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.

August 6, 2013

Funding the University

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 1:21 pm

Neo-liberalism? Reality check? What is the language to use in the current university situation of financial instability?

Once, the states subsidized university education. Now, the states don’t want to, or don’t want to at any significant level. There is no shortage of critique regarding the current situation, but there are few solutions. And when an idea comes into being (no matter how young the idea is – for example, MOOCs), the response can be to shut down the idea immediately without any real knowledge regarding what the idea is about. Or, the idea is shut down the idea via the rhetoric of romanticism (face to face education narratives are among the most romantic…..today’s InsideHigherEd piece shares that romanticism).

How to finance what was never meant to need additional finance outside of tuition and subsidy?

1. Cut. Cut programs. Cut majors. Cut expensive faculty lines. Create a cheaper product, but cut. Not ideal, of course.

2. Invent. Create products that can be licensed and sold. In the Humanities, this is a bit of a problem since we are not inventors of material things (though, we tried last year to start such an endeavor via an NEH grant; we did not get the grant).

3. Raise tuition. Limited in effect since it also causes some students to search out cheaper alternatives.

4. Charge students for more services. This has become the norm. When we need to pay for something, we add more fees and charges. Students are being asked to pay for more, if not all, of their education. Taxpayers want out of this business. No politician loses an election for cutting education funding. Quite the opposite: politicians lose elections over questions of who can get married or how much money the prison system receives. Not education.

Can we imagine a day when tuition only pays for the classroom experience? Students already pay for the gym, sporting events, and some other services. Will they have to pay to use the library? Or the commons area? Or even the remedial or support options initially designed for retention? I don’t find it too difficult to imagine such a future.

Will or should students, for instance, pay for the Writing Center? As a writing professor, I find this to be an immediate issue. Writing Centers, so often deemed important, often receive minimal funding and attention. At Wayne State, for instance, the chair of the department did not want a tenure line faculty member running the Writing Center; it was run by a rotating team of graduate students. At Kentucky, our Writing Center is also not run by a tenure line faculty member. Few centers are, despite their importance.  And ours has been asked to rethink some of its expenses, including the usage of MA students as tutors, an expense that offers little return outside of tutoring. These MA students do not teach courses that can provide revenue; they, in effect, provide a free service. But they cost a great deal since the MA students are on fellowships. I understand why they should but cut from the tutoring they currently do.

MA students aside – I have no objection to a totally undergraduate peer tutoring model – how could the Writing Center generate revenue instead of being a free service? Is its model the gym or the current library? That is, should it require additional payment for usage or stay free?

What if, let’s say, the Writing Center charged for its services. Imagine this scenario: students registering for their classes, and in particular, their first semester, receive a pamphlet describing the Writing Center’s services and options. The pamphlet also reminds students – and their parents – that most students, particularly in the early part of university education, need additional help in chemistry, math,and writing. The Writing Center provides such help in one of these vital areas. All areas of education and work, after all, require writing. To succeed, students often will need writing help beyond the two semesters spent in required writing classes.

But to use the Writing Center, students need to pay $10 a visit. Or, if they check the appropriate box on registration after reading about the Writing Center, they can receive unlimited visits for $30. Of course, we don’t want them to pay $10 a visit. We want the $30 unlimited. If 1,000 of 4,000 incoming freshmen take the $30 option, the Writing Center will now have $30,000 for the Fall semester. If they sign up again, the amount doubles. Can the Writing Center handle 1,000 students in a semester with unlimited access? I don’t know. Our Writing Center has never provided information regarding usage. My guess is that the average student would use the Writing Center 5-7 times a semester. That may translate to 100 students per day. But I may be wrong. I’m guessing. I would need the data to know more. I also see the gym model extended here. Gyms enroll people on unlimited plans knowing that the customers will not attend in an unlimited way – and many will hardly show up at all. But I want parents to know that this vital service can be used by the student  for the entire semester for far less than one meal on the town in Lexington. I want the parents to see how cheap this deal is. $60 a year is a pretty good deal for extra help. Private tutoring alone, over a year, would cost far more than $60. Not all 1,000 may show up in a given semester. But we need 1,000 – and their parents – to see $30 as a minor, additional expense, and one that is very valuable for the cost.

Would our Writing Center benefit by an additional, annual $60,000 over its current, allocated budget? I’d think so. Would this be a popular decision with students who are already over-taxed? Maybe not. Don’t know. Would the university support the charge? Don’t know either. My experience in various institutions is that calls to self-fund are also, at times, countered by fears that Regents, legislatures, or parents will reject the new idea. Thus, as we are pressured to self-fund, we are also constrained by political fears. Those fears may, in fact, be justified. But, then, what is the solution? We have one, limited audience to charge additional fees to: the students. We have 25,000 of them. Without new financial models, like I propose here, then the calls to self-fund should dry up. But they don’t. Obviously, I’m thinking of a persuasive moment, rather than a fulfilled moment. That’s what I do or a living: imagine how to persuade.

Or do you think this model is merely another offshoot of that bad, bad word “neoliberalism”? I’m a realist more than an ideologue. We could just as easily let certain services go away in the name of ideology.  The ideological position would be: writing support  is meant to be free. Of course, ideology is what gets writing centers into trouble in the first place. The same occurs with online education each time “face to face” is the response to an idea. Another, and likely worthwhile discussion, might be: what would happen without remedial or student support setups like writing centers? MOOCs could be a part of that discussion, but then again, so would  be the negative , or even ideological, responses.

 

July 27, 2013

Do Whatchaya Like

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 3:36 pm

The basis of much of social media is the like.

Facebook likes.

Google + signs.

Tweet favorites.

We express likes everywhere. Ours is a rhetoric of pleasure. Whereas critique often feels like the endless search for displeasure (“I dislike this representation, viewpoint, ideology, position, statement, reading, etc.), the like suggests pleasure (I offer expression without critique).  Liking is a form of social branding. By liking something, I am advertising it to others. I like your post. Now everyone I know on the platform sees the post. I like this product. Now everyone I know sees this product. Early on, the concept of the like was trivialized by some. Others, like Facebook’s Paul Adams, have triumphed the concept of the like. While some of us would love to dislike some of the things we read on social media platforms such as Facebook, the sites are driven more by affinity than by disagreement. The like countered the flame war. Sites like Facebook need the like option. Participants want to be liked. As  topical or so called controversial items are reported or linked to, participants typically want confirmation that their views are legitimate. A like offers a sense of legitimacy: I agree with you; you are correct; let’s lament or celebrate together. If you post your beliefs, and there is no response, do the beliefs lose public legitimacy? Data = attention. Attention, eyeballs, is the basis of media currency.

The Oatmeal’s advice for generating likes includes “write an epic story involving cage-fighting nuns and tanks.” UNICEF says Facebook likes won’t save children’s lives. I’m not sure which status update I’ve written has received the most likes. Recently, a photograph shared via Instgram of my kids standing in the entrance way to Three Floyds received 15 likes. The status update where I miswrote “duck” on my phone did generate 13 comments, but only a few likes. That embarrassing update where the effort to be liked (“look at this amazing meal I just spent money on”) sounded more like sex was served received only 8 more comments than my “Banned from Assessment” post did on this blog. That blog post  received more attention on Facebook than any other Yellow Dog post I’ve shared on the site. Yet, it only received 4 shares and 19 likes. 19 people like what I said. I can live with that number.  It offers just enough self-legitimacy to satisfy.

It’s not easy liking and disliking. Facebook, at times, feels like an endless parade of dislikes. Each offered link is a cultural or political complaint; a strongly shared dislike that is meant to generate likes (“how awful!”). I contribute to this environment by often pointing out what I dislike about coverage in The Chronicle of Higher Education or campus policies. The pro and con hype that has, for the last year, surrounded MOOCs, too, is built on the concept of liking. This type of liking is not done by clicking on a button, but instead by spreading hyperbole. Forces against online education point out how much they dislike MOOCs (no face to face learning, the corporatization of the university, neoliberalism at work). Those who promote online education point out how much they like MOOCs (promise of democratic education, overturning hegemony of the university, access). The conversations are, indeed, reduced to likes or dislikes. Once San Jose State announced its premature exit from its MOOC program, the dislikes switched to likes.

Roland Barthes reduced discourse, at times, to likes and dislikes. His long lists of banal likes included salad, the Marx Brothers, ball point pens, and ice cold beer. Barthes is the early Facebook user. He likes. Would Barthes like MOOCs? Would Barthes click like on a sponsored Toyota Facebook or Degree deodorant page?  Of course, one does not have to like something to be interested in it. I do not like nor dislike MOOCs. I am, however, interested in the efforts to salvage university finances, to develop digital education, and to discuss pedagogy in general.  I don’t like live music, fast food, or the beach. I like my Toyota Rav. I don’t dislike the Ford Explorer (even if I don’t own one). I don’t like Miller Lite. I do like Prairie Artisan Ales. I like cantaloup  My wife does not.  I like to write. I like Bikram yoga. I don’t like baseball. Some have suggested that my writing a book about social media and craft beer is the triumph of university promotion.  Finally, as a full professor, the narrative goes, I can write about what I want and what I like. Actually, I always have written about what I like. Writing expresses interest. My writing is about what I like even when I engage in argument or express concern about some issue. I can write about problems in academia and still like academia. Academics, what I do for a living, is what interests me.

By posting to Facebook or Instagram, as well, I am expressing interest, it seems. The photographs I share on Instgram, for instance,  must indicate interest. Here is my interest. I’m sharing it with you. My kids. I’m interested in them. I share them. Beers I drink. I’m interested in them. I share them. If anything, then, social media is an unselfish culture. It is a culture of sharing. In that sense, it is also a return to the culture of advertisements of myself, the initial web presence feeling that accompanied homepages, or even the media based feeling McLuhan identified in the mid ’60s and Mailer took advantage of.

The like, we might say then, is merely an extension of ourselves.

 

My son. I like him.

My son. I like him.

June 25, 2013

What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 7:58 am

Since I received a few more readers than normal on my last post, I thought I’d write about another issue regarding the university. This one, no doubt, will get little attention, though it does have to with rhetoric. We can’t all have back to back big time posts, can we?

Previously, I alluded to the cliche responses we often receive in the university via official letter, personal email, or mass mailing. Typically, this response is something along the lines of  ”We value the work you are doing,” “I thank you for your creativity and willingness to work for us,”  or “Thank you for your efforts and commitment as we move forward in the midst of exciting times full of change and opportunity.” Sometimes these closings are used within heated debates. Sometimes they are used in updates. Sometimes they are used in moments of crisis. Sometimes they are merely the conclusion to an otherwise meaningless correspondence  These responses are meant to project the image of cordiality. The workplace should be a cordial place. In that case, we should end our correspondences with “thank yous” for all of the “hard work” being done.

Cordiality is always welcome. And these closures to a correspondence indicate cordiality. But, as is often the case, these closures also indicate  something else. In its repetition, the gesture is meant to silence or close off. To close. To shut down. When the closing occurs, the recipient is signaled to stop writing or not respond at all. The gesture is also issued as if the person receiving the message might actually think: “WOW. This person sending the message really values me! Thus, I will disregard all the problems we’re having and continue to work really hard!” Instead, we might think that the opposite is the case. The “we value you” closing, for many of us, actually means the opposite. It often means:

  1. Shut up
  2. You are not smart enough to realize I am telling you to shut up
  3. I am not that interested in any response you may have
  4. You are not smart enough to realize that I am not that interested in any response you may have

In this way, the cordial closing to correspondence is not cordial at all. It’s an insult.

I might also say that I have been the recipient of plenty of these “we value the work you are doing” email closings. I receive such closings because, and this should not surprise, I have no problem calling out problematic ideas. I also have no problem engaging in academic conversation. This is, after all, the business we are in. And as a rhetoric and writing person, I’m also in the argument and discourse business. When I respond to some correspondence, and the initiator of that correspondence quickly realizes she/he doesn’t want to correspond, I would prefer a basic “sincerely” or a humble “best” (though, I am not a fan of “cheers!”). But instead of receiving this normal phatic markers of a concluding discussion, I am reminded that I am valuable. Value is our new phatic ending.

Thank you for saying that I am valuable. In the Humanities, this rhetorical gesture is compounded by a continued claim that we are the gatekeepers of critical thinking. If that were, indeed, the case, then it might be obvious to those who send such messages that us Humanities types will engage quickly in critical thinking, acknowledge the statement for what it is (a call to not have a conversation), and then be pissed off (you actually don’t think I’m valuable!). This might be true except I often receive emails with these closings from fellow members of the Humanities. The sender may not be hitting that critical thinking switch on his/her own end. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

We are supposed to good at communication. Writing is about communication, after all. And if there is such a think as critical thinking, one would guess that the ability to navigate and participate in communicative moments might be a part of the often triumphed and valued concept. One complaint often leveled at first year students – such as Verlyn Klinkenborg’s New York Times cry of support for the English major  - is that undergraduate students “can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax.” If that is, indeed, the writing impulse of the hungry for critical thought 18 year olds we encounter in the classroom during their first or second semester of higher education, what to make of the professional PhDs who feel the need to remind us repeatedly – in its own jaron and ventriloquistic syntax – that we are so valuable?

At some point, email became a vehicle of fear in the university, and that fear reduced actual discussion to phatic discussion whose basis is in cliches and ventriloquistic syntax. Whereas email was a prime medium for distance communication when I started in 1996,  today it is the place where university conversations go to die. Email spats on departmental listservs led not to further argumentation and engagement (the agora became flame wars to some), but to silence. The English department here does not even have a listserv (supposedly because of heated online discussion). Our program does, but we have been reminded more than once not to use it (these reminders come at the very moment discussion gets heated). Supposedly, the very first email sent included instructions on how to use the @ sign. The @ sign, as we know now, indicates the person one wants to communicate with. With generic, cliche closings proclaiming immense value to the department, university or the world, we might as well remove the @ sign from our correspondences. An email with such a closing could be directed to anyone on a listserv where no one should send an email.

Homogeneity and silence are our new keywords of work.  We want a homogenous attitude (SHUT UP/ YOU’RE VALUABLE), and we want quiet so that the administration can do its work without advice or suggestion.  Thus, we discover by email that the university entered into a relationship with Coursera without going through faculty senate or undergraduate council. Thus, the director of a program hides from the program’s members for a year that she/he is stepping down, announcing it only three weeks before the term ends. Thus, a fiscal crises hides the spending going on elsewhere, a lesson I learned as a low level administrator in my previous position.

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

We have email, Facebook, Twitter, Google +, blogs, and an overwhelming urge to silence. When I arrived at the university, an internal document circulated that basically advised faculty not to use social media (it did so via all the warnings associated with social media). In an age of making information available, we’re told not to make information available.

All this demonstrates irony in an emerging department – still program – whose focus is communicating ideas in writing, and via new media.

Thus, the Office of Assessment is angry with me because, in a communicative moment of assessment response, I wrote that the speeches under assessment were “boring.” In a homogenous, rhetorical ecology, “boring” has no place. It does not demonstrate value (as the cliche correspondence does). It is argumentative (“I challenge the teaching of audience in this situation”). It is unacceptable (“Our task is not to question the level of interest a speech delivers”). It doesn’t conform (“You are making trouble by using this language”). The communicative moment fails, but the response is to shut down any further efforts (“Please don’t let him do another assessment for us”).

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

The citation from Cool Hand Luke actually concludes with the line “some men you just can’t reach.”  The valuable closing is a confirmation of that belief. If you don’t agree with me, I can’t reach you, thus, I will shut down the conversation. Of course, it is not just Luke who is stubborn in the film’s narrative. So is the institution. Even if long blog posts or responses to emails appears to be an act of stubbornness  these gestures are no match for the institutional stubbornness of “you are valuable” closings. My understanding is that the university just spent $90,000 on a pre-college Chemistry preparation course on Coursera that won’t generate any revenue, and the university can’t even guarantee that high school students taking the course will enroll in our university. This decision was made without faculty input. Who is stubborn? “You are valuable” is not only stubborn, it is agressive.  It is an attack on the supposed diversity and critical thinking we continue to champion as what we contribute to education and broad, far reaching conversations.

Most people’s favorite scene (or memorable scene)  from Cool Hand Luke is the egg eating scene. We identify with this scene not only because of the projection of stubbornness (Luke will eat those fifty eggs in an hour if it kills him), but because it doesn’t shut Luke up.  It pauses Luke, it makes him feel sick, it puts him out of commission for a bit. A decision to not listen to faculty about online education is a little like that. So is a “you are so valuable to us” email closing. We do shut up. For a bit. But we mostly recognize the pause as a pause. Yes, thank you. We are valuable. Very, very valuable. Now, shut up.

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