Starting Again, and Focusing on Writing

The start of the fall semester should mean that summer is over – though the weather outside in Louisville reminds us otherwise. Regardless of the weather, I realized a while back that I tend to set my annual internal clock by the start of the academic year. My new year – my resolutions, my reflections, my sense of renewal – starts not in January, but in the autumn with a new academic year. This year, as with every year, I find myself busy beyond belief (hence the paucity of posts since July) but also invigorated by a campus full of students again. There is always a sense of promise, a sense that this semester, whether as teacher or student, there will be a breakthrough of learning, of inspiration. (Am I a bit on the sentimental side about these things? What do you think?)

Working in the University Writing Center is particularly conducive to optimism. 143We work with any and all writers in the university — undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff — on any kind of writing at any stage in that writing. Our goal is both to help the writer improve the current project, but also to help teach the writer new strategies to use on writing projects in the future. In practice, we see a lot of people who come to us at moments of extreme anxiety about their writing, and, most of the time, when they leave they have a clear plan for revising their writing, and feel more confident about their work. (The fact that almost half of our visitors schedule return visits during the course of the year is a testament to the fact that we must be doing something right.) We ground our work in an ethic of care and an ethic of respect for the writer and I think that comes across to people. It’s hard work sometimes, and exhausting, but rewarding for both the students and consultants. (It’s also a space that has political potential in the university in ways that need more exploration, but that is for a future post.) So it’s not hard to feel optimistic when you know that this is what the work for the year will be.

Much of the preceding paragraph is not news to those who work in Writing Centers, which are becoming much more common in U.S. universities. (Even so, it felt good to write it). But I realized, while in Britain in the spring, how little the concept of a university writing center was understood there. When I would tell wc-signpeople that I was director of the Writing Center at UofL, many people had no idea what I was talking about. When I explained what we do, from the individual writing consultations to the classroom workshops on writing to the events such as the week-long dissertation writing retreats we hold, the lack of understanding often turned to envy. It’s hard not to like the idea of a writing center. And, in places where there are writing centers, like the marvelous one in at Coventry University, they have become  valued institutions. But I missed the commitment to writing instruction in universities there that I think writing centers exemplify.

My point is not that I wish more UK universities had writing centers (though I do – and if anyone is reading this and wants me to come over and help set one up…..). My point is that, while I enjoyed my time with my British colleagues so much, and learned so much from them, it was meaningful in coming home to again be part of the Writing Center, and all the things we do. Simple as that.


After the Conference – The Joys of Participation and Conversation

One of the pleasures of my Fulbright Fellowship has been collaborating on the Everyday Language, Everyday Literacies conference at the University of Sheffield. Julia Davies, Kate Pahl, and all the amazing graduate students at Centre for the Study of Literacies were generous enough to let me be part of the planning of the conference, which took place last week. As in the past, I found it to be my favorite conference experience of the year.

There are several things I always love about this conference. First, Julia and Kate draw together such a diverse group of scholars to the conference. In fact, I often find myself wondering if is perhaps too diverse, too disconnected. Yet, as the conference progresses, there is always an amazing alchemy that takes place as the plenary and breakout sessions start to harmonize with unexpected and original resonances. This year people such as Mary Hamilton, Janet Maybin, Vic Carrington, John Potter, Diane Mavers, Lalitha Vasudevan, Tiffany Dejaynes, Jan Connelly and others spoke on everything from children and picture books to emotions in the classroom to the biography of the iPhone. Yet, as the conference progressed, fascinating and original connections emerged among the various sessions. I always leave after two days with a head full of new ideas and notebook full of new sources I want to read.

Which brings me to the second thing I love about the conference. It is small. It’s really more like an intense symposium than a conference. As a consequence, it’s the ongoing conversations, after sessions, during lunch, online, that make this such a generative and productive time. Rather than sitting in huge crowds and listening, the organization – and ethos – of the conference is participatory and democratic.

And that brings me to the third things I love about the conference. Julia and Kate are committed to creating supportive, participatory spaces in everything they do, from their research to their writing and that certainly includes the conference. The conversations are rigorous, but never mean-spirited. Oversized egos are never a problem, and everyone’s ideas are treated with respect.

It is always an energizing, positive, and provocative two days and I am grateful to have had a hand in helping with it. See you all next year.

Percolation, Fermentation, Rumination – or the Importance of Time and Patience in Research

The greatest gift bestowed on me by receiving a Fulbright Research Fellowship has been the gift of time. I have had time – time to read, time to talk with people, time to think – without the pressure of immediately having to turn every thought into publication. From the time we are graduate students, we are often conducting research on the run. Get the dissertation proposed, approved, collect the data, write, defend. Meanwhile, publish all you can. Once you get a job, start cranking out the publications so you can get tenure. Keep the ideas coming – and as soon as they emerge turn them into publications. This experience is not unique to me, and, even though the pace is sometimes relentless, the scholarship is often strong. I am continually impressed by what the graduate students I work with can produce within the time constraints of their dissertations.

Still, there are times when it has felt as if I was building a bicycle while trying to ride it downhill. Then, last fall, when I knew I had the Fulbright coming up, I said “no” to a couple of invitations to contribute articles. I was lucky to be in a position to be able to do that (even luckier to have a Fulbright, I know). But clearing away any deadlines for the spring, was the smartest thing I have done in a long time. Rather than spend the spring writing furiously to meet the next deadline, and reading for plunder in order to glean enough of what I need to support my ideas, I have had time to read broadly, enter research sites without the pressure of deadlines, and think.

One of the great benefits of time is emergence of patience. When I didn’t have a publication deadline looming over me, I could go to the research sites where I was working without feeling as if I had the gather-good-data-today clock  constantly ticking in the background. Instead, I could be patient and let insights and observations emerge at their own pace. The result was that I had more time for surprise, more time for a deeper set of insights, and a greater willingness to strike off in new directions of reading and thinking without worrying about an immediate payoff. Patience, exploration, and time have been the true gifts of this Fulbright and I am deeply grateful for all of them. I wish all of my friends and students could experience this kind of time to explore and I hope I can find more ways to facilitate this for my colleagues and students.

More to come soon on some of the projects that have come out of this (though, as I am about getting ready to try to pack up and move back, “soon” is a fuzzy term……)

Keep Calm and Carry On

When I first saw the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters, with the dignified print on the red background with the image of the crown above, they struck me as quaint indicators of English nostalgia. The posters seemed to represent a memory of the narrative of the war and the need – and ability – to persevere with resolve and dignity. Reproduced in contemporary culture the poster seemed a funny and ironic commentary on the stresses of modern life – of overworked multitasking. It is in this context that I saw reproductions of the poster showing up (including the one on the coffee mug I gave to my wife). Soon after came the memes, everything from “Keep Calm and Shut Up” to “Keep Calm and Drink British Wine.” It was one of those participatory texts that, quite frankly, wore thin rather quickly and I stopped paying much attention to it.

Last week, I saw several reproductions of the poster. This time they were on the walls and mugs of the offices and shops of people living in Beirut. There were no memes. The words were the original: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” During the same days I was in Beirut, there was fighting – and dying – up the road in Tripoli, there were rockets fired into a Hezbollah neighborhood in the south of the city, and the war raging in Syria seemed ominously close. Yet, at the same time, people were sitting in cafes, visiting art galleries, walking along the Corniche beside the Mediterranean, laughing with their families. Yet, at the same time, they would occasionally look over their shoulders, or pause in their conversations, and wonder what might happen next, or remember the small seed of anxiety in their stomachs. Yet, at the same time, they would walk by buildings still riddled with bullets from the last war that stood next to shining new apartment buildings built in the last year. Yet, at the same time, soldiers stood on street corners holding AK-47s. Yet, at the same time, people – including me – went to work, went to dinner, went to bed.

Keep Calm and Carry On.

I usually like to write about issues of literacy and such on this blog. And, I suppose if there is a connection to literacy here it might have something to do with contexts and audience and emotion. Maybe all of that is there and maybe I will write about it at some point – I certainly have more to write about the trip to Beirut. But today I’m just thinking of that poster, those words, and a place I am so fond of, a place of dear friends, where I hope things will keep calm. And carry on.

We all need readers – celebrating the Dissertation Writing Retreat

As I write this sitting in England, I know that back at the University of Louisville they are getting ready for the last day of the University Writing Center’s annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. All week a dozen Ph.D. students from different disciplines across the University, have been coming to the Writing Center each day for a day full of writing, individual consultations, and mini-workshops about dissertation writing. It’s a week that is a great benefit both to the writers and to the consultants and staff. Blog entries both from the Writing Center blog from this year and from last year here (as well as some entries of my own from last year, here and here) give you some flavor of the event and the impact it has on everyone involved. While I have had a fantastic spring being on a leave where I have been able to focus on research, I do miss much about the work and the community in the Writing Center – and in particular the community, productivity, and satisfaction that takes place at the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

The importance of the Dissertation Writing Retreat for offering a space for graduate students to not only work on their writing, but to engage in conversations about the conventions, craft, and processes of scholarly writing, is all the more vivid to me given the conversations I have had with graduate students here. While there is no doubt that the graduate students I have met with here, at a number of different universities, are getting support and feedback from their dissertation directors, it is also clear that, for most of them, there is not the additional support for writing that we offer back at the UofL Writing Center. Of course it is essential to learn about research methods and ethics and to have guidance about the content and analysis of a dissertation. Yet it is equally important to remember that writing in a new genre – and a dissertation-length work is always a new genre – must be learned. Such learning comes from explicit conversations about genre conventions, from feedback that focuses on rhetorical concerns, and from attention to the processes of writing and revision for scholarly research writing. The UofL Writing Center – like many writing centers – offers that kind of response. And even if a dissertation director is offering good, rhetorically focused writing response, just having another set of eyes on a writing project is always helpful. (One of the students I am currently directing is taking part in this year’s retreat and I am delighted that she is having another person to offer thoughtful responses to her writing.) Offering thoughtful and constructive response and criticism is something we do at the Writing Center every day, for all members of the University community, not just at the Dissertation Writing Retreat. There are only a few writing centers (or writing centres) at British universities (though some, as at the University of Coventry are doing excellent work). And too often here, as in the U.S., Writing Centers are thought of as having only a remedial mission, rather than serving writers at all levels, for all purposes. I am grateful to the staff at the UofL Writing Center – Adam Robinson, Ashly Bender, Nancy Bou Ayash, Jennifer Marciniak, Tika Lamsal, Barrie Olson, and Matt Wiles – as well as all the participants, for making this year’s retreat such a success and for proving, once again, the value of good writing response for all writers. I miss being there and wish you luck with the final day of writing.

Rashomon for Researchers

One of the great gifts this spring has been the opportunity to sit down and talk with brilliant, insightful people and just have the time to explore ideas together. Last week Cathy Burnett generously made time to talk with me and I learned so much in our conversation together. We were talking about student literacy practices, but particularly about how factors of embodiment, emotion, technology, community, physical space, institutional power – among other things – all swirl about and figure in to how people read and write (or don’t read and write). We kept coming around to two particular questions. We can know that all of these factors – and more – shape literacy practices and perceptions of agency at any given moment, yet how do we understand which of these factors is most at play in that moment? What’s more, even if we begin to understand what is happening, how do we write about it?

Both questions are ones I have been struggling with this spring, but the second one was one Cathy and I were particularly wrestling with. The problem with writing about research is that it so often flattens out the multiple phenomenon taking place into a singular, straightforward narrative. One reason for this is that the research itself can sometimes be focused fairly narrowly. But, even if a researcher is trying to take into account multiple forces and multiple perspectives in a setting and set of events, the linear nature of writing tends to peel away the multiple possibilities and imply a focused, linear, cause-and-effect explanation for what is being written about. As Gunther Kress and others have noted, the nature of print literacy, by moving us through one work after another, pushes us toward linearity, toward cause-and-effect thinking.

Is there a way to disrupt the way writing about research pushes us toward this way of thinking, or representing events and people? Could the affordances of digital media help us to create multimodal texts where video, image, sound, and words can reflect more fully the multiple factors at play? Should we be creating installations more than writing articles? But, then, how are those texts or installations available for people to access? Or to store? Or, can we write from multiple perspectives, multiple theoretical stances, about the same moment, perhaps even coming to different conclusions that disrupt an inclination to come too easily to simply, linear explanations for what we see? Would writing in multiple genres, as Tom Romano has long advocated, help us disrupt singular arguments and encourage us to pay attention to gaps in thinking, to emotions, to contradictions? Is there a Rashomon for researchers that will help us do for writing about research what such approaches have done for literature and film? And what does all of this imply for how I’m going to approach writing about my current research?

Thanks, Cathy. All this and so much more to think about.

Stay tuned.

How Does it Feel to be Literate?

In the work I’ve been doing this spring I keep coming back to questions of agency. What allows – or constrains – people from engaging in literacy practices. And more precisely, as part of this larger project, I’ve been thinking about how perceptions of agency figure into to the factors that determine agency. When do we feel as if we can participate, or that we can’t?  As Lalitha Vasudevan said at a presentation last year, “How does it feel to be literate?” Although perceptions of agency are shaped by many forces, including power, technology, rhetorical awareness, and material conditions, I’ve been focusing this spring in thinking about how embodied experiences and the emotional histories created through such experiences are often powerful influences on how people understand their abilities to engage in reading and writing. I see people who are empowered and engaged in one setting, suddenly become reticent and unable to participate in another, before anyone has even told them they can’t.

The focus of much research in literacy studies in recent years – including my own – has been on the social and institutional factors that shape literacy practices. This has been important work and I am not in any way writing against this scholarship. Yet while we’ve learned a great deal about literacy works as a function of culture and power, we’ve been less willing to engage in questions of how individuals perceive – and feel – a sense of agency in writing situations. The perception of agency, as opposed to measurable skills, is important in terms of how people respond to writing situations. In particular we have not explored emotion as much in terms of agency. I think people like Marilyn Cooper and Laura Micciche have done important work on emotion and agency (work I will discuss more in a coming post), but I think there is still more work to be done. The emotional histories and the emotional stakes for students in the classroom, for example, have a direct influence on students’ perceptions of agency, and consequently on their ability and willingness to engage in any writing task.

Talking about feelings, even if we call them emotion or affect, tends to make academics nervous. We can’t really measure them and we fear getting dragged off into the sentimental or irrational if we bring them up at all. Tom Newkirk has written persuasively about how emotion makes us nervous, and how that anxiety leads to particular ways of conceiving of writing and responding to students. And certainly in all the writing I have done on issues of literacy and identity over the years I have been more comfortable writing about social factors such as class or race or gender than I have about emotion. Yet every experience, every decision, every perception, is filtered through emotion. Every action has an emotional component that is social and rhetorical – even if it is the display of detachment and rationality (also embodied emotions). As I have talked about this work this spring, I have found the responses of people to be thoughtful and generous and lead me to believe that I am moving in a productive direction.  So my posts in the near future (if I keep my promise to myself to write more posts) will be exploring these ideas about emotion, embodiment, transformation, community, and perceptions of agency (among other things). Stay tuned.


Where Does the Time Go?

When I came to England in January for my Fulbright Fellowship I expected to blogging a lot this spring. If there was ever a time that I would be writing about what was going on with research and my experiences, this would be it.

That was January.

Now, as I sit here in my kitchen in Bakewell in May, windows open for the first time this spring, I am surprised that not only didn’t I write more here, I haven’t written at all. Baffling. It’s not as if I haven’t been writing, or reading, meeting amazing people, or thinking. In fact it has been a hugely productive spring in terms of sorting through new ideas, having great conversations, doing new research, doing a bunch of guest presentations, even having fun. And I guess that’s it. It’s not that I’ve been busy in the stressed-out sense of things. But I have been working through new ideas, doing tons of preliminary, informal, messy writing, and reading, reading, reading. And the blog just didn’t fit easily into that work – at least this spring. Clearly still sorting out how I can best use this space.

With warmer weather, though, I feel the urge to get back on here. So expect to see me sorting through – slowly – the ideas that have been bouncing around all spring – agency, technology, emotion, control, transformation, crossing-cultures, and so on. Funny thing, writing.

If You’re a Hammer….

One way to experience the embodiment of the saying, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” is to get a bunch of academics from different fields together and set them talking. I just spend four days at the UK Fulbright Forum at the Universities of Bristol and Cardiff. About fifty scholars and post-graduate students were thrown together for lectures, presentations, a bit of tourism, and a fair amount of eating and drinking.

While there were highlights of the formal program – lectures on Welsh language, history, and politics from Sioned Davies, Bill Jones, and Richard Wyn Jones about which I’ll write more another time – what I’m pondering today are the informal conversations that took place during the week. The participants at the forum, Fulbright recipients working in the UK – came from fields as varied as education, political science, medicine, biology, art, history, literature – and me. As we would chat over breakfast in the morning or drinks at night, there was a typical pattern to many of the conversations. Each person would describe his or her research, and that would be followed by the other person attempting to find a context for that project in her or is work. Blame it on terministic screens, disciplinary enthusiasm, or human nature, we tended to try to locate the work of others’ into our own fields, our own interests. A more positive interpretation of the interactions is that we wanted to find points of intellectual and human connection.

The conversations reminded me of two things. First, the concerns of literacy are trans-disciplinary. I found myself finding connections to literacy theory and practices from the neuroscientist studying language and music, the urban planner studying transportation and behavior, or the digital media artist studying identity. It was a reminder that getting outside the readings and conversation in a field can reveal to us new insights and implications for how humans use sign systems to create and interpret texts. Sometimes these connections are direct and explicit. Sometimes I just felt I was finding possible new metaphors to help me rethink my ways of conceiving reading and writing. In fact, getting outside of a field is good for all of us, but for me, I kept coming across ideas with implications for literacy time and again.

I was also reminded of how little other academics outside of our field know about literacy and composition studies. Concepts that are a given for those in our field – literacy as a social practice or genre as an evolving rhetorical concern – are still news, and sometimes even intriguing news, to others. Of course this is the case with any field when you encounter someone new, with new knowledge. That said, it is the case that writing and literacy shape and concern all academics – in their research and their teaching. So a reminder that, another benefit of talking beyond my field is the work I can do in helping others to a more nuanced concept of writing and reading, was welcome. For all of us at the forum, we probably still remained disciplinary hammers when we left, but perhaps we were slightly more able to ponder and engage with the uses of other tools.

Popular Culture and Representations of Literacy – Out in Paperback!

Five years ago Amy Zenger and I published a book about the everyday literacy practices represented in popular culture, specifically in mainstream movies. We found that, when you pay attention to these representations, you begin to see interesting patterns that reflect cultural attitudes about who is allowed to read and write, in what settings, and for what social goals. I loved writing this book. Not only was it intriguing to work through these ideas, but I’ve never had more fun writing a book than I did working on this project. It’s a book I’m proud of, image_previewand liked writing and talking about. The only problem at all was that Routledge initially only published the book in hardcover – making it prohibitively expensive for most people to buy, and certainly out of the range of most students. So I was delighted to find out that Routledge has now published a paperback version of the book! I don’t know if this will result in the book getting a broader reading, but I’m just happy that there is a less expensive version out there (versions, actually, with the e-book out too). Not cheap, but less expensive, and that’s a start.

What we found in the book was that movies – from romantic comedies to dramas to action blockbusters – are filled with scenes of people of all ages, sexes, races, and social classes reading and writing in widely varied contexts and purposes. Yet these scenes go largely unnoticed, even by literacy scholars, despite the fact that these images recreate and reinforce pervasive concepts and perceptions of literacy. We argued that in popular culture representations of literacy we can see a reflection of the dominant functions and perceptions that shape our conceptions of literacy in our culture. I have found that this project has changed my sense of how literacy is perceived in the culture, and has also offered me representations of literacy that I draw on in my teaching time and I again.
And I keep seeing these patterns of literacy representations, from recent superhero movies to the films being discussed as award-winning favorites.

I won’t go on and on here, tempting as it may be. And I apologize for the shameless self-promotion. As I said, I’m fond of this book and get carried away talking about it. I understand the economic forces that publishers face and I want to make it clear that Routledge has been a splendid publisher to work with over the years. I have no complaints about them, at all – and with the paperback edition of this book, one more reason to be pleased to publish with them. Sorry to go on and on. But I am so happy to see the book out in more accessible and less expensive versions.