Conundrum

"The real problem is this: Students know that professors must read their papers, no matter how poorly they might be written, how irrelevant their cited examples, or how 'uncollegiate' their content. Poor writing persists because students know that professors are obligated to suffer through endless garbage in hopes of finding something salvageable. They are well aware that many professors will highlight their papers' weaknesses and then allow rewrites, and that some professors will accept nonwritten extra-credit projects to improve their final grades. In short, students know there are usually ways to avoid putting forth a gallant effort on a paper."

Source

representations galore

In my inaugural post, I explained this blog as a space for bringing together ideas and interests that might appear divergent, as a kind of online repository for identity characteristics. I also intend it to be a public record of the directions my research interests take, a document detailing the revision of select dissertation chapters into journal article submissions and the composition of conference presentations and book chapters.

However, as perhaps all those visiting here know, this is but one facet of my presence online, for I am also persistent on Facebook, FriendFeed and Twitter. These online spaces allow me to network not only with colleagues at my university but also with those at other institutions. Such networking involves discussion of important issues within our respective fields of interest as well as the sharing of important and/or provocative links. The majority of what I share comes from one of the scores of academic blogs and online news outlets I peruse every day via Google Reader.

Twitter in particular allows me to make new contacts in my fields of interst and provides a new venue for sharing related news and information. By posting articles and links relevant to others interested in education and technology, composition and rhetoric, online research and writing, I support and encourage the work of others. I remain engaged in learning on a level that is both similar to and different from conversing with colleagues in the halls of the English department. Such online engagement is a worthwhile kind of public intellectualism and it continues to impact my pedagogical and publishing interests.

I also view these online activities as important academic work because, like my chapter in The Computer Culture Reader, it puts forth an identity representing the university as well as myself. How I present myself and engage with others online says volumes about me, but it also reveals something about the university. In other words, I'm an online representative of the English department at the University of Michigan-Flint and I remain mindful of this in every online action I take.

music monday: letter written, mix made, neither sent

In a previous entry, I discussed the perusal of a pile of old letters and whether to keep or discard them. Among the pile were some words to someone else that I wrote. The following words not only reveal that I was still making old-school mixtapes five years ago but that I also had yet to experience many of my favorite bands in a live setting. A similar, up-to-date mix along the theme identified below would have a very different appearance, which I shall illustrate next week.

I planned to purchase cigarettes to accompany the night's creation of a mixtape for you. When living alone, everything feels like a major event. However, my plans stand thwarted because not a gas station, liquor store or tattoo parlor on Mustang Island carries American Spirits. This is not a tragedy, of course, though it comes close. Purchasing alcohol was a second consideration but drinking's always been more of an inhibitor than an inspiration when it comes to mixing music. I hold fire and smoke as creative forces, both carrying not just mystery but spontaneity. Many of my older journal entries still have the scent of cigarettes about them. With no such creative edge tonight, the enclosed might not be an altogether pleasant experience. Blame the various stores here in Port Aransas for not carrying the proper stock.

When making a mix like this one, I find it helpful to have a theme, and since I look forward to attending some live shows next month, I offer here a chronicle of my concert experiences thus far. Side A: Wish is a partial list of artists/bands I want to experience live (whether humanly possible or not) and Side B: Fulfillment comprises artists/bands I have experienced. If you have any questions, requests or suggestions, don't hesistate...

Side A: Wish
"You Don't Know Jesus" - Mogwai
Five Scots who create such beauty without singing a word. This song serves as a good explanation as to why they are near the top of my list of to-see bands.

"Happiness Is A Warm Gun" - the Beatles
All-time favorite band and one of their best songs. Of course, almost every song by the Beatles is one of their best.

"Curmudgeon" - Nirvana
I remember watching MTV with two friends and how we moshed when the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video was featured. One friend tripped and fell back into the den wall. Because of a later well-placed chair, his parents didn't discover the ass print in the wall for two months.

"Introduce The Metric System In Time" - the Hives
High-energy Swedes who know what punk is.

"Time" - Pink Floyd
Masters of the concept album, the Floyd knew how to construct songs of absolute truth, and the guitar work ain't half bad either. David Gilmour's one of the most overlooked guitarists in rock.

"Iron Clad Lou" - Hum
Far too many only know this band for their one hit, "Stars." Such a tragedy.

"Bullet In The Head" - Rage Against The Machine
Rather self-explanatory.

"Where Eagles Dare" - the Misfits
This was one of the first songs I learned on the guitar. It also opened the door to combination curse words.

"Easter" - Bill Hicks
We lost this man far too early; we need him all the more right now.

"Sorrowful Wife" - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
This is a brief sampling of the masterful artistry of Nick Cave. I thought about making an all-Cave tape, but figured easing in might be better.


Side B: Fulfillment
"Blueprint" - Fugazi
While not all that familiar with Fugazi, I know that I could not pass up the chance to see such a legendary group. This song was my favorite of the evening. Quite beautiful.

"Toxicity" - System of a Down
This is one of the few better-known bands I respect and like. The video for this song gets regular airplay on MTV and I heard it played live a week before I left for Texas. With Rage Against the Machine gone the way of the dodo, SOAD appears poised to take over that political podium.

"Bitches" - Mindless Self Indulgence
This SOAD opener are perhaps the most offensively fun band I've ever heard.

"You're The One" - the Trip Daddys
A psychobilly band from St. Louis, MO, and one of the best. Guitarist Craig alone was quite the scorcher.

"More Than This" - the cure
This legendary goth band performed as many old songs as new ones during their almost three-hour set (no openers!). For as much as I enjoyed them, I only have one of their songs.

"A Good Woman Is Hard To Find" - Orchestra Morphine
The story behind this group is much too long to recount here, but I'd be happy to do so another time elsewhere.

"Part Of Me" - TOOL
I saw these guys two days after 9/11, which made for a very emotionally charged show. It ended up being the most intense concert experience of my life so far.

"Inside What's Within Behind" - Meshuggah
From Stockholm, Sweden, they opened for TOOL to a chorus of boos, but I liked them. Still do.

"El Nino" - Henry Rollins
This man speaks the truth. Writer, performer and vocalist for the Rollins Band, Henry's a nonstop laborer for the cause of independence in an increasingly corporate world. Check out Solipsist, or one of his many other books.

"Paranoid" - Black Sabbath
These heavy metal gods blew me away on their first reunion tour with a stop at Van Andel Arena. This concert was the highlight of that first failed relationship.

"Let's Hear It For Love" - the Smoking Popes
While I saw the Popes during my first semester at Hope College, I remember them more for being played while Ben, Joe, Tom and I cruised down the mountain into Ashland, Oregon. "This is kickass So-Cal punk!" Ben exclaimed, and I swallowed the urge to explain that the Popes were from Chicago.

"Mouse" - Marzuki
I still have a crush on Shannon Stephens, all because I think she smiled at me once while singing this song. Marzuki was such a great band, a perfect melding of so many different musical styles who managed to still sound so original.

see how they wiggle and squirm

More than twelve hours ago, I posted the following update to Facebook and Twitter: "New whining on WPA-L is so damned annoying. Yes, nobody understands us or what we do; let's go eat some worms already." This was in response to some of the opinions offered on WPA-L about the Chronicle of Higher Education's publication of Rachel Toor's "Writing Like a Doctor," an opinion piece explaining how the writing of doctors and scientists (at least in the author's experience) is rather atrocious. Rather than discuss the potential merit of the piece, some WPA-Lers instead seized the opportunity to engage in self-flagellation ("Rachel Toor finds we have once again failed to teach writing"), petty criticism ("she confuses writing like a doctor and writing like an academic doctor") and even smug self-righteousness about the worth of Toor and the Chronicle itself.

Such engagement is their right, of course, but doing so ignores
Toor's identification of a major problem when it comes to teaching writing: "The assumption is that whoever has gone before you in the teaching has already covered the basics." This cannot be denied as a problem. What should be coupled with this, too, is the lack of reinforcing the basics. Early on in first-year and advanced composition (as well as technical communication) courses, I encourage students to think back to their previous writing experiences, to reflect on how and what they were taught and the justifications provided by past instructors. I offer up my own as points of comparison and then work with students to find commonalities, such as the importance of proper citations, essay structure, grammar/syntax and how to avoid plagiarism. I make it a point throughout the length of the course to frame my comments on their work with these commonalities in mind, even using their own words from that early discussion as support. But, I digress...

None of this is to say that WPA-L is not an overall worthwhile listserv. Many of the discussions there have been quite helpful in not only further illuminating past and present ideas about teaching writing but also introducing new approaches. I am troubled, though, by the collective victimization that rears its ugly head every time some variation of the "Johnny Can't Write" argument appears. I learned in graduate school that such variations are nothing new, but I learned on WPA-L that some responses to those arguments are just as old, and even more annoying, tiresome, unconstructive and pointless.

music monday: seconds first

Many of the rules governing music mixes I also apply to albums. First and foremost among these transferred rules is the importance of the first track. Firing an appropriate opening salvo in an auditory assault sets the stage for every song following. To make another reference to High Fidelity, Nick Hornby's Rob Gordon puts forth "Janie Jones" by the Clash and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana; John Cusack's Rob Gordon also includes "White Light/White Heat" by the Velvet Underground. These three are all premiere examples of tracks that define entire albums, introducing a perspective or theme that is, in some way, sustained throughout the rest of the record.

There are records, though, which falter when it comes to felicitous first tracks. This is not to say such records, or the artists/bands producing them, are terrible. It is only that I sometimes disagree with how an artist/band chooses to introduce their work to a willing listener. Minor sins of this nature include a spoken-word track that outright explains the theme of the recording when the album cover already has (Lovage's Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By) and tracks less than a minute in length featuring snippets of unfinished songs (Fugazi's The Argument and the Black Heart Procession's Amore del Tropico).

However, I do not include the Black Heart Procession, Fugazi or Lovage in the following mix because their openers are not actual songs. I wanted to concern myself only with those artists/bands and their respective albums featuring what I heard as questionable introductory selections and put together a mix of their superior second tracks. These songs are more indicative of both the artists/bands themselves as well as the albums from which the tracks come.

Seconds First

1. “Boys Better” – Dandy Warhols

2. “Harnessed in Slums” – Archers of Loaf

3. "God's Gonna Cut You Down" - Johnny Cash

4. "White Winter Hymnal" - Fleet Foxes

5. "Evil" - Interpol

6. "Dear Head On The Wall" - Alejandro Escovedo

7. "Don't Run Our Hearts Around" - Black Mountain

8. "The Way I Feel About You" - The (International) Noise Conspiracy

some words are to someone else

Yesterday, a box of boxes arrived. The intent behind the initial order involved the future organization of the pile of correspondence on the corner table in the office. I have carried this haphazard record of my continuing existence with me to Texas, Ohio and then back to my home state of Michigan. For one reason or another, I was unable to part with any part of this assortment of handwritten letters, old birthday cards and printed emails from an old Hotmail account.

However, when faced with the simple task of putting all into a couple of boxes and then onto a high shelf, I hesitated. Some kind of grouping (family, friends, etc.) or order (chronological, thematic) would be easy to enact, but I began to wonder why I should even bother keeping the pile somehow intact.

The memories tucked away in some greeting cards and letters are not ones I prefer to possess. Some of the authors of those words to me are no longer in my life and I have no desire or idea where to find them. Reading over their words then makes me see how different I am now. The person to whom such letters are addressed no longer exists. The words within feel alien, as if I stumbled upon someone else's secret stash. Keeping such communications just doesn't feel right anymore.

This is not true of my thoughts on everything in the pile, though. The card from my mother with a Far Side cartoon on the cover and a clipping of her mother's obituary inside will be kept. An envelope from an old college buddy featuring a hand-drawn Spider Jerusalem will never be discarded. The same goes for the Christmas card from my beloved brother that concludes, "Mom wouldn't stop nagging at me until I sent this card."

I keep them because the images and words associated with those individuals still matter to me. This is not to say that others are not worth remembering, only that I might prefer a different kind of recollection for different kinds of memories. Still, I may not throw away the other cards and letters. The day before was the first time in two years that I perused the contents of the pile. The next time might be even longer. Will even less of others' words matter to me then?

music monday: transitions

Beyond David Letterman, groceries and wishes, I dislike lists. For the most part, lists constitute a lack of inspiration and originality in terms of content. Rare is the occasion, too, for lists to reveal critical depth of knowledge about any given subject or topic. Far too many use lists as an authoritative endpoint instead of an introduction to further conversation, the latter of which Nick Hornby's High Fidelity does rather well.

However, in both the book and the film adaptation, music mixes have greater importance. For all the talk about all-time desert-island top-five lists, Hornby's Rob Gordon is more eloquent and thoughtful about making a mixtape, likening it to writing a letter as "there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again" (88). Furthermore, Gordon admits:

"A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention...and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artists side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs, and . . . oh, there are loads of rules" (89).

Perhaps these rules, along with lack of real time, discourage some from making mixes instead of throwing together sloppy lists of the top ten most trite love songs from the 1980's. Some might view such rules as limitations because no music mix can be the essential of anything; space requirements are very effective in preventing this. No top-ten list can be the essential of anything either, though that doesn't stop some from being so audacious as to suggest otherwise.

Regarding mixes, the musical elitism held or professed by any one person is limited by their chosen method of distribution. If making a mix by tape or CD, the 80-minute mark is the cut-off point. If making a mix through an online format, such as 8tracks, there is an eight-track maximum. Much can and should be done within these limitations, though, including the reconciliation of stellar opening and closing tracks by way of transitions. In other words, the songs must work together as a cohesive unit, which is an additional rule not as often required of any list.

Because of such limitations, music mixes are a greater invitation to deeper debate and discussion. While one might argue with some ease that the Strokes deserve inclusion on some top-ten list, it could be much more difficult applied to a music mix. Such an argument would have to account for subject matter, theme and transitions. In other words, would any song by the Strokes fit with the rest? Would the amended mix serve a purpose similar to the original? As a way of inspiring discussions about music, mixes have potential greater than that of some superficial top-ten list.

There will never be any kind of top-ten list taking up space in this particular place. Instead, I plan to offer up a quick mix of music every week (on Mondays, more often than not). However, my first offering has no theme beyond good transitions. It is a point of pride in every mix I make that transitions are strong. If a track fades out, the next one fades in. If a live track ends with audience applause, the next track begins with audience applause. If a track meets an abrupt end, the next track has an abrupt beginning. The following meets this standard and still manages to feature some all-time favorites. Enjoy, dear reader, enjoy...


Transitions

  1. “(I Hope U) Don’t Survive” – Silkworm
  2. "She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)" - Robbie Fulks

  3. "There She Goes, My Beautiful World" - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

  4. “Holland, 1945” – Neutral Milk Hotel
  5. “I Don’t Know” – Beastie Boys

  6. “Far Away” – Clearlake

  7. “3rd Planet” – Modest Mouse

  8. “-” – Pelican

reviewing professions: major media representations

In A Guide to Composition Pedagogy, Susan C. Jarratt's chapter "Feminist Pedagogy" encourages the design and implementation of assignments that invite students to reflect on their own gendered ways, bringing them "out of invisibility so that their sources and effects in the context of a sexist culture can be examined" (120). A constructive way to get at this might involve an invitation for students to think about how various media represent their intended majors/professions. The following assignment turns students to cultural analysis for the purposes of greater comprehension regarding the ways in which a particular profession is viewed through various forms of media. Over a four-week period, students attend to the gender, power and authority in their intended majors/professions, their expectations and perspectives on how such issues influence future endeavors.

Major Media Representations

The following asks you to think about, reflect on and write a piece on representations of your major/intended profession. Of major focus will be attention paid to the gendered ways your major/intended profession is represented in the media, but take some time to reflect on questions of age, class and ethnicity, too.

Movies, television shows and even video games can be rather influential in portraying certain jobs. In the field of education, for example, we have Robin Williams
(Dead Poet’s Society), Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (The Wire) and Dewey Finn (School of Rock), Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Minds), Hilary Swank (Freedom Writers) and Jeri Ryan (Boston Public) as well as the teaching faculty in Bully and Grim Grimoire. From such examples, what sort of precedent do various media set regarding male and female positions in a particular profession?

Therefore, take in at least five
different movies, television shows and/or video games somehow related to your major/intended profession. The relationship can be direct (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney for law, Black Hawk Down for military, Grey's Anatomy for medicine), peripheral (The Shining for creative writing, High Fidelity for small business) or even absurd (Harvey Birdman for law). Also, keep selections timely; of major concern should be the more current representations of a major/intended profession. Be sure to either take notes while viewing or engage in reflective free-writing as the end credits roll.

Furthermore, the following questions are intended to provide guidance in the writing process:

  • Are those of your major/intended profession predominantly male/female, young/old, upper/middle/working class, African/Asian/European/Mexican American?
  • How do you compare/relate to the media’s representation(s) of your major/intended profession? Do you see yourself as part of the majority/minority? How/why?
  • In the media viewed, are representations of your major/intended profession more glamorized, romanticized, satirized or criticized?
  • How accurate are these representations? In other words, are they quality portrayals? If so, what makes them quality? If not, what needs revision?

"We All Stray From Our Paths Sometimes"

The following is a chapter proposal I submitted for Network Apocalypse: Visions of the End in an Age of Internet Media. Regardless of acceptance for publication, I will use this space to expand and explore the ideas introduced below:

"We All Stray From Our Paths Sometimes": Morality and Survival in Fallout 3

200 years after a nuclear war devastated the world in an alternate, post-World War II timeline, Fallout 3 places the player as an inhabitant of a survival shelter designed to protect humans from nuclear radiation. When the player's father leaves without prior notice, the player does as well, traversing the Capital Wasteland that was once Washington, D.C., in pursuit. While combat is the game's primary emphasis, Fallout 3 has an important feature in its Karma system. Player actions affect status within the game world and how well non-player characters (NPCs) receive the player. With consequences to most every action, the player is able to earn significant in-game rewards. However, evil as well as good deeds can garner positive NPC reactions, though excessive evil or goodness prompts Regulators to exact vigilante justice upon the player or Talon Company Mercs to put down "another holier-than-thou white-knight." As such, Fallout 3 is a video game that offers a provocative perspective on a particular post-apocalyptic scenario, revealing the sustained prevalence of war. Though on a scale more personal than political, more intimate than global, war in Fallout 3 focuses on simple survival and associated moral choices. Because of this, religious concerns as well as gender, ethnic and racial divisions appear as either unimportant or nonexistent. With individual morality and survival at the forefront, Fallout 3 provides perhaps a more honest view of humanity at the end of history.

rethinking research as engagement: pop up scholarship

In A Guide to Composition Pedagogy, Rebecca Moore Howard's chapter "Collaborative Pedagogy" explains writer/text collaboration as when "a writer overtly collaborates with a written text" (66). Howard uses the term (re)formative collaboration to further describe such pedagogy as the facilitation of exercises in which students have more freedom to play with language without regard for singular ownership. While evident in online communicative technologies like Facebook and YouTube, VH1's Pop Up Video was an even earlier example of (re)formative collaboration. Presenting music videos from various genres and offering up little windows of information, Pop Up Video was a kind of writer/text collaboration that involved more than one kind of text and more than one kind of author. The show itself was also rather
light-hearted and all about linguistic play.

It is from Pop Up Video and Howard that I drew inspiration for "Pop Up Scholarship," a three-part writing and speaking sequence that asks students to engage in a dialogue with a particular text. "Pop Up Scholarship" suggests students not only make note of discursive features but also amend and comment on their selected text(s). Doing so emphasizes Bakhtin's work on dialogism and that, as Helen Rothschild Ewald paraphrases in her chapter contribution to Landmark Essays on Advanced Composition, "all discourse is a response" (88). It also stresses reader creativity in the act of meaning making, encouraging abandonment of "the notion that the text is the sole, even primary, repository of meaning in written discourse" (88). As a past student explained in their reflective essay, "By doing this assignment, not only did we learn about different types of articles, but we also learned about our own writing in general."

In past courses, this assignment occurred later in the semester, often marking the point at which students were more familiar with the discursive practices associated with their major fields of interest and study. While this made it easier for students to articulate such practices to colleagues, I now think it might be more beneficial to introduce "Pop Up Scholarship" earlier and sustain such engagement throughout the semester. Rather than suggesting students follow some formulaic method of annotation, I think this assignment has the potential for greater worth, advocating instead a more individual and unique way of interacting and understanding sources academic and otherwise. I also plan to make various and sundry amendments to "Pop Up Scholarship," tailoring it more or less to first-year, advanced and technical writing students as I think all could benefit from this kind of reflective research engagement. To eliminate any confusion, though, I present an overview of the assignment as it existed for my ENG 112 Critical Writing & Reading course at the University of Michigan-Flint:


Pop Up Scholarship

By engaging in “Pop Up Scholarship,” students will:
• work in greater detail with a major piece of writing in their field of study
• showcase awareness of discursive practices within that field of study
• present knowledge to an audience of colleagues
• reflect on these discursive practices (perhaps even draw some comparisons)

Part 1
At this point in the semester, you should have some knowledge of the discursive practices associated your major field of study. In order to demonstrate this to your instructor and to your colleagues, choose a recent article from a journal/magazine oriented to your major field of study. After conversion from .pdf to .doc (or a simple cut & paste action), go under the Tools menu in Microsoft Word and select “Track Changes.” Go through the entire document as you would in peer review. In other words, make observations on format/style, ask questions oriented to the text/field of study, delete unnecessary sentences, insert new sentences and be sure to give justification for all changes. Track/insert at least 3-5 changes/comments per page and insert a brief end comment after the concluding paragraph.

Part 2
Upon completion of Part 1, use it as a basis for developing a presentation on particular discursive practices within your major field of study. How you present the information is up to you. Possibilities include a walkthrough of the “track-changed” document or a more conventional collection of bulleted points. Make sure to have some conclusions about the nature of the discursive practices in your major field of study, if you see any problems or if you think all disciplines should adopt them (and why).

Part 3
Having finished your PowerPoint presentation and been an audience for others, compose a piece of writing in which you reflect further on not only the discursive practices within your own major field of study but also the discursive practices of others. Ask yourself about similarities and/or differences and what this might reveal about the very nature of academic discourse. Think as well about whether or not you look forward to writing in such a style/format and if/how this will change the way you currently compose.