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.

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?