsibility for their own learning.

It may be that course registration is an unavoidable bottleneck in the learning process: time, faculty, and classrooms are all limited resources. So I suppose I really have two brief suggestions.

  1. To reform the registration process so that students can connect with the courses they choose on a more affective and informed level. This means a fuller description of the course and why they might want to take it. Then we could use that information to link classes together and show other courses the student may want to take in combination with this course or in lieu of it.
  2. Once the students are on the other side of the bottleneck (i.e., they’re in your class), what can we do to reopen the space of intellectual possibilities they had to squeeze through in registration. Here I am thinking especially of general education courses. And by this, I don’t really mean having courses that have really broad topics. I think a course in the science fiction of the Czech republic could be pretty cool. I’m just thinking there’s a potential for a shared ethos here. After all, the professor also had to go through some bottleneck of choices to end up in this course at this time (indeed, possibly a lifetime of such choices). Now that we’re all here though and committed to reading these novels (or whatever), what do we do next?


Categories: Author Blogs

laptops, classrooms, and matters of electrate concern

17 May, 2016 - 08:02

Last week, Inside HigherEd reported on this study (by Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, and Michael Walker), which shows, once again, that students who use laptops in classrooms do not perform as well as students without laptops. Steve Krause wrote about the study a few days ago, wondering what might happen in a laptop-mandated classroom as opposed to a laptop-banned one.

I had a similar response to this study and the growing number of such studies. This study, like many of its kind, finds that students who have laptops in their lecture classes do not perform as well on multiple-choice tests at the end of the semester. There are many possible reasons for this, as the study explains:

There are at least a few channels through which computer usage could affect students. First, students who are using their tablet or computer may be surfing the Internet, checking email, messaging with friends, or even completing homework for that class or another class. All of these activities could draw a student’s attention away from the class, resulting in a lower understanding of the material. Second, Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) find that students required to use computers are not as effective at taking notes as students required to use pen and paper, which could also lower test scores. Third, professors might change their behavior – either teaching  differently to the whole class or interacting differently to students who are on their computer or tablet relative to how they would have otherwise. Regardless of the mechanism, our results indicate that students perform worse when personal computing technology is available.

My first response, actually, was to suggest that someone might conduct a different study wherein the students who brought laptops to class were also allowed to use them during the multiple-choice final.  It’s only a guess, but I would think that having access to the Internet (and presumably e-book version of course materials) could substantially improve their performance. But really that’s only a hypothesis, and probably one would see better results if some direct instruction in finding good information was included. Of course such a study would seem counterintuitive as the presumed objective of a course is for students to “internalize” knowledge, i.e., for them to know it without reliance on notes, books, computers, or whatever. As we know, there are historical but ultimately arbitrary reasons for defining “knowing” in this way.

I know I’ve written about this many times before, and, in my view, this comes down to two interrelated problems.

  1. None of us, students and faculty included, have really figured out how to live, learn, and work in the emerging digital media-cognitive ecology. So it is certainly true that we can struggle to accomplish various purposes with technologies pulling us in different directions.
  2. The courses in these studies, and many, many other courses, want to operate as if the conditions for thinking, learning, and knowing have not changed. The faculty teaching them imagine that these are inherent human qualities. Even among those of us who style ourselves as “critical thinkers” and can recognize that such values are historical, cultural, and ideological can still manage to view technologies as either expanding, limiting, or overdetermining some inherent human agency and capacity for thought.

The second problem suggests that as faculty we need to rethink our curriculum and pedagogy as it now operates in a different media-cognitive ecology than it did in the past. The first problem complicates that as it suggests our understanding of that ecology and how to operate within it remains fairly limited. As such, we must proceed experimentally.

Perhaps the greatest hurdle in all of this is the uncertainty regarding how we should make such judgments. We know that technological development is itself a value-laden and not simply rational process informed by a desire for profit and by any number of other cultural values. As such, we shouldn’t just accept whatever is handed to us. On the other hand, the same critique might be made of pre-digital technologies and the practices that have been built around them, and we shouldn’t just accept those either.

Then in practical terms, trying to address all these matters in the typical classroom is very hard. If your goal is to teach literature or economics (like in this study) or chemistry, then these technology hurdles are significant detours. You probably just want to give your lectures and grade some exams, or, more generously, you want to deal with the subject matter in which you have expertise. It’s not your job (I think it is fair to say) to rethink the foundations of pedagogical practice in your discipline. And when we do attempt this, often we end up with things like the “TEDification” of lectures, as this Chronicle article reports.

It’s easy to criticize TEDification (no one would use such a word to say nice things), and yet the notion that entertainment should play a role in pedagogy fits well into an electrate apparatus. This is, after all, the classical line about poetry, that it should “delight and instruct,” so such matters are hardly new. It is only that in electracy we develop new institutions around entertainment. When I write “matters of electrate concern” then, I bring together Ulmer and Latour. Matters of concern remind us to listen to the nonhumans, the “missing masses.” If the hybrids of the 17th and 18th centuries fostered the Modern era, then following Ulmer, the second industrial revolution, specifically the invention of mechanical, then electronic, and then digital media, are ushering in the electrate era.

It’s not the right question to ask “how do I get 200 students with laptops in a lecture hall to learn my course material?” Why are they in a lecture hall for 50 minutes, three days a week for 15 weeks or whatever the schedule is? Why do they need to learn the material in your course? I don’t mean to suggest that we should abandon everything we do. I assume we have good answers for that last question!

Rather than establishing values and answering questions before hand, I think we need to move forward experimentally. We cannot expect immediate good results. It will take time to develop new institutions. Students in digital media-cognitive ecologies have different capacities than those students who preceded them. Those capacities are not a delimited list; they will shift depending on the particular network of actors in which they operate. We will need to experiment to discover those capacities and create new learning environments that will have a recursive relationship with pedagogy and curriculum. As we might say, pedagogy shapes and is shaped by learning technologies… primarily because those nonhumans have a say. Furthermore, we will need to help students learn how to shape such ecologies for themselves to facilitate their own learning, work, and life.

I think that’s what electracy instruction might look like as an evolution of the literacy instruction that was once, in a past century, primarily the domain of English Studies.

Categories: Author Blogs

otters’ noses, digital humanities, political progress, and splitters

13 May, 2016 - 09:28

Here’s the thing that confuses me the most about this DH conversation. See, for example, the recent defense of the digital humanities in the LA Review of Books (which, at least from my experience of it, needs to consider a name change) by Juliana Spahr, Richard So, and Andrew Piper, which responds to this other LARB article byDaniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia. The defense is as curious as the article that requires the defense be offered, which offers the now familiar accusation of neoliberalism.

The last time I took on this subject I was inspired by Monty Python’s argument sketch. This time round though my first thought was of this scene from Life of Brian.

Of course the whole point of it is to satirize the divisive nature of political progressivism. Apparently it pointed specifically at the leftist politics of England at the time, but really this kind of stuff has a timeless quality to it.

What does it mean to be neoliberal as opposed to liberal or… what? paleoliberal? (And yes, there are paleoliberals though apparently the meaning of that is quite variable.) Hillary Clinton is neoliberal, or at least might be, as a Google search would suggest. I don’t actually want to go into a lengthy definition of the term here but only to point out its rhetorical use, essentially as a kind of ad hominem attack made by groups on the left politically against other groups or individuals that most people would also consider liberal (e.g. Hillary Clinton).


But before getting into this matter, let’s play the believing game. Let’s believe that the digital humanities is neoliberal. That would mean that for whatever reason, humanities scholars who shared neoliberal views gravitate toward DH research, become neoliberal through their DH work, or maybe more obliquely come to have neoliberal effects in aggregate even though no one of them is in fact neoliberal. English Studies and the humanities in general are replete with faculty who view their work as political and as achieving political ends. Almost uniformly those politics are leftist. But even if there were now a group of scholars whose work was neoliberal rather than leftist, would that mean that we would call to exert disciplinary means to silence them?

Apparently so because that’s what the critique of DH, here and elsewhere, calls for: an end to the scholarly work of these academics on political grounds. Presumably the expectation is that the knife being used here shouldn’t cut both to the left and the right. No doubt the reality of academic life is that politics come into play in such decisions. I just don’t usually encounter people explicitly arguing that we should employ specific political commitments to evaluate scholarship.

Of course Spahr et al refute the neoliberal accusation anyway, but then the defense gets interesting. They write, “there is a second more general problem embedded in Allington et al.’s assertion that DH’s ‘institutional success has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism.’ This claim suggests that there has been a dominant politically progressive humanities scholarship to be displaced.” They go on to suggest, using New Criticism as a historical example, that scholarly methods are not bound to political ends, that different people can use different methods for different political goals. In short DH has no more or less potential to be politically progressive than any other method.

What does it mean to say that scholarship is “politically progressive”? I can see how some scholarly work might be progressive within the context of the discipline by bringing noncanonical authors to the attention of colleagues or expanding the scholarship on such authors. This would seem to be the understanding Spahr et al have as well, as they point to numerous examples of DH work along these lines. But honestly the majority of literary scholarship doesn’t address such authors. Do a cursory database search in your own library and I’m sure you’ll discover, like me, that there were hundreds of peer-reviewed scholarly articles published on Shakespeare last year. That’s just the easiest example. Clearly thousands of articles are written each year on canonical literary figures and texts. And that’s fine with me. I’m just not sure what kind of semantic gymnastics are necessary for that work to become “politically progressive.”

When it comes to literary studies, English departments, and politics, to generalize over my 20ish years of experience, my colleagues, not surprisingly, tend to be liberal by any conventional sense of the political designation. Some of them become involved in politically progressive groups or movements on campus or beyond, but I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced a department culture itself as a hotbed of political activism or progressivism. Nor do I think that it needs to be because there should be no expectation that employees of an academic department share political commitments such that they be asked to carry out explicit political goals as part of their jobs. I’d have to say the same thing of academic conferences. Undoubtedly there are some meetings that are explicitly political and some politically progressive acts come out of such meetings (e.g. various declarations or positions or resolutions). But if you randomly attended various sessions, I don’t think you’d find them any more politically progressive than the content of a random academic journal you might read.

Actually, my experience with the local politics of departments is that they are fairly conservative in the sense that they are quite resistant to change. Certainly there are trends in theory and method that have some impact on course content, maybe even drawing attention to a new set of texts or authors. But for the most part, English departments, their curricular structures, their course content, their pedagogic practices, their shape of faculty specialization, their definitions of research, teaching, and service, and so on are unchanged during my academic career. If there’s political progress, or really progress of any kind, wouldn’t there first have to be change? Even if the progress we were hoping for would not be our own progress but other people’s progress or change (which, I would have to say, is pretty arrogant) wouldn’t one still expect that to require us to do something differently? How does one create progress in oneself or others by continuing to do the same things?

Historically I am sure that it would be easy to accuse English Studies of a patriarchal ethnocentrism in support of an industrial-capitalism, nationalist hegemony. Indeed Spahr et al offer a quick jab at New Criticism along these lines. One could also point to the willingness of departments to “adjunctify” themselves and their graduate students by turning first-year composition into a kind of labor camp in exchange for some maintenance of the status quo in terms of tenure-track faculty work and department structures. Those are the “sins of the fathers” I suppose. In the contemporary moment we certainly find ourselves in an intractable situation vis-a-vis composition. And we would have to recognize that, in the gentlest terms, we have a long way to go in terms of the diversity of graduate students and faculty.

I have to admit that if the purpose of literary criticism, rhetorical studies, or any other kind of English Studies scholarship is to engender some tangible political change in contemporary America (or anywhere else on the planet) or even on college campuses that it strikes me as a fairly oblique strategy for accomplishing such goals. I would have to assume that the political progression that is sought is one within scholarly communities themselves. Even that doesn’t seem very effective and mostly tends to manifest a kind of Life of Brian scene. Whatever political progress is being made in scholarship has a fairly subtle impact on what English professors actually do. It must be fairly well hidden within the content of courses whose titles and general areas of investigation (e.g. a literary period) remain unchanged.


I would, however, support a more progressive discipline if we wanted to pursue one. I think there are a variety of ways we could be more progressive in terms of a more diverse curriculum (and not just a more diverse literary curriculum), which would of course necessitate a diversity of faculty, scholarly methods, pedagogies, and academic genres. It would, in my view, de-prioritize historical disciplinary commitments and seek to approach the task of investigating literate/electrate culture and practices with an educational mission at its core. In short, I find it hard to envision any kind of progress where we keep doing basically what we’ve been doing for decades. But I’m not sure if making such progress is something we all want to do together. In fact I’m fairly sure it isn’t.

Most importantly it would make progress on the use of adjuncts in our departments. I wouldn’t lay the blame for adjunctification on our departments (let alone on DH), but we must recognize that our use of adjuncts and TAs, especially as composition instructors, has allowed faculty to lead particular kinds of academic careers, including producing the kinds of scholarship we do, politically progressive or not. I would say this is equally true of faculty in other disciplines, so it’s not just about us. It’s really about larger structural issues on campuses.

I think those are the hard political questions in English Studies. How do we grow and change with the rest of academia toward a more diverse, engaged, and sustainable version of ourselves?  And to be honest, while I think addressing digital media and culture will be central to that question, the particular methods of DH seem like a really minor part.

Categories: Author Blogs

the cognitive-media ecologies of graduate curriculum

10 May, 2016 - 08:44

I seem to have developed a recent preference for the term “cognitive-media ecology.” It’s not a term one finds readily bandied about, but it references a familiar concept or at least an intersection of two familiar concepts: media ecology and cognitive ecology. Though they are separate fields with the latter including a more constellation of empirical methods (both are interdisciplinary), both are interested in questions of how environments shape individual and cultural human experience and thought. My own interests in this varied area of investigation are connected to concepts like new materialism, assemblage theory (DeLanda), second empiricism (Latour), and so on, which tend to the less anthropocentric end of these studies. When it comes down to it, my scholarship follows a new materialist, media-cognitive-ecological-rhetorical approach to understanding how emerging technologies shift our capacities for thought, action, and communication, often within the specific contexts of higher education.

In other words, the topic described in the post title, as odd as it might sound, is right where I like to work.

Here are a few things I will point to but not rehearse:

  1. The transformation of the university since the 1980s including overproduction of PhDs, adjunctification, the shift of costs to students, increased administration, etc. The current abysmal job market for those seeking tenure-track jobs.
  2. What activity theory and genre studies tells us about how genres develop and function in communities, including graduate curriculum genres such as seminar papers, dissertation proposals, and the dissertations themselves.
  3. The emergence of digital technologies in the same 30-40 year period (the first home PCs appeared in 1977 I believe). While this may seem like a tertiary matter to graduate curriculum in the humanities, one has to keep in mind that our 20th-century disciplines were born from an analogous technological revolution (the Second Industrial) at the end of the 19th-century: literacy and literate culture as we have understood it make no sense outside of that context.

So all one really needs to do here is hold those points plus the theoretical concepts mentioned above in one’s head for a while and see what thoughts come out.  For example:

  • There’s nothing intellectually, ideologically, or ethically “pure” about any of the work we have ever done. It’s always been messy, material, compromised, historical, and so on.  Whatever affective commitment (e.g. love for one’s work) that one might have won’t change that. Whatever ideological commitment one might have won’t change that either. I don’t mean that as a condemnation, but only to ask that we dispense with the ubi sunt business.
  • Our genres, pedagogies, courses, methods–really all the trappings of our disciplines–form from the cognitive and rhetorical capacities made available to us through our relations to our media ecology. This is not technological determinism but a complex historical process that results in assemblages (genres for example) that manage to perpetuate. It’s a process in which we academics participate both individually and collectively and thus in which can intervene. As a result, shifts in the media ecology result in disciplinary-paradigmatic challenges.
  • The cultural and institutional function of our discipline has fundamentally been about its (perceived) relationship to literacy. The demands of literacy/electracy undoubtedly change over time, but, at least since the Second Industrial revolution, there’s been a need for students to develop a literate capacity to function in technologically, professionally, bureaucratically complex discourse communities that are quite unlike the rhetorical practices of their adolescence. That basic fact hasn’t changed; we still talk about our students’ need to learn to communicate. What has changed though is the perceived relationship of English Studies to that task, where we have come to say three things simultaneously:
    • Our discipline is not especially interested in new literacies (or electracies if you prefer); our focus is primarily historical.
    • We are ambivalent about “preparing” students to join a workforce (even though really it’s all we’ve ever done).
    • Whatever work we might do in this area can be accomplished by adjuncts (which is another way of saying it isn’t what “we” do).

What does all this have to do graduate curriculum? Well, first, graduate curriculum emerges from these same conditions. We typically make the mistake of saying graduate school in English Studies is intended to prepare students to be professors. That’s only half true. It’s true that we generally imagine our students as planning to become professors, and they tell us as much. But the curriculum doesn’t prepare them for the job. It’s true that graduate courses will teach students something about their area of specialization, knowledge which they  then might in turn impart to students in classes that they are asked to teach. And the experience of writing seminar papers and then a dissertation teaches students research practices that they will employ as scholars. However, those are really indirect side effects of the curriculum; if they were intended then we’d be far more explicit about those elements.

So the upshot of this is that we have a discipline of academics with varying, but generally strong, affective and/or ideological commitments to an extant historical practice; a general unwillingness or at least ambivalence about addressing the task of supporting student literacy, which has been the implicit if not explicit cause of English’s centrality to higher education for the last century; and a graduate curriculum that was never designed to prepare students to do anything, even be professors.

So in relation to the situation in which we find ourselves, this results in one of two general options.

  1. The discipline and graduate curriculum make no intentional changes. We simply say, become a student in our program and learn how to do certain disciplinary work. There’s a chance you’ll become a professor, but probably not, and we’re not really going to do much to prepare you for that job or really any job. Just come take the classes and write the dissertation because you want to do those things, not because they represent some investment in a future of any kind.
  2. Do something different than what we’ve done in the past.

I’d say there’s a 99%+ chance that overall as a discipline we will choose door #1. It’s what we have always done. The only difference is that 30-40 years ago, one might have said to an incoming class of graduate students that 50% of you will get degrees and 70% of those folks will eventually get tenure-track jobs (so about a third of an incoming class), today that number might be more like one in five or one in six. But there’s really no need to dwell on such numbers because ultimately the ethos of our discipline is that we, both students and faculty, do the work we do because we love it, not because it has any future.

And indeed it probably doesn’t have much of a future. Eventually the system will implode but so what? Something will replace it as there will likely continue to be a need to develop the rhetorical capacities of college students, and there will need to be some way to prepare and certify the faculty that do that work.  There will even need to be research to support those activities. All of that will emerge from the capacities of the cognitive-media ecologies we inhabit.




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