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.

Power Plays and Writing: Thoughts on Sharon Crowley’s Composition in the University

I got an email this weekend from the professor in whose class I am an embedded writing coach (that’s their term for what other campuses call a writing consultant or tutor, the job is a side gig for me). The subject line was “writing” but the content of the email talked about some grammar and citation issues that had popped up in student papers. This frustrates me on an existential level. I  don’t want writing equated with grammar, as it too often is (e.g. books like Eats, Shoots, and Leaves). I don’t like to see the evaluation of writing limited to lower-order concerns, to use writing center language. I’m uncomfortable with being pushed to focus my effort and attention upon these things when my own system of priorities is so different.

Crowley traces the development and impact of this attitude as part of her book Composition in the University. More importantly, I believe, she calls the discipline of English Composition to account for its complicity in allowing this limited understanding of writing to develop. Historically, the existence of a basic writing skills class (popularly known as ENG 101) has reinforced the perception of a “standardized” English that exists outside of or beyond a given social structure and which can, therefore, be studied, evaluated, and mastered outside of a specific context. I think that course I’m embedded in exemplifies this, sometimes: it’s part an MBA program, and the faculty and students are very aware of the demands for “perfect” and “grammatical” usage that face authors in business and administrative settings. What may be less apparent to them is how that limited understanding of writing limits their students (and me) by reinforcing this perception and denying the use of their voice in academia and in the business world.

I believe composition has a powerful role to play in breaking this cycle, since it made a big contribution to creating it. In the course of her book, Crowley provides a manifesto detailing the reasons why freshman composition and the concept of basic English skills has hobbled the development of composition into a full discipline, and I agree with her major points. However, I’ve never felt comfortable identifying myself as a compositionist because the field seemed to be exclusively the realm of classroom practitioners, especially freshman composition classroom practitioners. I think I can make a convincing argument that I am in the field of writing studies, but I have always hated the impulse of the academy to educate students only for its own communication and information practices and I want to work against that, and to open things up as much as I can through my own study and practice. Crowley’s description of the field of composition and its history through the early pages of her book made me consider dropping a class this semester, because I thought “well, so, this is this field, and it doesn’t have space for me and what I do because it just wants to examine classroom practice, and why should I stay where I’m not welcome?” I’m glad I stuck through for her closing pages, because there Crowley tries to imagine what the discipline could study, if it abandoned its commitment to first-year English. If that happened, if composition really could divorce the verbs “composing” and “writing” from the creation of alphabetic texts in purely academic genres and the mastery of devices that that signal participation in a more-or-less exclusive clique. Then maybe I could be called a compositionist after all. And maybe we could begin re-educating the rest of the world about what writing is, so that the writing coaches of the future would no longer be compelled to explain the nearly-archaic, certainly pedantic difference between “that” and “which” to future generations of MBA students…because neither their professors nor their potential bosses would care.

“…this arrangement may be beginning to break down…”: Thoughts on Stephen North’s The Making of Knowledge in Composition

I may have made some terrible choices. I’ve chosen to pursue not only one, but two, academic career paths that are constantly being questioned. Not only are library science and lang/lit studies plagued by external misconceptions (“People still use libraries?” “What the heck can you do with an English major?”) but the fields also subject themselves to intense self-scrutiny. Doubts about our purpose, usefulness, and future are frequently present at conferences and in journal publications, and although they may be dismissed and silenced for a time, they seem to crop up fresh again the following year. Stephen North uses his book The Making of Knowledge in Composition to explore some of those doubts within the field of writing and composition. He divides the field by eight modes of enquiry and in the course of his 300 pages explains how he sees them functioning together as a discipline. He captures not only the moment in which his work was penned but also gives an account for how the previous 20-odd years led to the moment he’s describing, as composition emerged from English literary studies. Based on his view of the tensions in how the field functions, in his closing chapter North also offers some predictions of the future of composition as a discipline.

It’s been another 20-odd years again since North’s book was published, and I’m glad that many of his predictions for the future haven’t come to pass…yet. But that doesn’t mean that the field has completely settled his concerns, has worked through the issues and moved on. Practitioners and the lore they trade in are both still undervalued and systematically repressed through adjunctification and publication bias. Various methodological approaches still are not either thoroughly explicated or easily brought to cohabitation. Conversations can still descend to snark rather than rising to understanding. And in those 20-odd years, the rise of digital technologies has added layers—and wrinkles—to our understanding of “writing” and “composition” that we are still trying to smooth out.

The quote I used for my title is on p. 353 of this book. North’s fear in the mid-80s was that Composition would devolve to its “composition” standing from the early 20th century, and that this would be caused/be the cause of its component modes of enquiry resettling in various other departments. Thankfully, this mostly hasn’t happened yet; Composition still lives in English in most places, and the field progressed in breadth and depth as the numbers of researchers, scholars, practitioners, and graduate programs in the field grew. I don’t think the question of Composition’s existence or dissolution has been permanently settled, though. Therefore, we cannot afford to ignore the hope that North expresses as a dream in his closing pages. Though he doesn’t use this word, North wants Composition to become comfortable with its interdisciplinary nature. He points out the various ways in which our scholars, researchers, and even practitioners follow the dictates of disciplines other than English, and the thrust of his argument often is that Composition’s uncomfortable, unsettled nature as a discipline within the world of English springs from crossing those disciplinary lines. At least acknowledging this facet of our field’s personality, even if we cannot quite bring ourselves to praise or embrace it, might at least bring us more peace.

Downs and ups

I don’t believe it’s healthy to compartmentalize our professional and personal selves, and I’m not going to transform this blog exclusively into a series of dry articles full of academicese. So I feel like I need to admit that at this very moment I’m feeling really down about something that’s personal, but I need to keep details out of this particular writing space.

But today  I got an email with this subject line: “ACRL 2015 speaker “bling” for your email” and that was a bright spot. Yay for the uppers!