Category Archives: Academia

Why the Sparklepony Matters

There’s been a dust-up around my professional conference, CCCC (the Conference on College Composition and Communication, or informally, 4Cs or Cs), and the conference game that Wendi Sierra and others designed to help graduate students new to the discipline network and professionalize. The comments section at the Chronicle of Higher Education story that reported on the game is, as one would expect from most online comments sections, dismaying: defenders of the game are making smart, articulate, and carefully considered arguments, and there are also a lot of trolls and idiots, to include Florida State University English Department graduate student and teaching assistant Adam Weinstein, who wrote a nasty little piece for Gawker based only upon secondhand information from the Chronicle article and his perusal of Google to find Chris Kluwe’s book (which he dismisses in a phrase that makes it quite clear he has no idea what Kluwe is doing in the book) and his (yes, seriously) use of

Here’s the deal. The “sparklepony,” as an evolving concept, came out of Collin Brooke’s conference presentation in 2010, wherein Collin referenced the World of Warcraft Celestial Steed, a new in-game decorative mount/vehicle that players could purchase for $25. The Celestial Steed was quickly ycleped the “sparklepony” by the in-game community (Weinstein: you’ve got your etymology wrong, and need to work on taking your grad student research skills beyond Google) and Collin mentioned the appellation in his presentation, observing that this was an instance (I paraphrase from my own memory here, and apologize to Collin if I get him wrong) of an online luxury good: a way that WoW players could purchase items of value that stood only as class markers. The name and concept of the “sparklepony” was quickly and enthusiastically taken up by the conference Twitter backchannel, especially by scholars who shared Brooke’s interest in the intersections of technology and writing instruction, and who extended that interest into ludology or game studies, including—especially—Jill Morris. Jill made a number of physical-object “sparkleponies,” decorated with glitter and googly eyes and feathers. Those material instances of in-game digital objects became physical objects of value: scholars interested in the blur between digital and material worlds, including myself, coveted them. As such, they became the prize for the C’s the Day game.

That circumstance perhaps makes it clear that graduate students like Adam Weinstein need to be rather more careful in “journalism” (Gawker LOL) that attacks an entire field and scholars (established and emerging) in that field. Collin Brooke’s work demonstrated how immaterial and digitally reproducible objects became tokens of value in World of Warcraft, and suggested implications for how those immaterial objects (like writing) took on diverse forms of value, and how that valuation might have consequences for rhetorical practice. The ways Jill Morris remediated those digital objects into material objects, with diverse material forms of value, extended Brooke’s insights in important ways. Wendi Sierra’s incorporation of the Sparklepony as a token of material value into a systematic social form of professionalization for newcomers to an academic discipline illustrates in crucial ways how what Hardt and Negri have termed the “immaterial labor” [sic] associated with the information economy has important material consequences for composition scholarship—and therefore for composition pedagogy, and also more broadly for entry into the academic discipline.

In other words, this game has important professional and economic consequences, not just for graduate students, not just for professors, but for undergraduate students as well. Value aggregates, and as recent conferences have demonstrated, value aggregates in complex ways, especially when that ostensible boundary between F2F and online blurs—as it has in the case of the C’s the Day game. The Sparklepony, as object remediated from for-pay online game into online slang and from there into academic discourse and from there into practice of academic professionalization, is amazing: I love it in the same way I love the frozen time-golem of the train at the end of China Miéville’s Iron Council. The Sparklepony, for some, is a reminder of faculty obligations to help professionalize graduate students, and also a reminder of the ways that digital work intersects with the embodied materiality of F2F work—and the embodied materiality of F2F play.

Signing off the Network

Military folks will recognize the thing I’m going to do here, so I’ll note that in doing so, I’m not trying to claim any privilege or inhabit any station that’s not mine. I’d like to honor a particular tradition by imitating it in a way, and in so doing honor the folks I’ve been lucky enough to serve under who’ve built and shaped that tradition. It’s a way, I hope, of calling attention to their service.

That word’s been important to me since my first hitch in the Army in the 1990s, and important again in what I’ve done in my second period of time working for the Army as a scholar and teacher. There’s a lot of stuff on my c.v. in the service category, and got recognized for some of that stuff this past Monday. But in my first hitch with the Army, I at one time had the call sign Strength Six Delta. That meant I was the Driver (phonetic-alphabet Delta) for Strength Six, the battalion commander of the 724th MSB, which had the motto, “Strength in Service.” Hence the Strength prefix. So I like thinking about that motto and my old call sign’s association with it.

The only times I used it with real frequency and regularity were when a lot of things were happening that involved a lot of people communicating really fast in the same loosely bound geographical location, which might sound to some of you folk like the way I use @preterite at events like #cwcon (the annual Computers & Writing conference). It’s not a bad parallel to draw, in its way. And in fact there was a whole lot of rapid-fire communication for me this past weekend, that started when I administered to my students the final Term-End Examination I’ll ever give here, at 0730 on Thursday morning. My four sections wrote for 3.5 hours, I did some initial preparation for the course director and worked on writing my evaluations of each student, we accounted for all final exams and final portfolios, and shortly after noon, I was off via car, train, bus, plane, and car again to this year’s Computers & Writing in Raleigh, North Carolina. As I was having dinner with four old UMass friends, I got my first call and series of texts from the course director with instructions about which exams to look at first when I got to the hotel, and from then on

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Inside, Outside

Two meetings, less than a week apart. One is in a large room with black leather couches around the perimeter, the most senior person’s desk — this is his office — in the corner furthest from the door. More important people sit closer to the position of power; less important closer to the door. The floor is covered by two matching large 10 x 15′ Afghan rugs in black and red and green and white. In front of the couches there are faux-wood coffee tables with chrome feet and floral-design clear glass tops. A bookcase with sagging shelves sits in one corner. Gilt-framed maroon velvet bulletin boards hang on the walls with organizational charts and calendars and quotations in Dari, and framed plastic-covered maps bracket a gold-framed photo portrait of President Karzai in the place of honor between the windows.

The couches are filled: there are a total of nineteen people in the room. There is an initial speech of 25 minutes or so, noting academic issues that have come up, offering guidance. There is some discussion of the fact that a Web presence and a Facebook page for the Academy have been authorized, and that “These will solve most of our problems.”

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For me, there are some seriously rotten things happening now, and some genuinely hopeful things as well — both in far more extreme degree than in a long time — and I can’t really talk about either of them except in the tiniest of metonymies.

Full moon, shining bright and pale across the ice. Tink and Zeugma, prospective mousers, spending the night away from home, and this cold house wind-rattled and empty except for me.

I feel, in Strand’s words,

And weird. The shivers
Wash over
Me, shaking my bones, my loose ends
And I lie sleeping with one eye open,

but that’s where I have to cut the quotation. I know what I hope, and it’s not for nothing.

Academic Category Error

People in my academic discipline sometimes conflate “military” and “war.” From what I’ve seen of the broader scape of academe, that’s not uncommon. In listserv discussions, interactions at conferences, calls for proposals, and hallway conversations, there’s a common assumption that any association with the military must commit one to a monolithic and intolerant ideology supporting all war, always, in all contexts.

Two nights ago, on Monday, Eugene Jarecki showed up on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart promoting his new book. (Jarecki wrote and directed the award-winning 2005 documentary Why We Fight, which — while voluminously researched and attempting to provide the appearance of scrupulous fairness — mostly did a very good job for 99 minutes of proving that Jarecki agreed with the cautions offered in Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” speech: to paraphrase a number of critics, the movie was an op-ed piece, not investigative reporting.) He had some good things to say about today’s links between the defense industry and American foreign policy, and with Stewart’s prompting and assistance, he made a number of solid points fully and clearly in the nine minutes or so that he had.

Stewart’s a breezy interviewer, and I think Jarecki would have fared better with a more deliberate pace, perhaps even with being asked to read a passage from the book out loud, NPR-style, though that seldom plays well on television. (Would that it did.) I say this because Jarecki was invited here to West Point to talk to people — cadets and faculty — about his movie after its release, and accounts of those conversations have traveled, some of them making their way into his new book, and some of them making their way into our Dean’s annual address to faculty — all faculty, military and civilian — where I first heard them two months ago. I quote here from Jarecki’s book, The American Way of War, published ten days ago:

Located in wooded isolation some 50 miles north of New York City, West Point is very much in its own intellectual orbit, not entirely removed from the workings of the American defense establishment, yet not entirely in sync with them either. On my first drive there, I recall the incredulity with which friends and family reacted when I called from the road to tell them where I was going. They were surprised that a military academy would even show a film like Why We Fight, let alone invite a self-acknowledged critic of U.S. defense policy, to address its best and brightest.

As it turns out, this incredulity reflects a prejudice that sweepingly and mistakenly equates bad foreign policy with those entrusted to implement it. While soldiers come in all types and no single generalization can be made, one finds inspiring abundance on West Point’s faculty of responsible thinkers who feel a responsibility not only to train their cadets in the military arts but to educate them more broadly about the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s foreign policy system.

Jarecki’s words are a careful and instructive counter to the myopic conflation I describe above. When our Dean read those words, and conveyed them to the faculty with an argument about their importance, they helped me see something more about teaching at this place, and about why I’m teaching here and want to continue to teach here. The engagement with diverse and critical perspectives that Jarecki describes is something I’ve seen here far more than at any other college or university I’ve attended or taught at, and seen especially with a remarkable openness in the classroom.

It’s remarkable the things cadets are unafraid to say and the criticisms they’re unafraid to make, reasonably and professionally, and how calmly and precisely they’re able to disagree with one another on loaded issues, and then think nothing of it and move on to celebrate and support one another. (Mostly.) In my class, they’ve just finished a unit on multi-modal argument, with more than a few of them giving presentations on similar or identical topics in rapid succession, and the kaleidoscope of perspectives has been refreshingly more wide-ranging than some of the homogeneous arrays of ideological and rhetorical commonplaces I’ve seen elsewhere. And in many ways more liberally accepting; more embracing of what Benjamin Franklin called “all these scatter’d counsels.” That ideological diversity and tolerance strikes me as one of the most valuable assets that a democratic nation might promote in its military, and one that I wish I might see more of in academe’s broader scape.

Going Back to Cali

Two weeks ago, I was happy to receive two emails from NCTE notifying me that my co-proposed special interest group (SIG) meeting and panel presentation for CCCC had been approved: it looks like I’m headed back to San Francisco in March of 2009. The SIG, “Writing at the Military Service Academies,” will be a welcome opportunity to exchange ideas with writing faculty from the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Navy at Annapolis, Virginia Military Institute, the Citadel, the Coast Guard Academy at New London, and the post-secondary academy prep schools; and also an opportunity to talk to other curious folks from outside the Academies about the unique nature of what we do, and about the ways that — as we wrote in our proposal — “many of the challenges faced by composition today are crystallized by the service academies’ hierarchies, structures, and obligations.”

But of perhaps broader interest to composition scholars — especially given past strong critiques of the ways we rhetorically frame the work of our discipline — might be the panel presentation I’m on (hat tip to Aerobil for passing on Jungian title inspiration), and the other folks on that panel. I think some sparks may likely fly, but even given those anticipated sparks, I think (and hope) we’ll manage to have a productive, respectful set of brief presentations, and I’m excited about the discussion that I hope will follow. At last year’s CCCC, I heard Cheryl Glenn, Peter Elbow, and Bruce Ballenger all express, in various ways, the concern that our discipline isn’t very good at representing what we do (or what we ought to do) to those outside the discipline. The panel I’m on attempts to engage a (very) wide range of perspectives responding to that concern — and yeah, we’re gonna have some fun in breaking down the walls of our various echo chambers.

Kairos CFP: dot mil

Here’s part of my excuse for not posting much lately. Alexis and I are pretty excited about it. And I might be soliciting some of you, dear readers, for contributions.

Call for Proposals

Kairos Summer 2010 Special Issue
dot mil: Rhetoric, Technology, and the Military
Guest Editors: Mike Edwards and Alexis Hart

This special issue of Kairos seeks to investigate the intersections between technology, rhetoric, and the military, as well as the connections between the military and literacy instruction. During World War II, College English published four articles (February 1944, May 1944, March 1945, May 1945) explicitly concerned with connections between literacy instruction in higher education and the contemporary military. Today, in a time of ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and anxieties about military action in Iran, such connections merit renewed attention. Furthermore, advances in communications technologies have complicated those connections. ARPANET, the first packet-switching network and direct predecessor to the global internet, went live as a Department of Defense project in 1969, and the intersection of networked rhetorics and military affairs has evolved in intriguing ways since. For example, email, web video, cell phones, video games, weblogs, and other digital technologies have become increasingly available as well as increasingly controversial within military contexts. For this special issue on rhetoric, technology, and the military, examples of possible topics of investigation might include, but are not limited to:

How soldiers’, sailors’, airmen’s, and Marines’ access to 24/7 networked communications technologies has changed the rhetoric of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Online alternative news sources and their influence on public perceptions of conflicts.
How digital technologies complicate concerns of operations security (OPSEC).
The Army’s ban on weblogging by soldiers without command approval.
The rhetorics and aesthetics of military-themed video games.
Distance learning for deployed soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.
The use of just war theory, torture, protest, and other military-related subjects as topics for argument essays in first-year writing courses.
Corporal Pat Tillman and the public uses of the rhetorical canon of memory.
The rhetoric of PowerPoint in command briefings.
The use of netwar strategies by insurgency groups and conventional military organizations.
Media representations of the ethics and rhetoric of the “revolt of the generals.”
The rhetoric of recruiting.
Online “swiftboating” and the place of military service in political rhetoric.
The rhetorical framing of conflict in documentaries and news reports, as well as in first-hand accounts from on-the-ground warfighters.

Submission Guidelines:

For this special issue, we seek submissions for all sections of the journal (Topoi, Praxis, Reviews, Interviews, and Disputatio). We ask that contributors visit current and previous issues to determine which section best matches your work.

Topoi: Extended scholarly analyses related to the special issue theme.
Praxis: Longer classroom spotlights and brief digital tool-use narratives related to the special issue theme.
Reviews: Individual or collaborative reviews of books, media, and other texts of interest related to the special issue theme.
Interviews: Interviews with scholars doing work related to the special issue theme.
Disputatio: Short digital texts that invite or incite further commentary. This section operates like letters to the editor in more traditional journal venues; however, these texts take native digital forms, even if rudimentary in nature.

Additional Guidelines:

Please consult general submission guidelines at
Kairos can accept most web-ready file formats (check with the guest editors if you are unsure). Please keep in mind that this excludes word-processing documents.
We prefer URLs for review purposes. If you do not have access to open (or password-protected) webspace, please contact the guest editors in advance of the submission deadline to arrange alternate means of delivery.
We cannot accept email attachments larger than 2 megabytes (MB).
Queries to the guest editors are welcome in advance of the deadline. (Responses may take up to a week.)

Submission Deadline (Proposals): November 1, 2008

Contact both guest editors with a proposal via email. (Subject line: “dotmil submission: YOURNAME”.) The proposal should include a 1-2 paragraph explanation of the webtext’s topic and argument; a 1-2 paragraph description of the webtext’s structure, design, and associated technologies (including a URL and/or images, if authors wish); and a brief annotated bibliography. Authors will receive confirmation of submission, via email, within 2-3 days.

Publication Timeline:

Proposals due: November 1, 2008
Acceptance notification: December 1, 2008
Full webtexts due: March 1, 2009
Revised webtexts due: October 1, 2009
Publication date: May 15, 2010

Graduation Day

Saturday was Graduation Day for us, when the graduating class took their oaths and were commissioned as second lieutenants. It was a good day and a good speech by the Secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, and a good ceremony, where I was happy to see a number of the cadets I’d worked with receive awards and recognition. And the military attention to the particulars of ceremony, if you’ve never seen such stuff, drew some emotion. Even though I knew what was coming, it was hard to resist feeling the grin and the slight tightness around my chest when the final words of the ceremony came, directed at the class of 2008, in the form of a preparatory command and a command of execution, with the emphasis on the second syllable of the command of execution:

“Class — dismissed!”

the cadet graduation hat toss

The Secretary of the Army’s speech was impressive. Low-key, certainly, and wide-ranging, as one tends to expect for graduation speeches, but he set as one of his introductory motifs Thomas Jefferson’s 1786 Bill for Religious Freedom, which states, in part, that

No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief.

Secretary Geren spoke out strongly against those who he called “zealots” who would oppress, restrain, molest, or burden those who do not share their religious beliefs, and while the implicit reference to the Taliban was clear, the fact that he did not qualify his critique suggests to me that it was likely aimed at zealots not only of one particular faith. And I find that commendable.

Toilet Bowl Sunshine

I’ve alphabetized and tabulated the survey results for words we like and don’t like in conference panel presentation titles. As I’d hoped, people had more than a little fun with the survey (thank you, Mr. Garcia, for risky, frisky, and Lebowski), but there are some interesting minor findings here, as well. (I’ll refer to respondents as “we,” but with such a small sample I’m not in any way suggesting that these findings are generalizable to a broader population of “we.”)

First: our likes are more diverse than our dislikes. The only repeated concept in the “yeah, I’d go see that panel” was punk, either as pseudo-punk or as punk rock. (Apparently, we’ll take punk any way we can get it.)

In terms of what we dislike in conference titles, there were a number of repeats: “post/process/ed” in its various forms (all from one respondent, who apparently really doesn’t like that construction), assessment, community, diversity, expressive or expressivism, literature or literary, praxis, Derridean parentheticalized prefixes, and — of course — Mark Bauerlein. I get the sense that some of these dislikes are tropes — as with the Derridean parentheticalized prefixes, modes of disciplinary talk that have reached the point of tiresome over-use — but with others, I’m not sure if it’s a sense that the terms or topics have been over-discussed to the point of redundancy, or if it’s a sense that use of the term in presentations has been consistently and problematically imprecise (as in the point Joe Harris uses Raymond Williams to make about the term “community” in what we call “discourse communities”).

Note, also, that the one term occurring in both columns is “queer.”

Results follow.

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The Unbearable Ugliness of Panel Titles

In the interest of the advancement of knowledge and the quest for unalloyed truth, disciplinary status, and shameless self-aggrandizement, I’ve put together a research instrument that I have no doubt will lay to rest for all time the ugly questions surrounding improper areas of focus at academic conferences. To that end, reader, I’d be grateful for your input, if you’d be so generous with your time as to

take a very brief survey.

I’ll post the results here.

Or maybe propose to present them at an academic conference, in the interest of confirming certain folks’ ongoing fears.