Monthly Archives: January 2011

Enjoying the fast water

On the one hand, trying to sort through where the changes of digital media have left the study of literacy and rhetoric can seem daunting. The change is often so fast, occasionally so transitory, and in such volume (whether I mean the quantity of information or the level of conversation, I’m not certain) that I often feel as if I am standing hip-deep in fast water while juggling.  It seems all I can do to keep my balance, stay in one place, and keep aloft the balls I currently have in the air. As I noted when I started this blog, the press of time, work, and living a daily life as best I can, sometimes makes that balancing act all I can accomplish without diving deeper into the waters of technological and textual change.

Yet, at the same time, when I don’t focus on the speed of the water, and I take the time to get a better sense of my surroundings, I am less unsettled by what is happening around me. Of course, digital media are changing some fundamental opportunities for communicating, and those changes are, in turn, changing our conceptions of text, audience, authorship and more. Still, when it comes down to it, I don’t know that I see our essential jobs as literacy and rhetoric and writing teachers and researchers as changing. We’re still about the creation and interpretation of texts. Though it may be crass to quote myself, I’m keep coming back to the definition of literacy that I have written before:

For me literacy is connected to the way humans communicate ideas, concepts, and emotions to one another.  Humans are meaning-making creatures and we have learned to do so by creating representations of our ideas that can be interpreted by others when we are not present. I see it as important, then, to keep literacy connected to the communication of ideas through representation, whether of words, images, graphics, and so on. In this way literacy can apply to writing print on a page, arranging images and words on a webpage, or arranging images and words on film or video. Each example illustrates the arrangement of signs or symbols or images to represent ideas. For this book, my working definition of literacy, at its most basic and yet most varied, is the ability to use sign systems to compose and interpret texts that communicate ideas from one person to another.

Having this definition of literacy seems no big deal to me. Perhaps it comes from a background, academically and professional, that was not in English departments until I came back to graduate school. Or perhaps I can trace this position to having always been a movie freak and a photographer. Or maybe it is that I worked extensively with photography and audio and graphics in concert with writing during my education and (brief) professional life as a journalist. Whatever the reason, this seems to me not only to be the way literacy should be defined, now and in the past, but to point me toward what I think the purpose of literacy education (including rhetoric and writing) should be for us today. But more on that in days to come (I’m trying to learn to write shorter again, for the blog).

More to come….


It was a fascinating conversation in class the other night, with a lot of good ideas circulating. What has continued to rattle around in my head is the question of digital media and agency. Cope and Kalantzis, in “New Media, New Learning” argue that one of the genuinely different aspects of digital media is the way in increases individual agency when it comes to creating, responding to, and publishing texts.  I don’t think anyone would argue that they are right that individuals have the opportunity and technology available now to publish and distribute their ideas that was unthinkable twenty years ago. As someone who was trying to get my short stories published back then, and had no venue for publication aside from established magazines and journals, I think there is no disputing that part of the point Cope and Kalantzis make (I say as I type on my blog).

But the question that came up in class concerned the effect of those efforts to write and publish individual texts. Does “agency” mean only the ability to publish, or does it also mean that the action achieves a sense of empowerment, change, critical or political or emotional growth on the part of the writer? If agency is more than the action, but is also the effect on the individual, then have digital media really changed that much? Is writing this blog, which may not be read, that different to my sense of agency than writing the journals that I have kept for decades? Or, how much agency is allowed in a digital world that is increasingly bound by the imperatives  of global capitalism? How much agency is provided to me if I am just doing the marketing work for corporations? What kinds of composing and communication with digital media could actually have an effect on our individual – or collective – sense of agency?

More to come…

New Media and Composition Pedagogy – a course

This week is the first meeting of my graduate seminar on New Media and Composition Pedagogy.  First of all, I’m not thrilled about the title, but it wasn’t chosen by me, so I’ll just leave it at that.  Like all new preps, however, it has been an interesting process over the last few months of thinking through what this course could, should, and would be. This is a course that was high on the list of seminars graduate students wanted to see offered, and that hadn’t been offered here before, so  was happy to take it on. But that, in some ways, raised the stakes in my head as I began to think about how I should craft the course. My initial move, as it is with almost any new prep, was to think too big. I found myself thinking I would have to cover the history of computers and composition, current theories of multiliteracies, a good chunk of practical classroom material, new media theory, film theory, and so on and on and on. In short, I had the material for five or six courses, easy.

This realization brought with it the inevitable winnowing and reducing and, with luck, some sense of coherence. I realized that I had a problem with the kind of scholarship in computers and composition that focused on one kind of technology as the hottest new thing and the balm to all pedagogical ills. Having watched trendy new technologies or software packages rise and fall over the years (a topic for another post, perhaps), was wary of investing too much of the time and energy of the class on specific technologies and their applications. Instead, I decided that I needed to ground the course in some of the more abstract and theoretical things that digital technologies have changed in how we approach literacy and writing. What does digital technology actually allow or ask us to do differently than we might have done before, regardless of the platform or software? Again, there was more even in the answer to this question than I could cover in one semester, but I decided to focus on several key concepts, such as collaboration, multimodality, databases as texts, and the instability of texts.  We will read theoretical pieces that help us understand the implications of these shifting concepts, and then look at some current practical applications (and play with some of the toys ourselves). Yet, with luck, the theoretical work will allow us all to respond to the next new application or software that might come along (the next YouTube or Twitter or Wiki) and understand how it grows, and perhaps diverges, from current technologies. And, of course, it’s a course of mine, so we will also spend some time prowling around issues of identity and politics.

As with any class, I am dissatisfied with the syllabus as soon as I distribute it. But, I will be intrigued to see how this one shakes out and will be discussing it in this space.

The class starts tomorrow. Stay tuned…..

Impermanence. Or why I don’t do my reading on a Kindle yet

I do my scholarly reading, and much of my other reading, with codex books. This is not because I have some romantic attachment to the material heft and feel of books, as some converts to ebook readers and IPads are convinced must be the only reason people like me would stay with the codex. (Though it does make me pause to pick up the Bible that was passed down through my father’s family, published in Welsh in 1832, and ponder who has picked it up and read it before me. I feel a sense of connection that material items, be they books or dishes or furniture can provide for us that, at least at this point, the rapid planned obsolescence of digital hardware seems unlikely to match.)

But the 1832 Welsh Bible, and the other old books I own, are part of my reason for being cautious about ebook readers for my scholarly work. I can read the books published 100 years ago, or 200 years ago or longer. But I have lots of digital material that is unreadable.  Take, for example, the 5 1/4 floppy disks on which I wrote my MA thesis and my first short stories, which are now available for use as coasters. If I hadn’t printed those stories out, they would be lost. Of course I could also have moved them, time and again, to 3 1/2 disks, then to CDs, then to a hard drive or thumb drive, if I had remembered and not lost things along the way. But my point here, and I’m certainly not the first one to make it, is that digital technology changes very quickly and, if you’re not careful, you can end up losing material on which you have worked very hard.

So, back to the Kindle (or Nook or IPad).  I’m not at all against digital texts. I love being able to download journal articles and post them on to friends online. It is a HUGE convenience. But, when I have something I need to read, annotate, and keep, I print it out or buy the codex book.  As a nerdy academic, I write a lot in my books. Questions, notes, summaries, ideas, rants, you name it. And I return to those notes, in those books, a lot, in both teaching and research. My problem with ebook readers then, is twofold. First, the annotation systems I have seen have yet to impress me as being as quick and efficient as my pen in hand — particularly not for someone like me with big hands and thick fingers. There is a reason I am not a surgeon (several, actually) and I have a very hard time with tiny buttons. But, even more to the point, I am unconvinced that the ebook reading technology I might use today (including annotating texts on my laptop) will necessarily be around 15 to 20 years from now. Unless I constantly move all my books and articles from one medium or machine to the next upgrade,  I could lose them, with my notes in them. As someone who just the other day pulled a book off the shelf I hadn’t looked at in about 15 years, but found the notes and ideas and text I was looking for just when he needed them, I do not want to risk losing that material. What’s more, I don’t want to have to take the time to transfer the digital files when that time comes, or risk not having the software or hardware to read them.

I could be wrong, of course, and the ebook texts with annotations on them may last forever. Yahoo, I say. I hope it’s true. But I can’t risk it for now. So, for now, I read codex books, not primarily for sentimental reasons, but for desperately practical ones.

Oh yeah, one more thing. I’m really clumsy, or absent minded, or both. I drop things, particularly books, all the time. I’m hard enough on cell phones. My finances rejoice at the idea that at least books bounce.

My Thing About Blogs

I’ve wondered, over the past decade, why I have been hesitant to start a blog. It’s not a matter of thinking that there aren’t ideas on blogs worth reading. It’s not that I don’t value the interactive nature of blogs. It’s not that I don’t value a collaborative approach to knowledge generation or that I haven’t learned from some of the blogs I have read. You know, some of my best friends write blogs.

Yet I have hesitated writing one myself and I don’t even follow as many as I should. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the course I’m teaching this spring, I wouldn’t be writing this now. But that raises for me the question of why, if I am interested in writing, in popular culture, in digital media, haven’t I joined in with a blog? And I’ve come to several tentative conclusions that this project, this blog will put to the test.

The first question is one of time. Blogs began to emerge when I had two young children at home and was also director of the university composition program. I had priorities. Family came first. After that, depending on the time and the emergencies, I could turn to research, teaching, and administration. The reality, however, was that after family and other professional obligations such as my administrative responsibilities, there was only so much time for writing. And, if there was only a limited time for writing, I was going to spend that time writing in venues that I knew would be peer-reviewed, edited, and possibly even read, such as books and journals (and count toward tenure and promotion). I had to be very disciplined about what I read and wrote in order to get that work done. Exploration and musing time was going to be taken up by my family. There just wasn’t time for any other writing. Even now, as I write this, I find myself wondering what will happen to my words. Will anyone read them or is this just wasted typing? I’m well aware of the t-‘shirt that reads, “More people have read my shirt than your blog.” Even with my sons now in college, I find myself squirming at the possibility that I am engaging in wasted type, in wasting time.

The second question is how I work as a writer. Although some people think I write quickly, thanks to an early background in journalism, the reality is that I both do and don’t. On the one hand, I can bang out words very quickly and am willing to get a piece finished and off to an editor without dithering over it forever. Yet the key to that previous statement is “off to an editor.” If I don’t have a sense that there will be someone to look over my work and offer suggestions and critique, I can still write quickly, but I publish slowly. As a journalist and when I publish in books and in journals there are editors — and now reviewers — to help me, to prod me to new ideas, to save me from sloppy thinking and writing. Without the collaborative relationship I have with editors, I get nervous about my writing. I edit and re-edit and re-edit emails to try to be sure I am communicating what I want to say. I am trying desperately to avoid rewriting this paragraph again and again. I don’t like putting writing out there that is less than my best or that others have not been able to help me improve. I’d rather not say stupid things, poorly written, in public. And, if I have to rewrite and rewrite every blog post, that brings me back to the question of time.

People with blogs, when I tell them how I work as a writer, tell me that I will get that feedback from the comments to my blog (if anyone reads it). The blog can serve as a space in which I try out my ideas and get responses that help me develop those ideas. Which brings me to the third question. Although I rely on digital media, study it, love it too much sometimes, at my core I’m a face-to-face person. As anyone who knows me can attest, I like to talk through ideas.  I would choose to meet at the local coffee shop and talk over my latest project with a trusted friend, than try to sort it out through writing (and I always prefer to talk over dissertation chapters with graduate students than provide written comments).  I also scribble lots of notes and write ideas down and I keep private journals that are informal and rambling, but in terms of working through ideas with other people, I would always choose to talk in person.  Why? Upbringing perhaps, I was raised in a family of talkers (my former sister-in-law said we were an “oral culture”). Or maybe it is that I need the body language and non-verbal communication involved in the conversation, or perhaps the speed with which I can modify and respond to ideas.  Or maybe I just like the companionship of corporeal beings. For whatever reasons, I like to talk through ideas.  I love teaching in a face-to-face classroom so much and dread the idea of online teaching, not because I think the latter can never be effective, but because of the joys I get from the former. It also explains why my teaching always involves conferences with students.  And, as I noted above,  when I write for publication of any kind, from books to email, I compose carefully to try to be as precise as possible. (I just rewrote the previous pedestrian sentence about four times. I’m not saying it always makes my writing precise or elegant, just that I try.)

Finally there are the connected questions of permanence and impermanence. On the one hand, I know that any blog post may have a long life online, even if I choose to delete it next week. As someone who has already talked about being careful in what he writes, the idea that the uninspiring blathering of this post will exist out there, attached to my name, for decades, doesn’t comfort me. If I’m going to create texts that will exist for a long time, then I want to be careful of how I write, and that gets me back to problems of how I spend my time as a writer and scholar.  The flip side of this coin in impermanence, or the possibility that my writing in this venue may disappear just as easily as I’ve written it, and that the work will have been wasted. And this last point will be the focus of my next post.

So what’s the point? That blogging is not for everyone? Or at least not for me? Or that I need to loosen up and give it a try? I certainly have felt somewhat defensive when talking (face to face, by the way) to friends with blogs. Given my interest in digital media and writing, it has seemed like a weakness in my background. Now, however, as I prepare to teach a graduate seminar in New Media and Composition Pedagogy, it seemed as good a moment as any to try it out for a semester and see if my resistance to the endeavor changes through practice, or if this is a just a one-time experiment.

More later.