Rationale for a Graduate Seminar in Digital Technology and Culture

Proposed syllabi for graduate seminars are due Monday, and while I’ve got the documents themselves together, I also want to be able to better articulate the exigency for this particular seminar I’ve proposed a syllabus for. There’s no guarantee my proposal will fit the Department’s needs better than any other proposals, of course, so this is partly an exercise in hopeful thinking, but it’s also helping me to figure out why I’m interested in investigating certain topics. The course, “Studies in Technology and Culture” (DTC 561 / ENGL 561), examines “key concepts, tools, and possibilities afforded by engaging with technology through a critical cultural lens,” and is one of the two required courses for the interdisciplinary WSU graduate certificate in Digital Humanities and Culture, a certificate designed to “enhance already existing graduate programs in the humanities and the social sciences, . . . [offering] graduate-level coursework in critical methods, textual analysis, composing practices, and hands-on production for engaging with humanistic studies in, as well as about, digital environments.” I see a couple important points there:

  • first, the certificate’s “critical cultural lens” indicates a reflexive and dialectical (practice- and theory-based) analysis of cultural phenomena as in process and under construction by human and nonhuman agents, and toward the notion of culture as a “noun of process” (from the etymological tracing of Raymond Williams, who points out that the original verb form of “culture” was transitive) representing complex multiple self-developing practices relating to symbolic action; and
  • second, the certificate’s interdisciplinary aspects contribute in rich ways to its digital focus, given its required electives that examine how (AMST 522) the economics of access in the digital divide reinforce inequalities, how (DTC 477) the commodification of information and digital tools can contribute to the stratification of their use, how (DTC 478) interface designs can sometimes reinforce stratification and inequality, how (HIST 527) public history projects incorporating digital technologies can attempt to resist the dominant appropriation or suppression of the heritage of subjugated cultures through practices of responsible representation, and how (HIST 529) ethical digital curation and archiving practices can serve equitable and inclusive ends.

One possible intersection of both points might be understood as the intersection of process and information, which is how I would theme the seminar. Such a theme would represent the familiar cultural studies topoi of race, sexuality, class, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, ability, and others as points of contestation over information. The processes via which information is produced, distributed, owned, used, and re-produced shape and are shaped by those topoi and their intersections with digital technologies. Furthermore, I see tendencies in our emerging studies of digital technology and culture that replicate past trajectories whereby early adopters of technologies (often members of privileged cultural groups) tend to centralize, monopolize, and territorialize research domains—fields that shape processes related to the development of information—especially in an academic context shaped by the eagerness of funding agents to throw money at technology. Given such eagerness, the certificate’s welcome emphasis on “hands-on production” might offer an opportunity to counter that territorializing impulse.

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Five Worries About the New Semester

  1. The student Miss Eye-Roll (who makes clear how exasperated she is by my classroom delivery) is actually an NSA agent.
  2. I will somehow forget to wear pants when co-teaching a lesson of the senior capstone English course on “Digital Rhetorics and Digital Humanities.”
  3. Fortunately, that class session will be dedicated to using MALLET to graph the number of times I’ve forgotten to wear pants when teaching against modeled topics from the previous lesson’s homework.
  4. The rapture.
  5. Student slang will shift to a digital audio communicative modality like Snapchat for voice that’s tonal in nature and based entirely on a vocabulary of “a,” “an,” “like,” and “the.”

Doing Digital Research, Being Digitally Researched

I’m teaching a course this semester that I’ve taught a few times before at WSU but never felt like I really had a solid grasp on what it was supposed to do, until now. The course is Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 356, “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” From what I understand, it began as a course co-taught by folks from the rhetoric faculty and folks from the library, with an emphasis on how to navigate the library’s electronic databases and resources and the increasing interlinking of rhetoric and information technologies in the relatively early days of the World Wide Web. Circumstances have changes substantially since then, both in terms of how undergraduates learn to navigate the digital resources of library databases and the Web and in terms of how the course gets taught and what its emphases are. In the WSU course catalog, its description is as follows:

Social and cultural role of information; research with electronic sources; production, validation, storage, retrieval, evaluation, use, impact of electronic information.

Following some of the guidance and excellent examples of my DTC faculty colleagues (here’s a version from Kristin Arola), I first taught it as something like a contemporary topics and concepts course in WSU’s Digital Technology and Culture major with a focus on the availability and findability of digital information, including units on intellectual property and the politics of search. My adapted course description was as follows:

This class explores the cultural, legal, economic, political, and social roles of information. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which the self and society shape and are shaped by our changing information networks, and we will look at the structures of those networks. We will examine such topics as social and collaborative networking, information retrieval and management, the function of creativity within an information economy, and copyright law. Throughout the course, students will be encouraged to understand the function and limits of rhetoric in an age of information.

While that worked well enough at first, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, and Read more

Security Dreams

I probably shouldn’t do class-related readings on the NSA and information security right before going to bed. The past two nights have been a combination of first-week anxieties and stuff related to Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath and Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society, the latter of which is one of the books I assigned for Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 356, Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information, plus some weird house- and family-related stuff.

In Monday night’s dream, I’m wandering in an abandoned, crumbling neighborhood in late afternoon, the facades of houses caved in, burned and abandoned cars lining the streets, a smoky haze in the sky like what’s been visiting Pullman, dimming the sun. I go into one of the houses and it’s filled with irregular but oddly assembled debris: Read more

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.


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.