February 26, 2014

Circular Writing Logic: Or, Here’s Why You Feel You Have No Time

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 8:46 am

Here is the scenario:

The university decides – by a committee – that all students must have a writing requirement. We call it GCCR, a requirement that must be completed for graduation.

Every department must offer one course that meets the requirement’s criteria: 15 pages of writing, feedback, etc. The concept behind the requirement is writing in the disciplines.

Some departments don’t feel completely comfortable with the requirement. We have no WAC/WID program here for faculty development, so many faculty wonder where they are going to learn how to teach writing in the disciplines.

Some of these departments turn to us because we are the writing people.

We’ll teach the specialized writing courses for them. This is good for us. Why? Because the university rewards each unit based on enrollments. Since we are young and still don’t have a major, it is difficult for us to fill undergraduate courses. With these specialized courses and set, almost guaranteed enrollments, we can maintain our so called revenue line. Our revenue is tied to enrollment even though the overall enrollment at the university is the same no matter how many students we teach.

Granted, whether the students take courses with us or with any other department, they will still take, more or less, the same number of credit hours over their four years at UK.  That means, of course, that whether the students take courses with us or with any other department, they still pay the university the same tuition. It doesn’t really matter where they take courses. 25,000 students is still 25,000 students.

Still, this is the system. We have to teach the specialized courses if we know what is good for us.And anyway, we don’t object. We enjoy teaching writing of all kinds.  But the thing is, we’re only 15 people total. There is no way we can suddenly all teach half a dozen or likely more specialized professional writing courses, particularly when only a few of us are even comfortable teaching a form of professional writing, and doubtful anyone wants to do two professional writing service courses a semester from now until whenever.

What’s the answer?

Adjuncts. And graduate students.

Right here is where the record comes to a full tilt scratch.

Or you say: What the what?

Isn’t this GCCR thing supposed to be really important? Shouldn’t it be handled in a way that allows students the opportunity to learn writing by those who are the most experienced? So we offer courses by the least experienced. Why, then, the requirement?

To project the image of general education.

To project the image of providing adequate instruction and a complete education.

To project an image.

But beyond this superficial image, think of all the work that has gone into this project until now. And the work is still ongoing. Committees. Meetings. Drafts. Reports. Circulated forms (and you should see the mess of a form the committee settled on), memorandum of understandings between departments, more meetings, approvals. All of this – who knows how many hours – so that we can settle on the one simple reality check when this is all said and done:

The majority-  if not all of the courses-  in question will be taught by non-professionals,  many of whom are teaching by grabbing whatever course is offered to them.

That’s inefficient. Not to go all Fredrick Taylor here, but what we talk about when we talk about “time” in the university is often this: circular logic that wastes our time.

The instruction will not be professional. And the money, in the end, is the same money because students take a set amount of credit hours no matter what.

Busy? Here’s one reason why.

January 27, 2014

Adjunct Narratives

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 3:51 pm

First person narratives about the adjunct experience in academia are being published – it seems – daily. Today, I came across a link from a Facebook friend about a Fairbanks, Alaska adjunct on food stamps.  A link to a story about motherhood and adjuncting was also shared with me today. The Chronicle of Higher Education has become the mouthpiece for such narratives, all of which are anti-tenure track faculty and all of which believe in the great injustice that has been done within higher education. I read this narratives almost every day. I’m interested in the rhetoric of narrative, so whatever I feel about the adjunct experience, I am interested in how adjuncts are telling their story.

Why now? Why the sudden proliferation of adjunct narratives, a frenzy of pieces that rival the popularity of online essays regarding MOOCs a year ago. During that period, one couldn’t avoid either a hyperbolic praising of MOOCs or a dismissal of MOOCs in any given business or education online outlet. That frenzy is now a trickle of updates. It has died down.

Why are news outlets giving so much room to the adjunct narrative all of a sudden? The adjunct problem has long been with us. Exploitation of teaching in the university is hardly new. Have publications merely woken up to this sleeping audience of readers, as Slate seems to have done with some hyperbolic and uniformed pieces? And what are these narratives trying to achieve as they tell their stories of failed expectation, financial struggle, food stamp dependence, and feelings of disenfranchisement?

  • Sympathy. A readership, it seems, will sympathize with the adjunct plight once the readership understands or learns about how awful things really are. I’m not really sure, though, that the strategy works. Within academia, adjunct exploitation is not a new problem. Within the general public, the issue doesn’t seem to raise much thought or action. Few people vote for their state representatives (who control university allocations) based on education issues.  Have any pieces swayed a popular uprising against how students are being taught? I’ve always felt, as well, that this strategy can backfire. If the general public sees (as if they don’t know ) that their children are being taught by underpaid instructors with – at times – minimal degree qualifications, will the public demand higher salaries and benefits for those instructors, or will the public demand that their tuition dollars go instead to having their children study with the tenured faculty, who the public, the narrative claims, think their students study with in the first place?
  • Discredit. When a narrative is published that says: I have an MFA in Creative Writing or an MA in Literature or a PhD in Literature and the only job I got was $2,000 a course with no benefits, doesn’t this merely confirm a belief that the graduate degree in question has no value? The more these narratives are promoted, aren’t they discrediting the various departments – often in the humanities – already under fire for a graduate degree often deemed unneeded? Again, it seems the strategy backfires. What this strategy seems to say is: The degree is worthless. If I ran an English department, for instance, I’d be very upset over this part of the narrative.
  • Attack. Administration bloat is often the focus of the attack; a well circulated narrative is something along the lines of “Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent.” Or this statistic: “between 1985 and 2005 administrative spending increased by 85%, while administrative support staff increased by a dramatic 240%. Meanwhile spending on faculty increased by only around 50%.” All likely true. But what does all that administration do? Does any of it have value? What if it were all removed? What would be the result? I don’t know. But neither do the critics since they haven’t pushed the attack into a real argument yet by citing specific positions and their value/lack of value to a given university or college. Tenure line faculty are also the other side of the attack. This part of the narrative says that we are all subsidized by adjunct labor or that we purposely keep adjunct labor in its place. I’m not aware of any of this being true, and I doubt any of us object to adjuncts moving out of the exploitive realm. We don’t set salaries or lines, after all.
  • Everyone is equal. The basis of all the narratives seems to ride on this vital point. Person x without a tenure line position is equal to person Y who has one. There is no shortage of qualified people who could, in many universities/colleges, be hired on the tenure line. Why such people are not, though, is based on all kinds of variables, from the well circulated trope of “unfair” to the less understandable reality of “fit.” But the reality to this narrative is that all academics in a given field are not equal. The MFA in Literature or Creative Writing is not necessarily equal to whoever is on faculty in that given department. It’s difficult to know, of course, because that means fleshing out details, fleshing out how such details work in a given local situation, saying things about another’s career that may not be pleasant to say nor hear (i.e., you do indeed have a published book or some publications, but we don’t find that topic of interest to the work we do in this department). Even among tenure line faculty, however, we are not equal.
  • Money. The overall narrative is that there is plenty of money. There is money in many cases. Often, even in a financial crisis, money is found for all kinds of projects. The suggestion, it seems, is that provosts and deans have the money to pay everyone at a certain level, but for greedy reasons don’t. This suggestion confuses me greatly. What is in it for a dean or provost to not pay if he/she can? Where is all this money when every year state allocations are reduced? We just found out about a 2.5% cut to UK’s budget. That doesn’t mean more money. That means less. The issue may not be money as much as priority. As long as we structure General Education in a certain way or “core” courses such as first year writing as massive undertakings that could never be taught by only tenure line faculty, we are looking at a situation where there is not enough money to pay all instructors fairly. But if we cut something, we are destroying higher education. And if we did such cuts, most of the adjunct positions would vanish, and be replaced with nothing.

So what do these narratives accomplish? These are some tropes I pick out and respond to. I don’t respond because I’m against adjuncts or don’t understand the situation. I very much understand the situation. But that is not my purpose here. My interest is in how the story is framed, and why this way as opposed to some other strategy? Most of the stories, after all, are similar and repetitive. Repetition can be highly effective. Is it in this case? I don’t think so.

October 27, 2013

Human Oriented Career Ontology

Filed under: attitude,writing — jrice @ 7:58 am

Academics – or sort of academics – love to tell us when they are leaving social media. Douglas Rushkoff for instance, made a big public deal about leaving Facebook. Rebecca Schuman, as well, wants the public to know not only that she left academia, but that she is cheering on those who continue to leave (such as the former Missouri colleagues I never met). And she wants you to know that Ian Bogost, who rightly points out the self-righteousness of this kind of narrative, makes a “boatload of cash.”

If Ian Bogost made a “boatload of cash” as a professor, critical theorist, and game developer at Georgia Tech, I’d say: cool. Why should I or Rebecca Schuman or anyone else for that matter be upset if a prolific and successful member of the field makes a “boatload of cash”? I, too, would like to make a “boatload of cash.” I haven’t yet. But I’m still trying. I wish I could write for The Atlantic of be profiled in Wired magazine, like Ian. I also don’t have 2,100 Facebook friends like Ian. I’m not jealous. I’m not upset. Good for him.

And why should Rebecca Schuman be so upset that Ian Bogost has been promoted to full professor and given an endowed chair for being prolific and successful? I’ve never met Ian in person, but I’ve read his work, exchanged emails, and become Facebook friends with him (I’m one of the 2,100!). None of these activities has led me to believe that telling someone  ”tough titties” on Twitter (Schuman’s source of anger) for leaving academia is a “dick move.”

I don’t feel it’s a dick move because when I – also a full professor who graduated in 2002 and now holds an endowed chair – hears someone say “I’m leaving Facebook” or “I’m leaving academia” because of how unfair or awful or whatever both have been, I kind of feel like saying “tough titties” as well. You are leaving. Bye. People do leave professions. People change careers. Good luck in the new endeavor.

Schuman’s reasoning regarding why leaving academia is not a “tough titties” moment is as such:

Its rules had become the rules of my existence: personal worth is determined by the whims of your advisor and committee, of search committees, of peer reviewers, of your “friends” (who are actually just waiting for the right moment to stab you in the back). Its heroes had become my heroes. Its values–if you want to be taken seriously, sacrifice everything, including and especially family life and having children, in the service of the Life of the Mind; move anywhere for any reason, no matter how alone you have to be there–had become my values.

  1. My personal worth was never determined by studying for a PhD or being a professor. But I am also married and have two kids who give me more personal worth than anything in the world.
  2. My advisor was great. His influence on my work is obvious. He did give practical advice – even if he is a theorist (since the myth of theory is its divorce from practicality). We met as a dissertation group every month to share work in progress. He still supports my work by contributing to edited collections I’ve done (and he wrote the preface to my first book). And he usually clicks like on my Instagram photos of beer.
  3. I didn’t sacrifice anything. I go to work. I get my work done. The only sacrifice I can imagine experiencing is not having the time to drink every new beer on tap in this city. Oh and yes. I have children. And my wife is an academic, tenured, as well. I didn’t sacrifice family (and nor did she).
  4. I did move. To Detroit. To Columbia, Missouri. To Lexington, Kentucky. Hardly sacrifices to live in these cool places – even if not being able to sell my Detroit area home was a financial crisis and burden whose effects lasted until recently. But that wasn’t academia’s fault.

But this is anecdotal evidence from one person! So is Rebecca Schuman’s list as well. Neither makes the case for everyone. And that means that “tough titties” is hardly a problematic response as well. If you make public this repeated narrative of “leaving academia” and the reasons do not strike many of us as so out of ordinary or exceptional,  the hyperbole associated with that narrative can prompt the response: Tough titties.One good hyperbolic turn receives another.

You decided not to teach and write for a living. Ok. Good for you.  I wish you success at your new job.

Not only do I not care if Ian Bogost or anyone else makes a “boatload of cash,” I don’t care if someone leaves academia or joins it. Enjoy either way. Your public announcement – like the “I’m leaving Facebook” public announcement – is not for me or Ian Bogost or anyone else for that matter. It’s for you. You feel bad. You feel like you are losing out. You feel passed over. Sorry. I like what I do for a living, so I do feel sorry that you are unable to do this kind of work as well (if you really want to do it). But I seriously doubt the reasons are as basic or simple as “I was too unconventional” or “all the doors just shut in my face.”  The factors that go into and generate success or failure are more complex than that. The factors that have gone into my success including actors such as “I worked hard” but they also include other factors as well. One factor may be: “My work is important to me.” But it also may be: “studying rhetoric and network theory is not the most important thing to other people or the world” So with that, to paraphrase Schuman, I may or may not be the best “Rhetoric network person. Eh. Ver.” But so what?  I’m glad and grateful for those who do read my work. I like teaching even when students tell me that “this book is boring.” I like administrative work even when it is completely frustrating. I like being in the university even though some colleagues are jerks. I at least have perspective regarding the size of the pond us fish swim in and how big or small I need to be to live in that pond, feel good about my job and life, and do well.

Boatloads of cash? I’m still working on that.

October 12, 2013

Blog Memories

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 6:24 am

I once knew how to take apart an M-16, clean it, and put the rifle back together again. I say “once” because I have not done so for over 20 years. It is possible, I can guess, that I remember how to do this activity. Possible, but not guaranteed.

It is fashionable among academics or writers who are not academics to begin a memoir or personal recollection by noting the state of poverty or blue collar background that they came from. I can cite my background differently: I came from a suburb in Miami, Florida. My family was middle class. We had plenty to eat. My parents owned two cars. I had clothes to wear. There were shopping malls in various directions we could drive to and visit. My high school sent many students to college.

When I was in maybe seventh grade, I won a contest sponsored by The Miami Herald. Each week, the Herald published a comic strip without words, but with empty word balloons. Children readers were invited to fill in the balloons with something witty. The best completed strip won a cash prize and chance to appear on The Sunday Funnies, a Sunday morning show where the host and his sidekick named Toby the Robot read the Sunday comics with a panel of kids. One week, I won the contest. For some time, I have searched the YouTube archives in the desperate hope that this episode was saved and uploaded by someone else who lived in Miami in the early 1980s. I have had no luck finding the lost The Sunday Funnies episode. I imagine myself finding it one day, showing it to students or colleagues, posting it on Facebook, returning to my childhood 15 minutes of fame. After we taped the episode, my parents stopped off at Spec’s on Dixie Highway on the way home. I used my cash prize to buy a copy of The J.Geils Bands’ Love Stinks album. In sixth grade, I wanted to be a cartoonist for a living. I drew a comic strip whose title was my own name. I had two other friends who did the same with their own names. The main character’s sidekick was a manatee. This was an obvious rip off of Bloom County where the sidekick was a penguin who was in love with Diane Sawyer.

Sometimes we begin a freshmen class with an ice breaker: Tell a lie about yourself. Tell us something unique about yourself  no one would know. The idea is the start the class on a familiar note, and as students share the anecdotes, I quickly memorize their names. I can memorize the first names of an entire class in one day. Then I use this achievement as an ice breaker: “Am I good or what?” I will declare after I demonstrate my memory to them, going one by one, saying their names out loud. “Can any of your other professors do that?”  In the army, I was sent to an anti-terror training course for several weeks. After completing the course, I was sent back to my unit, told only that I did not pass security clearance. I wish I could dazzle colleagues and friends with my ability to stop terrorism by firing an M-16 out of a moving car. That one exercise is about all I remember from the course. I am sure none of my other colleagues can do that either.

When I read a memoir or personal recollection, I’m amazed at what writers recall from their childhood: details of where they lived, names of classmates in the second grade, daily occurrences.  They do so in great detail and with great importance. But with me, I struggle to remember anything in great detail. I struggle to remember how we moved from house A to house B in Miami. It’s as if: one moment we lived in house A. Suddenly, we were in house B. When did the trucks arrive to get our stuff? When did we unpack? When did my parents look for a new house? I have no clue.

My most vivid memory of taking apart an M-16 is not the actual process of removing pieces and cleaning them but the tiny pin we called “Shabbat pin.” If you lost Shabbat pin, you “got Shabbat.” Getting Shabbat meant staying on the base during the weekend when everyone else got to go home. Home for me was a run down kibbutz near Tiberias where, years earlier, half its membership had packed up its belongings and moved somewhere else over a fight. Some time ago, I joined a Facebook group focused on this kibbutz where group members shared memories of living there and photographs of their time there. Nobody from my time period posted a photograph. Of if they did, I don’t remember their names. In fact, I can’t remember anybody’s name from the kibbutz, including my adopted family.

Memoir means memory. Memories are recorded. That is a basic idea, as basic as growing up in a middle class suburb in Miami, Florida.  There is something self-satisfying about telling one’s story or series of memories, however little or however much we remember. Search through YouTube, and you find all kinds of media memories: KISS on the Tom Synder show, home movies, old Mike Douglas episodes, old TV newscasts, concert footage from years ago. There is something very Barthes-esque about such moments: That happened/that person is now dead. For some reason, someone decides that they want to share a forgotten moment that, for some reason, was preserved years ago. They locate that moment from an old videotape, and then they upload it. Do most people have boxes of old videotapes in their closet? My father brought such a box to us when we lived in Missouri. “I don’t have a VCR anymore,” I told him. He brought an old VCR as well. We threw the box of videotapes out one day on trash day.

I wonder where my copy of Love Stinks is now. Maybe in a box in my parents’  house? If so, how did it get there? Who packed it? How did it get from point A to point B? Has it been thrown out? It doesn’t matter. I don’t have a record player anymore either.

October 5, 2013

Heaven is a Kentucky Kind of Place

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 9:38 pm

(from my wife, Jenny Rice)


When my family and I moved to Lexington three years ago, we were amazed at how different this part of the country looks from other regions. In the past five years, we have lived in Michigan and Texas. Both states have suffered tremendous real estate crises because of foreclosures and overdevelopment. Houses sit empty and the same “For Sale” signs linger in the front yards of houses for years. But Lexington looks different. We are so proud to show off our rolling hills and green landscape to visiting friends and family. Next time you travel out of state, notice how different our green hills look from the anonymous landscapes that some regions have succumb to: strip malls, acres of concrete, treeless buildings.


We were understandably disappointed when we heard that our neighborhood in south Lexington was due to be re-zoned, thanks to Ball Homes. Initially, I was surprised. Ball Homes—a builder who seems to have its mark in every corner of Lexington—was already building a huge housing development only a few miles away on Man O’War. The development is full of tightly packed, brand new houses that have no residents. That same development also has hundreds of apartment units without tenants. And yet they want to develop still more apartments and houses in the property off Old Schoolhouse Lane? At what point will Lexington become more protective of its development? Can we learn from other regions that have suffered the blight (both economic and physical) of overdevelopment?


More troubling, though, is the impact on our Kentucky landscape. The plans that Ball Homes have submitted will have a terribly negative effect on traffic (ever travel down Harrodsburg Road in the morning, afternoon, or any other time?), housing prices (yet more empty houses to fill), and traffic flow on streets that are now residential but will be “connectors” for commuters. My neighbors and I are also worried about the 300-year old Bur Oak that is endangered by this development. Those apartments and houses will present a paralyzing stress upon its root system. Once this landscape is altered, those changes can never be undone.


I ask my fellow Kentuckians to fight mightily to protect our beautiful landscape. We are blessed. More than we might even realize. It is worth our time to pause breakneck development in order to preserve our natural resources. Once they’re gone, they are impossible to recover. Daniel Boone once said, “HeavenMust Be A Kentucky Kind Of Place.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a Ball Homes development in mind when he said it.


October 2, 2013

Professing Bikram

Filed under: Bikram,writing — jrice @ 2:29 pm

I’m almost 44. I drink too much beer, eat too much bread and cheese. My body gains weight at almost 44 in ways it did not at 15. And I’m short. That doesn’t help with weight distribution either. Like many people, I exercise. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I have been working out since I was 15; my dad bought me a Sears bench and weight set and put it out on the back porch. The weights were plastic encased over cement. When they cracked, the cement broke out.  But I’m no longer 15. I’m a 44 year old man with beer issues. I’m also a terrible runner. No matter what my wife may believe, I cannot run.

I still go to the gym three days a week and I still do my three day routine. Day one: biceps and triceps; day two: back and chest; day three: cardio and shoulders. Sit ups everyday.  The weights in my gym are not made of plastic encased over cement. In addition to weight lifting and gym cardio, I also try to do Bikram yoga three days a week. The easiest thing to do here as I make this observation would be to draw out parallels with the practice of Bikram and being a university professor. But I’m not interested in that. Metaphors are useful for all kinds of reasons. Not every professional thing we do must be turned into a life metaphor. My favorite academic metaphor is “big fish in a little pond.” That metaphor, as much as it describes so many people I know in the university,  has nothing to do with Bikram, beer, or exercise in general.

I go to yoga three days a week. How is it, I ask, that mere stretching in a 105 degree room for 90 minutes is exhausting? By exhausting, I mean that people have to sit down; they get so tired from stretching. By exhausting, I mean breathing hard for air.  Not only that, but in a Bikram 90 minute session, one does the same stretching to the same script each time. Nothing changes. “Pulling is the object of stretching.” “Elbows each other.” “Like a Japanese ham sandwich.” It is not as if the challenge increases or decreases each time. When Esak Garcia (a major Bikram figure) taught a class at the Lexington studio I attend, bodies sat down on their mats more than they normally do. At one point, I may have seen ten people sitting or laying down (and not doing the postures). I said to Garcia afterward: “I don’t get it. You did the same thing every other instructor does. Why was it even more exhausting today?” He just gave me a weird look.

In Hell Bent, Benjamin Lorr’s narrative of training to be a Bikram instructor and eventually joining Garcia’s Jedi Fight Club, he describes the initial breathing posture that begins every class by noting, “I was already sweating, and class hadn’t begun.”

Many times before class begins, I’m already sweating. My yoga mat – a plastic mat which we cover with a towel (because of how much we will sweat) – smells incredibly bad. So do my clothes. I’m not sure if anybody in the studio notices how badly my mat and clothes smell. The carpet smells bad as well.  During the floor series of Bikram, there is plenty of opportunity to smell the carpet and one’s own mat; we are face down for several postures and savasana rests. In the year I have been doing Bikram yoga, I have gone through three paris of underwear and two shorts. I cannot get the smell out of the clothes. Eventually, I throw them out. No matter how often I wash my clothes – with or without vinegar – with or without the fancy enzyme thing my wife bought – the smell remains.

Saying, “I’m sweaty when I do Bikram,” does little to describe the sweating that occurs in 90 minutes in a 105 degree studio while you are stretching. When we are in postures, I can hear the patter of drops on mats, as if it is raining in the room. While lying face down in a 2o second savasana, I glance at my back in the mirror and see thousands of beads of sweat piled up along the edges of my skin. I take three towels with me to each class. One for the mat, one to dry off the sweat that never stops pouring into my eyes for 90 minutes, one to put on the car seat for the ride home. These towels can never be used again for washing. They are now yoga towels. They also smell bad.

Sometimes in a 90 minutes session, I look around (which you are not supposed to do), and I see bodies sitting down. Laying down. Going out the door. Stretching for 90 minutes in a 105 degree room exhausts people to the point of giving up. In the army, if I learned anything, it was: your mind gives up before you body wants to. I know which postures take the most air out of me: triangle, camel, standing bow, and bow.

All of this may sound as if I am a Bikram expert after one year or as if I am really flexible since I have been practicing Bikram for one year. The opposite is true. After one year, I cannot do one posture correctly. My best posture, toe stand, earns me a compliment here and there, but I struggle more with the right leg than the left. I cannot get my arms to cross during eagle. Full locust has me laying on my belly rather than lifting up in the air. In standing head to toe, my outstretched leg is not “L like Linda.” It is more like a bent coat hanger shaking madly. Sometimes, when stretching, my legs shake madly.

Lock your leg. Lock your leg. If your leg is not locked, posture has not started yet.

I pay $100 a month to sweat profusely three days a week while stretching in a 105 degree room. But my back no longer aches. I no longer wake up stiff and barely able to move. No more sharp pains reaching down my lower back and into my leg as if someone is jamming sewing needles into me.

My sister convinced my wife to try Bikram; my wife convinced me. Sometimes, it seems as if we are preaching the Bikram gospel when we tell people to try it. I sometimes say I belong to two cults whose ideology I do not believe in: Bikram and the Montessori school where both my children attend for a lot more than $100 a month. Today on Facebook, my wife posted that she wishes she “could start an essay without telling a story.” I’d rather tell a story without writing an essay. For a long time now, I’ve taught writing as storytelling, as finding a way to demonstrate the “so what” aspect of writing (whether argumentative, informational, persuasive, etc.). The reason to express one’s self is to get at that aspect of the “so what” so that an audience may care about the expression at all. But sometimes, I’d rather just tell parts of stories, and I’m not sure I care what the point of these parts may be. I go to Bikram three days a week. I sweat a lot. I’m a professor. That’s it. That’s my story.

For whatever reason, as I considered what to write for this post, I felt the need to express one simple fact: I go to Bikram three days a week. My back no longer aches. I sweat a lot. I’m a professor. This is a blog post. I’m due at an event in half an hour. The practice of everyday things. And so it goes. Writing as fragment. Writing as observation. Writing as a series of ideas and moments without grand narrative or larger picture or point to prove. Among colleagues who must argue every point and know everything about the world, the university, economics, countries at war, ideology, social relationships, new media, and so on, I wouldn’t mind reading more writing of the everyday and the banal. Maybe not my own. But someone’s.


September 15, 2013

Does Anything Make Us Happy? Categories, Listings, Platforms

Filed under: facebook,writing — jrice @ 7:32 am

I finished the fast yesterday, went online, and discovered numerous colleagues from across the country upset over the latest MLA categorization of our field.  Apparently, not being categorized or listed in a specific way upsets us. It connotes a lack of disciplinary and professional recognition of value. In turn, we feel insulted.

Of course, such lacks are apparent everywhere, not just in an umbrella organization’s decision or ideological impulse to emphasize one thing over another. At any moment one or another of our organizations releases some update or shift in policy or outlook, we are bound to be upset. Taxonomies, after all, can comfort, and if altered or not expanded to our tastes, they upset.

My kids are not upset on a weekend morning when they get to watch cartoons. They show no beef with television programming categorized as “kids” (The Mighty Jungle, Sarah and Duck, The Cat in the Hat, etc.). As they did such watching this morning, I spent a few minutes on my iPad reading about how Facebook supposedly makes us unhappy, and I suppose, upset. One grouping of findings suggests that

the more time people spent browsing the site, as opposed to actively creating content and engaging with it, the more envious they felt.

This envy supposedly comes from wanting what others have, resentment, and I suppose, jealousy.

We want to learn about other people and have others learn about us—but through that very learning process we may start to resent both others’ lives and the image of ourselves that we feel we need to continuously maintain.

One might take an MLA classification that places our field in an insignificant status bracket (even when we have more job opportunities than other fields) as an example of one of these feelings. We “resent” the status afforded to literature (though, it seems, many within literary studies are expressing similar thoughts about the categorization process as well) as it is opposed to our own image of ourselves. Or we can say that our own reaction, in a field that still won’t grant us the ethos or category we desire, too, as an example of Facebook envy or being unhappy. People, we might think, are learning the wrong thing about us.

Does a list or platform make us happy or unhappy? Do books do as such? Do movies? A platform may have agency, but can its agency be so universal as to make us feel one thing or another all the time? Not likely. Take this short film on Facebook usage, Noah, profiled by The New Yorker as well. Does Facebook create the jealousy and petty feelings that cause a teenager to wrongly accuse his girlfriend of cheating and thus leads to their breakup, or is this merely a familiar narrative of young love applied to Facebook? In that sense, the platform merely allows for narrative repetition in the way all platforms do (songs, movies, novels, poems). Teenage break-up is not a new narrative (and neither, of course, is disciplinary categorization). The platform doesn’t create the narrative, but once it is used to retell the narrative of immaturity and relationships, it extends the story to include new kinds of moments since the overall network (the story) has been altered to include a new actor or set of actors (Facebook, instant messaging. Chatroulette). Facebook can’t make the characters unhappy; the narrative structure did not that long ago.

There is no doubt that our (whatever that means) overall relationships to social media platforms such as Facebook are complex. On the one hand, these relationships grant us access to otherwise unknown information (news, images, personal items, people’s ideas, links, archival moments, etc). Access to data, it seems, is problematic. If such access makes us unhappy, then, we might think that we prefer to not know rather than to know. After all, the boy in Noah ends up knowing “too much” to the extent that he makes a mistake in judgment (such is the weekly plot structure of Sons of Anarchy as well….). If everyone in our generalized Modern Language Association field knows that rhetoric and composition is not an elevated or unique category among the various specializations (or that it has specific subcategories that are equally important), then we feel unhappy at this accessible data. People, we think, do not fully know our relationship to the overall field. We are more important to the field than the category makes us out to be, we think. Of course, everyone likely feels that way when status is reduced to taxonomy. And because we have granted so much agency to the umbrella organization – as studies often grant to platforms like Facebook – our feelings are intense.

The New Yorker cites a University of Missouri grad student researcher as saying, ““Facebook may be a threat to relationships that are not fully matured.” Academic relationships, as a whole, can suffer from such immaturity, whether online or offline. At Wayne State, I felt slighted that I was not listed in the department’s categorization of faculty who specialize in media studies – despite having written about media and technology. Coming to Kentucky, I felt elevated that my taxonomy of “endowed professor” suddenly enhanced my overall disciplinary status. My emotional response to both categories can be considered as the result of an immature relationship. Neither, though, has to do with Facebook or other social media. They have to do with me. Whatever networks I enter into – networks that include the very nonhuman actors called “pride” or “status” or “rank” or other items – I engage with them in various ways as to produce envy, jealousy, happiness, unhappiness or other responses. A departmental categorization of speciality doesn’t make me unhappy on its own. It does so via the other forces I engage with at that moment. In the moment I currently am in professionally, I’m not sure I’d give a shit about either category. Neither position (How dare they! I don’t care!) is necessarily better than the other. They are simply the result of my engagements at specific moments.

The New Yorker piece concludes by noting that “when participants simply consumed a lot of content passively, Facebook had the opposite effect, lowering their feelings of connection and increasing their sense of loneliness.” I suppose that is true of any given moment. McLuhan’s emphasis on involvement may not have been a statement regarding being happy (i.e., if I am involved, I am happy or satisfied), but it can reflect the ways participation plays the major role in any relationship moment. A MOOC student who feels disengaged – much as a student in a lecture hall – responds in a negative way. An academic who feels disengaged from a list responds in a negative way. A fan of a product who speaks with the product’s makers or representatives via an online platform responds in negative and positive ways. Friends who can share personal and professional moments via an online platform respond in negative (I want that too!) and positive (good for her/him!) ways as well.  Like the narrative of teenage love gone awry, this story, too, is not novel.


August 28, 2013

Who We Talk To When We Talk Online

Filed under: facebook,socialmedia,writing — jrice @ 8:39 am

A department sends an announcement to undergraduates via Facebook or Twitter. Who actually hears the announcement?

I ask the question not as a critique of my program or any program’s usage of social media to distribute news or announcements but out of curiosity regarding audience, the ways we create audience (recall Ong’s the audience is a fiction) and the ways audiences respond or do not respond to various messages online. I ask the question after watching my program use Facebook to distribute announcements even though we have no major or minor and our Facebook page has only 292 likes, many of whom are not undergraduate students but colleagues from across the country who either support our efforts at UK (thus, they like us) or are interested in the work we are doing (the like allows them to follow our online activity).

Do students see our announcements, I wondered? Do we know they are reading what we share? And are our 292 likes an anomaly, a small number regarding institutional likes since we are not yet a department and we don’t have majors or minors. After all, the University of Kentucky has 365,000 likes. Surely, we can nab a percentage of that number when we are a department and are able to build the major.

Yet, the English Department, a department that has a considerable number of majors, only has 283 likes. That number could be shaped by faculty less interested in social media than an emerging department with “digital studies” in its name. That number could also be shaped by an object of study not completely intertwined with digital media (at least at UK). Communication, after all, has 712 likes. Some of the work done in the Communication school involves digital media (they objected to our usage of “media” in our name based on this point). And yet, 712 is a small fraction of 365,000.

What is a like anyway? For writers like Paul Adams, the like shapes the relationship. It acknowledges that I – the person who likes – has or wants some form of a relationship with the thing I liked. If I like Stone Brewing’s Facebook page, I assume that means I like Stone Brewing’s products and I want to be informed about any change or development regarding their products. If I want an undergraduate to like my program’s Facebook page, I am asking the student to be in a relationship with my program’s work or object of study beyond the simple statement “I am majoring in that study” or “I have taken classes in that study.” When I was an undergraduate student studying English, I have to admit, I did not enjoy such a relationship with my department. This is not because there was no such thing as social media then but rather because I saw myself merely taking classes, doing well, and then moving on. I did not have that kind of identity (professional or professional oriented) to care about English as something to have a greater relationship with. As I surveyed UK departments’ Facebook pages, I noticed that many, like our own department to be, had likes under 300. I wonder, then, if most students merely don’t care about having a relationship with the department that will grant them a degree the way they may care about our other kinds of online relationships – those based on commerce, entertainment, or some other idea.

The answer, particularly with all the recent fuss about the VMA awards and news coverage, would appear to be yes; students, like most people, prefer relationships with entertainment over education. I don’t, however, want to yield to the easy answer just yet. I don’t want to because the question of audience and building audience is more complex than merely “give the people what they want.” To stay with the Stone example for a minute, when Greg Koch started promoting Stone’s IPA and Pale Ale in the business’ early days, the “people” did not want – or it was believed that they did not want – bitter beer. Want was something, it seems, to be created, not accommodated. And, of course, that is how most innovations work. If there appears to be no audience, build one (like the famous Sprite ad declares with its focus on products over the movie). When Brian McNely came to UK and did a job talk, he dismissed the overall usage of Twitter for broadcasting  - as opposed to fostering relationships. And yet, when most academic departments, at first glance, take to social media, they only broadcast. They are trying to accommodate want before building want. We believe someone wants us before we show them why to want us.

I asked on Facebook what one’s department or program’s Facebook likes were. I received a few responses, and mostly they reflect what I noticed at UK. Somewhere in the 300 figure.

There is no causality here – meaning, low numbers do not reflect an inability to connect or distribute information to an undergraduate audience. Departments may simply not care about Facebook as a potential connector with students. And there is no evidence of creepy treehouse here either, though we assume that they don’t want to eat where they shit (metaphorically speaking). Nor is there evidence that undergraduate students don’t use Facebook. In the residential hall program I co-direct, the Facebook presence is very active (though it is a Group, and not a page, thus suggesting another form of Facebook interaction outside of the like). We can generational generalize, but such generalizations often come up short with scrutiny, much as ethnic ones do.

One of Paul Adams’ other points regarding the like is that it fosters permission marketing. By liking someone or something, I am conceding permission for that like to be further shared (and thus, generate more likes and more of an audience). This is an idea not too far off of Malcolm Gladwell’s Connector theory (which Adams critiques because of Gladwell’s emphasis on well known people) in which certain people are connectors, sharing information and ideas to other people. If I like X, and if some people who know me see I like X, they may show interest in X as well. I, then, am a Connector or I am facilitating permission marketing. I am not paid for liking X. But I may benefit from others liking X if X grows and develops in a way to bring me more pleasure. Such is how craft beer works regarding blogs and online beer forums and reviews.

It seems we need some form of permission marketing for our department/program Facebook page if we are to actually communicate with students. That is, announcements should still be distributed via Twitter or Facebook, but if the audience is not really there – or not there in the numbers we need to be effective in such distribution – we need to create content that will foster identification and relationships that, in turn, generate permission marketing. Some may calls this building memes or going viral, or Tony Sampson may critique such work via his explanation of contagion theory where he finds distaste with the supposed models of capitalism. Not exactly. The content does not have to be picked up by thousands. It has to be liked. Via the like, the relationship can be built beyond “take these classes,” “we’re the best major out there,” “study this,” or other forms of broadcast media that, for the most part, lack content or the ability to generate a relationship. I took English classes and did well as an undergraduate. I did not have a relationship with the department. My want was not fostered.  I like Stone not because Stone says: BUY OUR BEER. A want, and granted a want bigger than Stone, pushes me toward their online presence.

This is not a critique of WRD, my program, or any program for that matter. Nor is this a solution. This is more of an inquiry into the nature of relationship building which is the heart of social media audience creation and the various strategies we employ to create relationships (hey, rhetoric!). Not really news, of course. Industries revolve around such questions. Studying the performances of various identities might help us here. We might discover the importance of personality (dynamic figures that generate interest), content (material beyond information), humor (often a plus), news (what we are good at already), image (WRD is doing this on Instagram already), and interaction. And, of course, time.

And, these are likely notes towards a piece on response and online interactions.

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