Month: May 2007

Memorial Day

Three moments from this weekend.

Moment 1: Tink and Zeugma were agitated Saturday morning, and there was a lot of noise from the open front windows as I read and typed. There was a demonstration on Main Street, an anti-Iraq-war parade up to the gate, and I live one block over. And I’ll admit: reader, I couldn’t look.

I knew I wasn’t going to go into work on Saturday, what with Cheney giving the address, but I hadn’t anticipated what it might mean to work from home on a Saturday morning. There was the racket that I usually associate with football games, and then, as I read and typed, there was something else.

Something like: “Morons for peace!”

Something like: “Join the American Communist Party!”

Something like: “Have some marijuana!”

Something like: “Go home, hippie!”

I was flabbergasted. I still am. I know this is an Army town. I served, and I know a lot of the folks in town served, and it means a lot to them. But counterdemonstrators — hecklers — bellowing at “Morons for peace”?

Who in the world, reader, is not for peace, especially among soldiers, who have the most to lose? And so I felt two things I couldn’t reconcile.

The first was anger at what I wanted to categorize as redneck foolishness: for taunts, the ones I heard through my window were as silly and superannuated as one could imagine.

The second was anger at the demonstrators I imagined as so self-righteous and self-absorbed that they’d be foolish enough to try and take away from what my students have done and what they’re going to be called to do. How dare you, I thought, when the first place these kids go is going to be Iraq or Afghanistan, and you have to mar their achievement, on their day, with invective. When they’re so good, so generous, so big-hearted.

When we bury so many.

Moment 2: I drove up to Amherst on Sunday. I saw my attorney, and we dined on beer and sausages, and I saw some other friends as well, who remarked upon Andy Card being booed off the stage at the UMass graduation.

When I saw the video, I howled. I cackled. I loved it. This man, who so publicly lied to so many people, who holds responsibility for the deaths of soldiers via his duplicity, who was refused by even John Ashcroft in a crude and vile attempt to do something illegal — yes, this man was booed off stage by everyone around him, faculty and students alike.

That’s the value of his honorary degree.

Moment 3: Seven years ago, Daniel and I had beers together at Silky’s, in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. He told me about how easy the Special Forces Q-course was, and how hard other things had been. He was as sweet and intense as he always was.

He was earnest, and I miss him.

Edit: I always get kinda caught up when I think about Daniel. But my bigger point, I guess, was about my different reactions to political demonstrations. My politics make me sympathetic toward the demonstrators in both cases — but in the case of the demonstration here, that sympathy was mixed with frustration at the demonstrators who I saw as in some way diminishing my students’ big day. Toward the students and faculty members who booed Andy Card off the stage, I felt no such frustration. A difference in rhetorical kairos, maybe? The demonstrators on Main Street certainly weren’t winning anyone over to their side, and in fact were probably increasing the antagonism to their position among some observers.

Is it sometimes easier to win support by being quiet?

Benkler Meets Murray

What happens when we take the (allegedly old or superannuated, according to some) process pedagogy approaches — in fact, I’m thinking primarily of those who have been labeled (accurately or not) expressivist — and put them into play with the approaches of those (of whom I am one) who concern themselves with emerging technologies? When one reads Peter Elbow’s Everyone Can Write with care, with generosity, with a critical eye, what might it tell us about student writers and the condition of being digital?

If we go back to Donald Murray’s “Teach Writing as Process Not Product” or A Writer Teaches Writing, what might we gain from Yochai Benkler’s three observations from The Wealth of Networks that “first, non-proprietary strategies have always been more important in information production than they were in the production of steel or automobiles” (or other industrial goods); that in a networked information economy, “the aggregate effect of individual action, even when it is not self-consciously cooperative, produces the coordinate effect of a new and rich information environment” (or what we might call a new commons); that we have recently seen the emergence of “effective, large-scale cooperative efforts — peer production of information, knowledge, and culture… typified by the emergence of free and open-source software” and the overflow of the open-source ethos into domains far beyond those of the programmer (Benkler 4-5)? Quite a bit, I think. Murray’s and Elbow’s concerns with individualism and ideas mesh quite well with Benkler’s focus in ways that the so-called social turn in composition studies could not at all anticipate.

Interestingly, so much of that theory in the social turn was derived from Marx and his inheritors, but today seems inadequate in the context of Benkler’s observation that the Internet “is the first modern communications medium that expands its reach by decentralizing the capital structure of production and distribution of information, culture, and knowledge. Much of the physical capital that embeds most of the intelligence in the network is widely diffused and owned by end users… This basic change in the material conditions of information and cultural production and distribution have substantial effects on how we come to know the world we occupy and the alternative courses of action open to us as individuals and social actors” (30). Ownership of the means of production and distribution is returning to individuals — is decentralizing — and we’re needing to turn back to a focus on those individuals, not as isolate or solipsistic, but as networked agents, as writers and composers whose actions have concrete and tangible effects.

Why I Teach Here

There’s an excellent piece in New York Magazine about the kinds of students I see in my classes. The reporter, Chris Smith, simultaneously acknowledges and respects the tensions that these students face, in ways far more respectful and mature than the account offered of the behavior of some members of the Hunter faculty.

I’m a far-left liberal. I’ve seen such accounts and such milbashing on WPA and in the discourse of certain subgroups of various professional organizations. And there’s a tension there: after all, I served four years as an enlisted soldier and NCO in the Army’s 24th Infantry Division, and in Marya’s words, “I have a lot of respect for the retired generals who have spoken out against things that are clearly wrong.”

It makes me wonder what friends like Bill DeGenaro might think of my students. I wonder what you might think, reader, after reading that piece: about my reasons for teaching writing, and about why I so admire the students I teach.

Essay Exams

I’m wishing I was at Computers & Writing right now, but yesterday was final exams for the junior-year writing courses I teach. Three and a half hours to answer a broad writing question that offered the opportunity to cover very nearly all of the readings in the course, with essays written and submitted on laptops. Big chunk of the final grade, which I don’t like, but the ideology of the need for a final exam in all subjects is something that will not go away easily here.

I coached the process as much as I could beforehand:

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Learning LOLKitteh

The Ratliff compels, and one obeys.

Well, OK: Clancy wrote, “Mike, you HAVE to do an I Can Has Cheezburger? image,” but while I can read and parody LOLKitteh, I’m far from being a native or even adequate speaker.

I’m doing my best to learn LOLKitteh, certainly, particularly given its recent emergence as one of the fundamental philosophical discourses of modernity. My efforts, however, yield slight return. Tink and Zeugma regard me indulgently as I practice the tense-shifts and contractions, but when I attempt to engage them in LOLKitteh, they flee to the litterboxen.

As Clancy has demonstrated, though, LOLKitteh allows us to speak of that which other discourses and other interlocutors (our friend and colleague Joanna Howard comes immediately to mind) forbid. There is, for example, the practice of interrogating so-called ‘flavor’ as sociocultural and affective construct.

Two cats, Tink and Zeugma, interacting

However, my lack of LOLKitteh fluency has stymied attempts at adequately describing the above interaction.

Your captions are welcomed.

Benkler’s Production Grid

In my CCCC presentation, I tried to mash together Yochai Benkler’s diverse motivations for production, my own thoughts about the work > appropriation > ownership > use > work cycle, and Gibson-Graham’s tabular charting of the various market, alternative market, and nonmarket forms of economic activity, and to apply that mashup to the composition classroom. Right now, I’m planning out how to turn that mashup into an article, and I’ve gone back to Benkler and re-stumbled across yet another table, on page 43 of The Wealth of Networks. Benkler charts three types of strategies for “Cost Minimization / Benefit Acquisition” across three domains: the public, the intra-organizational (he calls it “intrafirm” but I want to open up that term to more explicitly include noncapitalist or alternative capitalist enterprises), and the semi-private. His three strategies are those of rights-based exclusion (in other words, profiting from copyright and associated strategies), nonexclusion-market (producing information from which to profit, but not via exclusivity), and nonexclusion-nonmarket (e.g., reputation economies and the like). I think Benkler’s taxonomy is helpful, particularly in considering the domain/context/scope of activity, and I want to work to map it over Gibson-Graham’s and my own subsequent elaborations, but I also think it’s somewhat incomplete, particularly in light of Benkler’s own work on non-market motivations for information production.

Which is what I’ll be working on as soon as I see the light at the end of the end-of-semester forced march.

Computers, Pedagogy, and Priorities

Laptops are useless, technology is the devil, and computers make our students stupid.

Or at least that’s what the New York Times would have you think.

Alex Reid, Jenny Edbauer, and Will Richardson have all commented on the NYT’s recent piece of slack-jawed mouth-breathing idiocy, non sequiturs, and logical fallacies concerning technology in the classroom. They were rather more charitable than I’m inclined to be.

To be fair, reporter Winnie Hu makes slight attempts to offer balance and critical insight, observing the problems with “how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums” — but the piece, overall, is a hatchet job; a slimy luddite screed that blames technology for the ways in which it’s used and inadvertently highlights just how stupid and reactionary teachers and administrators can be when it comes to computers. In her observation, Hu is quite right: schools throw money at technology, imagining it as a quick fix, without a thought to how it might be used. Unfortunately, the rest of her article completely buys into precisely that mode of thinking, lamenting the vast sums of money expended and the apparent negligible results. In a lame and myopic attempt to indict what she sees as the problems with teaching with laptops, she describes how “Northfield Mount Hermon School, a private boarding school in western Massachusetts, eliminated its five-year-old laptop program in 2002 after it found that more effort was being expended on repairing the laptops than on training teachers to teach with them.” Where, one might ask, does the problem with priorities lie?

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At the Met

Saturday night, twenty-two of us went to see the Franco Zeffirelli production of Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera (click for a larger version):

the group, in uniform

At intermission, we were taken backstage and allowed to watch the mechanics and massive coordination involved in changing Zeffirelli’s glorious sets, and met and talked with the charming soprano Erika SunnegĂ„rdh, who sang in the title role.

It was a pretty good Saturday night.

Decades and Connections

Like Jeff, I recently received an invitation to my high school’s twenty-year reunion. I’m ambivalent about it: somewhat curious, but also not eager to spend a lot of money for a lame DJ and chatting with folks I mostly don’t remember. With my military service, I’ve taken a career path somewhat different from Jeff’s, but it’s interesting to think about what happens in twenty years.

Twenty years ago, I was a high school senior at Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring, Maryland, and then a college freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Twenty years ago, my first-year writing course was in Linda Flower’s composition curriculum, and my freshman psychology course — “Cognitive Processes: Theory and Practice” — was taught by John Hayes.

Twenty years ago, the American military was explicitly protecting economic interests in the Persian Gulf by escorting oil tankers when an Iraqi jet fired two missiles at the USS Stark and killed thirty-seven sailors.

Twenty years ago, Ira Shor described in Critical Pedagogy and Everyday Life the faceless, agentless agency of “a wildly growing and uncontrollable machine-economy [that] rushed across the land transforming everything it touched” and “created and peopled an educational frontier” in the form of the community college system (2); a system that some critics have suggested reinforces hierarchical structures of economic inequality.

Twenty years ago, Michael Joyce wrote the seminal hypertext fiction afternoon: a story. Bootleg copies circulated around the Carnegie Mellon dorms on 3.5-inch diskettes, where I encountered it. I thought it was something like a poetic interactive fiction, like Zork or Planetfall or Suspended. I also thought it was one of the most beautiful, puzzling, intricate, and compelling things I’d ever read in the way it went back and forth and traveled multiple times, multiple iterations, through various forking paths and nodes that changed in their meaning and nuance when I returned to them.

Twenty years ago, Robert Solow won the Nobel Prize in economics for his careful examinations of the ways technological development influences economic growth.

Twenty years ago, I was taking a freshman philosophy course from a professor I don’t remember. It was called “Philosophic Methods and Morals,” and it included a significant focus on logic and Turing Machines We analyzed and created various rule-bound (hypothetical) Turing Machines with read/write heads that moved back and forth on various tapes (paths?) depending on the symbol in each cell (node?). Working with these abstract computers was challenging, time-consuming, labor-intensive, but oddly fascinating in its crystalline intricacy.

Twenty years ago, C. Paul Olson wrote an essay called “Who Computes?” for the edited collection Critical Pedagogy and Cultural Power wherein he pointed out that “the computer as a tool does fundamentally reorganize material relationships and organizations of production and our thoughts about what production is” (183, emphasis in original). Charles Moran points out that composition still has not adequately responded to the economic critique Olson sets forth in the essay, but the way Olson demonstrates that better machines reduce work by replacing labor-intensive processes with capital-intensive processes (184) was a starting point for my dissertation.