Category Archives: Writing

Seeking Feedback on an Algorithmic Poem

I’m working on a presentation and would welcome some help. I wrote a poem, and am well aware that it’s a bad poem in any number of ways. I’m OK with that.

Here’s the help I would like: please look for a single line that interests you. It can be a line that’s terrible, a line that you like, a line that does something you find engaging or stupid or funny or terrible or exciting in whatever way.

Find all the stanzas in which that line occurs. In comments, enumerate the stanzas in which the line occurs. (For example: I, II, IV.)

Don’t tell me what the line is: I’ll actually tell you what the line is in response to your comment. (Yes, in this way, I’m asking you to help me perform an online parlor trick, with a poem.)

I’ll tell you more about this once I figure out if it works, but here’s the short version: poems can be computers. Help me out? Poem follows.

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The Forensic Imagination and the Commodification of Process

In his discussion of William Gibson’s Agrippa, Kirschenbaum notes that “while the title _Agrippa’s_ immediate referent is to a brand of photograph albums, it also hearkens back to Renaissance mage Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim” (230), and while the reference is appropriate, it apparently overlooks what I believe is a much more relevant reference: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and his son Agrippa Postumus, so named because he was born after the death of his father. Agrippa the senior was elaborately memorialized by Augustus, while Agrippa Postumus was executed following the death of Augustus, and his step-father Tiberius became emperor. These figures seem much more closely connected to the subjects of Gibson’s ephemeral poem in their representation of father-and-son relationships and in their relation to memorialization.

But perhaps such contestation is part of the point Kirschenbaum makes: a reading is always only ever a reading, informed as much by the reader’s material and social and historical contexts that she brings to the reading as by the forensically unique allographic textual artifact itself. On page 185, Kirschenbaum uses a screenshot of multiple windows running different electronic versions of Michael Joyce’s _Afternoon_ to demonstrate how digital texts are not purely virtual, and so shows us what revision means, in its re-use, re-reading, and re-attending to a text from a position located within and conscious of a particular material context. Revision is always situated in a kairotic moment. In Kirschenbaum’s words, “formal materiality. . . serves to fetishize via the computational distance (or torque, or simply effort) necessary to. . . access certain objects in certain ways. In my own case, the first time I successfully opened a first edition of _Afternoon_, I was exquisitely self-conscious of something very much like bibliophilia, precisely because I had to couple the file itself with the right Macintosh operating system and the right version of Storyspace, thereby imposing a formal regimen on the binary object that was _Afternoon_, which then led it to execute, consume system resources, and ultimately present itself for my inspection and manipulation. This kind of access and recovery will, I suspect, ultimately prove more enduring th[a]n a collector or connoisseur’s sensibility, which seeks to acquire and possess” (186). If formal materiality is effort or work, Kirschenbaum’s example also demonstrates that it can be pleasure, as well. It’s both the process and the kairotic/phenomenological moment of the experience of a text that remediates it and reforms/performs/deforms it within a specific material context, to and from which there are specific material and textual inputs and outputs that negotiate between different levels of textual, social, and technological systems. In other words, the process Kirschenbaum describes is economic: value and labor are circulating, and in texts just as in computers, “[v]ersioning. . . exposes the cumulative labor that attends a piece of software” (202). The process is an instance and an example of the economic aggregation problem, by which we cannot measure all the inputs and outputs of any economic activity.

This is what happens, then, “whenever process collapses into product” (Kirschenbaum 253): the forensic imagination takes the meaning of a text as its material form and that form then takes on secondary meaning and value in its aestheticization and commodification. Such a move is also performed by the corpus of composition pedagogy (in its theorized condition) does.

Courseblogging Machine and Meaning

After a summer of upheaval, I’m starting to get settled into the new gig. I’m excited about both courses I’m teaching, and I’m keeping a courseblog with my students for one of them, an undergraduate elective (DTC 356) titled “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” It’s interesting: I get to look again at material and concepts I’ve become pretty familiar with in the past 10 years or so, stuff I have some ostensible expertise on and that I’ve been thinking about for a while and that I know other scholars in the field have considerable familiarity with, and yet this is the first chance I’ve had to teach a course like this — and so my courseblogging feels like a weird mix of old material, new insights, and responses to re-framings I hadn’t considered before. That’s a good thing, and I’ll post now (and continue to cross-post) some of my entries for the course, as a way to continue getting settled into the routine of the new gig. Plus I’ve got about eight billion thoughts about the big thing I’m working on that I want to share, and there are only tiny corners of it here, but that’s OK: there’s time.

So in thinking about recent applications of the Labor Theory of Value to the so-called information economy, one of the questions I posed to the students in DTC 356 was: how much of a role does effort play in how we interact with digital technologies? (Cross-posting begins here; longtime followers of this blog will notice the change in intended audience in relative degrees of explicitness.) In one DTC356 blog post, a student wrote,

When I think of a world without the social media and technology we have now, I imagine a world that was connected in only a few ways instead of a million ways (twitter, facebook, blogging, etc.) to communicate with each other. Could you imagine having to listen intently to clicks or beats? Technology would not have ever advanced as far as it has today if it weren’t for these signals, tones, and phrases that began centuries ago.

The point about “having to listen intently” is important, because of the ways digital technologies seem to make communicating information so easy. Brown and Duguid talk about “the conduit metaphor” and how “[b]asic ideas of sending and receiving make digitization, for example, seem easy. You distill the information out of book or articles and leave the paper residue behind” (184). The problem is, though, that there are other important aspects of the act of communication that we often ignore: as Brown and Duguid go on to point out, “[i]t’s not pure information alone, but the way the information was produced that supports interpretation” (185). This is what Lessig is getting at in his discussions of the borrowings of Steamboat Bill, Jr. and doujinshi, and what we were getting at in our discussion of cover songs and Girl Talk: so much of information is context. You don’t fully appreciate a cover version of a song unless you’ve heard the original (think about the 33,000+ covers of Gershwin’s “Summertime”), and part of the reason that Disney movies resonate so much (as Lessig suggests) is that they’re built on stories that our culture knows really, really well; stories that resonate with us. (Why so many Batman and Spider-Man movies, right?) So there’s this ideal that we have of some sort of pure, easily transmitted information — just a few 1s and 0s to decode, and if you know about logarithms and exponents, you can derive meanings from tables of numbers that others might not be able to see — but that ideal isn’t actually the way things work.

Information transmission isn’t, in fact, efficient. That’s the point of the story about talking drums (“allocate extra bits for disambiguation and error correction” [Gleick 25]) and the story about Clytemnestra receiving word of the fall of Troy 400 miles away in Mycenae: “To transmit this one bit required immense planning, labor, watchfulness, and firewood” (Gleick 16-17). Transmitting information is expensive, in terms of labor and in terms of capital — and in an information economy, context is kind of like capital. (Actually, in terms of the factors of production described by the old political economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx, context is probably more similar to land than to capital.) One student asks, “Could you imagine having to listen intently to clicks or beats?” and of course that’s what we all do, all the time.

That’s also what computers do with 1s and 0s (true and false, high and low, fire or no fire). Computers use logic gates with transistors designed to let current through in certain ways and control other transistors, so that combinations of transistors with combinations of current going on or off through them according to how they’re designed to work in conjunction with each other — to signal AND, OR, or NOT, as well as more complex combinations like NAND, NOR, XOR, and XNOR — build up, store, and manipulate more complex numbers out of simple 1s and 0s. And because information-as-capital builds upon itself, computers have been able to get increasingly complex while their prices have dropped. Context builds on itself, and technology is a part of context. As Lessig points out, there was once a “distinction that the law no longer takes care to draw — the distinction between republishing someone’s work on the one hand and building upon or transforming that work on the other. . . Before the technologies of the Internet, . . . [t]he technologies of publishing were expensive; that meant the vast majority of publishing was commercial. Commercial entities could bear the burden of the law. . . It was just one more expense of doing business” (19). Now, though, because our technological context has become increasingly complex and avaiable to all, we’re all increasinly bearing that “burden of the law” and having to figure out how to revise our own social, legal, and political contexts to account for that increased complexity. Doing so requires not only attention to the alphabet and syntax and orthography and grammar of these 1s and 0s but also to the rhetoric: in moving from the high and low tones of the drums and the morse code of the battleship’s signal lamp to the mashup video of “Oh No” (if there had been a clip of Michelle Obama dancing to “Teach me how to Dougie” in that video, would it have been in the public domain?), we need to think about a rhetoric of remix wherein inventio is the current and the initiating spark, dispositio is the linking of gate to gate, elocutio is the purposing of the gates themselves whether NAND or NOR, memoria is the storage of what those gates arrange to produce, and pronuntatio is the moment of its transmission: the interface between machine and meaning.

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.

Production Narratives

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking toward a car with someone in the field and mentioned the pleasure I’d taken in being a part of the production process that helped move her article from acceptance toward publication. It was a cool, damp, overcast afternoon, and we talked about the production process: how we correspond with authors, the various checks and edits that get made once a piece is accepted for publication, and the real-life material contexts in which that work gets done. Academic buildings crowded bare trees behind us, and in front of us a hill sloped down with roads and paths to a narrow river. Our conversation took place among meetings and introductions and arrivals and conversations and meals, the recounting of the enjoyment of the work of production taking place in its own situated material contexts.

Here’s a portion of the story I told in that conversation: two summers ago, I was on a road trip; the Orientalist and I traveling by car from New York to Michigan to Pittsburgh to Delaware to the Assateague National Seashore for a wedding, and then back up to New York. I had academic work to do, and brought along my laptop, an AC inverter to power the laptop from the car, and an old iPhone 3 that I’d jailbroken to broadcast its cellular data connection as a wireless hotspot. I was doing editorial work at 65 miles per hour, uploading and downloading draft files and making changes and asking via email for specific corrections and adjustments, and at one point, I found myself finishing up the edits by evening lamplight and firelight on a picnic table at the Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Delaware, just outside the tent we’d set up, within peaceful earshot of the Atlantic surf. That was the pleasant memory of the production process that I shared on that cool, damp, overcast afternoon, two years later and thousands of miles away.

Both of those stories — the conversation and its internal flashback — are production narratives. They’re reflective stories about how texts (and the material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor that permit and constitute and shape them) get produced. I like production narratives, and I use them in my teaching: for every major assignment students turn in, I ask them to write a reflection about those material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor. For them, it’s actually a somewhat familiar genre, especially when I ask them to make the self-aware turn toward metacognition: as Kathi Yancey’s wonderful book and other studies have convincingly demonstrated, metacognition promotes knowledge transfer, and the Army makes use of that positive relationship in its systematic use of After-Action Reviews, or AARs. The cadets have all done AARs and know how they work and use AARs to refine and improve their process as well as to make what they’ve learned stick, so I sell the reflective production narrative to them as a form of AAR.

Beyond fulfilling those purposes of knowledge transfer, though, I think Kairos also points out in compelling ways how production narratives function as scholarship. The Inventio section is one of my favorite sections of the journal (well, in addition to the one that I’ve recently been promoted to editing — thanks, Cheryl and Doug!) because of cool, smart, charming webtexts like Susan Delagrange’s “When Revision is Redesign” and Daniel Anderson’s “Watch the Bubble” and the ways they demonstrate the pleasures of the text in demonstrating, analyzing, and performing how scholarship gets produced. Kairos describes the section as “focus[ing] on the decisions, contexts, and contributions that have constituted a particular webtext. Inventio authors include, alongside or integrated with their finished webtexts, materials that help them articulate how and why their work came into being.” Again: critical, reflective production narratives. But I’ve also started to see my own scholarship turning in that direction as well: I’ve recently sent off an extended economic analysis of how the Army’s plagiarized field manual was produced that attempted to account for the material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor that demanded and constituted and shaped that significant piece of doctrine, and I’ve got articles in the works that perform a sort of time-use study of the production of other pieces of scholarship, as well, and the Orientalist and I are starting to work on a study that attempts to account for the relationship between faculty time, scholarship, teaching, and student time in quantitative terms. So, yes, again: critical, reflective production narratives about how scholarship gets produced and — at a more abstract level — how education gets produced.

I’m a little uneasy, though, about the quantitative focus of that last study I described, because I think it departs from my particular economic focus on the fundamental purpose of what production narratives do. Production narratives are a way of paying attention to and making qualitative sense of the work and experience of composing and producing. They’re texts that operate on other texts, including ourselves, because information is an experience good. Experience goods are not always going to be quantitatively commensurable, and this fact is what I think constitutes the mistake Victor Villanueva makes when he declares that economic analysis requires mathematics and numbers, and more seriously the fundamental and crippling flaw to Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention. The process of production and the attention that accompanies that process are both activities that transform and aggregate; as such, they respond poorly to zero-sum quantitative economic analysis. If we’re paying attention to the value of composing and how it happens, we’re talking about information that is qualitative at its core. That’s part of what makes production narratives so appealing as irreducible experience goods.

Who Sells Writing?

Most of the plagiarized essays available at the online term paper mills are terrible. The free ones I’ve seen are largely incoherent or semi-coherent patches of writing recycled for high school writing assignments so obvious they’re kind of embarrassing. I haven’t seen all that many of the for-hire ones, but the excerpted samples available at some of the sites and the experiments I’ve seen from some of those investigating online plagiarism mostly point toward a consensus that the canned essays students sometimes pay for with a credit card aren’t much better than the free ones. What’s left are the custom for-pay papers, and the prices for those are pretty high. I would imagine the quality is better than that of the canned papers, and I’m sure the for-hire term paper artists are pretty good, but I have to wonder if the trade-off in cash versus time is really worth it: for a custom paper, the going rate seems to start at around $20 per page and go up steeply. So a three-page paper will put you out at least sixty bucks.

Most students don’t make more than $10 an hour, if they work. Is a three-page paper worth six hours of your time? It depends on the student, I’m pretty sure. I don’t think working students are the ones paying $60 for a three-page paper: if they’re working and going to college, there’s a sort of value equation there that would lead most of them, I would think, to sit in front of the keyboard and do whatever one can to get the work of writing done. That work might be lackadaisical or slapdash, but from what I’ve seen, they mostly do it. (It should be clear at this point that I’m not talking about cadets, who are not permitted to hold paid employment, and who are so overscheduled as to be completely incapable of doing so. They’ve got other pressing concerns.) So if you see a good paper from a student, and it’s a plagiarized paper exchanged in a market transaction, I’d bet there’s a good chance that student isn’t a working student.

There’s a reason for that, and it has to do with how markets work differently for different people. In “The Subject and Object of Commodification,” the Introduction to the Ertman and Williams collection Rethinking Commodification (NYU Press, 2005), Margaret Jane Rabin and Madhavi Sunder call into question

the economic neutrality of markets. Markets affect the rich and poor differently. The poor are more likely to be the sellers, and the rich, the buyers, of questionable commodities such as sexual services or body parts. Unequal distributions of wealth make the poorest in society, with little to offer in the marketplace, more likely to commodify themselves. (11)

The immaterial labor of education, and of writing, is self-work, and written products are often close to the self, even if they aren’t the gushing public exposure of self that compositionists too often misrepresent as what we call expressive writing. Writing is work, and it’s hard, and that work that we and our students do carries portions of our selves. (Poststructuralist objections and pointed remarks about the illusory nature of the unified subject noted, and I’m mostly in agreement. Randall Freisinger’s perspective in the Peter Elbow Landmark Essays volume on voice stands as required reading for those who raise such objections.) In higher education, students who are sufficiently privileged not to have to exchange their labor for a wage enjoy the relative privilege of being able to at least partially appropriate the value of their own self-work: they get to write their own papers, and in writing their own papers, they are turning that labor of writing into the capital of skill at writing, as well as exchanging their papers-as-commodities in return for the good grade that will presumably contribute to the furthering of their careers.

The ultra-privileged students who don’t need to work and who have the resources to pay for custom-written papers are also exempted from the need to turn any labor into capital, because any shortcomings they might have in human capital (the ability to write well, for example) are compensated for by the advantage their financial capital will give them after college. Who remains, then? The poor. And as Rabin and Sunder note, the poor are more likely to commodify themselves, and are also more likely to have experienced the educational advantages familiar to those with more wealth. In other words, the reason that so many canned for-hire term papers — and even some of the products of the custom term paper services — are so lousy is that they’re an instance of how market economies treat different classes of people in different ways. Poor people, who are more likely to have had poor experiences in the educational system, are more likely to be the ones who try to commodify their educational experiences by selling their term papers.

Commodification and Time

I boasted yesterday that I “work the hell out of the clock.” It’s true: I do. But I’m having second thoughts about that boast. Is it a good thing to “work the hell out of the clock,” either in class or out of class?

I think it’s important, certainly, to respect classroom time and student time, and to do so by planning well, which means planning at once precisely and flexibly. My first-year composition course has an arc marked by graded events, and sequences of lessons that lead up to those graded events, and I plan those sequences themselves both at the small scale and the grand scale while at the same time allowing enough space for things to shift right or left on the calendar as they need to. I’m one of those teachers who always overplans his classes, always having ready to go more than we’ll have time to do. At the same time, I’m also one of those teachers who always cuts himself short, insisting that students have their minimum of 20 minutes each class to write what I ask them to write. Respect the time.

That’s something that not enough people here say, or maybe that not enough people here do, cadets and faculty alike. We abuse time on either side, teachers assigning cadets too much to do, cadets at all levels giving themselves too much to do, to the point where the plebes (who are still earnest, still eager to succeed at everything) in class nod like those mechanical water-sipping birds, because they’ve tried to complete all the tasks set upon them, rather than realizing (as upperclassmen do) that there are some tasks at which they will fail.

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Clocks

Here’s one way to start a rumination on the uses of classroom time in teaching writing: at West Point, classes are 55 minutes long, and I work the hell out of the clock. The section marcher renders the report at the :00 second mark, and we go until I dismiss students, usually no earlier than about 54 minutes and 50 seconds after that :00 second mark, and certainly no later than the 55:00. Our class time is precious and I plan it well, including incorporating at least 20 unbroken minutes (and often more) for students to write during every lesson. Students’ time outside of class is equally precious: West Point cadets are overscheduled, and one of the essential things I can do for a plebe is to respect the time he or she spends beyond my classroom. I do so scrupulously.

Here’s another way to start a rumination about time: I’m turning 42 in a little over two months, and while I’m thinking about time and economy, it seems appropriate to note that in 1748, a 42-year-old Benjamin Franklin wrote in “Advice to a Young Tradesman” that his “friend, A. B.” should “[r]emember, that time is money.” I never liked that saying. Taken as a component of the broader argument of the “Advice” piece, the statement makes sense, but I don’t like the way it categorically commodifies the dimension across and within which we all live our lives. Time is money? Well, yes, it can be. Time is theft? Sure, if you do it right and avoid your workplace internet filters. Time is a gift? Certainly, if you’ve lost a loved one to an illness.

Time is context. In 1748, Franklin was writing in the context of what was still a largely mercantile and manual-labor economy. Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Raymond Williams argues that the broad cultural changes associated with the industrial revolution started around 1780. Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville was executed in 1793, but his treatise The Commerce of America with Europe (translated and published in English in 1795) declared that

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Inverting the Classroom Model

I haven’t had much to say here lately because I’ve been doing a lot since my return (in June) from Afghanistan. In terms of teaching, I’ve sought and received permission to pilot what I think is a unique and forward-looking (for West Point) variant of our first-year composition course, and that variant has been underway since 16 August. A colleague and I saw two qualities that we considered characteristic challenges associated with the traditional ways writing plebes write at West Point, and — with permission from our leadership — have designed a first-year composition course that attempts to respond to those challenges.

The first challenge: I believe that it’s too easy to allow the classroom work associated with composition courses to focus on activities other than writing. I’ve been in many composition classes here and at other institutions where the students discuss readings and approaches and the teachers facilitate work and manage discussion and sometimes stand at the front of the classroom and show students things. Compositionists know and agree and emphasize that the work of the writing class is writing, and yet — in many classes — students simply don’t produce much text, largely because of the way we apportion the work of the course. Too often, we’ll ask them to perhaps start working on their essay assignments in a class or two, and then to complete that writing for homework and bring it in the following lesson in the form of a draft essay, and too often they’ll come in with only a page or a paragraph or two that they dashed off in 15 minutes. There’s a whole complex of related problems associated with that mode of instruction: instructors think they are responsible in some way for “delivering” or “covering” what they envision as course content, and so they attempt to describe or demonstrate to students what an effective introductory paragraph looks like, or review the passages in the book that discuss effective transitional expressions, or talk with their students about what the author to whom the students have been asked to respond in their essays might have really meant, in order to help the students engage with that author more insightfully. I don’t believe such activities do much to help students become better writers.

The second challenge: the classroom work associated with many writing courses uses tools and modes of work dedicated to producing texts that look like they should be printed in a single, unified format on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, even if those sheets of paper are never physically turned in. In other words, and as many scholars in the field of computers and writing have lately been pointing out, we dedicate ourselves to preserving a unitary genre and document model that is no longer the world’s dominant mode of textual production. In mummifying and fetishizing this model, we turn our students’ attention away from the many other ways that texts get produced: we privilege the thing itself, the dead thing, instead of attending to the textual practices and ways of writing (the verb, not the noun) that will help students improve as writers. We need to help our students gain the critical approaches and skills in using the tools, techniques, genres, and modes that will help them adapt to diverse and changing writing situations and produce texts appropriate to those situations, whatever those situations may be.

In response to those two challenges, my colleague and I have designed a first-year composition course that (1) inverts the usual classroom workload and (2) asks students to use an array of digital tools, media, and technologies to respond to that inverted workload.

We’ve inverted the classroom workload by moving the work of writing into the classroom, and moving the discussion and delivery of course-related material outside the classroom. In other words, our students write while they’re in class, and discuss and seek guidance from one another and from us when they’re outside of class. During every class session of the semester, we give students at least 20 minutes (and often longer) to write, using the site 750words.com to do so. Students who wish to pass the course with a C must write 750 words every lesson for 40 lessons: when they’re done with our course, this single requirement will result in C students having written 30,000 words. We encourage students to adapt, revise, and copy and paste those 750 daily words into their formal graded essay assignments and into their weblog writing. Furthermore, because that daily writing displaces some class time that might be ordinarily devoted to class discussion or delivery of course materials, we off-load the discussion as homework to be undertaken on the class weblog, to which students are also required to contribute. In that way, the discussion is shifted to an outside-of-class writing activity that the instructors moderate and manage and contribute to, while what would ordinarily be homework is shifted into the classroom. While we might have students show up to class not knowing what’s going on because they haven’t read the blog, we will never have students show up without something written, because their work will always be there on 750words.com. And we believe that simply doing the writing — that minimum of 30,000 words by semester’s end — will help them get better.

Additionally, we’re using sites like 750words.com (which encourages private writing) and our class weblog (which demands public writing) and zoho.com (which we use as our online collaboration tool for their more formal essay-assignment writing, but also serves as a cloud-based writing application) to get them to shift up and change the ways they write depending on the contexts and audiences and purposes for which they’re writing: in other words, the ways we ask them to use the digital tools associated with the course are also ways of training them to be agile, adaptable rhetors. Technology is context, and context is an inescapable component of the rhetorical situation, and to pretend that the 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper is the only delivery medium for student writing is to radically shortchange a student’s adaptability to a diverse range of rhetorical situations. If we help students write (and write a lot) in different ways and in different contexts for different media and different situations, we cannot do other than help them improve as writers.

That, at least, is my hope.