Month: February 2007

In the Clickstream, Part 3

(I know; it’s a day late for Friday Fun. This is Part 3 of an ongoing series of speculative fiction attempting to imagine what teaching composition might look like twenty minutes into the future. Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.)

I’m a civilian, and as a civilian, there are things I’ll never know or understand about Cadets. First among those things is the emotional baggage with which Cadets approach their time at the Academy, and their time in what comes after. Not a single one has doubts about where they’re all going after graduation. Whether it’s our high-intensity local conflicts in Sudan and Indonesia; the emerging flashpoints in Guyana, Belarus, and Sri Lanka; or our dwindling counterinsurgency garrisons in the Middle East — they know they’re going to be in harm’s way. Their guaranteed graduation prospect is that soon, someone, somewhere, will shoot at them. As the Brian Turner poem puts it: here, bullet.

What I can’t get used to is that the guarantee of mortal peril makes Cadets the most fatalistically cheerful students I’ve ever met. There’s no time here for being sad, for performing unhappiness, real or purported. Here there are no drama queens.

I turn to Mala. “Is he on?”

She thumbs, nods. He’s not only on, he’s realtime, in front of his webcam. From a Sri Lankan satphone, though, there are drops, so they cut out the sound and refresh the headshot every ten seconds, with the T9 filling in the nuance. PONNAMBALAM THURAISINGAM shows up at the bottom of the screen, but Mala thumbs him as Tim. I’m one of my generation’s dwindling population of breeders, but I’ll admit: from his headshot, he’s a hot boy. Although Tamil by heritage, he wears his Sri Lankan Army uniform with pride, and it’s clear he knows he looks good in it.

“Tell him what’s going on,” I say. “Free channel. You know to be careful.”

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Production and Appropriation

Last Friday night, I was having dinner and seeing Pan’s Labyrinth with my attorney (she was drunk, of course, and amazed me yet again by somehow fitting a twelve-pack of St. Ides, an enormous Smith & Wesson 460 with the 8-inch barrel, and a two-pound venison tenderloin for snacking on into the hunting vest she wore beneath her DKNY wool coat), so the next installment of Cadet Mala Casey’s story will have to wait until this coming Friday.

Tonight, I went into the city for dinner (vegetarian on Curry Hill at Pongal, on Lexington between 27th and 28th: excellent, excellent Indian food but indifferent service) with some new acquaintances, some old friends, and my Master’s thesis advisor, and so had a stretch of useful focused reading time on the train. And it helped me put together some stuff about value and appropriation that I’ll likely talk about at CCCC.

First: in an article on social networking sites in BT Technology Journal, Judith Donath and danah boyd offer a brief discussion of the ways economic signaling theory can be used to analyze the way people display (wear? badge? perform? publicize?) their connections in social networks. While Donath’s and boyd’s discussion is largely confined to social networking sites like Orkut and Friendster, their conclusions are generalizable to our increasingly networked culture in general, and to blogs in particular: “The expenditure of energy to maintain a connection,” they argue, “is a signal of its importance and of the benefits it bestows” (Donath and boyd 81), or–in other words–a signal of its value. When I leave a comment on a post by Bradley, Jeff, or Joanna, I’m signaling its subjective value to me in ways that are socially reinforced, to varying degrees, by other commenters, while at the same time creating additional value for myself through the labor expended in creating my comment on the post. In much the same way, if Chris or Liz or Amanda leaves a comment here, they’re also producing additional value that can be appropriated by the broader community constituted by our various blogrolls, and the semi-invisible (to us, at least) community of lurkers. And as we know, the scholarly apparatus of citation is another form of value-signaling.

But the concerns emerge when we start to talk about the appropriation of value. We know that information is a non-rivalrous and non-scarce good, but with the intellectual DRM of plagiarism policies, we treat it as rivalrous and scarce. While plagiarism policies predate the information age, they’ve become inextricably embedded in its evolution. In Peers, Pirates, and Persuasion, John Logie (I’m a bit late, but thanks for suggesting it, Clancy!), approvingly deploys Andrew Ross’s 1990 description of “the ongoing attempt to rewrite property law in order to contain the effect of the new information technologies that… have transformed the way in which modern power is exercised and maintained” (Ross 10, qtd. in Logie 31) in order to help illustrate “the degree to which the state depends on the maintenance of stable property lines” (Logie 31). Logie offers a strong critique of the ways bureaucratic attempts to respond to the digital reproducibility of information have wholly failed to account for its not-rivalrous nature. At the same time, though, Logie points out that “U.S. courts have repeatedly rejected the notion that creators of intellectual property are entitled to any special consideration based on their investment of labor,” and cites Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s insistence in Feist v. Rural Telephone Service that “the public’s interest in access to information can trump the creator’s expectation for a return on effort expended” (55).

This is a clearly economic argument, and an apparent rejection of the labor theory of value. (I think. Other perspectives?) Do I agree with it? Well, it’s law, so it doesn’t really matter whether I agree or not–but it strikes me as interesting that the rationale inheres in an emphasis on the consumer rather than on the supplier of information; on the appropriation rather than on the production. Part of my project for this CCCC presentation, then, should be to come up with a basic and rudimentary rhetoric of the process of production, appropriation, distribution, and reproduction of value in writing. (Which might help me compose an answer to Jenn’s important question.)

How Not to Teach with Portfolios

Steve Krause nails it yet again: “Shari Wilson’s” attempt at a critique of portfolio pedagogy in first-year writing courses offers little more than an indictment of her own intellectual and pedagogical laziness. It’s a genre essay, in fact, of a species that writing teachers know quite well; the reactionary kick against process-based pedagogies we’ve been venturing and evaluating for a while now because such pedagogies take us out of our safe zones and don’t match up with the way we’ve always done things. “Wilson” implies a predetermined syllabus, a predetermined evaluation scheme and weighting, and most curiously a predetermined practice of keeping students in suspense and not reading and evaluating their written work and offering suggestions on how to improve outside of “rubrics” and “due dates.” One wishes “Wilson” might acquaint herself with some of the basics of process pedagogy and how to fundamentally engage student writing beyond “rubrics” and “due dates,” and wishes that “Wilson” might as well figure out how to compose a syllabus that states exactly and precisely her expectations of students. As she admits, though, precision of language in a syllabus is something at which she arrives unfortunately late. Such late arrival seems, I’d suggest, to be not so much a shortcoming of portfolio pedagogy as a shortcoming in other areas. So, too, with the indictment of “loopholes”: this seems to be a teacher who has scant idea how to assign and evaluate writing, and blames her failures on a system she’s failed to adequately implement.

The later portion of the essay bears this out, with anecdotal support offered by the picture of peers drinking in bars after norming sessions, and by the use of the word “suffered” that Steve picks up on: what are the standards of evidence here? How do they correspond to the standards of evidence expected from students by the teacher?

Are “Wilson’s” complaints evidence of the failure of the exhaustive and compelling rationales offered for portfolio pedagogies by Pat Belanoff, Kathi Yancey, and others in composition’s canonical pedagogical literature? Hardly. And, in fact, “Wilson’s” complaints offer zero evidence of any awareness of such literature. Lazy and uncritical teaching and failure to base one’s pedagogy in established scholarship does not indicate that a discipline’s long-standing and well-founded attention to various aspects of pedagogy is lazy and uncritical. It stands, rather, as evidence of nothing more than its own lazy and uncritical nature, and blames the student for the inadequacies and shortcomings of the teacher.

Most of us, “Shari,” try not to do that.

Ice Station Zeugma

With reports in from Ice Station Echo, Ice Station Delta, Ice Station Sierra, Ice Station Alpha, Ice Station Hotel, Ice Station Bravo, and Ice Station Juliet, I figure I’d best add mine. Here at Ice Station Zebra Zeugma, the snow started late Tuesday night, and I was Staff Duty Officer the next day, which meant I had to be in early. Highland Falls did a wretched job of plowing, so I put on the Matterhorns and went in on foot at about 6:40 Wednesday morning. The snow kept going all day, alternating with some sleet and freezing rain, and I made it home around 4:30 yesterday afternoon with work to do.

Ninety feet of driveway by a swath eight feet wide, plus forty feet by three feet of sidewalk, front and back and porch. Roughly an area of 840 feet. Multiply by maybe six inches of accumulation, not all that much, but it was ugly because it was big dry flaky powder followed by a layer of ice and sleet followed by more powder and then more ice. It’s aggravating wedding-cake snow; each shovelful at somewhere between 3.5 and 4 square feet weighing around 7 pounds-ish, but often more like 9 with the effort of breaking the ice crust. Call it 8 pounds average, with 2 shovelfuls per 6 inches of depth, sometimes 3 because of the crust. And then there’s the stuff the village of Highland Falls plowed up onto my driveway and front walk, roughly 60 square feet of wet and heavy snow at 12 pounds and 4 square feet for every shovelful, but requiring 4 shovelfuls for every 4 square feet. Practically a berm. Overall, 60 square feet of heavy snow plus 780 square feet of light snow, at varying shovelable volumes. All told, a conservatively estimated total of something like 3720 pounds of snow moved via shovel in a bit less than two hours last night.

I’m anticipating some serious Motrin-munching today.

Outsider’s Hubris

At the moment, I’m trying to get a handle on Sraffian economics and I’m recognizing the deep poverty of my economic self-education. I’m struggling with stuff that’s beyond me, and feeling quite foolish. For a while, I’ve carried the outsider’s hubris of telling myself how smart I am for trying to import into my discipline concerns I see as hitherto ignored. I told myself I’d take a graduate course in heterodox economics, with a couple semesters of independent study as an introduction and a graduate directed study as a follow-up, and I’d be OK.

Well, not so much.

I can read some of the articles in the economics collections and journals, especially the ones that apply cultural studies or rhetorical perspectives to economic problems, like Timothy Mitchell’s excellent “The Object of Development: America’s Egypt” or Duncan Ironmonger’s “Counting Outputs, Capital Inputs and Caring Labor: Estimating Gross Household Product.” But I’m not so good with the equations, even the simple ones, until I read back through a couple times and see what’s being parsed, and even then I don’t often get it, and have to read further for context. Case in point: I’ve got Stiglitz’s 1974 review article on the Cambridge capital controversy in front of me, and it’s killing me. I know what it’s about, and I recognize the assertions, but I can’t parse the proofs. Even some of the recent evaluations of Piero Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, which I want to use to help me get beyond the notion of marginality that neoclassical economics poses as an alternative to the labor theory of value, are giving me a hard time.

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In the Clickstream, Part 2

(This is part of a piece of serial speculative fiction attempting to imagine what digital writing instruction might look like twenty minutes into the future. Part 1 is here.)

The clickstream in question — the one out of the nineteen geolocated here at the Academy that has to have gotten her the board — is on the CTC subnet: the Combating Terrorism Center. They’re in the same building as us, two floors down, and while they’re widely recognized for their research and their professionalism as global leaders in their cutting-edge approach to counterterrism studies and interagency joint efforts with the FBI and others, their name isn’t the only thing that’s an anachronism. At a place as bound by tradition as this one, they take pride in accentuating the second syllable, and Mala couldn’t stand them when I sent her to talk to them about a senior thesis project. They’re soldiers and civilians, like us, but the civilians are mostly retired military, working on scholarly studies of terrist organizations and networks. They’ve put together monographs and white papers and book chapters on the economics of terrism, histories of terrist philosophy, entrepreneurial terrism, terrist poetics, all that you can imagine, and last fall they hosted the seventh annual International Terrorism Studies conference. Mala said they should’ve put the “or” in bold to show their old-school cred.

They are in some ways as old-school as this Academy gets. Even now, years since the Pentagon took the Army’s advice from TRADOC and raised holy hell by incorporating the points of view of an Italian Marxist and a Duke University literature scholar into its strategic vision, the CTC constitutes the only group on campus who still want to refer to themselves exclusively as warfighters rather than peacekeepers. Training and Doctrine Command read Hardt and Negri and said: yeah. That’s what we do. Under the realities of terrism and distributed combat — under a regime of ongoing war — we need to train peacekeepers. But the CTC wasn’t having it, not a bit of it: we’re warfighters and warfighters only, they said, just on a new field of battle; and nothing less than victory, complete annihilation of our many and diverse enemies, is acceptable. When Mala went to talk to them, that was the perspective they offered, and in a shop heavy with males from the Army’s combat arms branches, they also made it quite clear exactly how much they might value what she had to contribute.

Mala came back and said she thought that misogyny and xenophobia might not be the most productive ways to engage in theorizing counterterrism, and she’d look elsewhere for folks to partner with.

After that, I didn’t hear from her for a while, until Lieutenant Colonel Fensis told me she’d joined his AIAD. AIADs are Academic Individual Advanced Development Opportunities, DoD-funded opportunities for Cadets to get out of the Academy and work on projects in the field, and in the English department, they’re usually tied to service learning and community literacies, particularly in countries in the developing world. LTC Fensis, with his interest in postcolonialist literatures, was taking his group of Cadets to Sri Lanka for ten days over winter break, and I immediately knew what Mala wanted to do.

Database composition isn’t just a junior-level composition course. It’s an overarching method the Academy’s adopted, a way of helping Cadet knowledge circulate, a way of publicizing to the broader academic community and the world the knowledge our Cadets are creating, a way of asking Cadets to value on their own the composing that they and their peers perform in and outside the classroom, and a way of evaluating Cadets’ integrity and public responsibility and overall suitability for officership. For all these reasons, faculty follow clickstreams just as closely as Cadets, watching the strackbacks and spingbacks, who aggregates whose essays from their SNS and scholarly homepages. Cadets take it for granted, but as a member of an older generation, I admit I find it breathtaking to trace a link back from a viral Cadet spirit video to a homepage to a peer shout-out to a course feed to a four-star “chk him on Said — wishn i nu that b4 my thesis” comment to an instructor’s syllabus to a student’s public tagcloud for an engineering project to a “might help u w hist209 rdngs” strackback to a plebe composition essay, and to realize that this is how Cadets are aggregating and recycling knowledge and offering it out to the world on a regular basis. And here’s the thing: if you mean-rank the Academy’s top ten most-populated clickstreams, they’re all firsties — all seniors — with one exception. That exception is Mala. In three years, Cadet Casey’s writing has climbed up from plebe obscurity to the number four slot in the top clickstreams. She’s still a junior — a cow, so nicknamed after a plebe asked a firstie when he could go on pass while the juniors were on leave, and the firstie replied, “When the cows come home” — and an English major, but nearly all of the Corps of Cadets regularly read and sping and cite her work. And the two most-cited and highest-rated essays she’s written are her yearling sociology and political science work on Ilankai Tamils and the LTTE.

Which is why, with the clickstream from the CTC, I’m worried. The AIAD led by LTC Fensis was an adjunct to JSOC counter-terrism exercises conducted hand-in-hand with the largely Sinhalese Sri Lankan military and input from the CTC. And I know Mala, and I know how stubborn and contrary she can be. So I thumb down the connection and the power button, and I turn and make sure the office door’s closed, and then I say:

“You know what this is about, right?”

She looks at the floor. Nods.

I ask: “What happened in Sri Lanka?”

She looks back up. Her face brightens for the first time this morning, and I’m happy to see it.

“Sir,” she says. “I met a boy.”

(To be continued)

Acknowledgments: The ideas about what database composition might look like are directly derived from the stuff Derek Mueller’s been working on and talking about for a long time before I came to them, and of course the idea of deploying strackbacks and spingbacks — secure trackbacks, secure pingbacks — in student writing come from Derek’s amazing CCCC presentation a couple years back. And beyond Derek’s contribution, much of the fun I’m having inheres in taking real Army stuff here at the Academy and projecting it 20 minutes into the future: believe it or not, there are high-level Army policymakers who have read or are reading Hardt and Negri. AIADs and the CTC are real, and the CTC is indeed in the same building where I work. However, I want to emphasize that they’re extraordinarily good, smart, talented people, and certainly not the trolls I fictionalize them as here. At the same time, though, I feel it’s important to acknowledge the fact that xenophobia and misogyny can also sometimes be an unfortunate working reality in the military.

In the Clickstream, Part 1

0725 with iced coffee. I drop my bag at the door and close the office blinds, blocking February’s rising glare and heat. Early morning email and paper-shuffling, putting off grading. I don’t realize it’s a training day until Mala — Cadet Casey — shows up for facetime in camo ACUs and full gear.

She’s angry and tense. Lips pressed in a thin line and perspiration streaming. It’s what passes for a winter morning, but the way she flops in the spare chair and then props a foot up on my filing cabinet, she’s glad for the building’s laboring and antiquated central air. She pops the buckles on the composite shin and thigh pads, up one by one, speaking as she goes.

“Sir,” she says. “I know I’m early.”

Nod. “Hot out there,” I venture. She does the other leg.

“You have no idea.” Blows a stray hair out of her face. It’s not meant in a mean way: I don’t, actually. I’m a civilian. My car has AC. She’s in twelve kilos of body armor, web gear, batteries, distributed information systems, and she’s been going since 0520. I wait for the anger to spin out words.

Cadet Casey, of the neighborhood of Georgetown, Washington, DC, is one of those students, the kind you meet once or twice in a career. Overachiever: handle with care. First day of class, she tells me she went up the chain to get my cow Database Composition section because I tutored Cadet Maas into the Josephson Fellowship at Trinity. She wants some of that.

The Department’s made its own concerns evident in signs subtle and clear, their suasive force underscored by that subtlety. Cadet Casey is the only child of a certain outspoken and soon-to-be-promoted three-star flag officer. Indeed: that one.

Cows are juniors here. Frosh, plebes; sophomores, yearlings; seniors, firsties. I’m an outsider, a civilian, and I’m only slowly learning the terms and names, the protocol, what goes on at a military academy with its decorum, slang, traditions. Things unusual and usual: Cadet Casey isn’t in one of the permanent Lieutenant Colonel Academy Professor’s sections. She’s in mine. Remarkable in her poise, and in the absence of self-regard and self-consciousness common to the exceptional students I’ve encountered elsewhere.

She’s got the armor and distributed computing off, piled in a corner. She sleeves the sweat away again. “Sir,” she says, and chokes the R. I’ve never seen her this discomposed. The tops of her ears flushed red, her jaw set. “I got verbal seven minutes ago that I’m being boarded.”

A board is a combination of investigation and trial; an attempt to ascertain whether and how badly a Cadet fucked up. Military justice, with Cadet legal representation, and often for the minor stuff, it’s dismissed. On the other end of severity, though, there’s the possible prospect of expulsion, separation from the Corps, UCMJ action. Courts martial and sentences at Leavenworth, and worse.

I use my teacher voice. “OK,” I say. I suspect, but ask anyway: “What for?”

When they finally figured out service learning and database pedagogy, the military academies loved it. Air Force at Colorado Springs, Navy at Annapolis, Army here at the Point: we had the cash to send out Cadets, get them interacting with the world, the third world in particular, crafting collaborative and evolving documents with peer communities, getting those communities internetworked — and then, of course, hooking them into the broader observable network. Altruism meets military intelligence via data mining.

She meets my gaze and takes a breath through the teeth. “Honor,” she says.

Mala Casey doesn’t commit honor violations.

I thumb up the browser. “OK,” I say, and hand it to her. “Show me your clickstreams.”

Her thumbs fly. She’s T9ed all her life and it’s remarkable to watch her go as she SSLs in via her thumbs, and even more remarkable to hear the “denied” chirps. She’s stunned. “Give me that,” I say, and do my own thumbing, clumsy, until we’re in on the tiny keypad and then the command line prompt opens up with its vasty open blackness after the colon.


I seek: who’s up in my student’s clickstreams, tweaking her data, adding and modifying, getting her an honor board?

I get back nineteen discrete IP addresses, all of them geolocated here, plus one through Australia that’s probably Cadet Moser with a porn hider user agent he forgot to turn off. And one student, Mala, who’s got monthly traffic off the chart, local links, many of them from Database Composition students, but many more from yearlings and plebes.

I narrow my query. Nobody greps or agreps anymore, but the engines carry enough historical baggage to recognize the strings I throw. I get a hit: the clickstream that has to be the one that got her the board.

And when I see it, I realize I’m in a whole lot of trouble.

(To be continued)

This is a piece of speculative fiction attempting to imagine what teaching writing with database technologies might look like at some point in the future. The final episode has links to all the intermediate episodes, as well.