Monthly Archives: March 2005

4Cs: Evaluating Academic Weblogs

With my ongoing interest in understanding the pedagogical purposes of weblogs, in understanding what they do with the intersection of reading and writing and how they help teachers to help students write better, this was a panel I couldn’t miss. I wasn’t disappointed: the four presenters offered a really useful and provocative prism through which to start understanding these things. And, actually, I just realized that this is one of the panels who I didn’t ask for permission to blog my notes, which means that I’m going to be sending out some e-mails once I post this.

Bradley Bleck went first, offering the results of a pilot study he performed in his own classroom with an eye to how the technology of blogging might help to enhance student motivation in writing. In an American Literature course, Brad had students use weblogs as daily reading journals, with the hope of fostering inter-student dialogue beyond the “grading black hole” of paper journals. (In writing this, it’s suddenly more clear why Brad asked the questions he did at my presentation, and why I had such difficulty answering them; we’re all familiar with the tension between wanting students to learn for their own purposes but trying to use external pressures and motivations to get them to do so. I can only offer here the neoclassical notions of opportunity cost and the marginal rate of substitution: in a system of finite resources [including time] one does one thing at the expense of another, and the neoclassical economists love to talk about work versus leisure, like how many weblog entries is Jane willing to give up so she can go to that kegger, and what are the grading rewards she gets from doing so versus the social-psychological rewards versus the intrinsic hedonic rewards — because I think most composition teachers want their students to get those intrinsic hedonic rewards, that pleasure in the act of writing itself, but dammit it’s a struggle to make them like it.;-) Brad presented a lot of hard numbers on students’ uses of computers, but maintained some skepticism about some of their responses to his survey questions, as I think any effective teacher-researcher would. The students who liked weblogs the most were, perhaps not surprisingly, the ones who had the most difficulty with other assignments, but the most provocative finding Brad offered was that there was no apparent correlation between student blog quality and other writing ability. Which — as Brad acknowledged — seems like a really strong demand for further research beyond this pilot study.

I don’t think it takes anything away from the excellent presentations that Brad, Anne Jones, and Dennis Jerz gave to say that I thought Derek Mueller’s presentation “Ping: Readdressing Audience in the Blogosphere” was absolutely extraordinary; I characterized it to Clancy as a tour de force, and I won’t be able to even come close to doing it justice here, but I’ll at least attempt to offer a brief sketch of Derek’s ideas.

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4Cs Keynote: Who Owns Writing? Part 2

(This is a continuation of my previous post on Doug Hesse’s amazing CCCC keynote address. For the reasons why I’m referring to the CCCC chair, a distinguished scholar who I’ve never met, by his first name, see here.)

Doug continues with another question: who owns the idea of writing; the construction of writing as inquiry, as technical skill? These constructions of writing and its ownership are at the heart of the arguments made by those in the so-called abolitionist movement in composition; the movement offering an end to enslavement for teachers and students and a tearing-down of the plantation of first-year composition. I’d never given much thought to the slavery metaphor implicit in the name those who would abolish first-year composition choose to give themselves, but Doug brings it into startling relief with all its economic implications. The abolitionists are implicitly arguing that students and teachers are forced to labor under conditions they are powerless to change, with the value of their labor entirely appropriated by the institution — which of course is patent nonsense. As Doug notes, the term abolitionist is unfortunate in the way it equates what students and teachers do in the classroom to the massive suffering of millions of African-Americans in what is the hugest and most grievous stain on the face of American history. The term is simply wrong in its hyperbolic and overdetermined nature, and writing is more than the abolitionist cynics would make it. Writing is not the tired colorless busy-work of producing texts that will only be read by so-called Intelligent Essay Assessors — but (I want to ask of Doug’s argument) is perhaps the tension between service and elective, between art and knack, between writing’s use value and its exchange value, is that tension perhaps precisely the thing that constitutes our discipline and sustains our conversations?

Doug names the five spheres of writing that he sees as constituting the work of composition: academic, vocational, personal, belletristic, and civic. Civic writing, he points out, we have turned into a school genre; we have students write about the public sphere rather than in it. Weblogs, however, are not far from personal and belletristic writing, in that they’re done for pleasure and art. (Is that all?) He then moves on to the example of, a Web site started by two former Army officers on their own individual initiative (rather than on the Army’s behest) as a lore-sharing resource for other officers stationed in Iraq; a way to buck the Army hierarchy and share information on a peer-to-peer model, so that those who know exactly what information they need can connect directly to those who have that information, and adds the additional example of (where he’s recently contributed an entry for CCCC), as evidence for his claim that writing for the civic sphere out of individual motivation rather than institutional motivation is now more common than it’s ever been.

But the Army bought out, and hired the former officers as instructors at West Point. The nature of an activity, Doug argues, changes with who sponsors it, and the ends to which it is put. This, ultimately, is why the question of who owns writing is so important.

Doug closes his presentation as he began, singing:

My Lord what a morning
When the stars shine over all.

Gendered Language

In my first two posts on CCCC presentations, I tried a tiny experiment: referring to female presenters by their last names and male presenters (well, Doug Hesse) by first name. I did this partly because I noticed some slight, unconscious racism and sexism on the part of some big-shot compositionists here this time, and partly because of an awareness of my own learned sexism: in weblog entries and elsewhere, I’ve seen myself sometimes feeling more comfortable referring to female scholars by their familiar first names, and to male scholars by the more disciplinarily conventional (and therefore authoritative?) last names. And I don’t like the split that sets up: women as friends and allies, men as scholars and authorities. Hence the inversion: Doug Hesse as Doug, Clancy Ratliff as Ratliff. In terms of the writing, it makes Doug Hesse feel more approachable (which I’m sure he is), and it makes Clancy Ratliff feel more authoritative (which I know she is). But especially in the latter case, it also felt extremely uncomfortable writing it, because Clancy’s a good friend, and calling her “Ratliff” in writing felt like a huge distancing move. For me, this serves as yet another reminder that the discriminatory tendencies of academia run also through the blogosphere, but also as a reminder that the language I use here negotiates between the scholarly and the familiar in ways I often don’t know quite how to manage. Anyway: it’s something I’ll continue to monitor (and perhaps experiment with) in my own writing, but it might make an interesting discoursal analysis project too; looking at the archives of academic bloggers male and female and mapping use of familiar versus formal naming patterns against gender.

4Cs Keynote: Who Owns Writing? Part 1

I wasn’t able to ask Doug Hesse for his permission to blog his keynote, but John Lovas knows Doug, so I’ll ask John if he might put me in touch with Doug in order to seek that permission. This entry, then, is posted provisionally, and may be taken down. Any errors and misrepresentations are entirely my own; the eloquence and insight and originality is all Doug’s. I know I won’t be able to entirely do it justice, but I’ll do my best to at least capture some of the progression of ideas and imitate what I can of the style. In that sense, this post is entirely a derivative work.

Doug Hesse begins his Thursday morning keynote address in song; a clear, rich voice singing a stanza from the Marian Anderson spiritual:

My lord what a morning
When the stars begin to fall

He sings beautifully. His first question, accompanied by a PowerPoint slide of the cover of The Album of Negro Spirituals: “Did I have a right to sing from that book?” The contradictory state of Writing today, Doug suggests, might well be characterized by Anderson’s strange couplet: the praise of the first line, the “pretty apocalypse” of the last.

As writing, rhetoric and composition is doing well, but it’s also in danger. Hence Doug’s question, Who owns writing? Ownership, Doug points out, comprises both control and responsibility. He isn’t talking so much about the ownership of individual texts, he notes, but rather about owning the material conditions of writing; its circumstances and pedagogies within (and without?) higher education. Who speaks for writing? Certainly, we know many who would control writing, but are they the same ones who would take responsibility for it — and what might be the various inflections and appearances of that responsibility? What should our discipline aspire to own, and how?

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4Cs: Owning Knowledge

I gave my presentation this morning, along with Krista Kennedy (as read by John Logie) and Charlie Lowe. Charlie was in his usual relaxed, easygoing talking-through-the-points mode, while John did a fine job of reading Krista’s stylistically compelling sophisticated theoretical essay. I didn’t do quite so well, largely because I was trying to talk a point-by-point presentation for the first time; in the past, I’ve always read my presentations from papers, and I do a fair job of that, I think. But my lack of comfort with the talking-through-the-points format was highly apparent in my voice, in the somewhat rushed delivery, and in my hesitation to deviate from those points. As is the case with students whose papers display a marked increase in correctness errors when they grapple with materials or genres unfamiliar to them, my presentation was marked by my delivery’s evidence of my inexperience with the genre. Which is disappointing; with the preparation I put into this, I would have liked to have done a better job.

If you check out the presentation, you’ll see that it’s highly inductive and paratactic, and those qualities are only accentuated by the cuts I made after rehearsing it and having it come out at around 22 minutes: I tried to get rid of the points that seemed least essential, but that resulted in a highly “gappy” feeling in a number of places. What I was trying to do in the presentation was simply to look at ownership issues as connected to student writing through an economic lens, in the hopes that such a lens might help the audience see how student writing — when considered and practiced as “open source” rather than as scarce and solely owned — can give an increased and more diverse valuation to the labor of everyone (students, teachers, researchers, and the various permutations thereof) in the community of first year writing. An additional difficulty, I think, is that the complexity of the theoretical stuff I was trying to present actually really doesn’t lend itself to the and/and/and qualities of parataxis, and is much more easily understood via the subordinating conjunctions of hypotaxis. Which I knew intellectually, but — since I’d never tried to do a presentation like this before — not practically.

On the good side, these points comprise the core logic of Chapter 5 of my dissertation, so I’ve got my revision work laid out for me. I’ll also say that I think my classroom focus served as a nice complement both to Krista’s flights of Deleuze and Guattari high theory and to Charlie’s explicit working-through of the implications of the Open Source development process for composition, and this seemed to play out in the really excellent Q&A that followed our presentations, where a lot of people offered insightful and provocative comments and questions (including several from Bradley Bleck that I couldn’t answer, which gave me considerable material for future thought) linking Krista’s rhizomes, Charlie’s development process, and my own concerns of valuation. So sometime in the next week or so, I’ll be cleaning up the presentation some; right now, I’m grateful to Charlie, Krista, and John, and to all the folks who joined in the discussion.

Doctor Chadwallah (who was apparently attending incognito, and who Krista explicitly referenced in her presentation) offered no questions, to the regret of many who were present.

4Cs: Weblogs as Social Action

I’ve had a much busier conference experience than I did last year, attending a whole lot of presentations and wanting to attend even more. I won’t blog all the ones I go to — sometimes I like to just sit and listen — but I’ll do my best to do justice to the ones I do take notes on. I’ve been trying to ask people for permission to blog their sessions, with — for the most part — success, but I’ll acknowledge when I haven’t been able to ask presenters for permission. As always, it’s great seeing colleagues in the halls and sessions, folks I haven’t seen in a while, and I’m particularly glad to put more faces to names that I’ve known only by their writing.

Anyway: went to the first session of the conference with Lanette Cadle, Daisy Pignetti, and Clancy Ratliff talking about thinking of weblogs as social action. Good stuff, and raised some really interesting questions for me about the different rhetorical and/or pedagogical uses to which weblog writing gets put.

Lanette Cadle began with Jill Walker’s now-canonical definition of the weblog and then described her study focusing on the “personal” weblogs of girls between 15 and 22 at LiveJournal. Sixty-seven percent of the 4.35 million LiveJournalers are female, even though women are historically underrepresented on weblogs. According to Cadle, these women are remediating (to use the term Bolter and Grusin have given a new currency that intersects in problematic ways with how Mike Rose and other scholars use it) the historical genre of the diary: the weblog, Cadle suggests, is the paper diary plus links. The rhetorical activities on these girls’ weblogs include “Daily log[s], vents and raves, links, comments, quizzes, memes, and images,” and in an interesting aside, Cadle distinguished these activities from those of “the information-conveying political weblog.”

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Made it out West mostly intact, except for the keep-it-closed latch on my laptop, which broke a couple hours ago. I’ll have to see if I can take it by an Apple store tomorrow. But right now, I’m sitting in sunny Berkeley, enjoying a mild and breezy 68 degrees. Dinner with my mom’s sister tonight, then into the city tomorrow to check into the hotel. And it was around 30 when I left the house this morning. I could get used to this CCCC-in-warm-locations thing — but next year it’s Chicago. Enjoy it while you can, I suppose.

On Scarcity

For the first time in a long time, my blogroll extends. The limitations imposed by my “twenty” theme were problematic: the theory I’ve been working through for my CCCC presentation suggests that scarcity often serves as a technology of domination. This is, of course, an obvious economic insight, but one that I’d never thought to apply to writing.

Broke It

I was careless when upgrading to WordPress 1.5 and managed to make a big mess of things. It’s gonna take me a little while to get all the pieces put back together. (I so didn’t need this right now. . .)

UPDATE: That’s a little better, at least. I don’t have time to fool with CSS before flying out to San Francisco, so I’m afraid it’ll look clean, functional, and rather dull for a while, though I miss my green and black.

Genre Across the Curriculum

Just arrived in today’s mail, from Utah State University Press:

Genre Across the Curriculum book cover

Genre Across the Curriculum, edited by Anne Herrington and Charles Moran, with a chapter titled “The Teaching and Learning of Web Genres in First-Year Composition” by Mike Edwards and Heidi McKee.

Thanks to Anne and Charlie for being terrific editors, and to Heidi McKee for being a gracious, insightful, and generous co-author.