Grad Seminar: Rhetorics and Literatures of Modern War

Last semester, I had the good fortune to co-develop and teach a graduate seminar titled “Rhetorics and Literatures of Modern War.” It was an intensely challenging and rewarding semester, due both to the insightful contributions of the graduate students and to the materials themselves. Much of the credit for the materials selection goes to my collaborator Dr. Susan Dente Ross, whose wisdom and efforts I remain grateful for, and to the many other folks (including Alexis Hart and Pete Molin and my former colleagues at West Point) who contributed suggestions and expertise.

The syllabus is available here: https://wp.me/a4aNQJ-tv (PDF). There’s of course far more we could have (and should have) included, but this approach—triangulating from multiple perspectives, multiple genres—felt like a good first attempt. If you’ve done or are doing something similar, I’d welcome hearing about it.

Rationale for a Graduate Seminar in Digital Technology and Culture

Proposed syllabi for graduate seminars are due Monday, and while I’ve got the documents themselves together, I also want to be able to better articulate the exigency for this particular seminar I’ve proposed a syllabus for. There’s no guarantee my proposal will fit the Department’s needs better than any other proposals, of course, so this is partly an exercise in hopeful thinking, but it’s also helping me to figure out why I’m interested in investigating certain topics. The course, “Studies in Technology and Culture” (DTC 561 / ENGL 561), examines “key concepts, tools, and possibilities afforded by engaging with technology through a critical cultural lens,” and is one of the two required courses for the interdisciplinary WSU graduate certificate in Digital Humanities and Culture, a certificate designed to “enhance already existing graduate programs in the humanities and the social sciences, . . . [offering] graduate-level coursework in critical methods, textual analysis, composing practices, and hands-on production for engaging with humanistic studies in, as well as about, digital environments.” I see a couple important points there:

  • first, the certificate’s “critical cultural lens” indicates a reflexive and dialectical (practice- and theory-based) analysis of cultural phenomena as in process and under construction by human and nonhuman agents, and toward the notion of culture as a “noun of process” (from the etymological tracing of Raymond Williams, who points out that the original verb form of “culture” was transitive) representing complex multiple self-developing practices relating to symbolic action; and
  • second, the certificate’s interdisciplinary aspects contribute in rich ways to its digital focus, given its required electives that examine how (AMST 522) the economics of access in the digital divide reinforce inequalities, how (DTC 477) the commodification of information and digital tools can contribute to the stratification of their use, how (DTC 478) interface designs can sometimes reinforce stratification and inequality, how (HIST 527) public history projects incorporating digital technologies can attempt to resist the dominant appropriation or suppression of the heritage of subjugated cultures through practices of responsible representation, and how (HIST 529) ethical digital curation and archiving practices can serve equitable and inclusive ends.

One possible intersection of both points might be understood as the intersection of process and information, which is how I would theme the seminar. Such a theme would represent the familiar cultural studies topoi of race, sexuality, class, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, ability, and others as points of contestation over information. The processes via which information is produced, distributed, owned, used, and re-produced shape and are shaped by those topoi and their intersections with digital technologies. Furthermore, I see tendencies in our emerging studies of digital technology and culture that replicate past trajectories whereby early adopters of technologies (often members of privileged cultural groups) tend to centralize, monopolize, and territorialize research domains—fields that shape processes related to the development of information—especially in an academic context shaped by the eagerness of funding agents to throw money at technology. Given such eagerness, the certificate’s welcome emphasis on “hands-on production” might offer an opportunity to counter that territorializing impulse.

Read more

Doing Digital Research, Being Digitally Researched

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

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

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

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

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

Security Dreams

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

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

Good News, Good Projects

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

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

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

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


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

fasces and flowers

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

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

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

Graduate Seminar in Classical Rhetoric

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

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


Maximally Multimodal

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

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

I then showed the two songs again, in graphical form

spectrogram 1

spectogram 2

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

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

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

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

Not Quite the End Yet

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

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

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

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

In Logar Province, 2 May

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

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

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

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

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

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