I should be reading

(Note: I wrote this to try to work through a moment of anxiety to get to a more positive motivation for reading. Self-reassurement is a weird thing to write, but it helped somehow.)


“I should be reading” is one of the refrains of a scholar’s life. And I do love reading; I’ve loved it since I was a small child, when I stuffed my little backpack full of books, long ones, for the twice-a-week, four-hour-round-trips  to cello lessons (I love music, too). I still pack a bag full of books on trips, and now I stuff them onto a Kindle as well. So I am disposed to enjoy this refrain.

My father was always impressed by how fast I tore through books in the way back seat of the van (“you only started that Little House book when we left?!”) and nowadays I can still feel my reading speed increase. It’s increasing in reading scholarly prose, though, and not fiction. It hasn’t been nearly as much fun. But thank goodness it has sped up, because I’m facing one of the biggest reading challenges I ever will.

In my field and in my department, the doctoral students have to pass through a qualifying exam process that involves both written and oral examinations on a list of approximately 100 texts that is selected by the student and the examining committee. It sounds like something that should’ve been in Bunyan or Homer, a trial along the path of an epic quest with a fancy new robe at the end. On further thought, maybe it just belongs in a second-rate fantasy novel.

People both inside and outside my academic circle keep asking me how I’m doing. I give a variety of responses: I’m scared, I’m working hard, I’m anxious. A tiny part of me is excited because I already want to be proud of the accomplishment. But mostly I’m worried. I’m worried that this will be the point where I can’t read anymore. Or rather, where I can’t read well  anymore. This task is gigantic; is my brain really good enough to capture all this? It doesn’t seem possible to read these texts well enough in just a few weeks that I could adequately answer questions about them. It’s not possible to work hard enough.

I have sat practice questions for mock versions of the written exam, and the professors assured me I did well. The grad students ahead of me say “if they passed me, they’ll pass you.” These things are meant to give me comfort and confidence, and they’re effective for about 20 seconds. Then the anxiety comes back.

I’ve known this anxiety before. It’s built out of the performance jitters that made me rehearse cello and vocal pieces and my drive for perfection that makes me want to make perfect replicas when I do props for shows and the sense of achievement when things go well after I’ve planned them so carefully. I know how my mind moves between the edges of anxiety and excitement, back and forth, and how that emotional loop becomes a force for success. So on top of what everyone else is telling me, I say to myself “You’ve done this before. You can do it again.” And it helps focus the anxiety, at least for longer than a few seconds. And it’s followed by the thought:

“But really, you should be reading.”

A writing instructor responds to a hiring librarian

I usually don’t get very far into the libraryland twitter uproars, because those things tend to get real nasty real quick and I don’t have the emotional energy to spare. But the phrase “tattooed spunky hipster librarians” got my attention last night, and I decided to read the most recent Hiring Librarians post at 10:30 at night. Now, since I possess an MLIS plus five-to-seven years of nonprofessional, paraprofessional, and professional experience in libraries and museums*, along with a few tattoos** and I suppose a spunky attitude***, and because I dress in a way that would probably make people classify me as a hipster though really it’s just a pair of Warbys topping off a preppy nerd look****, I know I do not have the right to chime in on the debates of my betters. Buuuuttttt…I also am an instructor of writing and rhetoric, so I thought I might share some of my critiques of this anonymously authored post just as a piece of writing:

  • #1. Anonymous Author, is this really how you want to present yourself in public? One of the saddest parts of this century has been viewing a constant stream of evidence that demonstrates how quickly people choose to make enemies rather than friends in digital spaces and to abuse anonymity to vent their spleen. I really might use this post and some of the publicly tweeted responses as an example of how not to reach a discourse community–I started working on the lesson plan in my head last night. I certainly think this post will cause the pool of applicants for jobs in urban areas in the UAE to shrink in the immediate future.
  • #2. Anonymous Author, where’s your logic? Leaving out the ad hominem moments, you first say your hires need good people skills at the desk and then say that these interactions aren’t being done by real librarians anymore. Which one is it? And related to this, what kind of ethos are you trying to present? Do you/your institution value this labor and the people who perform it, or do you dismiss it as trivial? And do you have different feelings from your institution on this matter? If this were one of my students, this logical inconsistency would send off little alert bells about patchwork plagiarism in my head. I’d send it through Turnitin if it hadn’t already been done.
  • #3. And speaking of using computers to evaluate writing: Anonymous Author, what’s up with your values? You/your institution only reviews applications after they’ve been electronically evaluated for certain keywords, and this made me realize how firmly I believe that using machines to evaluate human writing isn’t a thing we should be doing when some part of the writer’s future is on the line. I didn’t think I felt so strongly about this until I read that blog post, and I’ve even argued that some folks use things like the NCTE Position on Machine Scoring as an excuse to avoid any exploration at all of using quantifiable or algorithm-based exploration of writing and to enable the continuation of an outdated, romanticized idea of writing. But both information science folks and writing studies folks know how hard it is to make a text reflect reality, and how keywords can destroy diversity. And every single job seeker knows that the cover letter is a difficult genre to write in with some degree of mastery and innovation and a minimal amount of repetition. Do you want people who are ready to interact with people, or people who are ready to interact with machines? Because that’s two very different looking cover letters, and two very different sets of skills. If you are hiring for a professional position, you can commit to performing the professional courtesy of reading your applicants’ letters, just as I commit to reading every single journal, draft, and reflection that comes from my students. Or if you/your institution/we as a profession can’t, maybe it’s time to reflect on some values.

Problems like the first two I identified have resulted in grades somewhere along the C-/D range in my required gen ed writing classes. C’mon, dude*****. Do better.


*I do realize, though, that since I’m not currently working in a library, many people might not want me to call myself a librarian.
**I think my possession of these is a fairly indisputable fact, but they do not correlate to or cause my attitudes towards work or the LIS profession, and as another fact the majority of my professional library experience occurred before I obtained them.
***If “spunky” means I can gently and steadfastly hold my own in a meeting and then turn around and help an 8 year old girl research how to become an astronaut and do both with an energetic and genuine smile.
****I am extra hesitant to allow myself to be identified as a hipster because I have watched the city I currently live in become settled by a some of them who do not always have a sensitive historical awareness. There’ve been some painful moments.
*****I’m not assuming the author is male; like many younger people, I routinely use this term to refer to people of any and all genders.

Article Review Hodgepodge: Critical Pedagogy and Information Literacy

Warning: the post below is more to help me keep track of my thoughts and have a temporal placeholder for them than it is to really share my response to these articles…although if you want to start a stirring discussion in the comments I’m happy to moderate that! But I won’t blame you if you bail out now. Go watch an animal do something cute or hilarious; that’s what the internet’s for!
I’m currently working my way through a directed study about critical digital literacy/pedagogy, and being who I am that meant that information literacy was going to end up included in it. Thanks to the always amazing #critlib folks I located a bunch of articles…and now I’ve made myself write up some thoughts in response to them.

Baer, Andrea. “Critical Information Literacy in the College Classroom: Exploring Scholarly Knowledge Production through the Digital Humanities.” Library Juice Press, 2013. scholarworks.iu.edu. Web. 3 July 2015.
Sidebar: Library Juice Press frequently makes me wish I had more money for books. I wish they would sell me a kindle version of this for something less than the $32 paper version. Sigh. Looks like I’m using ebrary for the moment.
Detmering, Robert, and Anna Marie Johnson. “‘Research Papers Have Always Seemed Very Daunting’: Information Literacy Narratives and the Student Research Experience.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 12.1 (2012): 5–22. Project MUSE. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.
Elmborg, James. “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32.2 (2006): 192 – 199. Web.
(Sidebar: I know I’ve read this before, during my MLIS coursework, but of course I have no idea where any of the notes are now.)

Elmborg kicks off his piece by acknowledging the multiple and multiplying understandings of “literacy”–and having spent the last two years reading in this concept, I sighed because his words have only become more true. What is equally true is that the lack of a solid definition for information literacy has held back librarianship and also library services. Because it is ultimately individuals who are information literate, and it used to be easy to perform this literacy because you went to your local librarian and relied on the authority vested in that person and institution. But it’s not easy to perform this anymore, and because the idea of information literacy didn’t coalesce into something easily communicable, students suffered for it (and many of those students are my generational peers, which is why everything always comes back to information literacy for me–and that’s plenty of my soapboxing for now).

Elmborg’s piece is still being cited today because of his clear points about information and classification as social and networked phenomena. He calls on library instructors to work to make this part of their students understanding, especially their understanding of academia. Academic systems and requirements and processes may seem as unmovable and inscrutable as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this is false. Those things were built by human hands and brains, and by making their organizational blueprints transparent, they are opened to understanding and to potential criticism.

Jacobs, Heidi L. M., and Dale Jacobs. “Transforming the One-Shot Library Session into Pedagogical Collaboration: Information Literacy and the English Composition Class.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 49.1 (2009): 72–82. Print.
Kim, Kyung-Sun, and Sei-Ching Joanna Sin. “Perception and Selection of Information Sources by Undergraduate Students: Effects of Avoidant Style, Confidence, and Personal Control in Problem-Solving.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 33.6 (2007): 655–665. ScienceDirect. Web. 12 Aug. 2014.
Smith, Lauren. “Towards a Model of Critical Information Literacy Instruction for the Development of Political Agency.” Journal of Information Literacy 7.2 (2013): 15–32. Web.

Why I’m #alaleftbehini

A lot of my library friends and acquaintances are attending ALA Annual right now, and I’m not with them. I’m sad that the non-atendees’ hashtag applies to me this year, because I love seeing old friends and  making new ones and just generally geeking out with a bunch of other people who also love the work that we all do. But I also have a lot of good reasons for not going, and those are keeping me from being as bummed out as I thought I’d be.

The first reason I didn’t go is because I went to ACRL to be part of a panel presentation! That was big and exciting and I hope I get to do it many more times, but it was also expensive in terms of both money and time. I’m a PhD student, and I need to be careful of both those resources, so as soon as I got the ACRL acceptance I knew doing a second trip to the West Coast would be a long shot. Shameless plug: If you want to check out the topic, here’s our tumblr about the topic and the tweets from the session. My favorite was the person who said the session gave questions, not answers–my inner teacher doesn’t stop.

Speaking of teaching, that’s the next reason I’m not at ALA. I’m starting an intense teaching load on July 1 and I didn’t want to be jet-lagged and trying to do post-conference recovery while I was also trying to get fifty 18-year-olds excited about being in a summer bridge program and teaching them a course I’ve never done before.

But the most exciting reason why I’m not at Annual is because my brother is getting married in three weeks. That’s another investment of time and money for me, but I’m really excited to be part of this. I was friends with his fiance in high school so it’ll be great to have her as a sister starting July 18! So, instead of packing up fun yet professional clothes this week, I started working on putting together table decorations for the rehearsal dinner:

Origami hearts

I tried out 7 origami heart patterns before picking one.

Color choices

Blue for him, purple for her.

68 4x6 prints have to be cut down to small squares. That took 2 episodes of Gilmore Girls.

68 4×6 prints had to be cut down to small squares. That took 2 episodes of Gilmore Girls.

Bottles & candles

The color story continues in the bottles and candles

Besides all of those things, I’m also finishing up two papers from last semester because I took extensions in those classes. One of them is a draft of the prospectus (i.e. brief overview) of my dissertation. I’m pretty excited to get this finished; I think I’ve figured out how I’m making my library/info lit side and my English/composition side work together to tackle research pedagogy. I’m hoping to share that here really soon, so check back if you’re intrigued.:)

Dissolving the canon: Thoughts on “Writing and the Digital Generation”

There are a  lot  of reasons why I didn’t chose a literature track when I returned to English studies, but one of the reasons is that I didn’t want to read the “crap” literature. If I was gonna specialize in a period, I knew I’d have to read the bad and the good of that time. I have no desire to read the stacks and stacks of emotionally overwrought plays and novels that were left behind as the canon was established, although I do simultaneously, as a matter of principle, resent canonization as a process that devalues the works it excludes.

Many of the books I’ve been reading this semester included descriptions of classroom applications of assorted platforms, tools, languages, sites, etc.—and the authors in Writing and the Digital Generation, edited by Heather Urbanski, added many more digital locations and processes to the number. The authors have argued that the inclusion of these items to their curricula is beneficial in various ways. It strikes me that they’re essentially arguing against a canon of academic prose: paper-based, text-performed, argumentative or analytical essays in 12 pt fonts. My anti-canon, rebellious, inner nerd self delights in saying to each of these authors “you do you”—though that self also indulges in the occasional nostalgic eyebrow raise of “What? Who uses X anymore?” (and, ok, once or twice it went as far as a teen-ish eye roll because, c’mon, Myspace?!)—so that the canon can at least be made more porous, if not broken.

After all, our academic canon wasn’t always the thing it now is. Mass production of paper didn’t start until the 18th century, and didn’t become affordable to the masses until the 19th, so literacy and education used to be primarily taught and performed orally and by a smaller number of individuals than is the case today in many developed areas. Horn books, slate pencils, recitations, and textbooks passed through sibling generations are not part of the tools and performances that constitute academia’s canon, though they still were just a few generations ago.

So which of these parts of digital communication will stick, and which ones will turn out to be like quill pen? Will the text-based essay outlast the challengers (lord, I hope not)? Will some of these platforms and tools become the morality plays and gothic novels of a distant future, with poor examples considered as quaint artifacts to provide a contrast to the excellent examples or to build insight into the culture of the day?  Do the ranks of compositionists want to dissolve or break the canon? What would it take to make this happen, as efforts would have to happen in rhet/comp, in academia, and in the public spheres?

2.0 & standards & what I missed in the 90s: Cynthia Selfe’s Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century

Much of Cynthia Selfe’s argument in Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century revolves around the insidious tendency of technology to reinforce existing power dynamics. She builds on the work of Heidegger and Latour, as well as other less-well-known names, to demonstrate how changes that at first seemed genuinely revolutionary were really quite conservative in their effects. This reminded me of Ong’s point that new technologies are initially utilized and assessed within the framework built by old tools, and because the new generation is perceived through the lens of the previous one, its truly innovative nature cannot have its full impact until some time has passed.

This thought first popped into my head while Selfe discussed the correlation between the increase of technology in classrooms and the call for national standards of achievement in education. Since I went through my elementary education during the 90s and high school in the early 00s, these state and national level standards were in the background of my life for almost as long as I actually had to work at school instead of just play and color and nap. Although many of my college friends were education majors and I’ve worked in higher ed all of my adult life and between the two things I’ve heard and engaged in many complaints about standards, I didn’t realize how recently they came into existence. I suppose I’d assumed that since they’d been there for all of the life I was aware of they must have had a history before my life began.

Selfe’s description of national efforts to standardize the experience of technology, to mandate the activities done with it and the skills practiced within it, seems…silly? Misguided? Pointless? I can remember that world, barely. Web 2.0 blazed through not long after her book was published, and so fundamentally altered the structure and nature of digital technology that I’m not sure it’s possible to conceptualize a web that is so easily prescribed and proscribed anymore, as it appears the educational and political leaders thought it was in the 90s. Now there is little left of a web experience that isn’t personally tailored to individual users, based on the history their computers logged.

In her closing pages, Selfe calls on her peers in literacy education to engage in a more situated and nuanced practice than they have in the past. She suggests approaching technology education in a ground-up, not top-down, manner, so that the most useful solutions can be built and/or deployed in the communities that legitimately need them most. I wonder how well they—well, now I suppose I should say we—have heeded that call. Business certainly did; you may see my inbox, my Facebook sidebar, and Buzzfeed’s homepage for proof. They successfully engaged with my life to get to my wallet, but what can educators do to get to a student’s lived experience? What’s the motivation for the teacher and for the student to participate with each others’ experience of technology?

More thoughts:

What is the difference in meaning between literacy as a thing that is performed and literate as a state of being? Do we expect to see one more than the other, or teach to one rather than the other, or use one version of the concept more than the other?

The previous owner of my book appeared to be troubled by Selfe’s assertion that critical and social awareness is part of technological awareness. I disagree with that person, but I wouldn’t be surprised to encounter the attitude again. How can we raise awareness about the digital divide nowadays? What can we do to ameliorate it?

Digits and Digital: Thoughts on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy

I have a tattoo on my right bicep that I intended as a reminder of the early days of typography. It uses Aldine italic, one of the first fonts to be designed not to recreate Gothic manuscript lettering, whose original purpose was to make the act of hand lettering flow smoothly as monks scratched on vellum in a scriptorium, but to make a text more legible and scannable to the eye and thus ease the work of a reader. The choices that a few people made in a few places during the fifteenth century had a profound impact on the transmission of ideas down to the present day, and I find the moment of those choices and changes fascinating. I’m a member of a society that is aware of a similar watershed occurring, and whose members sometimes indulge in hand-wringing over the matter. It has been comforting to remember that humans have adapted to shifts in communication many times already, as Ong demonstrates in his book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.

Ong reminds his reader that the full spread of the changes from an oral-based to a chirographic (writing) to a type-based culture was only completed after many centuries, and the impact of that shift has only become perceptible as time has removed us from suffering the immediate impact on our own selves. Perhaps this is part of the reason he does not go far into the impact of computing on communication, although some of his words about secondary orality are eerily prescient if you consider the involvement of newer generations in social media. These quotes are long, but I think they capture a motivation for group communication that escapes contemporary social media commentary:

I style the orality of a culture totally untouched by any knowledge of writing or print, ‘primary orality’. It is ‘primary’ by contrast with the ‘secondary orality’ of present-day high-technology culture, in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television, and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print. Today primary oral culture in the strict sense hardly exists, since every culture knows of writing and has some experience of its effects. Still, to varying degrees many cultures and subcultures, even in a high technology ambiance, preserve much of the mind-set of primary orality. (p. 11)

Secondary orality is both remarkably like and remarkably unlike primary orality. Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture McLuhan’s ‘global village’. Moreover, before writing, oral folk were group-minded because no feasible alternative had presented itself. In our age of secondary orality, we are group-minded self-consciously and programmatically. The individual feels that he or she, as an individual, must be socially sensitive. Unlike members of a primary oral culture, who are turned outward because they have had little occasion to turn inward, we are turned outward because we have turned inward. In a like vein, where primary orality promotes spontaneity because the analytic reflectiveness implemented by writing is unavailable, secondary orality promotes spontaneity because through analytic reflection we have decided that spontaneity is a good thing. We plan our happenings carefully to be sure that they are thoroughly spontaneous. (p. 139-137)

I don’t know that even now we could say that the full impact of digital technology has yet occurred, or will ever finish occuring, or that we will ever again be sufficiently removed from our technology to analyze the change to secondary orality as Ong can for print literacy. And that brings me to a question that I’m almost afraid to ask this question because I don’t know that I can produce any answers. What are the impacts the most recent set of technological innovations has produced on our cognitive activity? Perhaps an attempt to examine a holistic, unified, singular individual’s awareness is passé. But I’m not convinced that Ong’s insistence on the interiority/exteriority dynamic can be dismissed. I know when I try to explain my personal understanding of networks and their impacts on the composing act to friends and family, I am constantly met with statements like “but I’m the one typing” or “but you still give one grade to one student”.

To abruptly close on a completely unrelated and unimportant note, I wonder if we will develop technology that would allow me to get a matching tattoo (perhaps on my left bicep?) that invokes the shift from oral to written culture? I’m imagining a “play” button embedded in my skin and liking the image.