Month: December 2006

Current Events

From Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber:

Nouri al-Maliki pardoned Saddam Hussein to promote national healing and move on, Gerald Ford is making one last appearance at the Apollo theater, and James Brown will shortly be buried at Arlington cemetery, his long reign of terror having come to an end at last.

The rest of the post, an extended quotation from Joshua Michah Marshall, is worth a read, too. Check it out.

Holidays, and After

It’s pleasant to be in DC again, blogging from a chair beside the Christmas tree in a family living room on Capitol Hill. Last year I was here as well, but rather less focused on family and the holiday and more focused on making sure my MLA interview suit looked OK, figuring out closest Metro stops for the various conference hotels, and trying to prep myself for all the possible questions interview committees might ask.

It came out pretty well, all things considered. I’m happy where I wound up and feel like I’m doing good things, and the actual interview process itself — if you’re gearing up to do it for the first time this year — was relatively painless. (Though what preceded and succeeded it certainly wasn’t.) And now, spurred by Bitch PhD’s recent (and as always excellent) post, I’m kinda wishing I’d gone to Philadelphia this year just to feel the satisfaction of knowing the interviewing stuff was — for the time being — behind me and being able to actually enjoy the kinds of presentations Bitch PhD talks about. Because, yes, I like the intellectual work and pleasure of being and thinking and learning at academic conferences.

So to you folks traveling to the MLA this year, interviewers and interviewees, presenters and interlocutors, I’m wishing I was there as well, and hope your conference is a good one. Rumor has it that DC is nice this time of year. [Dur. Still thinking about this year in last year’s frame.]

Addendum: Spencer offers an engaging roundup of recent posts about the upcoming event. There seems to be good bit of angst and unhappiness, which I certainly experienced both in the lead-up and in the after-waiting during the job search, and which is both expected and unfortunate. Kind of why I posted this, I guess: because now that I don’t have to be there, I’d enjoy going seeing panels like, for example, the one on “Blogging and the Future of Academia”, or my friend and colleague’s thoroughly interesting-sounding presentation on how (and why) the Army used and distributed certain Edgar Allan Poe stories to the troops during Vietnam.

With any luck, maybe some kind folks will post their post-conference thoughts on presentations and/or how they felt about the interview process.

Still Sexist, Still Stupid

To whom does the first sentence of this NYT review refer?

Few relationships are as complex as that between a living author and his biographer. In a startling recent example, Nadine Gordimer — the South African writer who helped bring the world’s attention to the evils of apartheid and won the 1991 Nobel Prize for her efforts — had a bitter falling out with Ronald Suresh Roberts, the young biographer to whom she had granted extraordinary access during his five years of research.

One has to admire the NYT’s paleolithic style for its wholly successful combination of obfuscation and misogyny. Apparently, even in an article about a Nobel laureate, the NYT’s world is a place where men are still the only ones whose deeds merit comment — and, therefore, if someone other than a man accomplishes a deed that merits comment, she must be referred to as a man.

I know stuff like this is nothing new. But it’s still stupid, and still infuriating.

Goals Public and Private

I’ll be meeting with my supervisor tomorrow — in the military’s terms, my “rater” — to review my goals for my first year as an assistant professor. I’ve looked through the institutional examples and documentation on how to do this stuff, on how best to fill out Department of the Army form 7222-1 and what the expectations are in DPOM 5-3 and such, and I’ve drafted bullet points for what I want to accomplish in terms of teaching, scholarship, service, Cadet development, and faculty development. And there’s one goal I’m not sure I want to add to the mix, and it has to do with this weblog.

Steve Krause, Dennis Jerz, and others have offered plenty of useful insights on the intersection between scholars’ online writings and their professional activities. I don’t list my URL here under any heading on my CV, except as part of the address block, next to my email address, and I don’t feel like it would be appropriate for me to do so. At the same time, I think of the great presentation Clancy did at CCCC analyzing a scholarly weblog conversation, and I think of the fact that weblog discussions have led for me to brief pieces published in JAC and Pedagogy, and I think of the ways I’ve tried to re-imagine the ways that such conversations carry heterogeneous value (affective and otherwise) beyond considerations of what they can be exchanged for. All of these are reasons why I might want to suggest on the DA 7222-1 that writing and conversing with other academics regularly (or, ahem, more regularly than I’ve done lately) here helps me be a better faculty member, and that it’s something that I want to continue.

But that’s a goal I can (and do) easily hold privately, without ceding it to the institution. The thing is, with my abiding interest in the intersection of the information economy, affective labor, and the personal, why should I? If my hope is that I might make a difference, however negligibly slight, in what gets valued at an institution as immensely traditional as mine, why not? One obvious reason, of course, is that such thoughts of difference-making are so superabundant among bloggers that they are deservedly mocked as the internet’s most prominent example of masturbatory vanity as cliché. If figuring things out and working through ideas are viewed as pleasurable activities for academics, then doing so on a weblog will always seem to some to be an act of public onanism, and the desire to somehow to associate it with one’s paid work — well, let’s not even go there.

Term-End Examination

It might not surprise some to hear that an institution as tradition-bound as mine has — yes — a final exam for first-year composition courses. Three and a half hours, with readings given twenty-four hours ahead of time. In some ways it makes sense, since future officers will certainly be faced with highly time-sensitive writing tasks, but beyond that rationale, the deeper reasons seem to not extend far beyond the philosophy that that’s the way it’s always been done, and that it wouldn’t be college without final exams. None of which I wholly buy, but the deeper problem is that I’m part of a writing program that’s undergoing some profound changes in bringing its theoretical underpinnings and pedagogical practice up to date, and one of those changes is a much-needed increase in the attention to revision — and a heavily weighted three-and-a-half hour one-shot fire-and-forget writing task assigned to all sections seems inimical to that increased attention. I don’t think the powers that be here will let such a thing go in the near future, so I’m thinking it’d at least be nice to re-orient it a bit; have it something like a writer’s retrospective essay that students can write in that three and a half hours, quoting and citing liberally from the writing they’ve done over the course of the semester, and set it up as an introduction to their final portfolio.

One thing that wouldn’t work with that, though, unless we did some re-tooling, is that the finals are blind-graded and group-graded: each essay gets read three times by three different instructors. What that means for me right now is that at 0735 this morning, 61 of my cadets opened up their laptops in the four classrooms I was managing and logged on to the Academy’s secure wireless network, received the writing prompt, wrote their essays, and submitted them electronically. At 1105 their time was up, and at 1300 I got together with 21 of my colleagues and did calibration (i.e., grade norming) for a little over an hour: we all looked at three common essays, discussed them, and arrived at a consensus on what we’d give them. After that, it was me and the computer screen until my eyes couldn’t take anymore, with a deadline of 1500 hours tomorrow for completion of the grading of the 183 blind essays I received (some of us have more, some of us fewer, depending on how many FYC sections we teach). And believe it or not, most of the cadets were smiling as they finished their essays, and it was really nice to get to shake their hands, wish them a happy holiday, and ask them how they felt about what they’d written. In fact, I’ll boast a bit, about two things: first, one cadet I worked with over the course of a couple months earlier in the fall won a Marshall Scholarship. Which is pretty rare — he was one of around 40 selected from the entire country — and pretty cool. Second, another cadet who had struggled considerably early on in the semester — when I asked him about what he’d submitted for the final — beamed and grinned ear to ear and said, “Sir, I think it’s the best thing I’ve written.”

You can’t not love that.

But OK: before the boasting, I was talking about final exams. And here’s what I’m thinking, especially given Bradley’s recent comment: if my institution, bound in tradition as it is, won’t let go of the final exam requirement, and if the writer’s retrospective essay might fly as a substitute for what we’ve got in place now, wouldn’t that be a strong argument as well for moving to wholly electronic portfolios, with the final exam writer’s retrospective serving as a sort of rhetorical cover sheet for the portfolio? We’ve got the technology, after all, and the institutional will to use it: I think the only opposition might come from those deeply invested in the write-on-demand philosophy, who might argue such an assignment would be too easy to prepare for ahead of time. But there is a sufficient diversity of things students can say about their own writing, I think, that it would be sufficiently easy to vary the prompt from year to year in ways that might still sufficiently foreground the importance of revision and reflection on one’s own writerly practices.

Have you experimented with such assignments? What are your thoughts?

My Assistant Grader

She’s more holistic than me in her approach to assessment.

The orange cat smiles.

But she always likes it when students manage to work the words “hermeneutic,” “reflexivity,” and “halibut” into their essays.

Rhetorics Easy and Hard

A while ago, I had lunch with a colleague and we talked about the recent department meeting. Like me, my colleague is a civilian, and like me, my colleague’s politics are progressive, with a strong explicit commitment to social justice that might work against conventional perceptions of the types of academics who teach at military academies. I was feeling embarrassed, having (once again) publicly put my foot in my mouth at the meeting by declaring some strongly felt opinions about the necessary and primary place of revision in writing instruction and the importance of rhetorical sophistication in creating writing assignments that ask students to go beyond reductive and simplistic yes/no up/down good/bad binaries. Not necessarily embarrassed that I’d made the assertions — for those in composition, I think such preferences are mostly self-evident — but embarrassed that I’d managed to seem so “impassioned” and “adamant,” as another colleague described me, and later my boss. Politically speaking, it likely wasn’t the best way for a new professor to position himself in relation to a department that still has some considerable historical misgivings about bringing all this process stuff into the teaching of writing. On the other hand, though, it’s been made clear to me that part of the reason I was hired here was to help contribute to re-orienting the perspective on writing instruction, and so I’m protesting a bit too much: I knew in coming here that I’d be saying things about pedagogy many of my more senior colleagues might not agree with, and I knew as well that my politics would be radically different from the politics of many of my colleagues, and radically different as well from the politics of a majority of my students. No surprise there, right?

I’m not so sure. After the ideological certainties that go along with being a graduate student and teaching assistant at Research 1 schools, and even after my four years as an enlisted soldier, I’m having to learn a radically different teacherly rhetoric with which to engage the cadets in my classes; a rhetoric that’s in many ways far more ideologically attuned to political nuance than what I’ve been used to. After lunch, I met with a cadet in my office, and we talked about the mid-process draft of his most recent essay, where he argued about the relationship between a soldier’s private service ethic and the public perception of why soldiers serve. He invoked David Rozelle, the Captain who had his foot blown off by an anti-tank mine in Iraq and later requested and received a return to a command in Iraq. I asked the cadet if it was possible for people to support such soldiers without supporting the war in Iraq. The cadet was impassioned and adamant: absolutely not. One cannot adequately respect Captain Rozelle without understanding and respecting his beliefs and values.

At the institutions where I taught as a graduate student, I’d have found it easy to dismiss such rhetoric from students as something spoken rather than wholly inhabited; as an idly mouthed rhetorical commonplace rather than a deeply felt credo. Here, though, every single one of my students knows that they incur a five-year service obligation, and that upon graduation their first stop is likely either Iraq or Afghanistan. And as I’ve noted before, they bear that prospect — as they do all things — with complete equanimity. With students whose attitudes and demeanor seem so different from those I’ve encountered elsewhere, then, I’ve had cause to question my own ideology, my own pedagogical practice, my own rhetorical commonplaces and political positions, all in ways that I might not have elsewhere. And yet some of the commonplaces seem so much the same, as well, even as they come from different ideological positions. My lunchtime colleague mentioned his longtime association with certain left-radical coalitions within academia, and the way that they’d closed off communication with him when he came to teach here. As if he were, in a way, a Benedict Arnold to their cause.

I teach at a military academy, and my personal politics are far left, and I see no necessary contradiction there. Certainly, I share the ideals of the peace movement: people should not wage war upon one another. But those are easy ideals to hold. I wonder whether folks in organizations like Rhetoricians for Peace would see someone who works as an educator for the military as a puppet, a stooge, an ignoramus. I wonder, in fact, what they might see as the relationship between peace and the military. Because I think they and my cadets might stand to learn something about commitment and idealism from one another; about rhetorics easy and hard.