Exigence(s) for the diss

The more I talk about the minor exam with folks in my program, the better I understand how it can lay important groundwork for the dissertation. Although the goal is to produce an annotated bib and publishable article by the end of the year (at the latest!), it’s clear that these can feed at least two chapters of the diss. Needless to say, and as I mentioned last week, this is an exciting and terrifying time, knowing the weight of these choices for future work and scholarly identity. The rub at the moment has to do with considering the exigence of my work. Why exactly would this dissertation matter? Or perhaps, how could it matter? I have a rich, multimodal site worth pursuing, but the exigence and questions for that study are a bit hazy. One faculty member advised me to reflect upon what bothers me about the field and start there. When I do, I think about a few things.

First, I think about the need to explore literacy and writing as an ongoing and complex process — as networked, multimodal, and difficult to predict. We have many theories and tools in place for these conceptions of literacy, but virtually no RAD writing studies of amateur writing cultures doing it. Moreover, like Jody Shipka, I’m bothered by the tendency in the field to equate “technology” with the digital. More explicitly, I wonder how “old media” and its meanings/uses get altered through a particular new media lens. How do codes and spatial templates, for example, constrict the possibilities of form? How do digital technologies assist — as well as limit — the circulation of writing? Again, zine communities, which embrace a variety of modes for production and distribution, provide an interesting space for learning the nuances of our writing tools.

Second, I wonder if we overdetermine our pedagogies; that is, in pursuit of our own relevance/professionalism, we place too much emphasis on curriculum, assessment, and instruction. As a ex-writing center director and continuing consultant and teacher I’ve been more attracted to true studio models of writing, where teachers/consultants create or restrict the conditions for various attempts at writing, but do not micromanage the interactions. How might a more responsive, ongoing syllabi, where readings are curated by students and occasions for writing/heuristics are co-constructed (to give a few examples), open up some of the possibilities for learning? My sense is that zine makers — as self-organizing communities — have a lot to teach us about the autodidactic functions of literacy.

Finally, for many years, when it comes to the way writing works more generally, I’ve been struck by ongoing tensions between structure and agency. That is, I wonder when or in what ways is writing the product of sociocultural forces and when is it the act of our own choosing. In what cases are those acts of our own choosing actually the product of structuring forces? Here I am drawn to the work of Marilyn Cooper, Deb Brandt, Berkenkotter and Huckin, and the theories of Pierre Bourdieu.

Taken together, I imagine a diss that studies the various spaces and moments of zine-making —  individual composers cutting and pasting in their rooms, writers and presses trading at zine fests, and interactions on online spaces like We Make Zines — to consider what a DIY praxis or self-sponsorship might teach us about multimodal composing and pedagogy. Two or the more compelling questions for me include: Why print and why now? What are the affordances of the medium in an era of Tumblr or Twitter? Secondly, how do self-sponsored zine-makers develop and learn multiple literacies? How can these be traced at the level of composition, production, and circulation?

The only problem with this approach is that I don’t quite trust it — yet. That is, depending on what I’m reading, or who I’m talking with, these problems/questions shift. At the same time, this might not be as much of a problem as it feels like at the moment and that these shifts are important for winnowing toward a more consistent prospectus. To come to terms with this, I’m planning to take the approach that another faculty member suggested: to write dissertation chapter maps every few days. That is, spend an hour or so summarizing what I imagine a chapter looking like and to try and generate as many of these as possible as I read through my exam bib. It’s difficult to know what a map might look like before the thing is written, but if I understand this properly, I need to be reading for potential ideas for setting up my study. I’ll start with Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole. More soon…


Passing the major exam: a final reflection on the process

As you could guess from the title, I passed my major exam. After a summer filled with anxious blogging about my studying process and some admittedly uneven discussions of the texts themselves, I have to say that the actual writing of the exams went fairly smoothly. By the time I wrote the final exam, I was truly ready, taking way too many notes on actual and potential source texts. In that sense, the best part of this process is that I now feel prepared to move on to the minor exam, which is essentially a pre-dissertation boot camp — except way more fun. Before I discuss that, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I just want to recapture some of the reasons why I think I got through this phase as smoothly as I did:

  • I minimized my professional obligations. This summer I was lucky to receive a grant to develop a course for Spring 2014, so I didn’t have to leave the house to teach or meet much with anyone regularly on campus. Aside from this, my only true obligation was prepping for exams.
  • As a family, we prioritized my studying. We hired a babysitter for the kids while E. taught Summer Start in the mornings. Although it was really difficult listening to them play around the house and in the yard all morning, this gave me 4-5 hours of (granted, often interrupted) study time per day — which was necessary, but not so much time that I screwed around. I owe so much to E. for making this happen.
  • I was flexible with my reading. I went into the summer thinking I’d try to tackle every piece on the list to some extent, but what ended up happening was more modest. Truthfully, I simply prioritized monographs that I hadn’t read before; I ended up reading those thoroughly and (surprisingly) drawing on them extensively in my actual exams. And when I got bogged down with a really difficult text, like Grammar of Motives, I backed off and reminded myself of the overall goal. I skimmed the anthologies but when it came to actually writing the exam, I searched them carefully for potentially relevant arguments for the task at hand. For example, when my first exam asked me to assess Berlin’s influence on the field, I searched each anthology for instances where Rhetoric and Reality or words like historiography were mentioned.
  • I consistently reflected on my study process. Because time felt like the only enemy this summer, it was crucial that I developed — and then constantly reassessed — strategies for studying. At first I thought print notes made sense, but I quickly realized this was slowing me down too much. I also now feel quite silly for trying to write my own exam questions. The practice exam also showed me how much time a week really provides for the task. I needed to know a few core books really, really well (for me they were Hawk’s Counter-History, Berkenktotter and Huckin’s Genre Knowledge, Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality, and Horner et al’s recent collection Cross-Language Relations in Composition). Then I needed to be able to map the others. In this way, skimming all the texts and reviews the first week of studying made a lot of sense.

Now that it’s over, I get to focus on Parts Two and Three, which include a annotated bib of 25 books and a publishable article. I met with some potential advisors last week who offered some wonderful, thoughtful and qualified advice on thinking about this important in-between phase. Basically, while I have an article in mind, I’m going to concentrate on balancing the bibliography while prepping for two national conference presentations in the spring, with hopes that the article and one or two diss chapters will organically evolve from that work. So far I have some promising leads on ways of looking at zines and sociocultural theories of process. One of the fundamental questions I’m thinking of asking at this point is: How and where have zine writers learned to do what they do? Where or how did they learn how to compose, participate, and circulate their work? How does their learning continue and what are its implications for importing a DIY ethos in to the composition classroom?

In short, this moment feels as pivotal as it should: full of anxiety, excitement, and all sort of possibility.

Remediating the self, or: Why I left Facebook

155781_125349424193474_1654655_nThe Zimmerman verdict entered my world Saturday night as I peaked at my Twitter TL just after (appropriately enough) watching an episode of The Wire. I was shocked as I refreshed the feed on my phone, reading reports, outrage, and snark; the response was tremendous. But when I switched over to Facebook, my feed looked vacant. Hardly anyone was reacting to the verdict and the two posts that did made me angry. One argued in support of Stand Your Ground — an absurd manifestation of 21st century frontier justice — and another that asked why race had anything to do with the case (to be fair, this person lives in a state worse than Florida, if that can be imagined). Honestly, it wasn’t a totally unfamiliar feeling: I preferred Twitter to FB during the fall election and I felt overwhelmingly disgusted by a lot of what I read on FB after the the Newtown shooting last December. So, I finally did what I’d been thinking about for months: I went to my computer and deactivated my account (deleting it entirely requires more steps, unfortunately).

Dealing with the occasional family troll is something most people have to endure and, like most friends, I’ve endured them throughout two presidential elections. But there were other reasons for my departure none of which are unique. Like many others, I was concerned about my privacy (Instagram pictures, for example, started showing up in public feeds without my consent) and the growing intrusion of ads. But because I use Twitter, Instagram, Google, Yahoo, and others, these couldn’t be my only reasons. Actually, truth told, the primary reason is embarrassing — cliche, even. I had been checking FB incessantly, nay automatically, every time I’d open a browser or my phone, which was distracting me from other possibilities, from reading deeper content from my RSS or Pocket or simply paying more attention to my kids. Simply put, I don’t know if I had the self control to stop looking at it. Which is odd, actually, because it’s been almost a week and I simply do not miss it. At all. And that makes me wonder how it became such a part of my routine in the first place. What I realized over the last few months is that there was a fundamental difference between what I was reading there and what I was finding on Twitter, which is more open, active, and often awesomely weird. In composition terms, Twitter is way more of a happening, even if my interactions there are rare. I was thinking of this especially as I read a prediction by Bob Lefsetz that Twitter will soon be dead:

…there are too many people on the service. As a result, very few are heard. It’s happened over the past six months, tweeting is like a stone in a waterfall, or more accurately, pissing in the wind. In other words, if you tweet and nobody reads it have you wasted your time?

I don’t put too much stock in industry heads like Lefsetz, but the comment is representative of the prevailing critique of Twitter by users who don’t differentiate it much from other kinds of social media. Still, I’m guessing most people (and legal definitions to the contrary, businesses aren’t people) who love Twitter aren’t on it to be heard as much as to experience it, entering and exiting the interface as a moment, not in its totality.

One important difference between the two is who is representing your social reality. I’m not an expert on the technical aspects of either service, but there are fundamentally different ways each network controls your stream. FB uses an EdgeRank algorithm to decide which slice of your feed is relevant, while Twitter engages algorithms on their separate trending topics tab and probably via Promoted tweets. It’s true that I could tinker and manipulate FB to draw content out (starring certain friends, for example), but even at that moment I’m competing with the interface. What I have grown to love about Twitter is its unpredictability.

This week I’ve been reflecting on new media as I’ve been reading Bolter & Grusin’s older-but-fascinating book, Remediation. Their basic argument is that all media contains traces of old media and thus, remediation as a process that operates under a paradox of two logics: the logics of immediacy and hypermediacy. Put most simply, the logic of transparent immediacy seeks to erase media/tion through linear perspective (think virtual reality), erasure, and automaticity (24), while the logic of hypermediacy seeks to make it conspicuous and multiple through multiplicity and heterogeneity (33-34). Depending on the context, these two logics can compete, compliment or coexist — and they are not unique to digital media. The authors provide compelling examples of furniture, dioramas, and stereoscopes as hypermediated. Both logics work to form “the desire to get past the limits of representation and to achieve the real” (53). Transparent immediacy aims to make the users engagement feel natural while hypermediacy aims to create a “a feeling of fullness, a satiety of experience, which can be taken as reality” (53). As a rhetoric, remediation offers us transparency only to mature, which then “offers new opportunities for hypermediacy” (60). So before FB, we had YouTube, which remediated film which remediated photography, which remediated linear perspective paintings and drawings (excuse the reduction). FB and Twitter, in this sense, are both hypermediated, even if my engagement with them has become automated.

Or maybe not. In their discussion of networks of remediation, B&G explain how every medium “participates in a network of technical, social, and economic contexts,” which “constitutes [it] as a technology” (65). Thus, FB and Twitter offer different technical, social, and economic affordances based on their interfaces. Economically speaking, FB offers ads in my stream that other friends have liked (why some of my friends have liked Walmart, I’ll never know) whereas Twitter offers minimally intrusive “Promoted tweets.” And as I mentioned before, they’re technically different. As the Lefsetz quote suggests, many people are turned off by Twitter because of its singularity (not to mention the investment it takes to build more than one social network). But I’ve found Twitter to be tenfold more useful than FB for finding out about emerging scholarship because I can follow — not friend — smart, prolific DHers like Danah Boyd, Bethany Nowviskie, and Brian Croxall. But I believe it’s the social aspect that’s been the final push for me to actually leave FB. The authenticity of a medium is especially important to the social dimension and is, according to B&G, socially constructed through immediacy or hypermediacy. For me, Twitter has overtaken FB as a more authentic space, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because of the technical affordances; as I’ve turned more in to a scholar,  and as a result value those open social networks more than the mundaneness of FB.

After all in the third and final section of Remediation, B&G talk about remediation and identity:

…we employ media as vehicles for defining both personal and cultural identity. As these media become simultaneously technical analogs and social expressions of our identity, we become simultaneously both the subject and object of contemporary media… Whenever our identity is mediated in this way, it is also remediated, because we always understand a particular medium in relation to other past and present media. (231)

In other words, in moving to other platforms, I remediate myself — as a subject in a PhD program, a dad, a zinester, a collector of material things — and thus/because I cease to identify with/in FB. Likewise, my leaving FB could be a reaction to digital overload, one that I sense some of my closer friends also feel. Many of those like-minded friends — those I ceased to see on the interface — abandoned FB long ago. Meanwhile, others — folks I don’t identify with so much but maintain relations through blood, work, or other ties — were posting more frequently. (Then again, perhaps FB’s algorithm is inaccurate — or worse, corrupt.) The point is, in leaving FB, I’m engaging in a ongoing, never-ending process of remediating myself. There’s much more to reflect upon about this and I don’t know if it’s a permanent move. But for now it’s a good one.

Transformation & Rhetoric

I spent the last few days reading Burke’s Grammar of Motives and Wayne Booth’s Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent and trying to come to terms, temporarily at least, with the question of transformation.

For Burke, the question is conspicuous enough in the introduction: “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” (xv). His method for answering the question, of course is the pentad: “what was done (act), when or where was it done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (xv). For Burke, considering the relationships — or ratios — among these terms helps shed light on the why people do and say what they do. If I understand GOM correctly, the pentad can be used in a variety of juxtapositions in situations that have some degree of ambiguity, though various combinations of the pentad require certain considerations. For example, ratios making use of scene (as a container or boundary) are more spatially determined while act-agent ratios are naturally more temporal/sequential: “The agent is an author of his acts, which are descended from him…” (16). This isn’t to say, however, that such authorship is reducible or easy to understand. Motives are always essentially enigmatic and the pentad seems to disregard literal statements in order to embrace and reveal ambiguities, which provide a space in which transformation becomes possible. As a critical tool for drama, GOM seeks to identify the “the resources of ambiguity” (xix), as a lens of interpretation necessary for figuring out why (purpose) in a given setting (scene), a certain character (agent) decided to do X (act) by means of Y (agency). This makes sense for rhetoric too, if the goal of a person or thing’s communication or action is to change something else — a situation, a person, a behavior, or a means. We use rhetoric to transform within spaces of ambiguity. But the question of transformation for what purpose (i.e. motive) is complex.

I don’t claim to have much of an application for Burke’s pentad per se (see Allison Hitt’s smart use of the pentad in analyzing the overcoming narrative in disability studies) and I trust it’s going to be a matter of time before I see how the it functions consistently as a device in the field; however, the relationship between transformation and ambiguity discussed in GOM reminds me of Burke’s discussion of identification in Rhetoric of Motives. In ROM, Burke uses murder narratives (Milton’s Sampson being what I remember most) to frame the desire to transform; for Burke, the desire to kill is a “desire to transform the principle which that person represents” (13). Such transformation “involves the ideas and imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (20). In the past I’ve used this passage to explore arguments about the death of print — to understand its essence in the so-called afterlife — but if we tone down the drama and say that by “killing” we mean instead the changing of another’s mind, perhaps this idea can be expanded to broader conversations about the nature of rhetoric. After all, Burke does say this in ROM:

“Terms for identification in general are wider in scope than terms for killing. We are proposing that our rhetoric be reduced to this term of wider scope, with the term of narrower scope being treated as a species of it. We begin with an anecdote of killing, because invective, eristic, polemic, and logomachy are so pronounced an aspect of rhetoric.” (20)

In other words, killing is like rhetoric in that both share transformation as a goal; likewise, such transformation is also a way of identifying — of bringing two things closer together through consubstantiation. Soon after this passage Burke notes that we need rhetoric because we are divided. We need rhetoric for consubstantiation, or for acting together (21). “If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (22). Without reducing too much then, an important purpose or motive for rhetoric is identification and consubstantiation — to bring people together in a world divided.

Booth’s argument in Modern Dogma is essentially the same, but his methods and warrants vary from Burke’s. He shifts from a dramatistic inflection to an explicit concern for the state of public rhetoric, asking: “How should men work when they try to change each other’s minds, especially about value questions?” and “When should you and I change our minds?” (12). The questions arrive as he sketches five dogmas created from two schools of thought deriving from 20th century modernism: a positivistic, behaviorist, empirically-driven view called scientism, and a value-ladden, romantic, relative view called irrationalism. Both’s five dogmas align with Burke’s pentad: The first, which is discussed in Chapter 1 is motivism (agency), which reduces all behavior to “non rational conditioning” (32). This dogma relieves people of responsibility since certain actions or behaviors can be explained through grand narratives or personae. The next four are discussed in Chapter 2 through a close reading of texts by 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who for Booth serves as the patron saint of modernism, embodying both the scientismic and irrationalist perspectives. Russell’s view of “man as an atomic mechanism” (agent) in “a universe that is value-free” (scene) (50) as well as his “principles of knowing” (act) (55), serve as dogmas two, three, and four. Dogma five considers the “the purposes of argument” (purpose) (77). Taken together, these dogmas shove reason aside “slic[ing] the world into two unequal parts, the tiny domain of the provable, about which nobody cares very much, and the great domain of ‘all the rest’ in which anyone can believe or do what he pleases” (85). In other words, Booth divides rhetoric into the proverbial open hand and closed fist and because of our inability to discourse, he worries that in a value-saturated world — where doubt and skepticism is the only means to knowledge — the closed fist has become modus operandi. Rhetoric in this sense is viewed as a means “to trick or sway or condition or force or woo men to believe or do what the persuader desires” (87) and Booth seeks to challenge this perspective an offer alternatives to modern dogma in Chapter 3. In many ways, he seeks to return rhetoric to the classical Roman ideal of “eloquence in the service of wisdom” (89), founded on some kind of stasis or shared agreement, or perhaps in the Augustinian ideal of using rhetoric to teach effectively, where “[t]he process of inquiry through discourse … becomes more important than any possible conclusions, and whatever stultifies such fulfillment becomes demonstrably wrong” (137). Another way of understanding Booth is to say he articulates a mean to transformation through Burke’s identification: to identify with another requires a process of consubstantiation configured through inquiry.

As a teacher, I’ve always hoped for such consubstatiation. As Selber mentions in Chapter 5 of Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, as teachers we should take more (albeit smart) risks with our students and co-learn or co-inquire into emerging technologies. That said, as a rhetorician, a zinester, and an occasional activist, there aspects of Modern Dogma that seem naive. Aside from its methodology, which rests an entire argument on one close (if that) reading of a 20th century logician, I’m uncomfortable with Booth’s cartooning of public demonstrations. Perhaps I’m too far removed from the 60s to know, but the problem seems to lie in the lack of discussion of agency in the Burkean sense: as “the means or instruments [an agent] used” (xv) or “a means by which one gets reports of the world at large” (xx) in a rhetorical act. Considering media conglomeration, for example (a problem even in 1971), only a select few have any control over — or access to —  certain kinds of knowledge. It’s fitting that he uses an underground, anonymous, pro-cannabis zine called Seed in the first pages of Modern Dogma to illustrate the fall of reason, or what he later sketches as the irrationalist perspective. As counter-rhetorics, zines have traditionally served a specific function — providing an alternative voice when none seemed to be available. This leads to another part of Booth that’s unnerving: a lack of properly contextualizing some of these dogmas. Though I agree that one of the fundamental challenges of subcultures is progressing beyond a negative identity (that is, defining one’s self as “over against everyone and everything else” (130), as he mentions of the irrationalists in Chapter 4), such a negative identity begins as a response to a hegemony that always already attempts to subsume (or more accurately, consume) it.

How, for example, would Booth interpret the Trayvon Martin protests happening this week in NYC, LA, Oakland and even in smaller cities like Syracuse? Would he call them part of “a national habit” existing “partly because people seem convinced that they cannot try them out meaningfully in other ways” (146)? Or would he deem them legit because they’re based “in fact (not just personal conviction) supported by good reasons, good reasons shared or potentially sharable by the community that is relevant” (148)?

As with most of the readings I’m plowing through the first time this summer, I need to re-read parts. I understand Booth is trying to theorize a rhetoric that reconciles  reason and value  through a process of identification. In the last chapter he uses art as a potential means for this. And while I agree with this, and agree we need strategies for assent, I still understand the necessity of a collaborative, organized (yet peaceful) closed fist when faced with dense and disgusting forces: laws like Stand Your Ground that are embedded in a scene of creepy American gun culture and a racist  justice system that allows six white jurors to acquit a murderer or expects one in three black men to be jailed in their lifetime. Progress and transformation takes time. Without rhetorical accretion that is public and embodied, such change takes even longer.

Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004) develops a tripartite approach for teaching computer literacy, drawing from: (1) the functional approaches that treat students as users of tools, (2) critical approaches that treat students as questioners of cultural artifacts, and (3) rhetorical approaches that treat students as producers of hypertextual media (25). A key problem for Selber is reinserting a humanist, or what he calls “post critical” (3), edge into the more positivist orientations of digital work — stances that too often “consider technology to be a self-determining agent” (8). This instrumental view of technology (a term borrowed from Haas and Neuwirth) views technology as neutral and leads two problematic perspectives in English departments (and other depts imbued with liberal humanism): they either jettison everything tech because hermeneutics and close reading is their business, or embrace it but only as a handmaiden to the larger agenda of textual study.

MFDA is broken into five chapters: Chapter 1 outlines the recurring problems with computer literacy as currently articulated and deployed at universities; the middle three chapters sketch functional/critical/rhetorical approaches to literacy; the last chapter, Chapter 5, addresses the implementation of said approaches both across a program (i.e. one class per approach) and within individual courses (i.e. one assignment/unit per approach). Within each of the middle chapters, Selber provides helpful parameters for each approach. For example in Chapter 4, on rhetorical literacy, he considers how persuasion, deliberation, reflection, and social action all might play a role in teaching students how to design interfaces using a “thoughtful integration of functional and critical abilities” (145). In general, this is a praxis-oriented book and a text I’ll go back to when it comes to rethinking and/or developing curricula on digital writing.

I won’t dedicate too much space to my personal connections to the book, but there is one I want to mention. Selber begins Chapter 4 by introducing Johnson-Eiola’s discussion of production/connection from his article “Negative Spaces: From Production to Connection in Composition.” By emphasizing connection in our classes, J-E informs us, writers might “write with fragments,” focusing on “reorganizing and representing existing (and equally intertextualized) texts — their own included — in ways that are meaningful to specific audiences” (135). This reminds me of the difficulty in focusing on both — production and connection, or composition and circulation (see George & Matheiu) — and how important it is to consider shorter forms in curricula that want to do both. For example, in my DIY Publishing course last spring, asking students to produce a zine in 5-6 weeks privileged form(s) and arrangement, but it didn’t leave much time for content and the sort of inventive work that might help with it (actually, the same can be said for other aspects of the course, including our work with new media). Thus, it is important to be open to short forms and visualization, and other ideas of connection and curation so teachers have time to support students who have trouble making objects and texts.

In terms of how this book aligns with others I’ve read from the list, Selber, while critical, is interested in working from within institutions, offering a different approach than someone like Sharon Crowley, for whom the entire institutionalization of universal requirement of FYC is the essence of the discipline’s problem. That said, while Crowley critiques the entire structure, she is also clearly writing from within it. And what I appreciate about MLDA is its ability to use theory to richly qualify the recommendation it makes about practice. This seems necessary since Selber’s audience is broader than the traditional comp/rhet crowd — a strength and a weakness of the book. A strength because it is able to articulate a broad rhetorical vision for computer literacy to a wide camp of folks (English profs, deans, even students); however, at times his “heuristics,” although always carefully qualified, still feel too prescriptive. Certainly someone like Byron Hawk, who argues for a more ontological, vitalist approach to composition would take issue with both the structure and the tone of some of Selber’s recommendations.

Finally, MLDA would be a useful book for approaching exam questions about critical pedagogy/literacy, humanistic approaches to technology, discussions on the role of heuristics in the field, the purpose and function of composition, local v global curricula, self-reflexive methodologies and praxis, or conversations about the view of tech as tools.

Reflecting after the practice exam

Since taking a practice exam last week I’ve (once again) rethought my approach to the process, which is starting to feel more urgent as mid July comes into view. I’m off pace with my reading schedule for multiple reasons, one of which being that I started to get too interested in this stuff. Granted, Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation or Burke’s Rhetoric/Grammar of Motives require more attention at certain points, but I cannot afford to spend three days on something like Selber’s Multiliteracies for the Digital Age, even though my interests justify it. At the end of the day, reading for exams is simple cartography. You don’t necessarily need to know every/body, just where they’re buried (as one prof put it to me last spring).

Exam notes
Exam notes

The practice exam process is really useful, then, for testing out various tactics for planning, reading, and writing toward a response within the span of seven days, but also to see how the accumulation of certain study methods have (or have not) paid off to that point. In terms of methods, I’m thankful for reading everything inspectionally from the start. At least I knew (I admit, very generally), where the bodies were buried. For example, the question I answered was on rhetoric and materiality and because I knew the feminist anthologies were particularly dense, I skimmed through those again to find a piece by Vicki Tolar Collins (Burton) on materialist methodologies. What I need to prioritize now, however, are the remaining 7-8 texts I didn’t read in coursework (there are also handful of texts I haven’t read in years). That’s going to be a challenge and because of time, I’ll have to go back to my method of reading with a stopwatch (e.g. 30 minutes per chapter). I may also have to move from taking printed notes, which helps with retention, back to digital notes, which is speedier, but more automated (e.g. cutting & pasting quotations). Finally, I’ve more or less given up on writing my own exam questions and blogging long posts in favor of focusing on shorter, less perfect summary/responses to individual texts. I think the longer posts are ideal and a better mind exercise, but an impossible goal given how long it took me to write the last one on historiography. Again, this is just a matter of ideal vs pragmatist approaches to overall process.

In terms of what I can now expect of myself during the actual exam, I have a much better sense of how the week should be divided: I spent a day and a half trying to choose which question to answer (the practice exam gave us two choices) by re-reading them, breaking them apart, mapping possibilities, and skimming texts by thumbing through sections I’ve read (or the front and back matter for texts I haven’t). I then read and re-read for four days, leaving me with two days to write. This just wasn’t enough time to write 4-6,000 words. I found that I can reasonably write about 2,000-2,500 words per day, but I hit a wall soon after that.

Arguably most important lesson from the week is that I will need to choose the question faster and give myself no fewer than three days to write. Deciding when to stop re/reading and start writing was difficult because it required the confidence and faith that I had enough of an argument — and thus a cohesive structure — in place to begin drafting. I had done a lot of in-between writing by printing double-entry journal notes — with summary notes in black ink and synthesizing notes in blue — but I didn’t return to these as much as I had hoped. When I do this again, I might try to write more notes directly in Word.

We’ll get faculty responses on the practice exam soon so I’m anxious to see how their feedback will affect all that I’ve said above. But until then, back to Selber…

Inventing Invention: Anticipating the Exam Question(s)

After spending all of last week (and this weekend) reading four books on the exam list I haven’t engaged much previously, I’ve completed most of the books that could be tagged as composition “histories”:

Berlin, James A. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900 – 1985. Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Print.

Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. Print.

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Print.

Lauer, Janice M. Invention in Rhetoric and Composition. Annotated edition. West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2004. Print.

As I mentioned before, I was trying to read across texts more than within categories, but I started with histories because (1) this would give me a fuller context of the field, and (2) these four books are actually more than histories — they’re an amalgamation of that plus theory and methodologies, and include key discussions of ancient rhetoric, technology, and above all, pedagogy. Hawk’s Counter-History, for example, uses a postmodern, historiographical methodology to revisit the concept of vitalism — an ontological philosophy that can be traced to Aristotle — in order to open up the possibilities for new pedagogies that respond  to contemporary digital technologies. Although Lauer’s Invention is primarily a straightforward history of the canon, she provides numerous sections on pedagogy, a few on technology, and throughout the book discusses various methodologies that have been used to study invention.

Pages from my Muji notebook

Before I begin to synthesize these texts more fully, I want to consider how best to do that. But first let me reassess how I’ve been reading this week, which has tested some of Adler’s methods that I blogged about two weeks ago. First, I’ve started reading each time with Adler’s inspectional method — reading reviews of the books, skimming TOCs and indexes, and in most cases, reading important chapters analytically while inspecting the others (there’s no way I could have read Hawk’s book analytically in full). As I read, I’ve been taking printed notes in one of my nifty Muji notebooks, mostly to try to internalize the info. My hope is that this blog is the final step and will do the real work in preparing for the exam — forcing me to arrange the arguments, methods, and evidence from the books on the list to make strong arguments about the field as a whole. This raises a few fundamental questions for me:

  • How many books should be discussed per post? Incorporating more books in a post (as opposed to individual summaries) would better approximate the requirements of the exam, but waiting to a week to write a post leads to fewer posts (and less writing practice overall).
  • How much summary should I work toward? In other words, what’s the goal of the post? Writing solid summaries are important (and could help me once I am actually writing the exam), but as I discovered from practice exams, I tend to dedicate too much space to it in my responses. Pushing efficient synthesis would be better practice for late July.
  • Perhaps the hardest question is this: what should I write about? In other words, how should I select topics or arguments to blog about as I synthesize? In response to this question, I’ve decided to do something Hawk advocates we teach our own students: to develop our own heuristics depending on our goals. I’m appropriating him here, but I think part of the point of the exam process is anticipating the questions. What conversations are being sustained in composition and rhetoric? What are our fundamental problems? What questions make sense across programs and subfields? What evidence is valued? What is our tradition?

In that spirit, I spent some time yesterday afternoon reading back through my print notes and coming up with some possibilities. I offer a few here; I’ll answer one of these in a subsequent post today or tomorrow. One last thought: I think this method is working well except for one notable drawback: I’m already behind schedule. According to my exam prep calendar, I was supposed to be rereading Cintron’s Angels Town today — and I’ve already skipped over Berkenkotter & Huckin’s Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication. I’ll make up this work somehow, but this already tells me the process is too slow.

  • Lauer’s history in Invention in Rhetoric and Composition ends around 2003 — just before new media and digital writing have arguably dominated the field’s conversations on invention. How can Hawk’s Counter-History be read as a continuation of some of the major strands of Lauer’s history? How could it be read as a critique of her history?
  • Berlin, Crowley, Hawk, and Lauer each frame the rhetorical situation differently. It is essential to Berlin’s three theories of rhetoric (objective, subjective, and transactional); it’s used by Lauer to trace epistemic manifestations of invention; it’s briefly taken up by Crowley to discredit the stability of the academic essay (and hence the universal requirement for FYC); and finally, it is critiqued most explicitly by Hawk as being too static. Evaluate these positions and ultimately make a case for the 21st century conception of the rhetorical situation.
  • These four books each try to come to terms with composition’s past, but do so using various historiographical methods — and for specific purposes. Make these purposes explicit and explain the extent to which their various methodologies succeed or fail to meet them.
  • Invention, according to Lauer, was largely ignored in the first half of the 20th century because current traditional pedagogies assumed it couldn’t be taught. Hawk’s book, then, could be read as a response to the way this schism affected subsequent histories of invention and, thus, precludes an understanding of its uses for the 21st century. Explain the extent to which Hawk’s critique of Berlin supports this perspective.

Skimming for Exams (Part 2)

So skimming 20 texts for today was … ambitious. What I’m finding to be a chore with the remainder of the list — the stuff I’m more familiar with — is that I have to dig around in my digital and print files to find old notes, blog posts, texts, and other documents. And in that process, I inevitably get bogged down in rote activities, like copying and pasting texts from one format into another so I can read an annotate on the iPad.

In a sense, though, skimming generates accountability to my exam archive. That is, I’m constantly checking to see what I have, where it’s located, and how I might make use of it later. I’m also continuing to get a sense of how to read across the courses, and seeing ways that the anthologies (Horner et al’s Cross-Language Relations for instance) serve as productive sites for resisting those silos as they contain histories, methodologies, pedagogies, and are usually framed with theory. The anthologies, too, include some the more recent texts from the field.

Anyway, I’ll have to finish my skimming this weekend and then start thinking of ways to prioritize the next stage of the process, which is to tunnel down into clusters (organized perhaps by common problems in the field?) and try to write blog posts every few days that synthesize their arguments.

Skimming for Exams (Part 1)

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My list of unread works in Zotero

Today I managed to take a bite out of the 15 books I haven’t read from the exam list. In most cases I skimmed TOCs, published reviews, and some notes from coursework that my peers were generous enough to share. This was enough at least to allow me to produce a one-sentence summary of the text and tag them for future reading. This took about six hours. I used my Apimac timer to limit myself to ten minutes per text — which was awesome — but took time in between to organize files, search for book reviews, etc. I have to admit that reading scattered like this felt unnatural and wasn’t much fun, but I feel like it’s helping me to strategize how I’ll approach various ideas and readings later — not to mention that it’s pretty amazing how much you can familiarize yourself with in just ten minutes. So much so, that I think I’ll keep using this method over the next few days with the whole list just so I can make abstract, distant connections as I begin to zoom in closer to specific ideas.

And to return to an idea I discussed yesterday, because of this approach, I’m starting to respect the syntopical nature of these texts. Janice Lauer’s Invention in Rhetoric and Composition, for instance, could have been read as a secondary text for ancient rhetoric, an important tool for comp pedagogy, or even just a general history of the field. Byron Hawk’s Counter-History is historical, pedagogical, and theoretical at once — oh, and he critiques Lauer (something I would not have known that if I read linearly or stubbornly). Tomorrow I hope to get through 20 texts that I’ve had some contact with previously. If I succeed, that’ll bring me up to 35 — and close to skimming the whole list.

(Un)learning to read

As I understand it, the bottom-line challenge of the exam process is streamlining the reading process; given such a limited amount of time before exams (our first Q will be given at the end of July), how will I demonstrate that I “understand” 40+ works, 90% of which are books? As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve read more than half of these already (some as far back as four years ago), but I have a list of 15 books I’ve never touched — and some of these are quite seminal and dense (Burke’s Grammar of Motives, Booth’s Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, and Baca & Villanueva’s Rhetorics of the Americas). The problem, of course, hinges on one’s definition of “understanding.” In my last semester of coursework I was able to take only one class — Contemporary Rhetorical Theory — where I had the luxury of reading theory very closely. I didn’t understand all of it, obviously, but I left feeling confident that I could summarize and synthesize difficult arguments competently. But it’s clear that the exam process is more about breadth and distance than reading closely; it feels like the difference between training for a 5k versus a marathon.

Adding to some of this confusion, throughout coursework different professors groomed different reading methods. Some assigned more reading and advocated robust skimming — sometimes even distributing the reading responsibilities among the class. Others assigned fewer texts, but expected students to know them well enough to explicate nearly every chapter or article. The truth is, both skills are necessary and for this reason (I think) one of my profs recommended Mortimer Adler’s 1940 classic How to Read a Book. Adler argues that because “[w]e do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it” (4) and promotes an active, inquiry-based reading strategy via four, cumulative levels. The first level, elementary reading, is basic reading — “recognizing individual words on the page” (17). The second is inspectional, where the reader must glean the most from the surface of a text in a limited amount of time using certain tools like tables of contents, indices, headings and paragraphs, and summaries. The third level, analytical reading, is thorough, active, and close reading — the kind that English majors are taught early and often. The final level is syntopical reading, a systemic approach to comparative reading: “[w]hen reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve” (20); moreover, syntopical reading is transactional in that it can generate ideas from books where the topic or subject might not even be present. For example, in comparing various texts on composition pedagogy, I might notice that some address technology in a certain way while others don’t address it much at all. All levels of reading are present within the exam process and I found Adler’s advice throughout the book to be both a mix of general good reminders and some new ideas for reading strategically.

The inspectional section, for instance, recommends commonsense tips, like reading a publisher’s blurb or the table of contents, but I never actually thought to read an index. It also pushes for surface reading: “[t]humb through the book … always looking for signs of the main contention, listening for the basic pulsebeat of the matter” (35). At the moment, such advice sounds like just as obvious as reading a TOC, but after being dominated by elementary and analytical approaches for 30+ years, it’s helpful to hear it again and again. After reading Adler, I feel like apprenticing academics should permit themselves more time to read inspectionally. The chapter also recommends not stopping when reading through a difficult text for the first time. At the same time, the book argues that readers cannot comprehend a book without performing an analytical reading. Inspectional reading, it’s argued later, is for finding works relevant to a particular inquiry, which might make it seem somewhat limited for the exam process — but I think part of the process of preparing is sketching those inquiries that are fundamental to the field. So although I might not be generating my own questions, I do need to make connections across texts that are fairly general and that are generated by a deductive approach to reading. I can see using inspectional reading the first time through, and again later during practice tests or as I prewrite for the actual exam.

Adler splits the third level, analytical reading, into three stages: summary, interpretation, and criticism. In the first stage, he advises finding out what the author’s problems are and the questions necessary for answering them. I like this tip in the exam process since the exam questions themselves essentially ask us to either address, define, or explore various problems in the field. The more I can do to zoom out and map common problems the easier I imagine it will be to put them in dialogue. In the second stage, Adler advises that readers come to terms with key concepts in the books they are reading. For example, as I read, I might look at how various scholars are defining “history,” “pedagogy,” “rhetoric” or “composition” — and then what they do with those definitions, which is more important to syntopical reading. Finally, he also provides a taxonomy for criticism that might serve as a useful heuristic at some point; when critiquing authors, one might demonstrate how they are either uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete in their analysis. I’m not sure how much of this I’ll be doing in the exam; as I understand it, it’s more important for us to read generously and analytically.

The final section of How to Read a Book, on syntopical reading, was perhaps the most useful as it provides several suggestions on reading across many texts. In doing so, Adler identifies a key paradox and one that I’ve struggled with in organizing my categories for the exam: “[a]lthough this level of reading is defined as the reading of two or more books on the same subject, which implies that the identification of the subject matter occurs before the reading begins, it is in a sense true that the identification of the subject matter must follow the reading, not precede it.” (313). The important thing with this goes back to something I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Although reading taxonomically makes sense in structuring my time, it is important to think about the larger goals of the exam, which is to sketch key conversations/problems in the field. For example, if I read Berlin, Crowley, and Hawk under the “histories” topic, I might overlook or under-appreciate their arguments and thus, the implications of their work for the field; hence, I might miss opportunities to use their work in structuring arguments in the “pedagogies” question on the exam (I’m thinking of Crowley’s book in particular). And thanks to a meeting today with my cohort and the good advice of our grad chair, I’ll be taking a different approach to my reading, to privilege a more syntopical approach that has me studying texts across categories rather than siloing them. This means not canceling out any course reading, but being open to the list in its entirety. And that’s more in the spirit of the exam, as I learned today.

In sum, here’s what I’m thinking in terms of an approach:

1. Spend a few days inspectionally reading the works I haven’t read — and maybe a few that I’ve read or skimmed that are hazy. This way I’ll have a full understanding of the list. I might even inspectionally read the entire list — and with a timer (10-15 minutes per book?) — so I don’t trick myself into analytical reading.
2. Then spend the next few weeks diversifying my analytical reading across areas — perhaps reading one book from histories, technology, pedagogy, ancient rhetoric, theory, and methods each week instead of spending each week on one topic. I might try to group these based on my initial inspectional reading so they’re not grouped completely arbitrarily. Or I might simply prioritize those books I want to read first.
3. Write often. It became clear to me from yesterday’s post, I need to do a better job articulating myself. The worst thing to do throughout this process is read a lot and write nothing.