Category Archives: Metadissertating

Four Years, Four More

Vitia turned four years old yesterday.

I started it as I began work on my dissertation prospectus, as an attempt to respond to one mentor’s advice that I write towards my dissertation at least twenty minutes each day, and I wanted to publicly keep myself honest. As I went along, I discovered that some of my best critics and respondents and interlocutors were out there on the Web, and that they actually wanted to respond to what I was trying to pull together — and for free!, and in smart and productive ways.

Vitia is a Latin noun, neuter plural, singular vitium, that means faults, sins, or abuses; so named because of my early grad school experience, wherein it seemed the model of the pinnacle of critical work was to find faults or flaws in a text, to find incoherencies or contradictions, and then to later demonstrate that those perceived faults or flaws were the moments of access into that text as a system. But I became uncomfortable with such a facile and reductive approach to doing Derrida lite, particularly after reading Mina Shaughnessy and the ways she attempts to inhabit the logic of writerly error, and so for me, attempts to focus on textual faults or sins (some faculty members at my current institution still unfortunately refer to the “seven deadly sins” of student writing and the “four horsemen” of evaluation: content, organization, style, and correctness) in student writing became abuses of that writing; became failures to honor it as writing.

I believe, though, that one can read student writing — and all writing — in smart, careful, critical, and generous ways that tread the line between Shaughnessy and Derrida; that perform what Mariolina Salvatori has characterized as the balance between the hermeneutic and deconstructive moves. Consciousness of sins and flaws is not necessarily abuse, but acknowledgment of the unfinished nature of all writing. There is, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s phrase, a crack in everything.

So the dissertation’s done, and I’ve made it through my first year as a professor intact, albeit a little ragged, a little tired. Yesterday also began my summer writing season, where I’d planned to try to fit in two essay-length scholarly projects, but two just became three with notification of approval for a co-authored piece, so I’m going to be busy. Four years done, and looking past this summer to the next four, the next reasonable project would be a first book. Something that addresses certain flaws, inconsistencies, and fissures at the intersection of economics, composition, technology, and class; that offers a set of critical possibilities rather than critical abuses. I’ve had a year to let the dissertation rest, to get some perspective, and I think it’s got enough in it to stand up to being overhauled into a book that I would want to write.

That won’t take four years, certainly. But it’s a start.

3 Years and 12 Days

I started this weblog with the explicit intent of using it to help me write through my dissertation. Three years and twelve days later, I’m just about there, having gone through multiple revisions of Chapters 1-5 with my advisor and finally, today, having given the other two committee members their first full look at the results of those revisions. No, it’s not done yet, but aside from one more go-through with my advisor on Chapter 5 and the suggestions the other two committee members give me, I’m almost there. And given the nature of the comments I’ve already seen from those members on Chapters 1-3, it feels like my advisor’s a pretty good judge of when something’s ready to go.

Another good sign is that I met with my outside reader today and she was enthusiastic about Chapters 1-3, with some extremely useful and informative suggestions. And in the middle of the meeting, she noted that the very recent work by scholar X would seem to be the logical next step in helping me to extend my own research, and of course scholar X’s very recent work is right at the top of my post-defense summer reading pile. (The book is my reward to myself for getting through this, and it’s a nice sign to me that a prominent scholar in another discipline would share my impulse about who my work aligns me with.)

And, finally, I have a strong and definite plan for what my next three essay-length publication projects are after the defense, taking me into late spring of next year, and loose ideas for two projects after that. So yeah. Stuff’s coming together.

Now I just gotta get through buying that house and moving. . .

My Date

July 7, 2006, at 2:30 in the afternoon. 316 Bartlett Hall.

(Click on the image for a bigger version.)

And yes, that would be me in the stainless-steel boob-cups.

So yeah, it’s a wig. Big deal. I mean, you know me, right? You know I’m bald. Can I be not embarassed now and just admit that, you know, sometimes I like to have hair?

The Poor Complain

In an odd bit of synchronicity, I stumbled across this quoted fine bit of bitter doggerel from 1981 Nobel Laureate in Economics James Tobin in two different places today. I’m thinking it might make a nice epigraph for my introductory talk at my dissertation defense.

The poor complain; they always do
But that’s just idle chatter
Our system brings reward to all
At least all those who matter.

More Chapter Revisions

Chapter 4 has been the hardest chapter of the dissertation to write, because it’s the one where I’m synthesizing all the arguments from previous chapters — economy, overdetermination, technology, historical change, class, affect, student writing — in order to lead into Chapter 5′s big finish. Sort of a grand unifying theory of everything for my dissertation’s argument. And it’s been the most difficult and intensely frustrating to revise. The first draft clocked in at a little under 11,000 words; in the middle of the revising process, it got cut down as low as 8,000 words; and now it’s back up at more than 12,500 words. And yes, that 4,500-word difference is all new writing, and the shape and progression of the chapter has changed radically: nothing is where it used to be.

I think my prior life as a would-be fiction writer (yes, I’ve got the MFA to prove it, and little else) is partly to blame for my struggles with revising. My advisor today observed that my process with these chapters tends to follow a pretty specific path: initial draft of highly dense, fraught prose relying upon relations of parataxis to indicate implicit connections between ideas; paring down to a core set of concepts; hypotactically spelling out all the presuppositions and implications associated with those ideas; and then re-sequencing everything and filling in all the gaps with highly explicit transitions and argumentative signposts. In other words, I start out in the fiction-writer mode of showing concrete action but wanting to let the audience fill in the thematic connections, and then try to convert and update in accordance with the conventions of academic argument.

Yeah. Talk about finding the single wholly and completely idiotic bass-ackwards and flat-out dipshitsical way to write a flippin dissertation. Does Bizarro Superman have a correspondingly stupid Bizarro Braniac arch-enemy? ‘Cause right now, that is so totally me.

However.

All the above serves to tentatively propose that the 12,500 words of Chapter 4 that I’ve got now are pretty close to being good enough for the other two members of my committee to see, and everything feels like it’s starting to come together. Chapter 1′s problem statement, Chapter 2′s review of the literature, Chapter 3′s construction of a revised theory to address the problems in the literature indicated by Chapters 1 and 2, Chapter 4′s synthesis, and now moving into finishing up Chapter 5′s conclusions and implications. Which means I’ve still got a lot of work to do really quickly, but I’m no longer in the despair mode that I got myself into for a while. I’m at the point where I can step back and look at the thing as a whole and say, “Yeah. This definitely works. It’s got rigor, and it’s original as hell.”

So enough with the self-congratulation already. Back to work, monkey-boy.

Francois on Time

Francois offers an extremely helpful thought in his response to my recent misreading of his comment. He points out that “There are three moments in the [gift] transaction: giving, receiving, using what has been received,” and this lines up in remarkable synchronicity with the attention I give to notions of temporality in the latter portion of my dissertation. In Chapter 3, I point to how Raymond Williams and Pierre Bourdieu use time as an aspect of the overdetermination of class, and how composition’s definitions of class are conspicuously silent regarding the function of time, especially in the discourse of the “working-class academic,” because — of course — acknowledging time and historical change eliminates the possibility for the so-called “working-class academic” to collapse the difference between class position and class background in order to invoke the argument of authenticity.

The attention Francois offers to the temporally distant commodification of writing skills is important, as well, in the way that what he calls “using what has been given” aligns with Bruce Horner’s ideas about the ways in which we theorize the value of student labor contribute to that labor’s necessary and inherent commodification. Setting the temporal horizon of valuation as distant rather than present is a commodifying act. But in his temporal taxonomizing of the components of the gift transaction — gift, receipt, use — Francois has offered me a useful supplement to the ways I use Mariolina Salvatori’s work on the temporal synthesis of the hermeneutic and deconstructive moves to show that writing that holds truly diverse and heterogeneous value for the students is at once temporally distant and present. This also offers me a way to come back to my argument for a diachronic rather than synchronic way of seeing the economy of the writing classroom: if we don’t look at the classroom as processual, as functioning in trajectories of overdetermined historical change, we completely and abjectly fail to construct a pedagogy that goes beyond mere vocationalism or the teaching of good manners in prose.

This is why I love blogging: for the opportunity to engage with fierce, smart folks like Francois, like Clancy, like Curtiss, who call me on my bullshit and make me clarify my thinking.

Ideas Like Artichokes

Grump grump grump. I’m stuck at about the halfway point through the first draft of the final chapter — trying really hard to integrate open source practices with the rhetoric of the affective, trying really hard to figure out how to synthesize Benkler’s and Lindquist’s ideas of the personal dimensions of economic self-selection in the context of writing projects, and I know I need to write my way through it but right now it’s really huge and abstract and vague — so I’m switching gears and going back to previous chapters in heavy-duty revise revise revise revise revise revise revise revise revise mode (which I need to do anyway) in order to use that conceptual backtracking to shake loose the specifics of how I want to conclude.

I think one way I’m getting sidetracked is in wanting to explicitly contrast market-based economic approaches to open-source practices, and they’re not necessarily opposites or even all that opposed. My frustration, I think, comes from the ways in which laissez-faire free marketeers rhetorically construct markets as highly efficient self-organizing systems and then make the specious argumentative extension that all highly efficient self-organizing systems must be some species of market.

Nope. Doesn’t work that way, and folks who think it does clearly failed Logic 101 (and, yes, I’m aiming at a specific rhetorical target here, but I’m not willing to be much more specific until something I’ve got in the works sees publication): arguing that all schoolbuses are yellow is fine and good, but it does not mean that every yellow thing can be called a schoolbus. Open-source practices, as the work of Yochai Benkler indicates, can constitute highly efficient self-organizing systems, but that hardly means that they’re market-based systems — and the rhetorical invocation of the “marketplace of ideas” in economic argument is nothing more than the intellectually sloppy application of a bad metaphor: do you buy ideas like you buy artichokes?

My Imaginary Colleague

My Imaginary Colleague observes, rather tartly, that I haven’t had anything at all to say about the dissertation lately. She then adds that it might be a good idea get those two things sent out to journals for consideration before October comes, and wonders how my syllabus is coming along.

Always nice to know I can rely on the Imaginary Colleague for moral support. I haven’t had much to say about the diss because I’m working on revising Chapters 1 and 2 with my advisor’s comment, and there’s really not much to blog about when one’s revising, but also because I felt like I needed a few days’ break after that extended struggle that became Chapter 3.

My Imaginary Colleague, on the other hand, seems to have more time than she knows what to do with. I’m thinking I might nominate her for the Faculty Senate.

Various Narcissisms

OK, so the conceit of yesterday’s post — framing my working-through of Bourdieu in the context of my theatre example — was overdone and silly. I’m trying to make this dissertation stuff interesting — really, I am — but I should probably listen to the advice several people have offered: the only people you have to write the dissertation for are the three members of your committee. But isn’t that just a horribly depressing idea? Doesn’t that work against my whole rationale for bringing blogging into the writing classroom in order to make writing matter more? I know the advice is meant to be a relief, a way to deflate a dissertator’s narcissistic and self-important anxiety — but it also makes me say: well then why bother? If I were to use the same logic with my students, I’d tell them: you’re not really learning anything here. You’re just going through the motions for a grade.

Anyway.

In the faint and narcissistic hope that it might be of interest to somebody other than my committee: where Williams traces a classed history of the social trends of ideas in English literature, Bourdieu uses a massive ethnography of French society to compose a general theory of the individual’s relationship to class and culture. According to Bourdieu, taste “functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place’, guiding the occupants of a given place in social space towards the social positions adjusted to their properties, and towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position. It implies a practical anticipation of what the social meaning and value of the chosen practice or thing will probably be, given their distribution in social space and the practical knowledge the other agents have of the correspondence between goods and groups” (466-467). Again, class is relational, and performed as an experiential process linking multivariate individual subjectivities to overdetermined objective social structures. In describing the difficulty of defining class, Bourdieu notes “the fuzziness inherent in all practical logics,” but adds, as well, the complicating factor that “people’s image of the classification is a function of their position within it” (473). In that last assertion, we see not only a prefiguring of Linda Brodkey’s remarks on class narcissism (and an echo of Marx’s remark that “men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; every thing speaks to them of themselves”), but also the clearest indication in Bourdieu’s work of a rationale for the movement from a mass definition of class to an individuated definition of class.

The Show

New York City. Broadway tickets and dinner. What do you want to see? Where to eat? Before or after? What to wear?

I’m sure it classes me, in this post, to have vegetables before dessert. I’m afraid that, as always, I’ll talk too much, though never during the performance. And, yeah, I brought a book with me. No, honest: it was just to read on the subway. Really.

Oh, c’mon. No, what have you been up to?

The book? Well, yeah, I’m enjoying it, but it’s kinda dry.

About?

Class, I guess. Class and culture. Performance. Cultural difference.

Where’s that waiter?

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