A Clarification on Camelot

There are good productions of the musical, and the best ones know that the musical is a tragedy, despite the fact that all its best songwriting is comedic, in the first half. If you watch it or listen to it, note: the first two songs (“I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight” and “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”) mock the self-involved self-indulgence of their royal principals. That self-indulgence becomes the war-torn destruction of a culture. So yeah, I reject the critical dismissal of the musical as little other than a Kennedy-era bon-bon. “Fie On Goodness” in 1960 was an acknowledgement of the human element of war crimes, fifteen years after the Nuremberg trials.

May Day, 2015

The girls — Tink, Zeugma, and Tash — are happily devouring their birthday tuna, and it’s International Workers’ Day, and it’s also the day about which Chaucer said:

The briddes, that haven lefte her song,
While thei han suffrid cold so strong
In weeres gryl and derk to sight,
Ben in May for the sonne bright
So glade, that they shewe in syngyng
That in her hertis is such lykyng,
That they mote syngen and be light.
Than doth the nyghtyngale hir myght
To make noyse and syngen blythe,
Than is blisful many sithe
The chelaundre and the papyngay
Than young folk entenden ay
For to ben gay and amorous;
The tyme is than so saverous.
Hard is his hart that loveth nought
In May, whan al this mirth is wrought;
Whan he may on these braunches here
The smale briddes syngen clere.

The birds sing. The cats eat their birthday dinners. And today is the workers’ holiday, as well, a day of rest from work: a day of play. Chaucer, of course, was a media theorist:

How have I thanne suche a condition,
That of al the floures in the mede
Thanne love I most these floures white and redo,
Suche as men callen daysyes in our tonne.
To hem have I so grete affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whanne comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam uppe and walkyng in the merle,
To seen this floure aye in the sunne sprede
Whan it up-ryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sight softeneth al my sorwe.

The mede and the merle: the space for interaction between God and man. Media. Poetry, as representation, served as medium.

Chaucer’s May is amorous. It’s the young lover basting his sleeves as he walks out the door. It’s throwing away books as work, on this day of work and pleasure. In some ways, it’s Julie Andrews in the Lerner and Loewe that gets such scant appreciation:

It’s May, the lusty month of May
That darling month when everyone throws self-control away
It’s time to do a wretched thing or two
And try to make each precious day one you’ll always rue

It’s May, it’s May, the month of “Yes, you may”
The time for every frivolous whim, proper or im-
It’s wild, it’s gay, depraved in every way
The birds and bees with all of their vast amorous past
Gaze at the human race aghast
The Lusty Month of May

I like the birds reference (Chaucer again), and Lerner and Loewe clearly knew what they were doing in their comedy-turned-tragedy, despite all the unfortunate critical emphasis on the Kennedys. Camelot is a fine bit of light opera that bewilders audiences because of the shift in tone. May might remind us, for all of our work and celebration of work, for our pleasure, for all our amatory adventures, there’s also what comes after: after winter, spring, and after spring, summer.

And after.

Good News, Good Projects

I was recently happy to have good news: last week, the WSU English Department graduate students gave me the “Most Supportive Faculty Member” award (which particularly delights me in that they’re amazing people with whom to work). Yesterday I learned that I’d won a teaching grant. And I’ll brag about my wife too: Lauralea today received an invitation to give a keynote address at a professional conference. We are apparently doing some good things professionally, and those good things seem to sometimes intersect: we’ll both be presenting about quantitative rhetorics and research at Feminisms & Rhetorics in the fall, as well.

In addition to that good news, my Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 375 (“Languages, Texts, and Technologies”) students presented their final collaborative projects at the DTC showcase last night, and they. were. awesome. Seven teams (who all told me it was OK to post links to portions of their projects) did these things:

I’m kind of amazed, even though I know I shouldn’t be, to work with students who have such goodwill and creativity. The projects above reflect some of the best aspects of what I consider to be excellent multimodal collaborative scholarship.

And today, in class, we concluded with the intersections of James Gleick’s The Information, Marshall McLuhan, “The Library of Babel,” smartphone dating, big data, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and the Skyrim/Valve paid mods user revolt. A good end to a good semester.

Reading and Error

I’m in the final work of editing down an article to potentially publishable brevity, and there’s a moment where I realize there’s an absent connection, a place where it switches tracks and goes into a weird place. It’s an article that deals in part with reading and self-awareness while reading, and I’d like to leave that moment of confusion in  there.

It makes me think of student error in composition papers, and how composition instructors read student papers. When do we notice that things get weird, and why? And what does it signal to us?

Imagine you’re in a small seminar-sized professional development meeting for first-year composition instructors, and you’re talking about how to read student papers, and the topic of error comes up. What if, instead of having the instrumental conversation, somebody at the meeting handed out a photocopy of the Charles Kinbote Foreword to John Shade’s Pale Fire, as represented in the Nabokov novel of the same name? What if you took turns reading it out loud, together, for the half hour or forty minutes or so that it took, and you agreed to use a pencil and mark only the moments where things got weird for you as a reader?

Do you characterize those moments as places that are problematic, or places that are interesting?

Oh, but some will say, composition students don’t know what they’re doing like Nabokov did. My response: what about Kinbote? And isn’t part of the fascination looking at what Kinbote does? And might that not help us think about how we might be more fascinated by students?

I want to leave in the place where it switches tracks because it makes a moment of difficulty right where I’m talking about making moments of difficulty. That’s a big leap to make, though: to ask readers to say, “Wait, what?” and still ask them to go back to it.

Rhetrospect

I mentioned in September that I was teaching a graduate seminar in classical rhetoric last semester. I gave it the subtitle “rhetoric under empire” because I tried to craft a syllabus that foregrounded the relations of power and materiality that seem too often absent from classical rhetoric as it’s taught in rhetoric and composition studies. Certainly, there’s some attention paid to Corbett’s closed fist and open hand (ratio and elocutio), or as the image I stole from the Internet to publicize the course and now can’t source would have it, the fasces and the flowers.

fasces and flowers

The course went extraordinarily well and did everything I wanted to, and the students even seemed to like it. Folks in rhetoric and composition sometimes tend to think of classical rhetoric as dry, dull, deadly boring stuff, and that’s mostly the fault of the way it’s too often taught, I think. There’s an impulse I’ve seen to abstract and to theorize and to alienate from context: to take Aristotle and ask what we can use from his Rhetoric in the composition classroom and wind up with a lot of FYC essays pointing out instances of ethos, logos, and pathos in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”; or to ask undergraduates to identify rhetorical figures from the Ad Herennium and De Inventione in political speeches from the last election and wind up with a lot of etceterative taxonomies that offer scant sense of possible implications.

As admirable a volume as Bizzell and Herzberg’s Rhetorical Tradition is (and it is massively, wonderfully admirable: I’ve spent many hours lost in its pages), I think it’s partly to blame. The primary texts included in the volume can be categorized—with a few exceptions—as almost entirely rhetorical theory, and with that as one of our most well- and widely-known sources, of course it’s going to influence how we teach. So when I taught Cicero, I taught bits of the De Inventione and the De Oratore and the Brutus and Orator, but all in the context of his early speech in front of the dictator Sulla, all in the context of his bawdy and misogynistic oration for Caelius in conjunction with the love poems of Caelius’s rival Catullus, all in the context of his rhetorical judo with the Pro Ligario before Caesar as both judge and plaintiff. So, too, with Isocrates and the function of rhetoric during wartime and the debates over how literate the Spartans might have been; so, too, with Aristotle and Alexander and the paranoia and xenophobia; so, too, with those who enthuse about Quintilian without considering the imperial terror of Domitian and the indictment by Tacitus of “gain-getting rhetoric” — epideictic rhetoric as truly economic — when there was no space left for rhetoric as forensic or deliberative. To me, that sort of rhetoric understood in its material and social context is exciting and fresh and alive, not abstracted or theoretical or irrelevant: when you read his letter to Atticus, to Caelius, to his wife Terentia, there comes an entirely different human sense of who Cicero was that gives extraordinary vitality to his rhetoric.

It makes me think there’s risk in studying rhetoric, in that abstracting it into an object of scholarly exchange can lead to seeing only how it operates at that abstracted and theoretical level and missing completely the level of material and experiential consequence. So that’s why my classical_rhetoric_syllabus looked the way it did, and that’s why I’ll continue to teach it that way: it’s in a way the same thing I try to do in my emphasis on the economics of writing study; to look at the value of and motivation for the rhetorical labor we perform and the intellectual and affective capital we produce and distribute and experience and re-produce and re-value.

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, Part 1

Yesterday was Veterans Day. It was a cold morning here in Pullman: around 20 degrees, and we still have a few nasturtiums left in the front flowerbed. I’d listened to the NPR news piece about poppies and Flanders Fields and Remembrance Day in Commonwealth nations, and it occurred to me briefly that poppies would look nice when I opened the front door and went to put out the flag. With my hands so cold, I didn’t think long about poppies.

First Lady Michelle Obama had marked the occasion the day before by honoring women veterans at Arlington, and by announcing several technological initiatives related to careers and education. I think that’s a good thing, but I also had some difficulties with the ways military service and higher education were framed. As the White House’s strategic communications officer COL Steve Parker put it, “[t]o support veterans in their transition to meaningful employment, the First Lady announced two significant public-private partnerships with LinkedIn and Coursera that will help military members find and land the jobs they want.” For the sake of COL Parker’s ongoing career satisfaction and that of other servicemembers, let’s not talk about that “transition to meaningful employment” phrase, but the “public-private partnerships” are interesting in what they reflect about who we consider to be public and who we consider to be private. I see LinkedIn as the Facebook of the job search world, in both good and bad ways, and LinkedIn shows perhaps even more than Facebook how some efficiencies favor employers rather than would-be employees: as the axiom goes, if you’re not paying, you’re the product.

I have somewhat more difficulty with Coursera as a “partner” in a “public-private” partnership between veterans and American taxpayers as the “public” and a for-profit educational enterprise as the “private.” Coursera, as one might imagine, is very happy about an arrangement by which “[t]he VA will endorse Coursera to 21 million US Veterans” in the name of “expos[ing] Veteran learners to industry relevant education.” It’s a familiar trope: praise those wonderfully selfless irrelevant dopes who we all seek to honor, in the name (not spoken too loudly) of profit. If you’ve read Google Chief Economist Hal Shapiro’s early-oughts Harvard Business Press infocapitalism primer Information Rules, you’ll recognize it as coming straight out of that playbook: what Coursera has done, quite masterfully, is to achieve distance education lock-in of a captive audience. With the public aid of the VA and American taxpayers, Coursera is increasing its private profits.

Coursera specializes in MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, a recently-touted solution to what regimes of increasing privatization and profit have spuriously manufactured as an economic crisis in higher education. As Charles Lowe puts it in his introduction to a recent edited scholarly volume on MOOCs,

Millions of dollars of grants have funded many experiments with a variety of MOOCs based on different theoretical principles and using different interactive tools. Elite colleges are creating MOOCs to enhance their own reputations, although ironically not offering college credit for the courses themselves. Politicians, looking for yet another route to cheap education, are pushing MOOCs upon public institutions, with commercial entities determined to monetize the MOOC equally prodding the debate in favor of MOOCs for higher ed. (xi)

Jeffrey T. Grabill acknowledges that “the ‘great recession’ of 2007–2008″ was why he and his colleagues “were thinking about MOOCs at Michigan State in 2012″ (40). Nick Carbone characterizes MOOCs as “just another business venture seeking to promise educational efficiency—more students served—at lower per student costs” (193). Efficiency trumps all, and in a political and rhetorical environment where we know that the price tag for veterans’ post-9/11 GI Bill is US $9 billion, perhaps MOOCs and their increased efficiencies of education offer an answer.

And so, in response to Michelle Obama’s initiative with the VA and Coursera and distance education, we might well ask Cicero’s question: cui bono?

In his co-edited volume, Charles Lowe traces the advent of MOOCs to the early 2002–2008 work of George Siemens (ix) and to MIT’s 2002 OpenCourseWare project. The MIT project resulted in discussions that led to UNESCO’s work with online Open Educational Resources (Lowe x), which I was grateful to make use of and share with Afghan English instructors when the United States Military Academy deployed me to Kabul in 2011. As Lowe observes, the notion of Open Educational Resources carries “an idealistic vision of creating freely available educational opportunities for anyone with Internet access, educational opportunities equivalent to the traditional classroom which would particularly help those in developing areas of the world” (x): an apparent public good, worth contrasting to the harvest of private profits from public service.

More to follow.

Works Cited

Carbone, Nick. “Here a MOOC, There a MOOC.” Krause and Lowe 193–203.

Grabill, Jeffrey T. “Why We Are Thinking About MOOCs.” Krause and Lowe 39–44.

Krause, Steven D., and Charles Lowe, eds. Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Online Courses. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014. http://www.parlorpress.com/pdf/invasion_of_the_moocs.pdf

Lowe, Charles. “Introduction: Building on the Tradition of CCK08.” Krause and Lowe ix–xiv.

Veterans, Hearing Loss, and Disability

Am I allowed to claim the status of struggling with a disability? I feel like I’m not — I’m a hetero cisgendered white male in a position of privilege — but I’ve lately been thinking more and more about ability and disability.

I’ve lost a portion of my hearing and suffer from persistent tinnitus. I don’t know how much of my hearing I’ve lost, but I saw the otolaryngologist (the ear doc) today, and have an appointment to see an audiologist. I’m fairly certain that what I’m dealing with now is related to shooting firearms and being close to things blowing up from my times associated with the military. As a young man, I was sometimes dumb about wearing ear protection, and as an older man in Afghanistan, there was some stuff for which I was inadequately prepared.

Sometimes in crowded social spaces, I can’t hear what people across the table are saying, or I have to watch a person’s mouth very closely to figure out what he or she is saying, both of which can make people uncomfortable. So I wondered aloud to the Orientalist whether this is a disability — most people my age can hear better than I do — and she strongly resisted that idea, or at least strongly resisted the idea that I might characterize myself as a disabled person.

I think disability is a continuum. As someone who teaches writing, I know there will be students in my classroom who don’t outwardly show their disabilities: students who are on the autism spectrum (including those who identify as Aspies), veterans with PTSD, people who struggle with clinical depression or major depressive disorder. Hearing loss happens to most of us as we get older, as does loss of vision. (I’m noticing it’s probably about time to start thinking about reading glasses, too. Is that a disability?) Many universities, including the one where I work, require syllabus statements about disability and reasonable accommodation, which I think is a good thing. I also wonder, though, whether such statements reinforce the idea of there being such a thing as “normal,” from which any difference is deviance and must be in whatever sense “accommodated.”

In other words, do statements of reasonable accommodation keep us locked into a pernicious series of value judgments? It’s an easy thing for someone like me (hetero cisgendered white male) to ask. I’d like to work toward being in a sociocultural space where that privilege isn’t so often assumed.

Graduate Seminar in Classical Rhetoric

I’ve loved classical rhetoric for a long time. This semester, I finally get to teach it.

I took Latin in high school and to fulfill my language requirement in graduate school, and had amazing teachers, including Bill Nickerson, Teresa Ramsby, and Elizabeth Keitel. To their credit, I now read Latin passably well, and have a little bookshelf of red-jacketed dual-language Loeb editions. Those instructors were all excellent at teaching not only the language but what was going on at the time, and their approach made classical rhetoric feel vital and alive in ways that it didn’t in some of the English-specific courses I took for my PhD. In the seminar I’m teaching this semester, I’ve tried to imitate their approach: this is ancient rhetoric in its amazing, breathtaking material context.

classical_rhetoric_509_syllabus

Copyright and Live Music in Seattle

I went to a fantastic concert this weekend, and there were some interesting intellectual property issues at play during the show.

  • The bad: the way event staff were pulling people out of the audience for taking pictures and video on their phones.
  • The ugly: the way Soundgarden closed their set with anti-veteran rhetoric.
  • The good: the entire set by Nine Inch Nails, including especially the lighting design and the final three songs before the encore.

Lauralea and I had great seats to see Soundgarden open for Nine Inch Nails. Soundgarden did their usual loose, loud, distorted thing, and it was good, especially when they did their standards: “Outshined” was exceptional. The new material wasn’t impressive, but it wasn’t awful, except when Chris Cornell closed the set with a specifically anti-soldier and anti-veteran rant that gave no sense he had any idea what service members and veterans do. I have no problem with people indicting the various pros and cons of military organizations and military policy as dictated by the brass and the military’s civilian leadership (including the Defense Authorization Acts passed by overwhelming majorities from both parties in the House and Senate that have resulted in widespread concern about the police now being able to purchase military hardware; a concern I share). I do have a problem with Cornell setting up the song “Beyond the Wheel” with incoherent anti-military rambling and uninformed received opinion.

The intellectual property stuff: there were event staff looking for people with their phone cameras up, and apparently if one took too much footage, one was forcibly hauled out of the audience by large men. It seemed to me as if the decision point had to do with the proportionality aspect of copyright law’s fair use doctrine, so I thought I was fairly safe snapping a few discreet stills rather than filming long stretches of the show, but it was a weird feeling of double surveillance: one girl gave the peace sign to the stage while at the same time trying to hold her phone up high and take video of the bouncers who were dragging her out.

There was an interesting moment when a NIN crew sound-check guy with neck-hanging official credentials came around with his iPad doing localized equalizer checks and the event staff clearly didn’t know what to do with him. (The NIN sound was fantastic.) I wonder whether Washington State’s SLAPP law might apply to folks who might use their phone cameras as an exercise of free speech at such events, and also whether prosecutions for EULA violations in relation to public speech might violate SLAPP laws. I’d be curious to hear what others might think.

(Click pictures to embiggen in a new window.)

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Chris Cornell passionately waves a microphone stand around.

In a curious twist, at one point, Cornell took a break between songs to exclaim to the audience, “Hey, I just saw [superstar Major League Baseball pitcher] Randy Johnson in the front row taking a picture of us playing! That’s awesome! Randy, this one’s for you.” I forget which song it was — I register most of Cornell’s lyrics as dorky, though I do like that California/Minnesota couplet — maybe one of the new ones; “Live to Rise” or “Been Away Too Long”? That was the other thing: with Soundgarden’s distortion and bad PA, neither Lauralea nor I could make out any of the words unless we knew them.

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The band comes out with house lights up.

There’s the cranky stuff out of the way: done with the bad and the ugly. On to the good. NIN opened their set with Lauralea’s new favorite, “Copy of A,” and went through two hours of a great, tightly-rehearsed wide-ranging mix from all their albums. “Copy of A” started with Trent Reznor alone on a bare white stage with a sequencer and the house lights up, and the band members entering the stage one by one, and then moving into “Sanctified” and “Came Back Haunted” as the house lights went down and the spotlights came up. As the show progressed, the lighting design grew in bombast and elaborateness, with a final total of seven ten-foot-tall pixelated LED screens moving around in sync with the band in addition to moving and computer-synced strobes, LEDs, and spots from the sides and rear and front.

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Shadow show.

I like “Hurt” OK, which was the encore, but it’s not one of my favorites. The band came out before the encore and noted that Saturday night was the final date of their tour and they would be going on hiatus for a while, and then launched into the fantastic final three songs: explosive, searing renditions of “Wish,” “Bite the Hand That Feeds,” and “Head Like a Hole.” I listened to “Wish” again after the show, and thought the background industrial noise-bursts that Reznor later made a trademark were maybe the first time mainstream audiences had heard the type of stuff Einstürzende Neubauten and Skinny Puppy had been doing for at least five years before.

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Light show.

All in all, I still think Chris Cornell is kind of dumb, the intellectual property stuff was interesting to watch, Trent Reznor is amazing, and it was a great night.

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Well, no: actually, THIS is a light show.

Why the Sparklepony Matters

There’s been a dust-up around my professional conference, CCCC (the Conference on College Composition and Communication, or informally, 4Cs or Cs), and the conference game that Wendi Sierra and others designed to help graduate students new to the discipline network and professionalize. The comments section at the Chronicle of Higher Education story that reported on the game is, as one would expect from most online comments sections, dismaying: defenders of the game are making smart, articulate, and carefully considered arguments, and there are also a lot of trolls and idiots, to include Florida State University English Department graduate student and teaching assistant Adam Weinstein, who wrote a nasty little piece for Gawker based only upon secondhand information from the Chronicle article and his perusal of Google to find Chris Kluwe’s book (which he dismisses in a phrase that makes it quite clear he has no idea what Kluwe is doing in the book) and his (yes, seriously) use of urbandictionary.com.

Here’s the deal. The “sparklepony,” as an evolving concept, came out of Collin Brooke’s conference presentation in 2010, wherein Collin referenced the World of Warcraft Celestial Steed, a new in-game decorative mount/vehicle that players could purchase for $25. The Celestial Steed was quickly ycleped the “sparklepony” by the in-game community (Weinstein: you’ve got your etymology wrong, and need to work on taking your grad student research skills beyond Google) and Collin mentioned the appellation in his presentation, observing that this was an instance (I paraphrase from my own memory here, and apologize to Collin if I get him wrong) of an online luxury good: a way that WoW players could purchase items of value that stood only as class markers. The name and concept of the “sparklepony” was quickly and enthusiastically taken up by the conference Twitter backchannel, especially by scholars who shared Brooke’s interest in the intersections of technology and writing instruction, and who extended that interest into ludology or game studies, including—especially—Jill Morris. Jill made a number of physical-object “sparkleponies,” decorated with glitter and googly eyes and feathers. Those material instances of in-game digital objects became physical objects of value: scholars interested in the blur between digital and material worlds, including myself, coveted them. As such, they became the prize for the C’s the Day game.

That circumstance perhaps makes it clear that graduate students like Adam Weinstein need to be rather more careful in “journalism” (Gawker LOL) that attacks an entire field and scholars (established and emerging) in that field. Collin Brooke’s work demonstrated how immaterial and digitally reproducible objects became tokens of value in World of Warcraft, and suggested implications for how those immaterial objects (like writing) took on diverse forms of value, and how that valuation might have consequences for rhetorical practice. The ways Jill Morris remediated those digital objects into material objects, with diverse material forms of value, extended Brooke’s insights in important ways. Wendi Sierra’s incorporation of the Sparklepony as a token of material value into a systematic social form of professionalization for newcomers to an academic discipline illustrates in crucial ways how what Hardt and Negri have termed the “immaterial labor” [sic] associated with the information economy has important material consequences for composition scholarship—and therefore for composition pedagogy, and also more broadly for entry into the academic discipline.

In other words, this game has important professional and economic consequences, not just for graduate students, not just for professors, but for undergraduate students as well. Value aggregates, and as recent conferences have demonstrated, value aggregates in complex ways, especially when that ostensible boundary between F2F and online blurs—as it has in the case of the C’s the Day game. The Sparklepony, as object remediated from for-pay online game into online slang and from there into academic discourse and from there into practice of academic professionalization, is amazing: I love it in the same way I love the frozen time-golem of the train at the end of China Miéville’s Iron Council. The Sparklepony, for some, is a reminder of faculty obligations to help professionalize graduate students, and also a reminder of the ways that digital work intersects with the embodied materiality of F2F work—and the embodied materiality of F2F play.