Month: March 2004

Hat Tip to Dennis

When I saw that Dennis Jerz, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Cs, quoted my “provocative, if vague, observation” several days ago that “Most of us know that the theories of Landow and Negroponte lie broken and useless” (and its subsequent question of how we might “we begin to build rigorous theoretical models that help us to account for the phenomena described by Terra, Charlie, and Clancy”), I had to grin, knowing full well that it had been a half-assed way to wrap up a post that didn’t quite do justice to the excellent presentations given by Terra, Charlie, and Clancy.

Part of my difficulty was that the panel presentations seem to pretty much speak for themselves, and since they’re available online (looking now, Terra’s seems to be down: ?), there wasn’t much point to doing the kind of summary-analysis-questioning routine I’d done for the other panels I wrote about here. Kinda funny that my uncertainty about how much to summarize left me in much the same position students seem to find themselves in when working on a research paper or documented essay: how much do I summarize here and what do I say about it when I’m done? Dennis, being the good teacher that he is, recognized the tendency immediately — as I hope I might have if I’d had a bit more distance.

I was going to write more about Varoufakis and the way he critiques some of the economic ideologies of individual choice, but I’m tired and my notes are looking more complicated than I have the energy for at this point in the evening. Maybe there’s a point to be made about Althusserian overdetermination and the attempts to categorize such online genres as weblogs in looking at my CCCC notes — since some unarticulated questions about genre and its relation to disciplinarity, scholarship, and pedagogy seemed to lurk behind some of the points all three presenters made — but it’s not going to get made tonight.

Classroom Economics

Varoufakis gives a basic definition of instrumental rationality: “A person is instrumentally rational if she applies her resources efficiently in order to satisfy her preferences” (44). Later, he summarizes the equi-marginal principle: “Stop acting when the marginal utility (i.e. the contribution to utility from the last unit of activity) comes as close to (without being less than) the marginal dis-utility (i.e. the losses of utility following that last unit of utility)” and suggests that, “According to instrumental rationality, the rational person chooses the quantity which best satisfies her preferences all things considered (e.g. cost, fatigue, etc.). If preferences are translated into utility, to be instrumentally rational is to maximise utility subject to various constraints (e.g. fatigue, cost, etc.). And since utility is maximised when the Equi-marginal Principle is satisfied, the instrumentally rational person must always respect this principle” (50). Furthermore, Varoufakis notes the neoclassical economic contention that the equi-marginal principle “applies generally to any situation in which you have to choose between different quantities of a single ‘experience'”(51).

My interests are in trying to figure out how these principles might play out in the wired writing classroom: after all, if I’m writing about class, and if one consistent factor across all the definitions of class I’ve seen is that they carry either an explicit or implicit economic component in their definitions of position and mobility, then it would serve me well to attempt to apply the principles of that economic component of the definition of class to what happens in the writing classroom.

Let me offer one more quotation from Varoufakis on neoclassical economic models before I ask a few questions trying to figure out some of the economic workings of the wired writing classroom.
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Varoufakis Rocks Again

(Slightly edited to temper my tone. I find it easy to get a little het up about these topics.)

Yanis Varoufakis continues to do a wonderful job of indicting neoclassical economics’ claims of being apolitical and disinterested. I’m liking his book more and more, and finding it a welcome antidote to textbook authors like Mankiw as well as Marxists like Gibson-Graham, because it actually directly critiques neoclassical economics on its own terms, rather than taking the Marxist end-route around the neoclassicists.

One small example: Varoufakis contends that “neoclassical economics can be viewed in two distinct ways: as an attempt scientifically to understand our society, or as an attempt to produce a theory which will under no circumstances recommend that those who currently have social and economic power be stripped of it” (93). You know which side I’m on: neoclassical economics, as a science, is at its heart deeply conservative.

Consider also the claim of neoclassical economics — made most stridently by Henry Hazlitt — that economics is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Stuff and nonsense: as Varoufakis points out, neoclassical economics consistently invokes the equi-marginal principle to suggest, again and again, what perfectly rational buyers and sellers “should” or “ought to” do.

Finally, the most worthwhile indictment yet from Varoufakis: a science such as neoclassical economics “which can explain everything under the sun as ‘rational’ is a theory which cannot distinguish between the rational and the downright foolish” (101).

The Blogging Panel

I took notes on other sessions I attended in San Antonio as well, but I figure it’s probably best if I only post on the ones that I found really engaging. That said, much of the notes I took on the weblogging presentation by Terra, Charlie, and Clancy are redundant, because they’ve put their presentations online. All were engaging, and all were radically different in style and content, and all three of them did a fine job of usefully pushing the boundaries of the way writing teachers talk and think about the practices associated with weblogging.
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Lest I be perceived as someone who blogs only the presentations, I’ll note that I had a fine time away from the panels, as well. It was terrific to run into the Pitt folks again, especially Malkiel, and I saw them briefly at the Friday night CCCC dance, where I also learned — after twenty-plus years of wondering — what it looks like to dance to “Sweet Home Alabama”. (One kind of sways, apparently. In that way, it’s a lot like the worst-ever song for dancing, GNR’s “Civil War”. Worst for dancing meaning, you know, excepting John Zorn and the like. And if you’re at CCCC, rhythm really isn’t all that much of a concern, and becomes less so the more drinks you have on Friday night.) I also had a fine time at Wednesday night’s dinner with the blogging folks, and at Thursday night’s dinner with the contingent of 30+ of my institution’s faculty, students, and veterans, with my only gripe being that my peers at Big State U seemed to bolt their dinners and quickly disperse in every direction: so much for any sort of institutional cohesion or community. Still, I managed to spend a good bit of time with Dennis, Clancy, and Charlie, all of whom are fine and pleasant people whose company made me wish I’d met them in person long ago. Clancy does a great karaoke version of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”, and I had a few big bar tabs, and made a bunch of new acquaintances.

And, OK, finally: here are the boots.

Tink and Zeugma greeted me at the door. I’m gonna go put on some Warren Zevon, pour myself some red wine, take off my boots, and enjoy being here with the girls. It’s nice to be back home.

Composition and Empire

Kevin Mahoney, Richard Zumkhawala-Cook, and Scott Lyons gave a generative (albeit rather uneven) panel entitled “Composition and Rhetoric in an Age of Empire”, attempting (and sometimes not attempting) to apply some of the conclusions from Hardt and Negri’s famous recent book (PDF) to current theories of writing instruction. My parenthetical remarks in the previous sentence point towards what I saw as the major difficulty with the presentations: more often than not, they were an “all about Hardt and Negri” thing, and bearing only the most tenuous (if any) connection to what goes on in the writing classroom and the ways we talk about it. Still, the panel certainly offered some productive moments, and helped to spur some of my thoughts towards the presentation on Empire and Tacitus and the Web that I’m giving in Austin in May.

Empire, as Hardt and Negri use the term, describes the logic of sovereignty as constituted by supra-national forces under globalization. This networked (rather than centralized) logic operates by weakening and transgressing the boundaries to the movement of capital, technology, culture, people, and information. The panel chair summarized the four basic properties of empire:
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Boot Camp Mentoring

(Some minor edits made on 3/27/04.)

I’ve already mentioned, both in passing and at length, how much I like the ways that folks at the University of Pittsburgh develop arguments. I’ll develop that a little more here: this afternoon, I went and saw a terrific panel given by Emily Bauman, Malkiel Choseed, Jen Lee, and Brenda Whitney on mentoring new teachers of first-year writing. The panel’s title was something like “Taking the Boot Out of Boot Camp: Mentoring First-Year Teachers of Writing”, and like I said, they gave a set of fine, fine presentations. It’s a mode of argumentation that, on hearing again, I kinda miss.
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Keeping Up With Tech?

I don’t have the title of the CCCC presentation given by Pam Takayoshi, Gail Hawisher, and Cyndi Selfe in front of me, but all three focused on hidden, subordinated, or otherwise alternative literacies associated with computers. I’ll admit that I had just come from a fantastic presentation on mentoring by Emily Bauman, Malkiel Choseed, Jen Lee, and Brenda Whitney, and found myself a bit underwhelmed: the computers-oriented presentations held little of the careful nuance, complex argumentation, and sophisticated reflexive richness of the mentoring presentations, instead favoring a straightforward, unadorned, and eminently practical outlining of real-world research findings. I’ll hasten to point out that this is much more an issue of my own personal preferences regarding academic work than it is any comparison of the relative merits of the two panels: I’ve read enough of the work of Takayoshi, Hawisher, and Selfe to have seen that their scholarship is pretty much unimpeachable. So before I get myself in any more trouble, maybe I’d best just go ahead and describe what I saw.
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Writing as Writing

Jim Seitz, Mariolina Salvatori, and David Bartholomae gave the sort of brilliant panel that one would expect from the caliber of their past scholarship, offering a set of presentations on understanding student writing as writing. Their session’s apparently tautologically simple title opened up a series of carefully reasoned critiques and generous explorations of the close ways in which we read (and ought to read) student papers: to be blunt, it was the best session I’ve seen at CCCC so far, this year or last.

Unfortunately, I was so taken by Mariolina’s examination of how pieces of a student’s writing resisted her interpretation, in a series of close readings and theoretical reflections leading towards a conclusion from Gadamer and Heidegger on the hermeneutics of reading, that I utterly neglected to take notes while she was speaking. Only slightly less entranced by Seitz and Bartholomae, I nevertheless managed to take much better notes, which I offer here.
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CCCC on Class

Ira Shor, Bill Macauley, Jennifer Beech, and Bill Thelin did a session titled “In and Out of ‘Class’: Repositioning Ourselves and Our Discouse So That Literacy Matters” that mitigated many of the problems of their panel last year that caused such acrimony in the question and answer session. Still, I had some pretty significant concerns, and I think the structure of much of their discourse was in some ways self-marginalizing. At the beginning, Ira suggested that the discourse of class in composition is “anemic”, and asked: “What does it mean to understand class?” Parts of the presentations took steps toward such an understanding — and other parts took steps retreating from such an understanding.

Bill Macauley had a fine beginning, focusing on the Marvel superhero Ben Grimm — The Thing, from the Fantastic Four — as “the only working-class hero” in comics. Of course, this immediately raised questions for me of what we mean by “working class”, and what we see as the differences between class identity, class position, and class background: in other words, my usual concerns about the vague and unfocused terminology used by people who talk about class in composition. I immediately wanted to say: what about Luke Cage? And how working class do we consider farming families of modest means like Jonathan and Martha Kent? (The first-generation college students who come to my rural Big State U campus from the surrounding farms are certainly the sorts of students who many folks on the Working Class Studies listserv would refer to as “working class”.) In any case, Macauley used Grimm as a metaphor for working class college students, and moved on to talk about “traditional academic writing” and “academe-specific” writing as a monolithic construction, and then argued that there are “other cultural contexts” towards which we should teach, and extracurricular literacies about which we should learn, as a counter to the “rarefied air of academe”.
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