CCCC07 N: Re/Visions of a Field

At this excellent (and disappointingly under-attended) featured session, “Re/Visions of a Field: Representing Disciplinary Identities in the Pages of College Composition and Communication,” Deborah Holdstein began by talking about her work as the editor of CCC and offering an overview of article titles from the journal from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Her rhetorical intent in so doing was quite clear: the titles sounded very similar in focus and scope to the concerns our field discusses today. That they sound familiar, as Holdstein put it, is a “modest revelation,” but one that we ought to heed and act on for important reasons. Holdstein pointed to Joseph Harris’s 1999 comment as editor of CCC that in 1949, composition didn’t yet exist as a discipline: in fact, Holdstein pointed out, a prototype for the current state of composition studies was set in the 1950s in the pages of that same journal. Yet despite the longstanding disciplinary concerns that recur in those pages, we are largely neglectful of our bibliographic reach and scope: the CCC bibliography was for a long time unavailable, and we’ve all but lost our deep connection to rhetoric and rhetorical history. We ought to use our past more than we do, Holdstein argued, pointing as an example and possible model to Cheryl Glenn’s 2006 MLA examination of the usable past of rhetoric in the pages of 1960s issues of CCC. The journal has been an accountable voice for scholarship, and we stand obligated to use that history of the “golden age” of composition as a precursor and foundation upon which to build our scholarship today, lest we continue to find ourselves rehashing old debates. Holdstein’s argument seems beyond dispute here, and I might extend it beyond CCC (which was, of course, the focus of the presentation: this is in no way a criticism of Holdstein): Helen Sard Hughes anticipated by 70 years or so the controversy among James Berlin, Linda Brodkey, Maxine Hairston, and others about what should and shouldn’t be taught in composition courses in her 1922 English Journal piece on “English, Economics, and Literature;” and Arthur Coon’s 1947 College English essay “An Economic X Marks the Spot” prefigures the debates over the labor of teaching college writing by half a century. The bibliographic reach and scope Holdstein describes is part of her reason for instituting the Re-Visions feature at the CCC Online Archive, she said, and she hopes to continue such conversations in the journal’s paper and online pages. Ultimately, she said, she’s humbled to peruse the journal’s old pages. Many of our practical concerns remain the same, and we ought to take this history and use it as we seek change: the past, as Jefferson said, is prologue.

Collin Brooke began his presentation, “Picking up the Pieces: Is Comp/Rhet a Coherent Discipline?” by suggesting another possible title might have been, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Journal.” His fundamental question as the Associate Editor responsible for CCCOA: how can a web site be put to use in ways that a print journal can’t? One answer, of course, lies in the site’s descriptions of global features and features for individual entries, but Brooke’s answer was in the form of a user’s guide to CCCOA divided into three areas:

  1. Visibility/access
  2. Citation networks
  3. Tagging as knowledge production

First, concerning visibility and access: CCCOA has a stable front page, but is build upon a Movable Type database, with each article possessing an individual weblog database entry. This makes information about each article accessible to all search engines and gives article titles higher search rank, and also allows journal content to be syndicated as an RSS feed. So: how do people use the site? Every entry, Brooke pointed out, has an MLA works cited entry, followed by metadata: abstract, permalink, categories, tags/keywords, works cited. This effectively makes articles skimmable — not a replacement for reading, Brooke noted, but a possible way to help one decide which things to read. CCCOA also offers site-internal search by text strings, by area cluster, and by issue, so one can search — for example — for all the articles in the past twenty years that have cited Kenneth Burke’s “Grammar of Motives.” Second, concerning citation networks: the way CCCOA is set up creates a clickable hyperlink to the archived CCC essays that each essay cites (for example, in the Works Cited for a recent article by John Trimbur, one can click on a link to Peter Elbow’s earlier essay, and so on), but also back-creates a Works Citing list for each article: in Brooke’s example, a link to Trimbur would appear in Elbow’s entry under Works Citing. These lists of Works Cited and Works Citing offer an idea of our field’s interconnectedness, Brooke argued, and can allow us to see what the key texts in our field are. Third, CCCOA uses a Perl script to scan and filter articles for keywords, and the article’s most frequently used keywords become a way of tagging them with those terms. These tags then link to all other instances of that tag in other articles, as well, and these taxonomies are cross-indexed on, offering an associative path through our field’s literature. Furthermore, allows the creation of a dynamic topic index of CCC as a tagcloud. All these ways of organizing data, Brooke said, offer us possibilities for alternative maps and histories of our field. Coherence is something that we construct; something that allows us to see the relationships between something published last month and something published fifteen years ago. Ultimately, he concluded, it’s not so much a question of whether we’re a coherent discipline, but how we can become more coherent. (Confession: long before I saw this presentation, CCCOA had planted the some of the seeds of what I characterize as “clickstreams” in my recent speculative thinking about future composition pedagogies.)

Following Brooke, Derek Mueller began his presentation, “Clouds, Graphs, Maps: CCC from a Distance” by acknowledging that he’s following from Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees in attempting to apply Moretti’s methods to CCC. In examining texts, Moretti uses and prefers a technique he calls distant reading, wherein distance is not an obstacle but a sharper way of looking. To use Moretti’s words, Mueller said, distant reading is a “condition of knowledge” that “allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text” (Moretti, “Conjectures”). In our interactions with texts, we’re used to close reading and focusing on the single unitary piece of writing, whereas distant reading lets us look at the CCC article, issue, and series of issues all at once. The CCCOA abstract functions as a compacted alternative version of the CCC article that tease interest and invites further reading by reducing and simplifying. Abstracts set a precedent for distant reading, Mueller noted, and one sense of the CCCOA project is the sense of abstraction. A second sense is that of what Johanna Drucker calls graphesis, or visual modeling, wherein “a viewer intervenes,” and graphesis can help us think about the circulation of disciplinary knowledge in the journal. (Mueller’s slide show is particularly helpful in understanding these points.) The tagcloud is one example of graphesis, wherein tags are weighted according to how many times they appear, offering a sort of visual abstract or distant reading of the topics any given issue is addressing. Mueller also showed a graph of the 50 most cited authors in CCC, and proposed looking at how those authors change over generations, in order to help us ask the questions: who gets cited, and why? Mueller next looked at maps as an instance of graphesis that allow us to focus on spatial relationships and geographical concerns, showing a set of interactive maps that plot author institutional location for the current issue of and author graduate program location for the current issue of CCC. In showing where authors are and where they’re coming from and the geographical distribution of scholarship, Mueller argued, maps help us to see patterns not evident at other levels of study. The implications of looking at our field’s flagship journal in this way, Mueller argued, are threefold: “first, CCCOA is more than a mirror; it adds to CCC, offering features that print journals cannot. Second, visual models demand that we revisit claims and propositions about disciplinary trends and patterns, including future trajectories. Third, distant reading prompts us to explore how such knowledge might concretely change the ways we work.” I’d argue that all three presentations prompted the exploration Mueller proposed, and found them exciting in the implications and possibilities they offered.

CCCC07 N: Re/Visions of a Field

2 thoughts on “CCCC07 N: Re/Visions of a Field

  • April 19, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    Thanks for posting on this session–I wanted to attend but had a conflict. I really appreciate how detailed your post is. Sounds like I missed an excellent session.

  • April 21, 2007 at 7:28 pm

    No problem, Liz — I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to hang out. Maybe next time. (I recall in San Antonio there was a comp blogger’s meetup — maybe that’s something to try to organize on KNews or elsewhere again for next year.)

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