Teaching

Doing Digital Research, Being Digitally Researched

I’m teaching a course this semester that I’ve taught a few times before at WSU but never felt like I really had a solid grasp on what it was supposed to do, until now. The course is Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 356, “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” From what I understand, it began as a course co-taught by folks from the rhetoric faculty and folks from the library, with an emphasis on how to navigate the library’s electronic databases and resources and the increasing interlinking of rhetoric and information technologies in the relatively early days of the World Wide Web. Circumstances have changes substantially since then, both in terms of how undergraduates learn to navigate the digital resources of library databases and the Web and in terms of how the course gets taught and what its emphases are. In the WSU course catalog, its description is as follows:

Social and cultural role of information; research with electronic sources; production, validation, storage, retrieval, evaluation, use, impact of electronic information.

Following some of the guidance and excellent examples of my DTC faculty colleagues (here’s a version from Kristin Arola), I first taught it as something like a contemporary topics and concepts course in WSU’s Digital Technology and Culture major with a focus on the availability and findability of digital information, including units on intellectual property and the politics of search. My adapted course description was as follows:

This class explores the cultural, legal, economic, political, and social roles of information. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which the self and society shape and are shaped by our changing information networks, and we will look at the structures of those networks. We will examine such topics as social and collaborative networking, information retrieval and management, the function of creativity within an information economy, and copyright law. Throughout the course, students will be encouraged to understand the function and limits of rhetoric in an age of information.

While that worked well enough at first, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, and Read more

Security Dreams

I probably shouldn’t do class-related readings on the NSA and information security right before going to bed. The past two nights have been a combination of first-week anxieties and stuff related to Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath and Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society, the latter of which is one of the books I assigned for Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 356, Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information, plus some weird house- and family-related stuff.

In Monday night’s dream, I’m wandering in an abandoned, crumbling neighborhood in late afternoon, the facades of houses caved in, burned and abandoned cars lining the streets, a smoky haze in the sky like what’s been visiting Pullman, dimming the sun. I go into one of the houses and it’s filled with irregular but oddly assembled debris: Read more

Good News, Good Projects

I was recently happy to have good news: last week, the WSU English Department graduate students gave me the “Most Supportive Faculty Member” award (which particularly delights me in that they’re amazing people with whom to work). Yesterday I learned that I’d won a teaching grant. And I’ll brag about my wife too: Lauralea today received an invitation to give a keynote address at a professional conference. We are apparently doing some good things professionally, and those good things seem to sometimes intersect: we’ll both be presenting about quantitative rhetorics and research at Feminisms & Rhetorics in the fall, as well.

In addition to that good news, my Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 375 (“Languages, Texts, and Technologies”) students presented their final collaborative projects at the DTC showcase last night, and they. were. awesome. Seven teams (who all told me it was OK to post links to portions of their projects) did these things:

I’m kind of amazed, even though I know I shouldn’t be, to work with students who have such goodwill and creativity. The projects above reflect some of the best aspects of what I consider to be excellent multimodal collaborative scholarship.

And today, in class, we concluded with the intersections of James Gleick’s The Information, Marshall McLuhan, “The Library of Babel,” smartphone dating, big data, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and the Skyrim/Valve paid mods user revolt. A good end to a good semester.

Rhetrospect

I mentioned in September that I was teaching a graduate seminar in classical rhetoric last semester. I gave it the subtitle “rhetoric under empire” because I tried to craft a syllabus that foregrounded the relations of power and materiality that seem too often absent from classical rhetoric as it’s taught in rhetoric and composition studies. Certainly, there’s some attention paid to Corbett’s closed fist and open hand (ratio and elocutio), or as the image I stole from the Internet to publicize the course and now can’t source would have it, the fasces and the flowers.

fasces and flowers

The course went extraordinarily well and did everything I wanted to, and the students even seemed to like it. Folks in rhetoric and composition sometimes tend to think of classical rhetoric as dry, dull, deadly boring stuff, and that’s mostly the fault of the way it’s too often taught, I think. There’s an impulse I’ve seen to abstract and to theorize and to alienate from context: to take Aristotle and ask what we can use from his Rhetoric in the composition classroom and wind up with a lot of FYC essays pointing out instances of ethos, logos, and pathos in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”; or to ask undergraduates to identify rhetorical figures from the Ad Herennium and De Inventione in political speeches from the last election and wind up with a lot of etceterative taxonomies that offer scant sense of possible implications.

As admirable a volume as Bizzell and Herzberg’s Rhetorical Tradition is (and it is massively, wonderfully admirable: I’ve spent many hours lost in its pages), I think it’s partly to blame. The primary texts included in the volume can be categorized—with a few exceptions—as almost entirely rhetorical theory, and with that as one of our most well- and widely-known sources, of course it’s going to influence how we teach. So when I taught Cicero, I taught bits of the De Inventione and the De Oratore and the Brutus and Orator, but all in the context of his early speech in front of the dictator Sulla, all in the context of his bawdy and misogynistic oration for Caelius in conjunction with the love poems of Caelius’s rival Catullus, all in the context of his rhetorical judo with the Pro Ligario before Caesar as both judge and plaintiff. So, too, with Isocrates and the function of rhetoric during wartime and the debates over how literate the Spartans might have been; so, too, with Aristotle and Alexander and the paranoia and xenophobia; so, too, with those who enthuse about Quintilian without considering the imperial terror of Domitian and the indictment by Tacitus of “gain-getting rhetoric” — epideictic rhetoric as truly economic — when there was no space left for rhetoric as forensic or deliberative. To me, that sort of rhetoric understood in its material and social context is exciting and fresh and alive, not abstracted or theoretical or irrelevant: when you read his letter to Atticus, to Caelius, to his wife Terentia, there comes an entirely different human sense of who Cicero was that gives extraordinary vitality to his rhetoric.

It makes me think there’s risk in studying rhetoric, in that abstracting it into an object of scholarly exchange can lead to seeing only how it operates at that abstracted and theoretical level and missing completely the level of material and experiential consequence. So that’s why my classical_rhetoric_syllabus looked the way it did, and that’s why I’ll continue to teach it that way: it’s in a way the same thing I try to do in my emphasis on the economics of writing study; to look at the value of and motivation for the rhetorical labor we perform and the intellectual and affective capital we produce and distribute and experience and re-produce and re-value.

Graduate Seminar in Classical Rhetoric

I’ve loved classical rhetoric for a long time. This semester, I finally get to teach it.

I took Latin in high school and to fulfill my language requirement in graduate school, and had amazing teachers, including Bill Nickerson, Teresa Ramsby, and Elizabeth Keitel. To their credit, I now read Latin passably well, and have a little bookshelf of red-jacketed dual-language Loeb editions. Those instructors were all excellent at teaching not only the language but what was going on at the time, and their approach made classical rhetoric feel vital and alive in ways that it didn’t in some of the English-specific courses I took for my PhD. In the seminar I’m teaching this semester, I’ve tried to imitate their approach: this is ancient rhetoric in its amazing, breathtaking material context.

classical_rhetoric_509_syllabus

Maximally Multimodal

This semester I’m excited to be teaching a 300-level elective cross-listed in the English and Digital Technology and Culture majors as “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” I’m thrilled to be teaching the material, and it’s let me do some cool stuff in the classroom that I haven’t done before. We’ve been reading some selections from James Gleick and elsewhere about Claude Shannon and information theory (which fit together in interesting and provocative ways with Lessig’s thoughts in Free Culture on piracy on the one hand and with Michael Joyce’s hypertexts and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” on the other), and grappling with Shannon’s idea that information and meaning are separable — which led me to put together a lesson plan that (1) used some technologies in the classroom that I’d never taught with before and (2) was fairly highly multimodal in its incorporation of graphics, sound, and interactivity.

I started by posing a question, telling students: I’ve got two songs in mind. One is an old song by a band that I grew up listening to and liked a lot, and brings back memories of hanging out in my friend’s attic room. The other is a newer song with a nice beat that’s at once quirky and catchy — maybe an information theorist would argue that those terms imply each other. Which song is better? (Yes, I acknowledged it was a rhetorical question, meant to highlight the subject of the day’s work.)

I then showed the two songs again, in graphical form

spectrogram 1

spectogram 2

and asked: Which one is better? Can you tell how they might be different? Do these images carry more or less meaning than my descriptions? Would I be illegally pirating music by sharing the spectograms of their waveforms at sufficiently high resolution? What would the RIAA say?

That got some discussion going. The next step was to play the songs: I had both an iPhone and an iPad with me, one for playback and one for listening with Soundhound, a song-recognition app similar to Shazam, which functions in the way outlined by Claude Shannon: by measuring patterns (moments of peak frequency and amplitude) against an axis of time or frequency and then compared to a hash table linked to a sufficiently large database. The props worked, of course, identifying the songs in a few seconds each. (YouTube videos are linked from the above images: yes, I got to play “Gangnam Syle” as a part of a lesson.)

In addition to those two songs — which have meanings, obviously, beyond their meaning to me or beyond their waveforms — I then pulled out a ringer: Girl Talk’s “Oh No,” which Soundhound could only identify as either Black Sabbath or Ludacris. The point I was trying to demonstrate from Shannon was concerning the profound difference between information and meaning, and some songs (or texts, broadly construed) have more meaning than others, which can interfere with analyzing them as information. I also made the point that by such a definition, when one is doing the “electronic research” to which the course title refers, one is not looking for meaning, because one cannot a priori do so: instead, we look for information, which we convert into meaning.

That was as good a job as I’ve done this semester of stirring the pot and provoking discussion, and it turned into a really good, energizing lesson. Now to figure out how to do more stuff like that.

Not Quite the End Yet

Last week, I taught the last classes I’ll ever teach at West Point, and this morning I enjoyed my final teacherly interaction with West Point cadets in administering a term-end examination. It’s bittersweet: cadets, for the most part, are awesome, and I’ll miss them, and I’m also moving on to a position elsewhere that I couldn’t be happier about. (More on that soon.) Tonight, though, I’m in a terrible little hotel room (the price was what I could afford, and my good luck from conferences past seems to have borne karmic consequences) in Raleigh, North Carolina, getting ready for a presentation tomorrow at the 2012 Computers and Writing conference, and using my Army computer to finish up the immediate grading requirements for that examination I administered this morning. (The Army computer uses a secure VPN client to access the grading system on West Point’s closed network, whereas the iPad I brought along for the sake of convenience and non-secure personal internet stuff like blogging and Twitter.) So I’m at an academic conference, thinking about the end of my (second) association with the Army, thinking about the technologies I use for teaching at a military institution and the technologies I use for scholarship, and the sometimes odd intersections (or lack thereof) between the two. And that makes me think about the intersections between the military careers that the cadets I taught will go into and what they might or might not take from their four-year experience at West Point. And so while that’s all well and good and a little bit too serious, I’ll also point out that when I walked into the one of the exam rooms this morning and told the remaining cadets they had five minutes left, one of them started whistling the synthesizer lead to Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”

So I’m hoping I’ve left a good impression on most of them. I know there were some who couldn’t stand me or the classes I taught — with across-the-board required courses like FYC and Advanced Composition, I suspect that at least a few of you, my colleagues and peers and friends, encounter the occasional angry or resistant student — and that’s fine. It’s not like teaching is a popularity contest. (Although I wonder what would have happened if I had walked into class wearing a crown and a blue satin sash that said “MR. CONGENIALITY” in glittery silver letters. Too late now.) But some seemed to respond well, especially in the writing- and technology-intensive FYC course I co-piloted last semester, which produced some of the most positive end-of-semester anonymous course evaluations I’ve ever received, not to mention a Pearson correlation between total words written for their daily writing assignment and performance on the final exam of 0.246 (hat tip to the co-pilot, there) with a P-value of 0.006, suggesting a confident rejection of the null hypothesis and a positive relationship between practice and performance, and enthusiastic endorsements of the pedagogical applications of technologies like 750words.com and the Eli online peer review application. Students seemed to like the stuff we did that had empirically verifiable (and blind-graded by faculty other than my co-pilot and me) positive effects on how they developed as writers.

But some folks it’s harder to reach, and I wondered about that at the end of this semester, as well, and where to place the fault or the blame. We have that commonplace about how teaching is rhetorical and one has to persuade students to want to learn, even in a military environment, where the ultimate act of insubordination that would seem to exist beyond any form of hegemonic domination or punishment would be the refusal to learn: if West Point endorses (and it does) academic freedom, then part of that freedom has to be the freedom to say, “No, I prefer not to learn.” Doesn’t it? (What’s the difference between learning and indoctrination, aside from degrees of gentleness?) A lot of the cadets I’ve had the privilege of working with at West Point have had an incredibly well-developed and confident sense of self — and while that’s a great asset for an officer and a soldier, I think it can get in the way of good education. Good education involves doubt. It involves questioning. And some of these essays that I’m grading tonight — the last cadet essays I’ll ever grade — don’t doubt or question enough. They’re far too confident in the positions they assert, and that’s what makes some of them fail, even as I admit that such confidence is what my current (not for very much longer, Magenta says) institution tries to instill.

I was going to pick up that thread about multiple technological systems and attempt to tie it to Liam Corley’s recent College English piece about veterans, but I think I’ll let that wait for another entry. It’s late, and I’ve had a long day.

In Logar Province, 2 May

The first officer with whom I shared an office (interesting intersection there: officer and office, one holding the other) when I arrived here at West Point was the irrepressible Major (MAJ) S.B., who continues to be a dear friend even though she’s since moved on to other assignments. (She was the one who — all the way from Afghanistan — put me in touch with Lieutenant General Caldwell for the Kairos special issue.) MAJ S.B. has an ear for the wry twist on the military cliché, and I’ve heard her suggest that one “Move out and draw fire” as a way of endorsing a decision to voice a possibly unpopular opinion in a meeting, and ask a cadet if he needs to “Take a knee and drink water” after performing particularly poorly on an assignment. I tried to respond with my own wry or semi-ironic twists on popular clichés about teaching, often noting each day as I left the office for class that I was headed off to “touch some lives,” with the implicit suggestion of a critique of the missionary-pedagogical impulse we sometimes hear voiced in composition studies and in the popular rhetoric around teachers. (Think Mr. Keating and the unfortunate implications of that well-intended representation of the figure of the teacher.) But that’s the thing, maybe: despite the misgivings I’ve voiced in my last two posts about the institutional obstacles to good teaching, good learning, and good writing that I feel I’ve encountered here (and, yes, I do feel they still manifest their presence here, and they are uniquely institutional in nature), the most rewarding part about working at West Point has been the teaching and the everyday lived experience of those clichés of “making a difference” and “touching lives.” I’ve done some good, I think, and much of that good has been owed to the cadets with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.

I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to mentor cadets on how to approach the essays they write as a component of their applications for Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, and in numbers of scholarships won, West Point has most often trailed behind only Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and sometimes Columbia. I’ve helped contribute to that success, but perhaps that’s less of a way of touching lives than it is of being touched by cadet success. I’ve had a cadet ask me to speak at his commissioning ceremony, where he made the official transition from student to officer, and that felt good.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the other side of the work I’ve done here. I got word that a student I taught in my fall 2007 EN101 composition course had been killed on May 2 in Afghanistan by an IED.

When I got that news, I went back to my files and looked over what he’d written to me, and last night, I struggled to write a letter to his parents about how I remembered him.

He came to my course straight out of cadet basic training with the typical tendency toward being tentative that such an experience engenders: after one’s been tested and punished for two months for doing things wrong, there can often be some hesitation to venture any sort of answer or response. But he warmed up, little by little. He came to meet with me in my office. He sent me emails about wanting to do some creative writing, to write stories and poems and character sketches. He told me he did his best writing alone, away from others and away from distractions, and he liked to do a lot of it at once. He was quiet, thoughtful, sometimes a little shy and eager to deflect attention away from himself, but always smart and committed and more than anything else, sincere. Later in the semester, he told me that he had learned “the value of weighing the strength of my opponents’ arguments against my own,” suggesting an intellectual maturation that tried to bridge differences and see perspectives other than his own rather than dismissing them. I didn’t see much of him after that first semester in EN101, but he was always deeply respectful and earnest. In that first semester, he had a somewhat hesitant smile accompanied by a momentary downward flicker of his eyes — a gesture that said to me, “Hang on just a minute, sir; let me think this through” — that set him apart from some of his plebe classmates. Still, as I would see him in the halls in later years, he would develop a confidence and an ease that also set him apart, but it seemed to me a wary ease, a way that he was always taking things in and paying careful attention to what was happening around him. He graduated less than a year ago in May 2011.

My misgivings about the notion of “touching lives” have to do with the ways that they place the emphasis on the role of the teacher. To my mind, having taught here, even a lousy day in the classroom is almost always going to be better than a day not in the classroom: that’s why I do this. But the teacherly experience goes in the other direction, as well. We need to keep in mind the ways we’re shaped and affected by students. To, sometimes, remember.

Beltane

Today is May Day, the workers’ holiday and the Beltane counterpart to my own birthday, Samhain, and Tink and Zeugma’s birthday. They had tuna and catnip and are sleeping off their indulgence, my two nine-year-old girls whose attention has seen me through the estate lawsuits following my mom’s death, my dissertation completion and defense, my first academic job, my first and last military deployment, my year-long engagement and the first four months of my marriage to my wife, the Orientalist. We’ve talked some about the impulse toward orientalism — toward the alienation of difference — in the productive work that West Point asks cadets to perform in thinking and writing about other cultures.

I’m thinking tonight about work, about time, about value. I’ve recently critiqued what I’ve seen as the limitations of the current-traditionalist pedagogy that I’ve tried to revise and move forward, while trying to acknowledge at the same time the strengths I see in the faculty and in the students, who — more than anything else — carry this institution. The biggest difficulty I see, and one of the reasons I think I’ve been unsuccessful, is the perspective here that orients us toward seeing value only in the reified text-as-object. The work of writing (and the work of grading that writing) is to be deplored and ignored here: what matters is the texts-as-objects that students read and the texts-as-objects that students turn in. These texts-as-objects are largely imagined as timeless and beyond intervention: they exist to be assessed and praised and discussed and passed or failed, but are almost never imagined as nascent or possible. We imagine texts here as almost always existing in the perfect tense. As complete. Literary texts are beyond intervention, and are never imagined as under revision or composition.

I remember here a missed opportunity: I went up to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt museum in Hyde Park one rainy day, and saw the series of drafts — four different versions — of that famous speech about attention and value and recession-era economics into which the phrase “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” did not make its way until the final draft. I asked for access to the originals in the FDR library and made copies, intending to show them to my students as evidence, or to ask them to further revise FDR’s speech. The lesson never happened; a casualty of the semester’s obligations. And yet there are so many opportunities here to help students become a part of the Army’s ongoing aggregation and revision of texts, not the least of which seems to me to be the wikified Request For Comment on volumes upon volumes of Army Field Manuals and doctrine. What better real-world exercise, with real and enduring payoff to the Army, could one want? It’s even got its own self-contained assessment measure: what changes made by cadets might make it into the final published version?

I doubt such work would be valued here, though: too close to the real world, and too close to the writing cadets might actually do. It might make a difference, and that would be a problem, because there’s a pedagogy here that insists on its own preservation in a sort of harmless ahistorical amber. The Department will not soon produce anything rivaling the bionic foot that cadet engineers are working on developing for veterans: textual work here is consistently about understanding and appreciation, rather than production. (I’ve lately seen some impulses, incompletely theorized and executed, toward productive textual work that might properly be in the domain of MFAs in creative writing and related disciplines, if such expertise were respected here.) How does the work of writing get done here, on holidays or other days, with or without cats or friends or wives to whom we might read it as we work through it?

I’ve done some time-use studies. With a colleague, I’ve done some correlation studies. But for the most part, we don’t know, and I think we don’t really care to know.

Thoughts on Leaving

I’m leaving this place, bound for another gig that is in many ways my academic dream job come fall 2012, and thinking about what I have and haven’t done here. What have I done? I think I’ve been an insistent voice for recognizing how complex and challenging it is to teach writing, although despite (and perhaps often because of) my insistence, I haven’t always been good at asking people to listen to what I’ve been saying. What haven’t I done? Despite the enormous efforts of other people who I’ve worked with and who’ve preceded me here, smarter and more hard-working than me, and despite what I’ve tried to add to those efforts, I don’t think the understanding or acceptance of writing instruction has changed much here. I get the sense that EN101 Composition is still viewed as an unpleasant slog by many instructors, and still viewed as make-work and drudgery for the students who are too uninspired to appreciate great literature and the instructors who are too dim to teach great literature. I get the sense that writing instruction is still viewed primarily as a matter of didactics in mechanics, as a way of noting those students who are deficient and remedying enough of their deficiencies  that they don’t excessively embarrass themselves, and beyond that as a set of classroom discussions designed to excite students enough about great ideas in great texts that they’ll write something sufficiently interesting that the instructors can look pass the errors and infelicities in that next pile of 60-some papers waiting to be graded. That’s the felt sense I’ve found myself kicking against here, at first in puzzlement and then in concern and frustration and finally in resignation, and almost always too vigorously to help myself gain allies.

We don’t teach the writing process here. We don’t even know what it is. We attend to product, product, product. The required sequence of assignments sets up stacks after stacks of essays to grade, leaving us relentlessly bleary-eyed in commenting and wondering time after time why students wait until the night before they’re due to write them. I think that maybe, just maybe, I might have gotten one or two people to listen to the arguments I’ve taken up from other composition scholars that it’s foolish and entirely counterproductive to fold together feedback on substantive and organizational issues with feedback on style and grammar and punctuation and mechanics: why comment on the latter if the former is going to change anyway? That’s not how professionals write, that’s not how scholars write, but plenty of instructors seem to imagine for the sake of pedagogical expediency that the two can magically be wrapped up into one. If I’ve convinced one or two people to separate substantive review from editing, that’s a victory, and one that I hope might stick. But the habit of writing? I can count on one hand the instructors I’ve met here who are interested or engaged in the regular habit of writing. Most of them are civilians and publishing scholars. For all of the Army’s advocacy for training and for the ways that repeated practice gets one better at something, I continue to be surprised by the apparent belief that daily practice in the work of the primary focus of the composition course is irrelevant to student success — and then, again, instructors are surprised when students wait until the night or the day before an essay is due to write it, and assign and reward quizzes and discussion participation and everything but regular writing.

Part of the reluctance to assign regular writing is the mindset that everything assigned must be graded and evaluated by the instructor. If it’s not graded and evaluated by the instructor, it’s not worth doing, and of course the students catch on to that mindset very quickly, and so they don’t take seriously any activity that doesn’t have a grade attached to it, especially in an environment where there are such considerable burdens on their time. As a result, we get students who don’t exert themselves unless they know someone’s evaluating them. I’m not sure if this is the environment that produces or is produced by the institutional urge toward capital-I Inspiration, but there’s a relationship there between the sometimes corner-cutting spirit of “cooperate and graduate” or “get along to go along” and the idea that our students require incredibly and extraordinarily motivating examples in order to persuade them to want to succeed at the very highest levels. Most of us understand — in ways that students sometimes do not — that performing well is not so much a matter of being brilliant or fearless in that crucial moment as it is a matter of trying to do the good, right thing day after day. A lot of the time, the pedagogy here doesn’t reflect that understanding, which strikes me as deeply strange, because a useful pedagogy of officership — one would think — would be one that turns away from bravura performances and offering models and privileging the “best that has been thought and said” and toward an ethic of doing the right and good thing every day. We don’t do that here, and we don’t do it because of the institutional structures we’ve set up. We reward doing the (sort of) right and good thing on lessons 7, 18, 27, 36, and on the Term-End Examination.

It’s clear that I write this partly in frustration: I love this place, I love the commitment of the students, and I love the commitment of my colleagues. I’ll be sad to leave. But the frustration comes from seeing adherence to tradition working against not only the overwhelming body of peer-reviewed scholarly evidence supporting best practices in writing instruction, but also against fundamental pedagogical common sense. I wish I’d been able to make more of a difference, and I wish I’d figured out ways to have been more persuasive. I wasn’t and I didn’t, and I’ll leave this place feeling that in large part I failed at what I was hired to do.