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.

What Is Digital Rhetoric? Part 3

I’ve been talking about what rhetoric means to me and about what digital rhetoric means to me. The subtext those posts has concerned the material effects of language use, with certain instances of language use itself very loosely defined as digital rhetoric. That too-loose definition begs the obvious question: if language use itself is digital rhetoric, then what’s the difference between rhetoric and digital rhetoric? In the introduction to My Mother Was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles characterizes “materiality” as “an emergent property created through dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and human intention” which therefore “marks a junction between physical reality and human intention” (3). That’s the distinction between our analog material lifeworld and our contingent immaterial persuasion-world I’ve been trying to draw. But rhetoric, aside from its distinctions and confusions with truth and coercion, can be analog as well as digital, embodied and experienced as well as symbolically and discontinuously represented. In fact, Hayles describes a perhaps reductive “binary opposition between embodiment and information” (3) that she’s grappled with in the past, and that’s the line I’m perhaps reductively following her in trying to draw. Digital rhetoric, in the useful ways that Richard Lanham points out — even as I disagree with him about the quantification of attention — abstracts. It calls our attention to the differences between the ways that, as Lanham points out, we look at things versus when we look through things.

Looking through the artifice of any text in order to become absorbed in the content or substance with which it concerns itself — in other words, being captivated or engrossed or carried away by how much a movie or book draws us into its world — is analog attentional experience. It’s a form of felt sense. We can’t untangle the emotions and thoughts and ideas from the experience. But as soon as we start splitting hairs, asking question, looking at how such books or movies or arguments are constructed, we’re using language and symbols to set up categories and sort things so we can subdivide and anatomize them into their individual bits and bytes and taggable sortable atomies of meaning. We’re abstracting away from embodiment and into information.

In 1987, I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University. My mother was a librarian. Years earlier, in primary school, she’d brought me home Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books from the library, and I’d been fascinated and engrossed by how I could make choices in a book that would change the outcome — and of course, as soon as the novelty wore off and I ran into an unhappy ending, I started reverse-engineering the books, looking to the back of the book to see which choices led where. Cheating. Looking at rather than through.

My favorite moment in Gide is from The Immoralist, when the narrator Michel says, “Nothing can be told of happiness save what leads up to it and what follows it. And now I have told you everything that led up to it.” He’s yanking us out of the story, saying, “Watch what happens next: this is where it all changes,” while at the same time plunging us right back into it.

On a trip to San Francisco, my mother and father visited with a family friend who let me play some version (I don’t recall well enough, except for the “get Lamp” and “maze of twisty little passages” bits) of Adventure on his computer. Then my family bought our first computer, an Atari 800, and I found Infocom text-adventure games like Suspended. They were absorptive in the sense that Charles Bernstein draws our attention to, through rather than at, until I stumbled across the bits of syntax that would throw the engine and then found out about the verbosity commands, and played with those for a bit. Fast-forward to 1987 again, and somebody in the yearbook office let me borrow the 3.25″ floppy with a sticker on it that said afternoon: a story. I slot it in, it ka-chunks like those old floppies did in those old Mac Pluses, and the title screen comes up with its reference to “a long the riverrun” and I knew that was something about Joyce. And then it says, “I try to recall winter,” and continues evocatively to the end of the first screen, which asks: “Do you want to hear about it?”

Of course I want to hear about it. I’m hooked, immediately. I’m absorbed. Looking through to the emotional experience of Peter and his son, of fractal trees, octopi, poetry, the skated surfaces of ice. And yet as soon as I click a term, or click yes, I’m thrown out again, looking at rather than through, asking myself — in that dorm room 25 years ago — what am I doing here? What comes next? Is this a game or a story or something else entirely? And most importantly: how does this new thing work?

I was hooked on the experience and on the analysis at once. I emailed Michael Joyce a couple times. He was gracious, encouraging, generous. I emailed Mark Bernstein at Eastgate Systems, who was publishing hypertext and also gracious and encouraging and generous, all these years ago, not really knowing what I was doing but knowing that I was paying attention to how to read at and through and that there was some sort of important distinction between the two, even if I couldn’t put it into words or express it adequately. The at of afternoon wasn’t explicitly concerned with truth, I know, but it was showing me how it did something new via the through, and that was true. The structure of afternoon in the way it called attention to itself — the through — was the opposite of coercive except in the way that it forced you to make choices and thereby abstract yourself from the analog embodied experience of literary reading unconcerned with truth except as represented in the at of the text.

My mother was a librarian who tried to bring me all the books she thought might add to or broaden my experience. There is my experience, before and after her death. The digital concerns itself with making use of the gaps in our analog experience.

What Is Digital Rhetoric? Part 2

In my last post, I tried to explore some preconditions of a possible definition of or metaphor for rhetoric: rhetoric’s tangential relation with truth as the counterpart to coercion and its negotiation between lived materiality and the contingency of the provisional truths we construct about that lived materiality. I also expressed some reservations  about what seemed  to me to be a possibly reductive identification of digital rhetoric as rhetoric plus computers.

I’ve been thinking some more about that, and I’ll push my definitional exploration of what digital rhetoric means to me (#DRCBlogCarnival) a little further here: one doesn’t need computers to do digital rhetoric. One doesn’t need punch cards or vaccum tubes or transistors or semiconductors or microprocessors or even Babbage’s steam-powered clockwork-mechanical analytical engine to do digital rhetoric. One could do digital rhetoric with smoke signals or drums, if one so chose. The thing about digital rhetoric is that it’s digital, in the most basic sense of the term: it’s the opposite of analog. It’s discontinuous, and that’s a vitally important distinction. The digital exists in discontinuous quanta of information, rather than in the continuous and therefore infinite gradations of the analog. In other words, the defining characteristic of the digital is that it has gaps, and therefore that it’s finite especially as its users employ it to reproduce analog phenomena, and so that it’s lossy and therefore efficient. The fact that the digital is discontinuous, that it has gaps (between the characters of an alphabet, between ones and zeroes, between the digits upon which we count out numerals), is what makes it both malleable and reproducible — and those are the most defining characteristics, I would argue, of the digital.

But those characteristics are also what identify the digital as unnatural, and therefore as belonging to the human-constructed world of contingency, rather than to what we think of as the truths of the material or natural world. Even natural phenomena that bear some resemblance to the digital in their apparent discontinuity — the rhythmic radiation beat of a pulsar from light years away that’s more accurate than the most acccurate human-constructed atomic clock, the lub-dub pulse of a heart in which we might want to hear something like the ones and zeroes or ons and offs of the digital — come from continuous analog motion, not from discrete digital solid-state alternation.  The lifeworld, the material world, is fundamentally analog. Human work with symbols is fundamentally digital, because it sorts and recombines discontinuous things.

(This also helps me figure out why I’m so excited and intrigued by yet resistant to the work Alex Reid is doing with object-oriented rhetoric that takes as its first assumption a flat ontology: if one is going to do the sort of Marxist-inflected materialist work I’m interested and that I’m trying to do here, that flat ontology doesn’t work. There are multiple types of things in the world, with different qualities and intentionalities and capacities. But I worry that in attempting to undertake this sort of materialist work, I’m simply reenacting a naïve form of old-school humanism. Not that, you know, there’s anything wrong with that.)

Here’s one final step further: human attention, as an aspect of our material lifeworld, is analog. It’s continuous. There are no individual atomies of attention. Attention varies in scope, duration, intensity; it’s sometimes shared, sometimes individual. Because it’s analog and continuous, it’s necessarily infinitely subdividable, and therefore infinite. There is no quantum of attention. And for that reason, even as the digital information we produce is finite (albeit enormous in quantity), lossy, reproducible, our attention is not, and that’s where I think Richard Lanham gets it wrong.  Attention is not scarce or zero-sum, but it is necessarily always incompletely expressible in our finite, lossy, manipulable digital human language of bits and bytes or smoke signals or drums or alphabets. So digital rhetoric, to me, means paying attention to that push and pull between the material and analog lifeworld and the informational and digital world of rhetoric, especially in the ways that the effects of one circulate into the other. Digital rhetoric means there’s always something not said, an icy surface skated over, something left behind: digital rhetoric as praeteritio.

#edcmooc

What Is Digital Rhetoric? Part 1

Paul Muhlhauser at the journal Harlot has challenged people to #DefineRhetoric, and Naomi Silver at the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative has asked people to consider possible responses to the question “What does digital rhetoric mean to me?” and begun a blog carnival (#DRCBlogCarnival) centered around that question. Plenty of smart folks have responded to both prompts, and such concerns have been on my mind lately as well as I plan out the 300-level course on “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information” that I’m teaching this fall. I like the way Doug Eyman’s response invokes the definition offered by Mary Hocks, who suggests that “digital rhetoric” as a term “describes a system of ongoing dialogue and negotiations among writers, audiences, and institutional contexts, but it focuses on the multiple modalities available for making meaning using new communication and information technologies” (632), but I feel like such a definition doesn’t quite go far enough in terms of specificity, but instead basically says that “digital rhetoric” is rhetoric (“a system of ongoing dialogue and negotiations among writers, audiences, and institutional contexts”) plus computers (“the multiple modalities available for making meaning using new communication and information technologies”). Eyman, of course, goes further and offers some specifying examples and points of clarification, but comes back to asserting that digital rhetoric is “most simply defined as the application of rhetorical theory (as analytic method or heuristic for production) to digital texts and performances”: again, that doesn’t go much beyond saying digital rhetoric = rhetoric + computers — which is fine, but I think there’s more to it than that.

So two questions, then:

    1. What do we mean by “rhetoric,” and what do we believe to be its proper domain and concern?
    2. What do we mean by “digital” beyond simply waving our hand at those computery things upon which we do things with texts, and is it possible to do digital rhetoric without vacuum tubes, punched cards, or transistors?

In responding to Muhlhauser’s posing of the first question, I’ll acknowledge the obvious starting point being Aristotle’s definition concerning the study of the available means of persuasion, but also point out that some of the definitions Harlot has looked at have explicitly or implicitly contrasted rhetoric to coercion, force, or violence. That goes back to the whole thing about the open hand and the closed fist: rhetoric is the open hand, whether it’s contrasted to the closed fist of coercion, force, or violence, or whether it (as elocutio) is contrasted to the closed fist of logic, reason, or philosophy (as ratio). That already gets me into troublesome territory, though, because it suggests that rhetoric has a vexed relationship with truth. It in some way takes truth as its concern, because if it didn’t, it would be either poetics (which explicitly deals with things that are known to be not true, or at least invented, crafted, artificed), lies, error, or bullshit (bullshit here taken in the sense of the College English article from a few years back, as being a statement that has no regard or interest in its connection to truth, whereas lying is an act that is very much concerned with what is true and what isn’t true). Certainly, some can and have made the case that rhetoric need not concern itself with truth, but if it doesn’t and therefore falls into one of those other categories, then that doesn’t strike me as a terribly interesting object of study. Rhetoric as error, lies, or bullshit is for the most part uninteresting to me. But rhetoric as something that stands in relation to truth even as it seems to swerve away from truth at the last moment, as it becomes something other than logic, reason, philosophy, or coercion — that’s interesting to me. So a metaphor: rhetoric is an act, a doing, a verb, a process of skating on the thin ice of persuasion that rests between the materiality of our everyday social lives and the dark and cold waters of contingency, even as that thin ice is constituted by the frozen, solidified, embodied aspects of that contingency.

I won’t get to that second question tonight. So that’s something for tomorrow.

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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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.

Economics and the Stultification of the Process Movement

Kristin Ross, in her Translator’s Introduction to Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, notes Rancière’s response to “Althusser’s need to deny the antiauthoritarian May [1968] revolt as it was happening in order to pretend later to ‘discover,’ through chance and solitary research. . . what the mass student action had already revealed to everyone–the function of the school of as an ideological apparatus of the state” (xvii-xviii). Such pretending serves a necessary purpose of deferral, in that “May ’68 was not the proper moment,” and such a position was “that of the educator–he who knows how to wait, how to guard his distance, how to take the time of theory” (xviii). That deferral or delay is something I’ve been trying to examine in the intersections of economics and composition, and more specifically in the intersections of composition’s process-based attention to work over time and the Marxian attention to labor performed over time and the aggregation and transformation and appropriation of its value. So it’s pedagogically interesting to me when Ross summarizes Rancière’s argument that “[r]ather than eliminating incapacity, explication, in fact, creates it. It does this in part by establishing the temporal structure of delay (‘a little further along,’ ‘a little later,’ ‘a few more explanations and you’ll see the light’) that, writ large, would become the whole nineteenth-century myth of Progress” (xx). She contrasts this practice to that of “narrating” or “recounting” or “storytelling, an act that presumes in its interlocutor an equality of intelligence rather than an inequality of knowledge, posits equality, just as the act of explication posits inequality” (xxii). It seems to me that specialists in rhetoric and composition studies might take Rancière (or Ross’s gloss of Rancière) as suggesting that “explication” functions as a sort of commodification of knowledge into product that can then be used to meter and assess and value and necessarily defer any moves toward equality, whereas “narrating” or “recounting” functions as the immaterial labor (q.v. Hardt and Negri) of metacognitive reflection; the valuable working-through of lived experience. Labor takes place over time (including the labor of writing: that’s the fundamental insight of the process movement), while neoclassical theories of economics are concerned with prices and commodities and so-called “laws” that are ostensibly timeless–Ross describes Rancière’s attacks on Bourdieu’s “perfect timeliness and seamlessness” (xxiii)–or that exist largely outside of measurements over time.

So there’s one set oppositions. I’m having trouble reconciling it, though, with Byron Hawk’s critique in A Counter-History of Composition of the stultification of the process movement in composition, partly because he’s talking about complex systems in mostly sychronic ways (i.e., they exist in influential ways at particular moments) even in the diachronic history he’s offering. Hawk points out the problem that while the writing process movement has done a good job of “linking the frozen product of writing to the immediate history that produces it. . . as an attempt to bring movement and recursivity to writing studies,” it has also “been reified into a rigid, linear pedagogical practice” (192), and I agree, to a point. Process has itself become product, in what economists would call the transformation problem, through which labor is reified into capital. But that doesn’t need to happen, and Hawk usefully points toward ways we might forestall (or at least more carefully examine) the transformation problem by inhabiting Mark C. Taylor’s argument that “the writer as screen operates in a polarity with the situation and in an ecology of personal experience, texts that are read, and words that are written” (Hawk 193). According to Hawk, this results in a situation in which the written “text is at one point in the process a parasite on other texts, but during the process it reaches a ‘tipping point’ and is transformed into a host with which others will enter into a parasitic relationship and ultimately transform” (193). Such a situation is precisely yet another enactment of the transformation problem: accumulated immaterial labor becomes immaterial capital and can thereby recirculate and serve as the economic input into other texts. (I’ve talked before about how this happens through the economic process of production, distribution, use, and re-production: said process takes as its inputs immaterial labor, immaterial capital, and material-technological capital, and in the context of our contemporary information economy and its sub-context of textual economies runs them through that cycle into outputs of different forms of immaterial labor, immaterial capital, and material-technological capital.) Hawk’s primary purpose, as I see it, is to examine the complex systems or ecologies where those transformations happen because of the openness and what he calls the “complex vitalism” of the systems, whereas my interest is in more in tracing how those various and discrete systems connect over time and through the labor-slash-process of writing and its various stages, and how value gets appropriated (and by whom) at each of those stages.

That’s a whole lot of abstraction. Here’s the move toward specificity: what I’m trying to do in my work is to trace a diachronic economic examination of written products and processes in relation to the complex systems under which they are produced. Such an examination might be seen as one instance of what Jody Shipka in Toward a Composition Made Whole nicely characterizes as the move to “examine final products in relation to the highly distributed and complexly mediated processes involved in the creation, reception, and use of those products” (39): it’s a move her book admirably makes with insight and rigor. I hope the economic vocabulary and mode of analysis I’m working with will help me do that productively, as well, especially as I look at those mediated systems and networks in the examination of writing pedagogies associated with military instruction at U.S. and Afghan service academies that I’ll perform at on Friday afternoon (C session, 2:45-4:00) at C&W 2012. If you’re going to be at the conference, come out and take in the network diagrams, economic vocabulary, complex calendaring, revised cycles of appropriation, and pictures from a faraway dusty place. I’ll try to post more on that stuff before I set out for Raleigh.

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.