Note to readers

This is a blog that I'm required to keep that's full of unedited, near stream-of-consciousness reactions to similarly required and related readings in a graduate course in N.C. State University's Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. The way these posts are written help me interrogate and understand what's going on in our readings. I'm identifying what's troublesome so that I can give it more thought, but the posts aren't written in a style that's productive for audiences outside of our class to read. That's by design. I start with contestation, then spend heavens only knows how long researching, recutting, and reevaluating so that I can try and see what potentially productive readings I can extract from these source for use in my own work's contributions back to the field. Comments encouraged, but please, you'll likely need a thick skin if your work is quoted here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Projecting your hopes for adequacy [as an instructor]

It will likely already come as no surprise that I'm a fan of the general thread that cuts through Ohmann and Hawisher/Selfe. Technology is a conduit for (and represents a excursion by) the corporation into what was once an independent space -- the corporation now more precisely presented as the especially complex proxy for monopoly capital (though I'm not sure I found the "monopoly" in monopoly capital beyond its ability to put business processes for a product, cradle to grave, under one roof, smartly anticipating the success of Wal-Mart as uberretailer of products created by those vertical monopolies). Both of these readings clearly recognize the importance of delineating the weaknesses of ye olde proverbial computer age, something academics as loath to do. (Good list of bank teller, "junior secretary," "check-out clerks," "fast-food counter" workers", etc on Ohmann 27.)

But why are academics loath to talk badly about technology? Why the "uncritical enthusiasm that frequently characterizes the reports of those of us who advocate and support electronic writing classes" (Hawisher/Selfe 36)? I'll pretend it's the same reason so many are addicted to pills; they project the shadow of their problems onto technology in the mistaken belief that believing in technology's potential can fix what's wrong in the traditional classroom. Hawisher/Selfe start to unveil the mistaken projection in the answers to their "lengthy open-ended questionnaires to writing instructors" given "At the 1988 Conference on Computers in Writing and Language Instruction." When asked "Do you prefer teaching writing with traditional methods or with computers? Why?", their respondents' "comments are remarkably similar to the published claims about the use of on-line conferences...", here meaning "electronic bulletin boards and conferences" (37-39).

The "remarkable similarity" is enabled because the statements have nothing to do with the technology, but everything to do with the perceived pitfalls of the current state of instruction being projected onto a digital snake-oil. Who doesn't constantly balance the desire for added "democratization," pupils who "work collaboratively," improved conference time, and a "student-centered" learning experience against the demands of ensuring students receive [self-sanctioned?] exposure to and practice with course content? who get to As Hawisher/Selfe remark, "the change [to a better classroom] will not happen automatically in the electronic classroom any more than in a traditional classroom" (44). There is nothing inherently emancipating about digital techs, as their description of the digital classroom that "can actually be used to dampen creativity, writing, intellectual exchanges" (41) shows. It's frightening to see how easily the genre of academic composition pedagogy can adopt the characteristics of sales literature. (An interesting (but impractical) experiment would be to create some analog technology with a similar buzz and see what happens... I'm sure there are many, like new book editions that are heavily recycled from the old.)

Again, digital text is, currently, much more dynamic than manuscript or typed text, but still falls several orders of magnitude below the interaction that's possible through face-to-face contact. As Dr. Keyton illustrated in her class last night (with a few apologies), "If you're homesick for your spouse, do you want an email, phone call, YouTube, or personal visit?" Or, as she asked later, "Is it easier to lie online or face-to-face?" Trite, perhaps, but these two examples do a much better job than I can logically argue that the death of the analog instructor (and their analog methods) have met an overly exaggerated end.

(Hawisher and Selfe come very close to explicitly blaming the teachers. "Unfortunately, as writing instructors" we are all too likely "to perpetuate those values currently dominant within our culture" (35). The sentence construction there is particularly dense as they nearly make the claim that instructors are to blame, and is worth rereading. Careful hedging throughout, with a strange mix of pretty straight talk.)

Instead of believing in the panacea, it is more important to see what work we want technology to do in our classrooms. There are more than a few obvious tasks that can't help but appear more suited to digital technologies, though even Ohmann's quote of O'Shea and Self ("But there is a possibility that computers will be used to enhance the educational process and equip each learner with an exciting medium for problem-solving and individual tuition." (29)) seems to push tech to more liberating ends than necessary. Tech is good for (eg)...

* Creating digital end products
* Filing, saving, and commenting on student assignments
* Taking roll!
* Saving your own notes, A/V aids, etc to make re-teaching easier (insert standard concerns about becoming too fixed in your instruction, which I've found happens no more often with instructors with good notes than none at all)

Deskill the labor where the labor should be deskilled. There's no reason to pay tuition to pay instructors to file printed papers if they're comfortable with, eg, gmail and some flavor of tracking changes.

Finally, a very quick word about creating digital end products... If there was no call for a particular composition type's/medium's analog precursor, it's an interesting argument to explain why the digital versions are needed now. That is, do Powerpoints on Melville (or whatever -- nuclear fission) really make us more knowledgeable than our predecessors, or is it still more important to simply possess a critical mind, be well read, and be ready to participate in the professional conversation?

Corporate Composition

(not directly reading specific)

I wonder how well the corporate university translates to composition in the English department. In, say, pulp and paper science and technology, there are certain methods that must be learned, and your choices are to learn them by running busiwork (visions of organic chemistry labs come to mind) or by running projects Georgia Pacific would like you to run. If Georgia Pacific can give you the cash for the lab and there is absolutely no functional change in the filler for your method learning, what's the harm? (Don't get me wrong -- I think the potential for undue influence is pretty clear, but the connection feels fairly innocuous in theory and, often, in praxis.)

What's the advantage for having corporations in the composition classroom? There are analogous situations to the hypothetical GP-subsidized methods labs that appear in English departments, as in using a "real" non-profit for your fundraising assignment and "donating" the end result. Even here, the activity owns its own politics and ethical issues when you find that passively using your authority to coerce students to write for a particular cause, even one "they" select, may not protect your class' minority (here simply meaning "not majority") interests particularly well. That is, those who don't like Amnesty International but feel the peer pressure and won't admit it could be forced into an ethical dilemma. Though the same could happen in Pulp & Paper (perhaps there's a tree-hugging plant (pun wasn't initially intended) taking the course to go into environmental law and they'd prefer not to help GP in any fashion), the rarity of a student's being placed in such an ethical hotspot, in large part because of the curriculum's design (engineering is conceived to help industry, duh), minimizes the social impact of such corporate involvement.

When English departments allow corporate involvement, they have changed their presentation and reasoning behind their traditional curriculum, which has not been quite so cozy with corporations (Puritan synods? Perhaps, but much more rarely GP). If it's okay to accept corporations into the English composition classroom, does the instruction remain English instruction? Perhaps in business writing or technical writing classes, but general composition?

Again, what's the pedagogical goal of composition? To be better writers, or to be better writers for the workplace? If the latter, what does the workplace look like? Does a land grant institution owe its students this workplace-based composition? How does workplace-oriented composition mesh with the goals of the English-as-literature department? What are the practical advantages for the students of teaching them corporate composition against teaching literary composition? Do they become better communicators? Writers? What is a writer? (etc, ad infinitum)

And how many drops of corporate support are necessary before a classroom moves from belle lettres to the letters of the acronyms of these new patrons? This, of course, is the question that lurks behind every high-tech addition to the classroom, of which I'll table discussion until later, but that is the question that popped up a bit for me during the first two readings I got to (CCCC Statement and Hrastinski & Keller) this week.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Hybrid" lexicons at best

There are three sections of the "CCCC Statement on Teaching, ..." that concern me a bit. Here they are, in the order that I'm typing them.

Adminstrators with responsibilities for writing programs will
2. assure that students off campus, particularly in distance learning situations, have access to the same library resources available to other students

In ENG 532, I think we're to call this an example of presupposition. Can we give off campus students "access to the same library resources available to other students"? Of course not, though the sentence assumes we can. At the same time, there is a presupposition that the library should become something that can be accessed as easily off-site as on. I'm convinced this is not a particularly laudable goal either.

There's a slippery slope to identify behind this wishful thinking. It's too easy to think of digital pedagogy as a cure-all for the relatively static character of printed text. Digital technologies do facilitate giving feedback, sometimes in real time, for composition, but we're still a long ways away from digital techs allowing the same dynamism allowed through face-to-face contact. That is, the interactivity of digital technologies falls between text and actual (legacy?) co-presence. The current state, in praxis, of the mediation inherent in digital communication is too strong for it to be considered anything resembling

I'm an old fogey. University should keep its own email.

From UNC's student newspaper:

Google has created a new program specifically designed for college students. The education edition of Google Apps includes e-mail service in addition to applications like Google Calendar and Google Talk, an instant messaging service.
Unlike a campus e-mail service, Google Apps comes at no charge. Arizona State University, which switched to Google Apps two years ago, paid $400,000 a year to maintain their old system, Keltner said.

Well, why Google is interested in providing the service for the university makes perfect sense -- most will likely use Google's own web application to interface with email, and that means lots of ad revenue. And I suppose as long as you can use POP3 or IMAP to view your Google-hosted mail, I shouldn't complain.

Still, what are the chances that Google stands to net more than $400k a year from your students? That is, could the university not invest in making its own, ad supported online interface and come out ahead in the long run? I would prefer that capitalism kept its sorry grubby hands away from academia, even if the university made the cash -- as if a capitalistic state institution of higher learning were still an option.

Quick Wesch Critique

Michael Wesch's youtube post is interesting in that it tries to make key distinctions between the use of traditional manuscript against the use of hypertext, but it's misleading in a number of ways I find particularly troubling.  Let's be blog-a-rific and not compose these in any meaningful, synthesized way, and just list 'em out in the order they pop from the fingers.

1.) The fade from the white page of pencil to hypertext can be interpreted in one of two ways.  The first is that there is a continuum between paper-manuscript and digital cultures, and the second is that there's a stark break.  You watch as the actor moves from saying that digital text is different because it moves or can be changed in some strange way, but the editing continues until linking/hyperlinking/hypertext is settled on as the key distinction.  Unfortunately what we just saw in the paper-manuscript suggestion was already doing a great job saying that this is not the case.  There is no Web 1.0 or 2.0.  Each set of technologies, whether keyboard, text editor and browser or pencil, paper, and printed page have their own means of remediating the dynamic functions depicted in that video.  Read Heather Jackson's Marginalia and then tell me manuscript culture didn't have the same functionality as digital text.  Both are compositional forms where the method of composition is the same as the method of publication, both typically allow avenues for easy coauthorship by readers/consumers/audiences, etc.  

The differences seem obvious enough, and they are useful ones.  Digital media (with enough infrastructure -- server/proc speed & RAM, software, bandwidth) can quickly scale to allow for "flash mobs'" worth of interest, for example, whereas books with particularly impressive marginalia are much harder to share with millions at once.  Yet these are differences, not strengths deserving 1980's style synthesized background music promising intellectual liberation.  One allowed for the flourishing of the Tuesday Club, and the other allowed for Matt Drudge.  The real difference between the two is the ability to move from a controlled, known audience to a potentially anonymous one, which I often rant about when people try to argue that privacy has been lost online.  It's not so much that any of this is privacy but the expectation of anonymity... what are the ramifications for culture whose cities include the potential to walk down the street arguing personal matters with your spouse knowing that the comments aren't likely to be heard by anyone which you know personally?  It would seem digital communication is only now catching up with the changes in the gross urban populations that have increasingly become the rule. Certainly the community of the shared gossip fence has died (and the gossip has likely gone digital without it).

Which moves us from unearned break number one (as it becomes clear Wesch would rather argue a paradigm shift (meaning a quantum leap) between the abilities of paper-manuscript and digital text rather than something that does the same work differently) to unearned break number two -- the video's implication that HTML and XML are such totally different animals -- he trivially makes the case that you can't consider the format without the human behind it (a concept key for understanding any digital standard, like HTML, XML, and their SGML brethren), but the impression for the uninitiated is a dangerously misleading one, which I guess I'll talk about later. In brief. to say that HTML caused a static Web 1.0 and that XML allows for a dynamic Web 2.0 where form completely separates from content is horrendously oversimplistic. Makes for a groovy video, but does not, as presented, invite needed inquiry. (And as if Web 2.0 as currently conceived is an improvement...) It also tends to overlook that html was initially conceived as a means of providing markup whose display would be regulated by the way the browser's user set the preferences. I should find an older browser, but for now you can see a few vestiges in Netscape Communicator 4.77, which I had handy.

EDIT: Here's a picture from Netscape 2.02. The operative option is highlighted (and it's in v4 as well) -- "Always use mine."

-- I'd also add that one of the biggest changes from my undergrad days to today is the rigid policing of access to academic journals. Fifteen years ago, anyone could walk off of the street into their state university and have, within reason, the same journal access that their university professors had. Now, access to online journals are very carefully tracked, thanks to the power of databases and digital delivery/publication systems, and online-only subscriptions mean that access can be stolen away at any moment, shoved back into an exclusive virtual rare book room.