July 25, 2007

Talking Loud and Saying Nothing

Filed under: WPA,writing — jrice @ 7:54 pm

Alex makes a nice point about the recent WPA Technology statement. He quotes the statement’s concern with access:

the many colleges and universities where neither students nor teachers have ready access to digital technologies or the Internet. Indeed, we know of some schools in which teachers do not feel they can require typed copy, let alone electronic submissions.

And offers some counter evidence:

Here’s a recent survey, commisioned by Circuit City, that indicates more than 98% of college students use a computer everyday. Even this 2004 Harris Poll indicates that 90% of full-time college students own computers, and one would think this has gone up in three years. I don’t mean to suggest that a digital divide doesn’t exist, particularly in terms of high-speed access, but I am high skeptical of developing national policy based upon presumptions about access.

It’s hard to imagine a college today without some kind of Internet access. When I taught community college back in ’96, there were computers. But even if there is a school out there without computers, why would an entire profession base its policy on the exception? Should the exception determine the norm? Daniel Anderson’s point (see the comments on Alex’s blog) about dictionaries is spot on. If someone doesn’t have pants, should the rest of us wear shorts?

The problem with the WPA position, as many of us argued last year, is that it is based on the circulation of a series of tropes, none of which have much to do with how technology is used. This is surprising since the statement comes from a pro-technology group who felt the need to compose the document. But it is also not surprising since WPA work often depends on such tropes. That dependence is based somewhat on the “belief” or “assumption.” Sometimes the assumption is race based (“Urban kids can’t”); sometimes it is based on lack of understanding (“But I’m not a tech guru!”); sometimes it is pedagogical (“What is your thesis?). What is not surprising and is also sad is that despite a number of warnings and critiques from folks with strong backgrounds in this area, the group who composed the WPA statement opted not to listen. I don’t think it’s hubris to claim that a number of folks using technology to circulate a series of critiques and responses had some valid points, points that went beyond the trope of access. I also don’t think it’s hubris to note that the composers of the document, in their lack of response, couldn’t or wouldn’t use the technology to respond (which is ironic since the blog platform the composers chose to post a draft asks for responses as part of online composing). But then again, “access” is an assumption most feel comfortable with. That comfortability doesn’t require a response (no “truth” does). Access is repeated in almost every WPA conversation as if it is truth. It eventually serves only to limit, not to expand any kind of knowledge.  Access is a mark of the familiar. Familiarity, as cultural studies teaches, is hegemony of the worst kind for how it fixates assumptions. Assumptions, or what Barthes called mythologies, lead us to believe in a truth that is merely a code.

And so? So it is too bad. It is too bad that the WPA movement can only produce a trope, and not a nuanced position. In that sense, it reflects politics of the worst kind. It reflects a politics more suitable to a presidential debate: learn the right phrase to repeat, and repeat it.

In that sense, the WPA statement is a reminder of James Brown’s claim of ineffective politics in the ’60s: Talking Loud and Saying Nothing.

December 14, 2006

Tracking the Invisible Faculty

Filed under: profession,WPA,writing — jrice @ 9:27 am

Is the heading of today’s Chronicle piece on the rise in contingent labor. As alluded to in the recent MLA report, the AAUP reports on an increasing dependence on non-tenure track labor.

Since the 1970s, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the American professoriate has dwindled from about 57 percent to about 35 percent, while the proportion of full- and part-timers working off the tenure track has grown from about 43 percent to 65 percent.

Mostly, these figures are deciphered as bad for the future of the professoriate – especially for all the folks currently in graduate school (and usually, graduate school in the Humanities). Six years plus of education and no job awaits you. Or: a job awaits you, but you will have no benefits, will teach five – six courses each semester, will barely make a living wage, and will have little to no job security. Welcome to academia.

All true. But forgotten here is the infrastructure we build (and must continue to build) that supports higher learning. No place is this more apparent than in the teaching of writing. A demanding, time-consuming, and intellectual endeavor, it suffers the most under this continuing model of part time labor. Without support, without continued instruction regarding the teaching of writing, without models to work from and with, without colleagues to discuss work with, and without time to discuss and continue to learn about the teaching of writing (which includes research practices and investment in the field), the pedagogy is regulated to in-and-out teaching. Teacher shows up. Does fifty minutes of standardized instruction. Heads for the next class – either down the hall or across town.

But we know all this, don’t we? Well, yes and no. This information is not news to the administration that implements such policies nor is it news to the WPAs who continue to support it with shrugs of the shoulders and “What can I do?” gasps of innocence. Sometimes it seems like news to the always complaining literature faculty who can’t understand why their students “can’t write.” Sometimes it’s news to faculty elsewhere on campus: engineering, the sciences, math, etc. All in all, however, the folks who usually don’t know are the students. They call most people who stand in front of the class “professor,” and, as far as they know, they are getting a supported, informed pedagogy. If only the students knew….Power in numbers. Or in critical pedagogy’s own words, power in knowledge. Sometimes I think the only solution here (outside of Crowley’s abolitionist argument) exists with the students. Cue Public Enemy here.

To revolutionize make a change nothin’s strange
People, people we are the same
No we’re not the same
Cause we don’t know the game
What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless

Students, get awareness The AAUP isn’t able to yet.

December 5, 2006

The WPA as Digital/Networked/Crowd Logic

Filed under: networks,WPA,writing — jrice @ 4:29 pm

Based on a debate I had yesterday:

How might we encourage new instructors to integrate technology into their instruction when:

  • They are new (thus, nervous, unsure of themselves, still learning how to teach, new to the theories we teach)
  • They may not be interested in technology (or may be hostile to its usage in a classroom) or do not know much about it.

A difficult task. And these are two very real issues. A typical, administrative response has been the “requirement.” From now on, everyone do X. To manage any program, there must be requirements. And, more generally, to be in any system, one follows various requirements. A problem arises, however, when the requirement is translated as imposition, hegemony, forced work, and the response becomes resistance. After all, this is the problem facing most writing programs that are interested in technology, but that don’t have staffs who share the same interests. When the program forces the requirement, the project fails due to resistance.

In place of the imposition or the forced coercion, there is interpellation. Advertising understands this process best; ads don’t force us to buy anything. They make us want to buy something by generating relationships among different images and ideas, which we, the audience, identify with. Althusser teachers us that we are “hailed” into being; institutions like advertising hail us, but education, the government, the military also perform likewise. Ulmer’s response to Althusser is “yes, we are interpellated.” However, unlike certain cultural studies approaches, the challenge is not to resist interpellated states, but to figure out how to work with such states productively. For a WPA, the challenge could be twofold: how to interpellate a staff of graduate instructors, and how to turn that process into a productive event rather than one which is always resisting (and thus, fighting resistance).

Here’s where the wisdom of crowds might come in. The crowd – for Surowiecki – is a physical entity, and I believe he only describes it as “people.” Burno Latour shows us that a network – and a crowd is, to some extent, a network – consists of people and “things” (that ambiguous word which refers to items, concerns, ideas) which are always in various, shifting relationships. The WPA’s challenge might be to understand the relationships among people and things – as network – better so that interpellation (I want to teach with technology) might occur. In place of forced requirement, what would it mean to implement a policy of interpellation whose focus is crowd logic. This is a process by which one position does not dominate the decision making process (or even, the thinking process), but rather a number of positions examined together do. It’s a network, obviously. And it is a network made up a number of differing positions and beliefs (a crowd is not homogeneous). One does not force anything, therefore, but exposes the audience (the instructors) to these positions over a certain time period (which cannot be one semester for obvious reasons).

Easy to do? Of course not. But I can say more later.

July 28, 2006

The Outcomes of Sharing

Filed under: networks,profession,WPA,writing — jrice @ 9:23 am

Dan has a nice post today regarding previous WPA Outcomes discussions. One point he notes is how usage of multimedia – as it pertains to Web 2.0 goals – involves a number of key features. Here’s his list:

  • Conceptualize networks,
  • Find and move materials,
  • Make rights decisions.
  • Edit images,
  • Edit sounds,
  • Use a movie or authorware program,
  • Compose prose,
  • And what else?

Following the overview in his post, I also note how Dan emphasizes the “sharing” aspect of what is becoming Web 2.0. According to the Pew Report, 77% of Internet users share their work online. This is an important point. Its importance is not so much in the notion of gift economy or generosity, but how web applications encourage thinking across a broad spectrum, encourage usage of a wide variety of materials, and encourage allowing others to see either end results of this thinking or the thinking in process (much as I do write now as I put these thoughts to the blogspace).

I often single out Wayne Booth’s “The Scholar in Society” as symptomatic of the “individual” writer ideology prevalent in writing pedagogy (and pedagogy in general), but there are plenty of other moments and texts and practices which place writing emphasis on individual work. Even collaborative pedagogy struggles with the “sharing” aspect of writing (who gets credit for what?); many teachers fret over “the danger” of exposing student worker to wides-scale audiences (thus, the gated entries to Blackboard and WebCT); and, of course, plagiarism police find any kind of sharing as theft. But, as we know, ideas are shared, and in that sharing, invention occurs. The debates against new types of copyright restrictions are often framed accordingly.

My point is that the section Dan isolates from the WPA statement, and which will probably make its way into any final document formalized:

using the computer for drafting, revising, responding, and editing.

· employing research strategies using electronic databases

· conducting web-based research and evaluating online sources

· understanding the difference in rhetorical strategies used in writing traditional and hyper-text prose/graphics.

seems to be in resistance to the concept of sharing ideas. We’ve already critiqued this evaluation for merely positioning previous goals onto a “technology” plank (take out technology-oriented language, and you have little different from what occurs without technology), but we can further add to that critique by noting how these goals do not yet take into account the complex interactions that occur when writers make their work public and then use other writers’ work in very public ways. That point is a major component of the network logic at work.

July 12, 2006

While We’re Discussing Digital Stuff and Such

Filed under: profession,WPA,writing — jrice @ 7:06 am

Scott McLemee has more ideas regarding weblogs and academic publishing. Unlike the WPA approach, McLemee works with the current language and ideas of the Web. He is considering how ideas are circulating on the Web via feeds and specific types of websites and wondering if academic publishing can utilize these methods to improve their financial standings and bring academic publishing out of its current crisis. A significant part of this idea is to tap into blogs like mine and those I read as promotional spots (our comments would join in this aggregation process). I’m not convinced that “viral marketing” will work via academic blogs, however, even though the idea of aggregation for academic writing would be lovely.

AggAcad 3.0 would incorporate elements of Digg — the Web site that allows readers in the site’s community can recommend links and vote on how interesting or useful they prove.

In this case, the idea would serve the community well – a place for us smart-alec folks (and those who like reading smart-alec comments) to sift through, checking out ideas on the fly, catching up on missed citations, leaving comments, and manipulating the listings through the karma/ethos/whuffie styled systems many of these sites employ. In the Humanities, such ideas have been proposed before, but in different forms. Clearinghouses, link sites, and so on have been begun and then abandoned (or at least have lost much of the initial attention they generated). Online journals come in a close second regarding attention and ability to generate credibility among the field, even with tech-die-hardists like myself. Often, Humanities folks (and English folks, in particular) find it difficult to negotiate new ways of working, multiple tasks (teaching, research, online reading), the stress of academia, and the desire to read and write as well as the desire to go online and find stuff.

None of which is to say McLemee’s idea is a bad one. It is not. But like much of our enthusiasm regarding how to utilize the Web and take better advantage of what it offers writing and publishing and administration and teaching, we forget that ideology plays as important a role. Recognizing that folks have to be brought along ideologically is not the same as putting the brakes on a given idea. Ideas like McLemee’s have to continue and be tried out. But – and here is where I had serious doubts about the WPA-Outcomes statement – merely saying “this is important” or setting up shop somewhere online does not suffice without any of the other conditions necessary to bring folks along. And in this chicken and egg game, things get messy and complicated. How do we bring folks along? One outstanding personality doesn’t suffice, one program doesn’t suffice, a “this is how I teach digital X” doesn’t suffice, a plea to colleagues to read blogs doesn’t suffice, a new course in digital Y doesn’t suffice, an email listserv doesn’t suffice, and so on if all of these activities take place separately. I have found this point no truer than in my own program, which expresses the best intentions regarding integrating technology into writing instruction, but without the unified game plane that addresses pedagogical and research beliefs beyond the hiring of one or two people (myself, and our new colleague joining us this Fall). A move like a hire is a necessary gesture, but obviously not the only gesture; it begins or prompts the other gestures. Sometimes, however, getting the domino effect rolling proves extremely difficult because of how we have been mentally wired over the years. Publishing, too, is no exception to this and it will take quite some time to catch on ideologically.

I note all this, then, not because I have the solution nor because I find fault in McLemee’s point (I don’t), but because I am very interested in the ideological positions (including my own) caught in both the embracement(s) and resistances to technology.  That understanding is just as important as these innovative ideas being proposed.

July 10, 2006

More on Technology, Outcomes, Walking Planks, Being an Outsider…

Filed under: networks,pedagogy,profession,WPA,writing — jrice @ 2:39 pm

Let’s keep this party rolling!

Just to riff on Collin some more (cause this is what we “outside” compositionists do, eh?): I’ve been reading over the WPA follow up comments on their outcomes blog, and in spaces where some folks  have added to the conversation, and in a few more threads on the listserv archives, and I’m convinced that we are not speaking with anyone. Those who think they know better will think they know better. Never mind that the ones who should be agreeing with the tech-oriented plank (i.e., those with the most active research and teaching agendas regarding technology) you’ve come up with don’t agree with what you’re doing (A BIG BELL GOES OFF! WAIT A MINUTE, TECH-ORIENTED PEOPLE DON’T EVEN AGREE WITH OUR IDEAS! SHOULDN’T WE THINK ABOUT THIS???). Fine. You don’t care. But just get meta for one second, ok? For just a second, compositionists, don’t fret over my tone (“haughty” or not haughty) and listen:

Let’s get meta. Let’s look at the meta-level writing that just took place.
See what’s going on here? See how an idea develops, expands, meets resistance, responds, carries over into a number of spaces? That’s a piece of the online writing puzzle. That is so much more important than what you all are coming up with: “understand basic file management” or worrying about “cash cows” or “social reproduction” or how to write an email, or access (my goodness, where in the history of technology did universal access ever take place – beyond the pencil – and where did it take place in less than twenty years?) or software training (always the red herring thrown in for good measure…though none of us “critics” every mentions it), or the ever present cliche of “critical awareness” (as opposed to its much more lovely cousin we all try to teach, the uncritical awareness) or other superficial gestures which replicate the already existing superficial gestures popularized in textbook writing prompts or textbook research strategies (“first, narrow your topic….second, find a thesis statement…third, go to the library.. fourth, look up your topic.YAWN).

In other words, out of all the textbooks I’ve reviewed, read, taught from, had GTAs teach from, and so on, I’ve never seen the kind of writing taking place on our blogs and within our blogs taught.

And see something else: the ability to do this type of writing, to respond, riff, appropriate, link to, assemble, and so on (which I claim to be a part – not the only part but ONE part – of a digital writing puzzle) can be done with a computer (like I do here with this blog, but I could be writing in a wiki, in a hypertextual piece, in a video, and so on), or it can be done on paper (it occurs at lower levels on paper already). The digital aspect is what foregrounds the process in ways print culture and its logics didn’t do. The digital aspect didn’t erase a piece of print; it added to it.

Ok? We cool? Probably not. But, then again, that’s why we’re out here on the Web. Because we’re obviously not working ideas out well together (one part of comp and us “tech” folks), and we eventually went to the spaces where we could work out ideas together (us so-called “tech” folks). My suggestion: hang with us. Read our blogs. Not one day. Not two days. Read ‘em over a year. Follow the threads. See how ideas form, fall apart, get redone, build off one another, and so on. That’s not all there is to digital writing. But it is a digital writing occuring.

July 9, 2006

The Unbearable Confusion Over Technology

Filed under: networks,pedagogy,profession,WPA,writing — jrice @ 8:54 am

Collin offers another critique of WPA Outcomes and technology, something I discussed earlier. So here’s a little follow-up:

The biggest obstacle to understanding the relationship between technology and writing (and pedagogy) is instrumentality. By that, I mean a belief that the technology itself must always be foregrounded. A course in Web Writing? Then you have to teach Dreamweaver. A course in Visuality? You have to teach Photoshop. A course on Computers and Writing? You have to teach from a handful of books written by compositionists. And so on. Expand this mentality to reading exams, dissertations, articles, and you have an insular movement which believes the question of technology is addressed only within its own conversations and exact representations of technology (i.e., imagine a technology-oriented course which does not foreground a computer or using a computer; such a course would resist the simplistic representation we have accepted regarding “computers and writing”). Of course, we should teach HTML, image-manipulation tools, and from our own work. But these are only a few pieces of a larger puzzle.

This is a problem. It is a problem because if offers a limited gesture. But it is not a pedagogical gesture either; it teaches little if anything. We can take the basic concept of the network as example. If we are recognizing the complex ways ideas form, the relationships or sociality of meaning that digital environments foreground (but that have existed previously), then we might begin with spaces which actualize this activity – like a Wiki, content management system, blog, etc – but we also have to consider a number of ideas, objects, people, movements, etc. which further our thinking regarding this activity. One does not have to be in a Wiki to think about, write, or teach, this activity (though, one can be in such a place). I note that the importance of being in the space is not as essential as some believe because I am more interested in the logics of writing, new media, technology, than the space itself. The spaces are important (I like being in the computer classroom), but they should not be used as excuses (“Well, I guess we can’t have technology because we have no money for computers”) nor as force fed administrative moves (“From now on, all instructors must teach students to make a Web page”).

We can teach a technology-oriented pedagogy without computers. And we can (and usually do) teach a non-technology oriented pedagogy in a computer classroom. The WPA statement speaks to a continuation of the latter, not an attempt to address the former. The WPA statement, and others like it, suffers from perspective. It is fixed in a specific perspective (critical thinking, but other mainstays from the history of writing instruction). It suffers from a logic stagnation. To shift perspectives, one has to engage with non-instrumental (non-expected) objects and meanings. To shift perspectives, one has to be open to new logics, like network thinking. Calling something “computer literacy” is not indicative of a shift. The meanings attributed to literacy are merely carried over into technology-based pedagogies as if they are still relevant. Using computers for “research strategies” and “drafting, revising, responding, editing” is not a shift. These are practices we already engage in. They are useful practices we will continue to engage in. But they are not reflective of new kinds of logics emerging.

Enough for now. As I note in Collin’s comment section, the time has come to stop “making statements” and stop repeating the thoughts developed in the 1980s. If the old guard wants to think about technology and writing, it must now turn to the younger generation and be more open to their ideas. It is not our responsibility to adapt to the old guard and beg for acceptance. We are already here, on the Web and in print, and our ideas are accessible. At the least, then, it is time to engage with network thinking within the field – and then hopefully, the field will be able to engage with such thinking outside of itself as well as it learns new methods and practices.


I went over the WPA-L archives (since I am no longer on the list) and saw that our discussion was posted. But Ed White has this to say: “I’m really glad to see our discussion picked up by people interested in but outside our community.” And that is part of the point I’ve been making all along: perspective, knowledge outside of one’s insular self, networked connectivity, and so on. Ed, we are in this community. We’ve been in this community for some time now. We are not outside. If anything, you are now on the outside, as writing instruction must account for the focus on technology. The statement we are critiquing reflects the “outsideness” of this situation.

May 22, 2006

Signoff WPA-L

Filed under: WPA — jrice @ 8:59 am

The time arrived.

Other colleagues have told me numerous times how they lost patience with our field’s main listserv for a variety of reasons and had finally called it quits. I stayed on. One reason I stayed is that I want to maintain a connection with the field’s main body of information exchange, even as I often disagree with its stance on a number of issues. Disagreement in itself is not a reason to just get up and leave. For another reason, I often learn something from a given exchange – even if I have to receive 100s of messages that are meaningless to me before that exchange occurs. For yet another reason, I want to know how a group – in general – thinks. Even if the topics are not important to me, like assessment or SATs or whatever, I still want to know how others think about these issues.

But it has also become obvious to me that this listserv is not representative of how people in our field think. I have performing my own version of thin-slicing here (as Collin describes it), thinking that I am getting a feel for a body of knowledge when I’m not. Few people I read academically are members of this listserv. Few people I talk professionally with are members of this listserv. And many other young academics I respect and work with are no longer members of this listserv. So why do I need to stay? To get upset over posts about technology that ignore vast amounts of scholarship? To get upset over persistent racism? To get upset over simplistic understandings of rhetoric and exchanges that resemble high school debate strategies? To get upset over the constant belittling of student capability? To get upset over comments made by people who are obviously no longer keeping up to date with the field? Nah. Getting pissed off is no reason to stay on a listserv.

Like others, I am learning more online from a variety of weblogs and websites than I am from the listserv.  And many of these sites have little to do with what has “officially” been labeled “rhetoric and composition.” They are broader in their reach, more intense in their willingness to see beyond institutional constraints, and more open to intellectual challenges. So that’s it. And when I want to read a “rhetoric and composition” site online and learn something about this field that is not published in a book or journal, I have a handy blogroll to the right to employ. I don’t think the “listserv” in general has outlived its usefulness. I think this particular one has. So, after ten years or so, I have to signoff.

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