t+1: a reflection on blogging

When I booted up Taxomania! last June I set three simple (perhaps unsurprising) goals for maintaining a blog: to professionalize and establish an scholarly identity, to practice composing and tinkering, and to connect with other folks. While I was blogging fairly regularly over the summer, the real question, I thought, would be how I’d sustain it when the semester workload kicked in. “Will I be able to keep up on my writing between doctoral classes, teaching, and being a dad?” I asked, “or will Taxomania! go the same way as my jogging shoes?”

Strangely enough, those jogging shoes have actually gotten some use this fall. Since school started in August, I’ve managed to run several times per week. Part of the reason I’ve been able to sustain the regimen (not to mention a better diet) has to do with a shift in my material conditions. After (finally) rejecting a 12-month, 9-5 routine that increasingly depressed me, I can now schedule runs when my body best responds to them, which is typically early or mid-afternoon. More honestly, though, the change in my routine has served as an occasion to re-imagine my values. I’ve tried to jettison the unhealthy parts and account for those that have been missing since moving to Syracuse more than six years ago. And part of what’s been missing is time to write.

Incidentally, I’ve self-published in one form or another for 20 years, but only when I’ve been in school. When I produced eight issues of my print zine, Mud, I was in high school and college. Later, when I edited the webzine The Onanist, I was working on my MA in Nevada. And although I started each project myself, they have always fairly quickly evolved into a collaborative. So the idea of putting my shit out there isn’t as intimidating as the invention process itself (which, I admit, has always been an issue for me). What should I write about? What do I have to say? Should posts be about academe only, or any facet of my life that I feeling like writing about? How long should they be? How often should I be posting? No doubt I have struggled and continue to struggle with these questions.

And yet another part of the trouble is working within a form that so closely braids authorship to identity. There’s something about blogging that feels like the perzine’s digital doppelgänger. The blog is me | glob eht ma I. Some writers have handled this by distributing their work among various spaces: a blog for academe, another for cooking, one for travel, etc. I imagine this works well for invention and for audience. If a blog has a specific function, then there is probably less existential crisis when it comes to writing. You made French lentil soup last week? Post the recipe on the food blog. You went to NYC? Post your adventures on the travel blog. You read Derrida? Post your summary on the doc blog. I know my friends would appreciate such compartmentalization; I could spare them my arguments on multimodal writing and they could just read about my weekend in Ithaca, or my thoughts on parenting.

Another strength to that approach is that it permits the author to treat a project as contingent — product as process — instead of permanent (product only). As Jason Jones argued a few weeks ago on ProfHacker, perhaps the blog’s vulnerability is actually it’s key affordance, a reminder of the tenuous moves writers go through as they work on a project or line of inquiry. “When folks blog about their research or their teaching,” he writes, “they can make that work visible, even if it’s work they either can’t or don’t intend to sustain forever. To at least some extent, then, even abandoned blogs are sometimes a perverse illustration of the platform’s strengths.” That partially explains why so many bloggers write earnestly in graduate school, but abandon their blogs once they enter the professoriate.

Ernesto Priego and others blame the failure of the professor’s blog on a lack of recognition in tenure and promotion. The genre and the work are not valued. On one hand, I have a hard time understanding this; if a professor is given sponsored (i.e. given time and space to conduct research), what is so difficult about making the blog part of that process? That is, how do these authors get from the kernel of an idea to a monograph? Why isn’t that work-in-process made more transparent? Some scholars, such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick, seem to make this her mission alongside fighting for more recognition for online publication among MLA and T&P committees. She has argued persuasively in Planned Obsolescence that the culture of academe has constructed the author as someone who both researches, reads and tests ideas in physical and virtual isolation. The only thing rewarded is the product. Nothing else matters.

So I give my blog permission (admission?) to be temporary — and wrong. And even though I struggle with the authorship/identity thrust of the blog, I appreciate the challenge to balance it all here. Lord knows I’ve failed at it (porridge, anyone?), but at this point in my life not only could I not sustain more than one blog, but the blog has to be more than a cookbook, travel journal, or a database; it has to allow for a space to practice the hard part of being an academic: summarizing, synthesizing and translating complex ideas while maintaining a healthy work/life balance. In short, the blog is exercise for the day-to-day need to think like a writer. As Derek Mueller and Krista Kennedy have also argued, the blog is a laboratory (see “Every Mad Scientist Needs a Tower, a Monster, and a Telegraph Wire”). And having accountability to this laboratory means forcing myself to regularly wrestle with rhetorical choices with respect to invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

Finally, because a reflection should be about looking forward as much as it looks back, I want to establish as few goals for the blog next semester:

  • Get in a rhythm. At one point this semester I went a month without writing. It was at that point when I picked up Paul Silva’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, a breezy, helpful approach to writing. In chapter 1 he writes about allotting time to write (Kennedy & Mueller also talk about as “mak[ing] a commitment to rhythm”). I’d like to commit to that rhythm — and to finishing Silva’s book.
  • Write more. Speaking of regularity, this semester I wrote 20 entries, or an average of 1.3 per week. Since I have a lighter teaching load next semester, I think it’s reasonable to write 2-3 per week, or aim for 30-40 total. I’ll also blog during the break.
  • Write shorter pieces. I recognized (and thanks to Collin for this) that when I take it upon myself to write longish pieces they would either: (1) take too much time to post or (2) prevent me from write soon after (this principle also applies to jogging). The other problem with this approach is that it didn’t respect the medium: I’d write, encounter something that would impact that composition, then revise.  If the purpose of an academic blog is to track the evolution of an idea, it’s probably better to write in shorter bursts that add up to something bigger.
  • Design assignments. Speaking of short bursts, I’d like to think of some short, simple prompts or memes to revisit when I’m feeling bullied by the white space. Threat + Constraint has always been great at this.
  • Network. Thanks for Google Analytics, I know you’re reading this. I can’t tell who you are, per se, but I know you’re there. That said, there isn’t as much conversation happening here as I’d like and from what I remember in the zine days: if you give love, you receive love. So in addition to writing more on my own blog, I’ll also try to write on other folks’ blogs as well.

Ruining your kid

AM got her face scratched by the cat two weeks ago, fell and broke her collarbone last week in Canada, and now, as we were on our neighborhood walk last night, smacked her face on concrete stairs that lead to the reservoir near our house. She fell forward and kissed the edge of the next step, biting her tongue and cutting her chin open. Thankfully it wasn’t serious, but it was bloody and it set us off. But after the initial fall she cried more about having to go home than about her swollen tongue and scraped chin. After some ice chips and a band aid, a bath and some Sandra Boynton action, she slept through the night and awoke ready to play again this morning.

I would argue that Emily and I are pretty chill parents and tend not to overreact or get hysterical when AM falls or hurts herself. But given these recent scares, imagine my guilt in reading Lori Gottlieb’s recent piece from the Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” Gottlieb’s point, hardly a new one in parenting or educative circles lately, is that we are “ruining” our children by protecting them from unhappiness. While not quite as extreme as the Tiger Mom tenets, the piece is heavy on anecdotal evidence to support a supposed epidemic of overprotective, hyperactive parents. According to Gottlieb and the therapists she quotes, parents should back off their kids and reflect on how their own issues get in the way of their child’s best interest. Parents, they say, get home from work and don’t want to spend their time arguing with Holden Caulfield. One psychiatrist goes so far to give this example: if a toddler trips on a rock at a park (or a staircase?), let her “experience that momentary confusion” in order to “grapple with the frustration of having fallen.” You hear that, kid? Wipe that blood off your own chin.

Ok, ok. I’m being a bit unfair. I work at private northeastern university, so her point isn’t lost on me. I’ve seen helicopter parenting here, for sure, but also at the relatively wealthy public jr/sr. high school I taught at 10 years ago. My wife saw the same narcissism at a private local K-12 school in the last five years. I’ve seen the effects of inflated self-esteem in some of my students and my teaching evals sketch me as a tough grader. I understand the problem is out there and how it gets in the way of honesty. That said, Gottlieb refuses, like Atlantic authors before her, to ignore that the “us” and the “our” tends to be families of privilege. “Nowadays,” she frames the problem, “it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier.” And by the way, too many choices leads to a personality crisis.

The latter complaint reminds me of Jean Anyon’s classic article “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” In her essay, Anyon notes that the extent of “choice” children are given in their schooling is reflective of social class and what also factors into whether said child will enter into a mechanical profession or one that is more geared toward knowledge work (managers, lawyers, doctors, etc). The working class student, so it goes, will be told what to do. The affluent professional’s kid is always given options.

I bring this up only to say that what bugs me about this article is not only its exaggerated claims (a very small minority of parents will fuck their children up by helicoptering), but that the evidence simply places too much emphasis on the agency of the parent at the expense of ignoring the social-political context of family itself. While a parent can certainly “ruin” a kid through abuse or through spoiling, Gottlieb’s arguments smack of upper class anxiety (or perhaps, resentment). Either way, I’m not buying it.

Oh Canada

The fam and I spent last week cabin camping and fishing on Wolf Lake in Westport, Ontario. We’ve been going for four years now and the friends who initially invited us have always aptly captured the event with one word, all caps: CANADA. Since Westport is only 100 miles north of Syracuse, it’s a short enough away to minimize travel, but cosmopolitan enough to feel like an actual vacation (eh?). Plus it’s so ridiculously cheap that we can spend money on the important stuff: Canadian beer and food. This year our 1.5 million calories came from the usual suspects, but also some new ones (*’d):

  • apple pie, sausage rolls and tarts from the Westport Bakery
  • 4 cast iron pizzas (amazing)*
  • 2 logs of peameal bacon
  • 2 dozen CNY farm eggs
  • blood sausage*
  • 750 ml of 1800 (blanco)
  • 2 cases of Molson Brador (malty!), 1 case of Alex Keith’s White* (great with an orange), 12 bottles of Mill Street Wit*, and 12 bottles of Steam Whistle Pils*
  • Haley’s homemade granola*

[slickr-flickr tag=”Canada”]

The only thing missing from this list? Walleye. Despite fishing every day for at least 5 hours, we only caught lots of angry pike (hell’s pickerel), dopy smallmouth and rock bass, various panfish and a few little perch. Not even a tug from heaven’s pickerel. Adding insult to injury, as we packed up the car to leave on Saturday morning, the newly arrived campers next door — some of whom had been coming to that lake for 61 years — were motoring in from their first morning outing. The stringer was loaded with at least four full and fleshy walleye, which they cut on our site’s dusty gutting table.

Aside from catching no fish, the other downer was that AM fell from a couch in the cabin on Monday and broke her collarbone. Aside from the initial pain, which was intense, she recovered quickly and after spending two days visiting doctors in the States (it was $500 just to start getting seen in Ontario), we were back to vacationing in no time. The bone should heal on its own in six weeks time and she’s already back to her hyperactive self.

All in all another great year and weather-wise we could not have asked for a better week.

Workflow and the tablet

Part of my doctoral study gear-up means reflecting on previous workflows and anticipating new ones. By workflow, I guess I mean the day-to-day processes involved with accessing, consuming, documenting, archiving, and processing information from all things professional — coursework, exams, and the dissertation, just to name a few.  And since I have to return my Macbook to the Writing Program when I resign in August, I’ll soon be picking up a new machine that will need to last four years. And there’s the rub: which machine (or machines)?

Without belaboring this much, I know I’ll need a laptop and it’s going to be a Mac. I’ve considered the iMac and Mini, but they just don’t offer the portability I’m going to need. And part of the reason I’m quitting is to regain some of the agency I’ve missed since sitting at a desk 9-5. A desktop is going to (re)nail me to a chair.

Then there’s the question of reading. Most the texts from my latest graduate course were read from my laptop, which saved me both time and $.  And it worked, for the most part. But after a while (say, for example, page 300 of Hawk’s Counter-history) I would either get a headache from squinting at my laptop or a backache from bending over my desk to read my monitor. Frankly, I doubt I’ll ever feel as comfortable reading a screen as I currently feel reading print, but it’s gotten easier over the years and it’s not like information is shrinking. Software (RSS readers, “find” features) are obviously making this more possible.

But how about a tablet? I want one. Badly. But I’m trying to figure out if I need one. Some folks in the program have gotten away with reading on large PC screens, so I’ve considered getting a larger Macbook instead of the standard 13″. I still think a tablet would be easier to read than a 17″ Macbook, plus having two devices means having two places to store stuff (for better and for worse).

But the problem with the tablet, as I see it, will be of balancing reading and writing tasks (and maybe) keeping files current. Would I miss cutting and pasting quotes to Word, for example? Will exporting and organizing readings on multiple devices become a time suck instead of a time saver? I wonder how folks who have tablets have incorporated them into their workflow. Has it been an easy process? What apps or other peripherals make this easier or necessary? I know some have been using wireless keyboards or have downloaded apps that make annotating pdfs a breeze. Anyone?

Hello, blog.

“Punk rock died when the first kid said, ‘punk’s not dead!'” This is probably my favorite Silver Jews line ever. So if Berman’s logic holds, does that mean blogs are actually *alive*? After all, it seems like ever since I decided to start a real blog, all I’ve been reading/hearing is that the blogosphere is dead (or at least dying). I wasn’t at Computers and Writing this year so I can’t say more about that conversation, but it does make me pause enough to wonder if I’m late to the hootenanny. Will I only be writing to myself (or worse, writing for a crowd that will perceive me as antiquated or narcissistic)? What is blog’s reputation and how will it change in the next four years? And so why am I going forth? Here be my reasons, for better or worse:

To professionalize. I need a site that will document my doctoral process with practical exercise in writing readers’ notes, reflections, analyses, and bibliographies. This is the activity our Program advises and, in fact, how Taxomania! was initially born. Of course, it might also serve as a place to post assignments, vitas, and other such documents.

To practice. As Mueller and Kennedy articulate in a forthcoming chapter of a book in this series, blogs can be used for experimentation and tinkery (asking questions and playing around — like in the previous two posts), engagement (I’m a compositionist, damnit!), and to establish “lifework harmony” (I’m a teacher, student, former administrator, but also a dad, music lover, beer drinker, etc.). While I know many folks successfully use blogging as a CMS, I’d actually like to go a step beyond archiving data to trying to compose, to germinate possibilities that may or may not develop into larger projects. And not only do I need to practice the craft of writing, but also managing my time: to read, invent, write, and revise quickly and efficiently.

To connect. I used to meet amazing folks with my print and webzines and ever since I’ve stopped editing one, my online interactions have been limited to my material contacts. And since the blog is a project that requires new knowledge (of WordPress, to give one example), it also gives me exigence for tasks I otherwise would not engage.

Of course my biggest concern with all of this is time. Will I have it come August and will I be able to keep up on my writing between doctoral classes, teaching, and being a dad? Or will Taxomania! go the same way as my jogging shoes?

Scholarly self-portrait

My scholarly trajectory has mostly been guided by my pedagogical circumstances. When I left my position as a high school English teacher and department chair in 2003 to pursue my MA at the University of Nevada, I took with me many of the questions that plagued me during those three years at Maple Grove High – from teaching the research paper to 11th and 12th graders, to leading (seemingly) successful classroom discussions about literature. While taking a linguistics course, for example, I barrowed methodologies from discourse analyses to patch together my own analysis of one group of tenth graders’ classroom discussion to see how certain discussion strategies might provoke more authentic dialogue. In my final professional paper to complete the MA, I used work by Freire, Dewy, and John Bean to argue for embedding Ken Macrorie’s I-Search Paper within a larger curriculum of inquiry at the high school level. NCTE published a condensed version of that manuscript last March in the English Journal.

Of course I also spent those two years seizing opportunities to branch out, studying cross-curricular writing theories, building a stronger foundation in modern and post-modern critical theory, experimenting with subgenres of creative nonfiction, and examining socio-cultural concerns in education. But when I completed my degree in the spring of 2005, my intent was to return to New York and teach high school again in order to support my wife’s graduate work here. I was looking forward to taking many of the ideas I read and studied and applying them to the secondary setting.

Coming to S.U., then, was a pivotal moment for me. Accepting my current position as Writing Center Administrator meant having to become acquainted with writing center scholarship mostly on my own. I had worked part time in a writing center during the two years I was at Nevada, but the only related scholarship I studied was some WAC theory. I knew very little about writing program administration, tutor training, second language acquisition, grammar instruction, collaborative theories of writing, or the history of writing centers. While I’ve made attempts to familiarize myself with some of those topics throughout these last two years, much of my supposed area of expertise remains gray. I’ve read, assigned, and discussed several articles with consultants in the writing center and with students in WRT 331, the peer consultant practicum, but – ironically – I haven’t had much of a chance to synthesize those sources though my ow writing.

So in terms of next steps, I’d like to become more knowledgeable about writing centers in general and try to do something with that knowledge. Specifically, I’d like to study practices of consulting and tutor/teacher training – some of which will no doubt go beyond the writing center setting. In fact, I wonder how those practices could be expanded from the realm of writing centers and used in the composition classroom. Could some tutor-training methods, for example, be used with freshmen in WRT 105? How do dialogic settings – large group discussions, one-to-one conferences – affect the ways students approach their writing? Should different collaborative methods be used at different stages of a students’ process?

Part of becoming more proficient in this area of comp/rhet means knowing how the idea of writing centers was formed in the first place. I’m hoping I’ll be able to look into the histories of writing clinics/labs/centers by asking: How have they been defined? How have scholars shaped writing center history and why has it been shaped as such? How has the concept of the center evolved through time? How has that evolution been linked to larger movements in the discipline? If these questions are too broad for now (and I’m afraid they are), it might be worthwhile to focus in on certain aspects of centers. For example, how have championed methods of tutoring changed through time? Specifically, when and why did the predominant method change from directive to nondirective to something more nuanced? (What might be difficult about generalizing answers from these questions are the variables. On one campus a “writing center” might operate out of an English department while on another, a “learning center” might work out of student services. The disciplinary difference will probably be noteworthy as the former is usually borne out of comp/rhet while the latter out of schools of ed.)

Outside of the world of writing centers, but still closely related, are issues regarding cross-curricular writing theory. Specifically, I wonder what kinds of curricula can be designed to best match the diverse needs of our students? What characteristics of writing and thinking are shared across the curriculum? (Has educational psychology been helpful in answering this question?) As teachers and consultants, how can we tap into those similarities? I’m ultimately curious about how different writing programs account for disciplinary difference. Would writing instructors be more effective if they came from the same discourse communities as their students (likewise, I wonder if consultants might be more effective if operated under the same disciplines)?

Further still, I’m interested in returning to issues of teaching writing at the high school level. I don’t know what kind of scholarship exists on understanding the gaps between high school writers and those in college, but I’d be interested exploring it. I’d like to know if writing center scholarship might propose some solutions for the achievement gaps that currently exist. For example, there are community writing centers for kids in cities across the US. Are those centers working to help produce more college-bound students?

I know scholarship on most of these issues is out there to build upon – I’ve skimmed some books, seen articles anthologized, etc. – but I’m hoping this course will not only give me the opportunity to plow through some of that work, but that it will also suggest tools or methodologies for picking out what’s significant, what’s missing, and analyze it all to answer the toughest question – so what?