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Digital Digs (Alex Reid)
Brain-to-brain communication is probably something you’ve encountered in the news in the last year or so. We’ve seen things such as monkeys controlling robotic arms with their thoughts, paralyzed humans moving themselves with the aid of an exoskeleton, and recently experiments in communication between two people and linking rat brains together to create an organic computer. Given the plasticity of the brain, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that such adaptations are possible. If the brain can turn sounds or marks on a page into concepts, then why not this? It is easy enough, as we have often done, to differentiate between the activities of the brain and thought, to imagine thought as being something more than the sum of electrochemical signals. No doubt that imagination has largely relied upon a faith in our divine creation or some other belief in our ontological exceptionality. And visa versa: our ability to think is evidence of our exceptionality. However, there are other, less self-aggrandizing explanations that suggest thought is more than what happens in the brain but only because thinking relies on one’s situation in a larger cognitive ecology.
Coincidentally, Levi Bryant wrote on a related matter yesterday. As he observes, “As Kant taught, thought is spontaneity: the power of rendering present without requiring the detour of the presence of the thing. Such is the secret of the famous synthetic a priori propositions: they expand knowledge without the presence of the thing. We broach, for example, new domains of mathematics through the power of thought alone. No doubt this is why we only find prodigies in maths, music, and certain mathematical games like chess. Experience is not required, just the patient unfolding of the thought.” And as he continues, it is our traditional reliance on such beliefs that leads to “a loathing of materialism throughout the history of philosophy.” On the one had, we have this desire for thought to be adequate to the things in the world, to be able to know the Truth, with the idea that such equivalence would lead to power. And yet that desire is susceptible to a sudden reversal where rather than the world being subject to thought, thought becomes subject to the world. As such, fully realized (or maybe I should say fully fantasized) brain-to-brain communication doesn’t become telepathy, where you and I can know each other’s thoughts; it obviates the need for thinking altogether. Of course we don’t get that either. Instead, as Levi points out, we get a series of experts relying on one another: “Everywhere we just encounter citation.”
This strikes me as a Latourian observation: the strength of knowledge lies in the construction of its associations. Here rather than trying to make a priori interiorized thinking equivalent to the world (or fearing the world dominating our minds), thoughts become a part of the world, real forces that can be followed through symbolic behaviors, physical actions, mechanical processes, computer networks, and the actions of brains, what Edwin Hutchins (and others in cognitive science) refer to as a “cognitive ecology:” a concept that goes back to the 60s and 70s in ecological psychology, ecology of the mind, cultural-historical activity theory, second-order cybernetics, and so on.
In imagining where we need to go next, Hutchins writes
Increased attention to real-world activity will change our notions of what are the canonical instances of cognitive process and which are special cases of more general phenomena. For example, private disembodied thinking is undoubtedly an important kind of thinking, but perhaps it receives more attention than it should. This mode of thinking is common among academics and can sometimes be induced in experimental subjects, but it is relatively rare in the global cognitive ecology. It is also deceptive. Far from being free from the influences of culture, private reflection is a deeply cultural practice that draws on and is enacted in coordination with rich cultural resources. The focus of intellectual attention is already shifting to the relations among action, interaction, and conceptualization. Perception, action, and thought will be understood to be inextricably integrated, each with the others. Human cognitive activity will increasingly be seen to be profoundly situated, social, embodied, and richly multimodal. The products of interaction accumulate not only in the brain but throughout the cognitive ecology.
These are matters that are relevant to more than neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers. When Hutchins notes the deceptive nature of our faith in, and valorization of, “private disembodied thinking,” that deception does not only effect academic investigations into cognition. It also shapes our communities, our understanding of rhetorical practice (i.e. of communication), and, crucially from my perspective, our pedagogies. It’s not only that we expect people to learn in this private, disembodied way but that we also set out to train students in this ability. But private disembodied thinking is neither private nor disembodied. There is no a priori thought that does not rely upon existing cultural practices and resources, that is not situated in an ecology.
To be sure, I find some of the more speculative implications of “brain-to-brain communication” and organic computing disturbing. I’ve read my share of dystopian science fiction. But we shouldn’t fear the concept that thought itself is material and can pass along a network of nonhuman actors and return to us. As I see it, the capacity for the freedom of thought and the agency to act upon thoughts that we might fear we’ve always already lost is not threatened by a new materialist, ecological approach. A new materialist cognitive ecology probably would allow for the possibility of overdetermining forces, of mind control if you like, but mostly it would demonstrate how difficult (and materially expensive) that would be. To the contrary, it mostly illuminates the necessary work of conscious thought, not as a disembodied spirit forever and tragically separate from a world it can never truly access, but as an integral actor in an ecology.
While I haven’t been very active here of late, I have been writing a fair amount on the topic of openness. Similarly the theme of safety has become a familiar one in academic circles; safety comes up often in relation to students and classrooms but also, as it does here, in terms of creating safe digital spaces. Sean Micheal Morris posts today in the Digital Pedagogy Lab discussing the intersection of these themes. As he observes “For all its posturing as a liberational space, the Internet remains entirely too hegemonic.”
I wonder if we still imagine online spaces as liberatory. Once upon a time, it was easier to imagine the virtual world as separate from the “real world,” where no one would know that you were a dog and such. Certainly we do not see social media that way any longer. In fact, it’s value often lies in the lack of separation. However, inasmuch as the Internet is part of the world, it’s part of the world. There’s no reason to expect the Internet to be more or less subject to hegemony than anything else.
From that respect, it’s easy to see openness and safety as opposing values. Like the real world, we are safe online when we are behind locked doors. We further rely on the policing of open spaces to ensure our safety, even when we are locked away. However in such an argument, there is a built-in assumption of a natural world that is open by default, and the natural world, of course, is dangerous. I suppose one might head down the rabbit hole of Heidegger and finitude here, but I’ll leave that for another day.
So here’s a different approach. What is described here as an open space is not a wild or natural one, but rather a territory. Territorialization, in the Deleuzian sense, need not be a strictly cultural or human operation. Animals mark territories. Climates and continents form territories. Even galaxies might be viewed as processes of territorialization. Agriculture territorializes land, removing existing plants, opening the ground, and making it safe for farming. In short, one might say that open spaces are always bounded by the assemblages and forces that produce them and are selective (whether intentionally or not) in terms of the future processes they engender. Of course all territories are finite and subject to deterritorialization. The upshot is that the Internet is a product of the State and it is made (mostly) open and safe via processes of territorialization. I do not mean to suggest that it is made safe for me or for other people (or that that is the goal) but only that it is made safe in the sense that the territory creates favorable conditions for engendering its own processes.
In these terms, Morris’ project is to alter territorializing processes. Can that be done? Of course, those processes are always shifting. His interests in this post are primarily on discursive spaces. The project is to redraw the territories of what is sayable or at least what is permissible to be said. Does that seem evil or unethical? It shouldn’t. Without territorialization there is no saying at all. Why can’t I say lfidhjfiopaewjfpoiaewijgfa? Because symbolic behavior is itself a product of territorialization, territorializing the lips, mouth, larynx, brain, etc, etc. To brush past Virilio, what I’m discussing here is an accident of discourse and symbolic behavior, of openness and safety. No doubt, exclusion can be intentional. But the creation of boundaries is also an unintended or unavoidable consequence of any symbolic-discursive practice.
In the end, I have no objection to the project of improving the lived experience of social media for people who are the regular targets of trolls. I’m not exactly sure how his post then turns toward the digital humanities though clearly there are a range of conflicts which he crystalizes in the statement, “Women are not safe in the Digital Humanities. Women of color, queer women, trans women, or gender nonconforming people, either.” I’m not a part of that community so I can’t tell you. However one has to suspect that the intention to change other people’s behavior or values will result in conflict.
And that’s fine too, I suppose as creating open and safe spaces requires it’s own kind of force.
I’m writing today about two unrelated events–unrelated that is except in that they both concern the MLA. The first is the election of Anne Ruggles Gere, a rhetorician, as second vice-president (which means she will rise in two years to the position of president). The second is an open letter from Eileen Joy, medievalist and founding director of Punctum Books, to the MLA on the openness of MLA Commons.
I will confess that I do not know the history of MLA well enough to know if a rhetorician has ever held the position of president or indeed if one has ever been up for election. As you may know, the curious thing about this election is that all three candidates were rhetoricians, which signals the clear intent of someone to have a scholar from my field in that position. Why? I can only guess. Certainly MLA has had an ambivalent relationship with rhetoric and composition, partly having to do with disciplinary schisms between literary studies and rhet/comp and partly having to do with issues related to adjunct labor (which are inextricably tied to the composition courses adjuncts typically teach in English). Undoubtedly there are some scholars who see themselves in both literary studies and rhetoric; there are some rhetoricians who feel very comfortable in an MLA context; there are a good number of people in my field who want to be better represented and respected by the MLA and its members; and there are also many rhetoricians who are indifferent and/or fed up with MLA and would be happy for our discipline to be completely separated from that organization. For years, rhet/comp and professional-technical writing jobs have comprised 40% of the jobs in the MLA job list. And there are rhetoric jobs in communications that wouldn’t be listed there. It’s not hard to imagine there are as many folks in these fields as there are studying American or British literature. And that doesn’t begin to count the vast number of contingent faculty teaching writing. As such, the implications of MLA (in terms of members, policies, and practices) as coming to represent rhetoric in a roughly proportional way would be significant.
Here’s an interesting way to think about this… the MLA Convention. This year’s theme is “Literature and its Publics” (my emphasis). To be fair, there’s a gesture to inclusiveness in the call suggesting that members might address “all our objects of attention: literature and other kinds of texts, as well as film, digital media, and rhetoric.” And you can search the 840 different panel sessions at the conference. You can search the panels by the 34 different subjects by which they are categorized, but you can’t find panels on rhetoric that way because rhetoric isn’t one of the categories. To be fair, there aren’t categories for film or digital media either. Linguistics is one of the few non-literature subjects and there are 18 linguistics panels. Doing a simple search reveals there are 17 panels that include the word rhetoric in either the panel title or a title of one of the presentations. 14 come up with a search for composition; some overlap with the 17 in rhetoric. Not all of these reflect the discipline, so I think it’s fair to say that less than 2% of the panels at MLA address rhetoric and composition as a field. But if we modestly imagined that if MLA (and its convention) did end up representing rhetoric in a fairly proportional way, there would be more than 200 rhetoric panels as I would guess rhetoricians easily would represent 20% of the MLA, including those faculty studying languages other than English. It would be like sticking a conference bigger than Computers and Writing or half the size of the Rhetoric Society of America’s bi-annual conference inside MLA.
So here’s my totally comical suggestion to an MLA that really wanted to incorporate rhetoric as a field (keeping in mind that I am in the indifferent category above). Find 200 rhetoricians who would agree to organize and present rhetoric panels at MLA twice over the next four years. That would give you roughly 100 such panels annually for four years. Maybe that would prime the pump for more proposals (and memberships). That’s in no way a serious suggestion and is only meant as a thought experiment to envision how weird it would be if MLA did really represent rhetoric and how very far away it is from doing so (regardless of who is president).
But I want to move on to Eileen’s letter. She writes in response to arguments coming from MLA officers and elsewhere calling for scholars to stop using Academia.edu. As I see it, the heart of her request is
If you want us to stop using Academia.edu, please use your resources to create something very much like it, such as CORE, but with NO impediments whatsoever (membership-wise, discipline-wise, etc.) as to who can either access and/or post to the site. You may feel that your purview is limited to literary and language studies only, but I challenge you to widen your ambit (and to use your formidable position and resources) to lead the way in crafting a digital repository that would provide a safe and democratic haven for a rowdily promiscuous (and anarchic) Open Knowledge Commons.
Eileen had invited folks to comment on her letter in draft form. I did. Basically I said there that while I understand the suspicion one might have with Academia.edu, their basic motive is fairly clear. They want to make money. They want to make money by providing a service to academics who feel that what they are getting from the site is worth the privacy and personal data that they are giving up. What’s MLA’s motive? On some level it wants/needs to make money too. But it has other motives related to promoting the disciplinary-professional interests of its membership. I suppose I am more skeptical of those interests and motives than I am of Academia.edu’s. When I say that, I should be clear that I am not speaking of the particular motives of the individuals who form the leadership of MLA. It’s really something far more nebulous. I suppose I am ultimately skeptical of how the interests of the disciplines the MLA actually represents would align with my own or those of my discipline as I see it.
Perhaps what will happen with MLA’s repository, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick reports, is that it will eventually tie into other similar disciplinary repositories across the humanities and beyond. I don’t know if that would satisfy Eileen’s request. Probably not, as it would still leave literary studies nonmembers without a place to share their work. However, I think it is unlikely that I would select MLA’s CORE as a place to share my own work, even if a significant portion of the MLA membership were active there. It just wouldn’t make sense since I share very little in terms of scholarly interests with them. On the other hand, I think Kathleen’s plan of a network of repositories makes sense.
In a way this kind of networked openness makes more sense to me than one that seeks to create openness by integrating rhetoric as a discipline into MLA. Of course individual rhetoricians who have specific affinities with literary studies should join MLA if they like, but in my view, on the whole, those affinities are fainter now than they have ever been. Maybe some future threat or exigency related to the humanities (such as I discussed in my last post) will transform the relations among our disciplines and form some new association that brings us together. In my imagination, such a transformation would be so sweeping as to make the suggestion of a couple hundred rhetoric panels at the MLA convention seem mild.
And that doesn’t even begin to address the subject of contingent labor, which will have to be a matter for a different time.
MLA’s Profession has a interesting new article by Christopher Newfield: “The Humanities as Service Departments: Facing the Budget Logic.” I recommend that you read it, but I will give a brief summary here.
Using the examples of SUNY Albany’s closure of language programs and Middlesex’s closure of its philosophy department, Newfield investigates and critiques the budgetary logics and arguments employed to justify these actions. In part he argues that administrators overlook or devalue the revenue generated through instruction, which is to the detriment of arts, humanities, and social sciences. As we know, typically faculty in these disciplines do not generate a lot of grant money (though their research typically costs the university nothing but their salaries) but they do teach a lot of students, though often those students are not their own majors.
The other interesting point he makes has to do with institutional perspective on return-on-investment: basically the logic that even if a department is generating revenue through instruction that doesn’t mean the money invested there might not be better invested elsewhere in terms of ROI. This logic is used to defend decisions to invest in STEM, though Newfield argues that in many cases that research doesn’t produce a profit. To the contrary, STEM research, despite the grant money it generates, costs the university money, money that it takes from instructional revenues or endowments. Ultimately, Newfield calls for faculty to insist on more transparency in these fiscal decisions and to become more involved at this level.
We can all agree these are complicated matters. Lacking the transparency of which Newfield speaks, I don’t know how this all works out at my institution. I do know, as was the subject of some recent local conversation, that UB spends $20M a year on athletics. In some ways, the conversation is analogous. It begins with asking, what is it that we hope to gain from this investment? Ideally, we would say that the objective of a university is to educate people and to produce knowledge about the world without any thought of turning a profit. Indeed, as it was in the old days, such objectives at public universities would rely upon significant taxpayer support… because we were (are) providing a service to society as a whole. Those days appear to be gone, at least for the moment.
So instead, in asking this question about ROI, we begin with knowing that we’re a tuition-driven institution. We bring in research dollars, but as Newfield points out, that money actually costs us money, just as big time athletics at most D1 institutions runs at a loss. As best as I can figure it, the hoped-for gain is in reputation or, put more crudely, brand recognition.
To give a personal example, my daughter is a high school senior, so we’ve just been through the college visit and application process. She applied to a number of large state universities (as well as some private ones). By the yard stick of US News, UB is the lowest ranked of the ones to which she applied. Are Michigan State or Rutgers better schools than UB? Are Tennessee and Oregon worse? Who knows? We are all aware of the problems of such rankings. And yet, every potential student has to make decisions about where to apply and then ultimately where to go based on some sense of what makes for a good school. This is the market in which universities compete.
So getting grants, having a visible athletics program, offering degrees in sought-after STEM and professional fields: these things all work to increase the reputation of the university. They attract more students and students with stronger academic records. Or at least that’s the theory. These students, we hope, will be more successful in terms of graduating on time and getting good paying jobs, which in turn feeds back into the university’s reputation. So if the university is aided by admitting students with higher test scores who then go on to make higher salaries, then the logic dictates that it should seek out students in STEM (and to invest in those disciplines). As a rhetorician, I feel like I’ve heard this story before, just on a disciplinary-department level, where the economics of the department are driven by the service work of composition but the reputation of the department is perceived to be driven by literary scholarship. In other words, rhetoricians have long been in this situation of having their work devalued as service.
Short of changing the entire dynamic of the way universities function is there a solution, a way for the humanities to thrive in this environment? Newfield doesn’t really offer an answer to this question. His solution, which is maybe the only one, is to convince state and federal government to change the way it funds higher education. I can offer an equally daunting approach which would involve restructuring undergraduate curriculum, where the distinction between major and non-major curriculum would be blurred. In part this might require devaluing the organizational structure of disciplinary departments. My point is that there’s no reason to presume that the institutional structures we created in the 20th century will work in this century. That doesn’t mean that we should simply dispense with them either. I would guess that trying to convince the public to change the way it funds higher education might involve some substantial restructuring of what we do.
It’s a tough argument to make. It’s always easier to change yourself than to change others, but that doesn’t mean changing yourself is easy, especially if the change you’re making is to something that you identify as a core element of your identity.
So I’ll just offer this up as a thought experiment. Maybe its just an exercise in dystopian thinking. What would an English department that thrived in the university Newfield describes look like? Not just one that rested on its historical reputation or managed to pay for itself, but one that actually was attractive in terms of the ROI logic of the university that plunks millions into semi-professional athletics?
James Mulholland argues in The Guardian that “We must recognise the value of the esoteric knowledge, technical vocabulary and expert histories that academics produce.” And ends with the following pithy advice, “So academics, stay in your offices. Write books that few people will read. The results might be more significant than any of us first recognise.” Who can disagree? We should recognize the value of the esoteric, technical, and expert. And we do not know the future; we do not know what significance the work we do today might have later.
However I’m not writing here to support or disagree with Mulholland but rather to remark on the strange nature of this commonplace argument and his particular performance of it.
The idea Mulholland specifically opposes is the “call for academics to publicise their work often place importance on making complex research more accessible to general audiences.” And that “Humanists like myself are regularly forced to consider what the public wants.” It’s not that he is suggesting that academics should give no thought to the public, but rather that catering to the public shouldn’t be made to define or constrain the nature of our scholarship. Upon close analysis, the argument is not as polemic as the tag line about saying in your office would seem to suggest.
However, the example he supplies in support of his argument is perplexing. He notes that “Queer theory emerged in the 1980s with the goal of overturning the 1986 US supreme court decision in Bowers v Hardwick.” And then observes how nearly 20 years later that research was influential in the Supreme Court’s reversal of that decision. That strikes me as an example of research that had a very specific public objective and one that it ultimately achieved (perhaps those scholars thought it wouldn’t take 17 years). I cannot speak to the history of queer theory. I’m sure queer theory scholars have had many motives for their work, including this one. Some of that work, I can only guess, was directed toward broader audiences. Regardless though, Mulholland suggests a very clear public-political motive for the scholarly work being done. It’ve very different from his own work “investigating 18th-century British authors who wrote poetry and plays in colonial cities and outposts stationed around India, Sumatra and Singapore.”
I should note that I have no problem with him doing the research he wants to do, and furthermore, I don’t consider it any of my business to have an opinion on it. North Carolina State University hired him to do this work, and he’s doing it. Period. If he doesn’t want to write for the “public” that’s fine with me. I’m assuming there’s some public, some audience, for his work. If there isn’t then it won’t be published, but I’m sure there is some community of like-minded academics, a couple thousand people maybe, who work in his area of specialization and will find his contributions to it valuable. There are some economic considerations surrounding academic publishing, but assuming those considerations can be met, then someone will publish his work and I’m sure they have in the past.
I just think queer theory is an odd comparison to make here.
Here’s my issue. This is the wrong argument for us to be having. There should be exigency, kairos, for the work we do. The specific exigency might only make sense to the academics involved in it. On some level, that exigency should be intelligible to the readers of The Guardian for example. That’s different from saying that we should produce our scholarship to be read by that audience. I don’t think that’s a very high hurdle and I think it’s one we typically meet in explaining what we do to students, colleagues from other disciplines, and so on. In other words, it’s no big deal.
What is a bigger deal is recognizing that the discursive-rhetorical practices, the genres, in which we have worked are products of historical conditions. Mulholland certainly knows this; it’s the founding premise of the research he does. It’s why it is important to know that a particular poem or play was written in Bombay in the 1790s. The same historical context in which the literature we study participates shapes our own rhetorical efforts, changing what we do, whether we like it or not.
The whole idea of academics writing monographs for tenure and promotion is a product of the mid-twentieth century. We can take the advice to sit in our offices and write books few will read, but those offices are like those of 50 years ago. Books are not the same media they once were. We do not compose them as we once did. I’m not saying that we should stop writing books. I’m saying that we have stopped writing books, if by books one means the particular media objects produced a few decades ago.
We have a new, evolving media ecology. In it, we connect in new ways with our colleagues, our students, and with the general public of the Internet. This shifts the exigent circumstances of our work. We have an emerging set of rhetorical-compositional capacities as well. I am not arguing that we need to be writing to that general public in the research we do. I’m just saying that this is the wrong argument to be having, one that says we should be choosing between writing esoteric books for academic colleagues or more simplified prose for the public. It’s not only that this is a false binary (as if we couldn’t do both), but it misunderstands the media ecology in which we operate.
I think it’s easy to say there’s little or no scholarly value in the administrative burdens of running a writing program for a rhetorician, like me, whose area of research is not related to program administration or assessment or even really composition studies. That’s what we would likely say of the many administrative jobs academics might take on in departments. It’s easy to say, and probably true, that the book I’m still working on would have been published years ago if I hadn’t spent the last six years as a WPA.
So perhaps I am just looking for the silver lining.
But I have another, long and clunky title for this post: the longer I do this, the more Latourian I become. And the reason for that has much to do with the obligations of being a WPA. So here’s a detour through Latour.
In We Have Never Been Modern, he tells the following story of what happened when science studies started doing its work at the Edinburg School:
What had started as a ‘social’ study of science could not succeed, of course, and this is why it lasted only a split second -just long enough to reveal the terrible flaws of dualism. By treating the ‘harder’ parts of nature in the same way as the softer ones -that is, as arbitrary constructions determined by the interests and requirements of a sui generis society -the Edinburgh daredevils deprived the dualists -and indeed themselves, as they were soon to realize -of half of their resources. Society had to produce everything arbitrarily including the cosmic order, biology, chemistry, and the laws of physics! The implausibility of this claim was so blatant for the ‘hard’ parts of nature that we suddenly realized how implausible it was for the ‘soft’ ones as well.
Amusingly, these implausible claims persisted long after Latour wrote this, and indeed the Science Wars hadn’t even begun in earnest when this book was published. I wonder if Latour could have guessed that he would have been held up as an emblem for those making these claims he found so implausible? In this passage, one can see elements of the arguments Latour would make far more directly (at least in my reading) in more recent years about “matters of concern” and “a second empiricism.” Really though matters of concern are hybrids or “quasi-objects” (which are the subject of this quoted passage) and a second empiricism is an approach to empiricism that permits the study of hybrids.
The key point in this passage though is that science studies set out to demonstrate that science was strictly a social-discursive phenomenon, reducible to social explanations, like religion, politics and so on, but an unexpected reversal occurred. Rather than demonstrating that science was social, they discovered that society couldn’t be strictly social either. It’s fairly straightforward to bring this realization into the context of rhetoric and composition. Beginning with the linguistic and cultural “turns” of the late 80s/early 90s, we were in a similar situation to that of the Edinburgh sociologists of science. We expected social-ideological-discursive explanations, but we have discovered something else.
As WPA here every semester there are 80 or so instructors, 2500 students, over 100 sections, dozens of classrooms, technologies, administrators, budgets, policies, etc., etc., etc. Anyone whose ever done the job knows the story. It’s a complicated mess: a matter of concern. But would we imagine that most other discursive environments lack similar entanglements? So often, we tend to narrow our disciplinary focus to the solitary writer or a single text, (or a small group of writers and texts that can each be treated independently). And Latour would likely say that we need to begin in such places, rather than with preconceived notions of big pictures. But where do we go from here? I’d imagine the typical composition student isn’t seeing the same matters of concern that I do with all of these institutional and bureaucratic matters, but is that network any less complex?
So I circle back to the original claim about the value of being a WPA. The job has insisted that I confront the reality of my views on writing and pedagogy. It’s not about being pragmatic or “nuts and bolts” in some pejorative sense. Instead, it’s about insisting that my scholarly-theoretical work helps me understand the rhetorical, media-ecological contexts in which I’m working in productive ways. In other (Latourian) words, can I build knowledge that is strong enough? That’s why I think being a WPA has made me more Latourian. It’s the methodological approach that has produced the knowledge that has done the most work for me.
And all of that has shaped my scholarly thinking.
The other day I was reading a dissertation chapter and I noticed a quote for which the student was still looking for a page reference. On a lark, I copied and pasted the quote into a Google search, and there it was in Google Books. It was a reflexive action for me these days as I have a couple dozen scholarly books on my Kindle and most of them don’t come with page numbers when I cut and paste the quotations. I have to go searching for pages in Google Books by search for the quote. So this started me thinking about how antiquated the citation apparatus is. I know that’s an old story, a familiar complaint. Page number is really an antiquated piece of location data though, right? Especially when really of our articles and most monographs are available digitally and there really could be far easier and more precise forms of location.
But that’s not really what I wanted to write about today. I want to muse on the next thought I had, which was the following. Probably the common objection to the suggestion above is that although scholarship is findable online, it’s not really practical to read it on the screen. This is a viewpoint I’ve heard many times. I’d almost say it is an academic commonplace.
It may be possible to do some light summer reading on a Kindle or browse a webpage but the close reading required of scholarly texts can’t be done there. It’s a viewpoint that might take as evidence some of the research that has been done with students on their ability to retain information from the screen as compared to information on the page. I don’t doubt the claims of either my colleagues or these studies. I’m believe them when they tell me they struggle with reading on the screen. The thing is, if I told you that I struggled with reading on paper, would you say that was a problem with the technology or would you say that I had a reading problem? I assure you the argument would be the latter.
It’s not unreasonable to imagine that reading skills are like writing skills in the sense that they aren’t universal. This is obvious in terms of content where no one is surprised that I can’t read and understand highly technical texts in a discipline distant to my own. As the activity-genre theory folks would argue, you really have to be part of that activity system to do that reading (and writing). But can we extend this argument to shifts in media ecologies? That is, is it the case that the shift from printed book to Kindle, for example, is so significant that one may have the ability to read and understand in print, but not on the screen? Your first inclination may be to say “no,” probably because you are implicitly asserting that the texts are identical. But they are clearly not identical: one is printed; one isn’t. And our colleagues and these studies have all demonstrated that there is a difference.
Some of the complaints about screens have to do with the physical limitations of eyes. I’m certainly not going to argue that we might not continue to develop screens that provide better affordances for human vision. On the other hand, it would be silly to suggest that print cannot create its own eye strain. There’s a reason large print books exist. However many of the complaints about screens have to do with the embodied experience of reading (e.g. the feel of the book, etc.) or the amount of words one can scan on a page. Not surprisingly, the capacities of a human reader plus a Kindle or a website is different from the capacities of a human reader plus a printed book. Being literate in one context is not the same as being “literate” (if that’s still the right word) in the other.
What’s the upshot? Probably that saying you can’t read a scholarly text on a screen or Kindle maybe isn’t just about the technology.
I recall where I first encountered the work skeuomorph, in Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, which she defined as “a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but refers back to a feature that was functional at an early time. The dashboard of my Toyota Camry, for example, is covered by a vinyl molded to simulate stitching” (17). A good definition, though the OED offers a more general definition: “an object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in other material.”
Somewhere in there is a good description of conversations in Facebook. As you know, conversation on Facebook is uncommon, not rare perhaps, but uncommon. If you read your feed basically it is a series of non-sequiturs: people talking past one another, unaware, and incapable of knowing that they appear beside one another in your feed. Conversation happens, when it happens, in the back and forth of replies. In most cases, at least in my experience (I haven’t done a study or anything), replies are written as if the author had not read the other replies to the feed. Most of the time reading those other replies seems unnecessary as the nature of the reply is an expression of sympathy, laughter, congratulations, or something like that. In other words, the reply isn’t really a gesture to start a conversation.
When we limit our analysis to a series of replies to a status update where it appears that most of the authors have read at least a significant portion of the prior replies and seem to be engaging in some kind of back and forth, I suppose we might call that a conversation. But it might be better to think of it as a skeuomorph of a conversation. It’s not that hard to start building a list of the ways a series of Facebook replies is different from a verbal conversation or a series of handwritten letters or even an exchange of emails on a listserv. We can also see how it’s different from other conversations on Twitter and other social media. I’m not going to make a list right now.
As near as I can figure, the purpose of Facebook is to collect marketing data on its users. We all know that Fb is a business in the business of making money. It offers a service to its users in exchange for our sharing/producing this data. If you want to congratulate or console or be congratulated or consoled, FB works well. If you want to share something funny or cute or interesting or exciting, FB is great for that as well, especially if you can find a group that shares your particular definition of those things. But, at least as I can figure it, none of that stuff requires much heavy lifting from conversation.
So what happens when we try something a little more rhetorically challenging in that space?
The recent events in Paris and the resulting actions of Facebook (specifically the Safety Check and the Temporary Profiles, i.e., the flag overlay on the profile pic) are an example of this. There’s a good article in Wired about some of this, (which I learned about from Facebook), though maybe the key line in that article is this:
The fight over whether the people who changed their profile photos are sheep and part of a “social experiment” isn’t a worthwhile one (and, if you’re using Facebook, you should already know everything you do is part of a giant social experiment)
Mostly what I’ve seen in my feed are the knock on effects of these arguments: users talking about ignoring or de-friending others out of the ill will produced here. For my purposes it doesn’t really matter if the arguments are about whether or not to drape one’s profile pic in the French flag or if Facebook should expand Safety Check to other situations or if the US should accept Syrian refugees and so on. Facebook takes up these messages the same way as it does things like “Hey I just got a cool new job!” or “Look at this cute puppy!” Those are things we can just Like or post a quick reply. Why would we think the same interface would work well for more complicated and contentious matters?
The answer is that we don’t expect it to work. No one really expects persuasion or consensus-building in these “conversations.” Those kinds of discussions require some really specific actor-networks and assemblages. Things like university courses, court rooms, and laboratories are designed to do things like that. Certain written and other media genres can work that way too but only in the context of some larger network. E.g., I can read an academic article on my home computer and change my thinking on an issue because of the way that I am tied to that community.
But Facebook doesn’t work that way, and it’s hard to imagine that it ever could. So even when I read (or possibly participate) in a FB thread with academic friends about an academic issue, it still can’t really work the way academic conversation does elsewhere. Sometimes I feel like I can smell the digital oil burning as the interface creaks against the tensions of trying to have a “real” conversation. It’s a skeuomorph, It looks like a conversation, but…
Is that a criticism of FB? Sure, why not. Is it a condemnation? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s an argument that if what we desire is a forum for working through significant, public, political disagreements then we haven’t built it yet. Personally I’m not convinced we want such a thing, but that’s another matter.
I saw Kathleen Yancey speak last week at RIT about her latest research on teaching for transfer. I find the focus on transfer is a little curious but important to discuss. Fundamentally, almost tautologically, the purpose of teaching and learning would be to acquire knowledge and skills that have value in contexts beyond the one in which they were first encountered (e.g., the classroom). On some basic level, this is how mammalian memory functions. One might say that all social institutions are built upon the human biological capacity for memory, a capacity that is altered by symbolic behavior, writing, other media, and various data storage, networking, and retrieval processes. And when I say altered I mean that quite literally in that the plasticity of the brain means that it is shaped by these technosocial assemblages.
Anyway, schooling is obviously one of these assemblages which has some specific ideas about how it would like human memory to function and what the successful “transfer” of knowledge or skills from one context to another would look like.
For whatever reason (and one could go into the historical reasons for it), composition studies among all academic fields has been particularly wedded to the notion of transfer, specifically to the idea that writing instruction in FYC will transfer to future college courses and make students better writers in those contexts. It has been a troubling promise and there’s a fair degree of skepticism about the utility of what might be transferred from FYC to other contexts. There’s one thing that we can all know for sure, however, and that’s that humans definitely bring ideas about writing and writing practices with them from one situation to another. Otherwise, students wouldn’t show up writing 5-paragraph themes in our classes.
So there’s no doubt that when students leave FYC and enter some future class that requires writing (or enter a workplace that asks them to write, or write for other reasons) that they will “transfer” memories, concepts, and practices. Yancey talked a fair amount about this, noting both the theories of writing students bring into a class and the theories of writing that might already exist in a given course, discipline, workplace, etc.
I am going to speculate that nothing I’ve said is especially controversial to this point. Let’s see if I can rev it up a bit.
Given all these conditions, in a composition classroom I think one is faced with two basic options.
- You can teach students academic writing as it interests you (and as you have expertise/authority with it). If you’re in English Studies (which you almost certainly are), then that’s probably essayistic writing. Maybe its rhetorical analysis, maybe its literary or cultural analysis, but you get the point.
- You can teach students how to investigate and adapt to new writing contexts. You could say this is rhetorical analysis and maybe it falls in that category, but there’s plenty of rhetorical analysis that wouldn’t do this.
Not surprisingly I’m going to explore the second option here, but I want to give some more attention to option 1. As we know, part of the longstanding problem of FYC is the perception that it has no content. That void has been filled with literary texts, thematically-organized essays, cultural theory, and most recently composition scholarship itself. This desire for content has always been more or less at odds with a desire to focus on process. We seem stuck on the treadmill of a fairly generic, recursive set of activities (invent, draft, organize, revise, polish). The curious thing is that the selection of content seems to have almost no impact on that writing process. That is to say, generally speaking, that none of the content that we bring into the classroom seems to have any relevance to how we think about the practice of writing itself.
Now let me return to option #2 by way of this slight detour. In her contribution to Thinking with Latour in Rhetoric and Composition, Marylin Cooper poses the following questions:
What if writing teachers and their students thought of research as empirical and experimental— as producing new knowledge, not reporting what is known? What if they thought of the facts they discover as provisional, part of a trajectory of knowledge, and not as final truths? What if they thought of the readers of their texts as colleagues who provide necessary validation of their facts, not as editors? What if they thought of their goal in writing as the direct perception of reality, rather than as defending a point of view?
Latour’s “second empiricism,” which he details in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, is an expansion of a more familiar refrain in his work: an exhortation to listen to actors, to follow them, to seek to describe what they are doing, and not to leap ahead to theorization or explanation or argument. Cooper is following that out here in her essay and envisioning a writing practice that is empirical and experimental.
How does this connect with that second option? Basically, we’d be talking about a composition course where the activity was a (second) empirical investigation of writing and writing practices. This isn’t exactly what Cooper has in mind, and I will admit that it has the same potential to be “boring” as any academically-minded, disciplinary course does from anthropology to zoology. So sure, it could be boring, or not. But the purpose, as noted above, would be to develop a rhetorical-analytical skill specifically designed to assist in adapting to new writing situations.
Is that all rhetorical analysis? I don’t think so. A lot of rhetorical analysis can be formalistic (a kind of rhetorical version of new critical close reading) or cultural-critical or very theoretical/philosophical. Those are all fine intellectual and academic activities (as are literary studies and cultural studies for that matter), but for this particular purpose, one is first and foremost looking for an empirical description of writing and writing practice, perhaps beginning (and ending) with one’s own.
I would hypothesize that when one did that, one would discover a number of actors significantly involved in any writing activity, human and nonhuman. This might interestingly shift the traditional focus of composition–which has been on individuals and then subjects–into a wider media-ecological perspective. One effect of this shift would be the development of different descriptions of process. That is, one would actually have course content that informed our understanding of how writing happens.
Marc Bousquet has a piece in Inside Higher Ed on the topic of alt-ac careers and the disciplinary-institutional motives of departments and universities in relation to them. I really don’t disagree with him, particularly when he writes:
faculty like having graduate programs and, perhaps more to the point, administrators need them. For faculty, grad programs confer status, provide emotional gratification of several kinds and legitimate the teaching of fewer, smaller classes. Crucially, however, administrators need doctoral programs across fields to maintain the institution’s Carnegie classification.
He suggests this is a cynical explanation for the motives of having doctoral programs even when there are clearly not enough tenure track jobs for all the students. But I don’t think it is really all that cynical at all. Faculty enjoy teaching graduate courses and graduate students. On it’s face, there’s nothing wrong with that. Similarly, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with administrators seeking to improve the reputation of their institutions by having such programs. And as long as students freely enter those programs without illusions of what they offer, then I’m not sure there’s any malfeasance here.
What would be cynical and deeply problematic is if graduate programs sold themselves like commercials for for-profit online universities that promise entry into the middle class when so many of their students just end up deep in debt. That is, if doctoral programs are promising tenure-track jobs and a chicken in every pot then that’s unethical. If they can cite real statistics about completion rates and tenure track job placement at the point when students are choosing to attend, then students can make informed decisions, and I think those programs have done their job.
As Marc points out, PhDs in the humanities have low unemployment rates and generally good jobs and incomes, even if they don’t get tenure track jobs. That said, in strictly financial terms, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to get a Phd in the humanities. Even if you end up landing a tenure-track job, you still probably could have ended up better off financially following a different path. But if that was your priority then you’d probably not be considering a humanities phd anyway.
Thinking back on my own decision a little over 20 years ago to go to a phd program, certainly I had it in my mind that I would like to become a professor, but if you’d told me there was only a 20-30% chance that I’d find a tenure-track job (which no one did), I don’t think it would have deterred me. After all, I’d just spent two years in New Mexico writing poetry in a creative writing MA. I continued on to a doctoral program because I enjoyed my master’s program, not because I thought it would get me a great job. Somewhere in the middle of the degree program I got married and started thinking about having a career. That pragmatism influenced my decision to specialize in rhetoric. A few years later, when I was a postdoc at Georgia Tech in the late 90s, many of my colleagues were leaving academia for start-ups or technical writing jobs or management consulting gigs. I happened to land a tenure-track job, but it could have easily gone a different direction. So I’m hardly a role model, but in the conversations I’ve had with our incoming grad students, my orientation to job prospects as a new grad student is not atypical.
In the end, I am completely on board with Bousquet’s suggestion that we need to insist that we create more tenure-track teaching-intensive positions or, at minimum, such positions with lengthy contracts. Fo me, that’s a separate although related concern.
So the bottomline.
- Spending 8 years getting a Phd in the humanities probably doesn’t make good financial sense. So don’t do it for that reason. (I know, that’s a shocker.)
- If you want to get a Phd for other, non-financial reasons, then, as they say, “it’s a free country.” However, it’s important to have both a national and program-level understanding of the career prospects of your degree, because at some point you will be looking for a job and you should at least make an informed decision.
- For different reasons, we should make an effort to create better careers for college teachers, though even if we did, point #1 would still apply.
- Part of creating such college positions should be thinking about the alternative-academic careers Phds pursue on our campuses and ensuring as well as we can that those are well-paid and secure positions.