GPT-3 Gave Me This Today

“There is something in the telling of our lies that can redeem us, can make us better than we are. We see Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg battlefield, with his son’s body on a stretcher before him, his hand on the boy’s head, his eyes cast down, the sound of the artillery in the distance like thunder, or like the beating of a great heart, and Lincoln says, This world does not belong to the strong.”

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CCCC2022: Thanks to Norton for Mentioning It

Nearly 20 years ago, I presented at my first national academic conference in New York City. The first day of the 2003 Conference on College Composition and Communication coincided with the first day of the United States government’s bombing of Iraq. I’d finished my 4-year active-duty Army hitch a few years before. On the first day of the conference and on throughout, attendees and presenters and leadership talked about the war and made plans as individuals and as a professional organization to protest. The monitors on the elevators cycled explosions.

A little over 10 years ago, I was in Afghanistan. I’d taken my first full-time Assistant Professor position at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and volunteered to deploy as a faculty mentor for the NATO-led National Training Mission in Afghanistan, working on the academic side of helping rebuild Afghan institutions of higher education after 30 years of war. I felt like it was the least I could do after how badly the US, uh, fouled up their country. I blogged some about it, but there was a lot I couldn’t or wouldn’t or didn’t talk much about.

For one, I made the decision to deploy without a sidearm, which annoyed some of my military and civilian colleagues, all of whom did carry guns.1 I didn’t think I would be a very helpful mentor to the Afghan writing professors carrying a gun: trust; rhetorical ethos. (Weird brag. Sorry.)

For another, it was scary to get shot at and shelled and rocketed. That went without saying (weird brag again; sorry), and I didn’t want to alarm folks back home, and I was grateful that the Taliban’s reputation for terrible aim was well-earned. (OK, let’s try one more time to get away from the rhetorical swagger, Mike.🙄) I had been elected incoming junior chair of the CCCC Intellectual Property Caucus and was required to participate in the conference in some way, and I gave a very windy videorecorded talk in my desert camo ACUs. The ad hoc online component of the conference (such as it was, improvised by the organization’s bloggers: checking out links to presentation materials, following Twitter feeds, reading blogged accounts) was enjoyable and, yes, exciting.

The biggest thing I had a hard time acknowledging even elliptically was the March 1, 2011 killing of nine Afghan boys gathering firewood in Mano Gai by United States attack helicopters soldiers. I felt heartsick, helpless, furious, disgusted. I didn’t know what to say to H—–, or F—–, or Muhammad, or Freshta, or Shams, or any of my other Afghan colleagues at the time, some of whom would become my friends.2 I wish I’d had the courage and humanity to say more than “I’m so sorry.”

This year, the 2022 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) began on March 9, thirteen days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Conference was online, and the organizers made the decision that all presentation materials had to be uploaded by February 28—still four days after the invasion. I videorecorded my presentation wearing blue and yellow, which felt like—literally—the least I could do. I wondered, hopefully, how much CCCC conferees and leadership would have to say about the war.

It turns out I needn’t have.

CCCC leadership has been silent on the war. I went to a lot of the on-demand panels and a few live ones, and I was pretty frustrated to hear no mention—not a fudgy peep—in any of the presentations or materials or discussion I saw, with the sole exception of an advertisement from Norton in the program, which I happily reproduce here without permission from NCTE or CCCC. (Yes, Mike, grump grump.)

The only real alternative to war is rhetoric. — Wayne Booth

Thank you for that, Norton, seriously—no sarcasm. I’ll be buying and assigning more of your books.

And, well, CCCC leadership—I guess I’m not sure what I hope you’ll do. I saw the phrase “life-and-death issue” used freely in public statements by the conference leadership. I saw Asao Inoue’s phrase “so that people stop killing each other” quoted more than any other line at the conference. I saw the conference CFP pose the question: “How do we remain relevant?”

So what’s the protocol for relevance when a missile intentionally aimed at a train station for fleeing refugees kills more than 50 civilians? Does one argue over the nuances of the dative case in the phrase “за детей” after seeing the flop of that dead boy’s little body?

I feel like organizations that find themselves operating on ethical principles demonstrably distinct from the ones they have privileged might ought watch that video again.

And again.

1 I discovered in the violent aftermath of the Terry Jones Q’uran-burning incident that my organization had an emergency safe with long guns, as I’d somewhat expected. The most sphincter-clenching phrase I’ve ever heard is still “insurgents in ANA uniforms inside the perimeter.”

2 The folks named successfully emigrated to the US. I no longer hear from H—–, and F—–‘s P-2 visa application has remained in State Department limbo since August.

CCCC2022: Reasons to Confer

I found this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC, or 4Cs) to be somewhat less rewarding than in past years, largely because of the organizing committee’s pre-planned material-technological and discursive constraints on interactions within the online conference space. Like many others I saw in the online conference space, I was confused by the way the conference was organized and presented, not just buried but hidden in the CCCC website’s bizarrely hermetic navigation. Once I navigated the 4–5 clicks (try it yourself! can you find it?) into the conference itself, presented as a sort of meshing of the NCTE site (cccc.ncte.org), the conference proposal site (aievolution.com/NCTEevents), and the actual event space (app.forj.ai/CCCC22), I found—as many did—that the search function was unreliable and the sessions were extraordinarily difficult to navigate among.

I want to emphasize that this was clearly a planning issue, and not a matter of things going wrong in the moment: like Steve Krause, I’m talking about “how the online experience could have been better” since “the folks at NCTE generally seem pretty stressed out and overwhelmed. . ., and it kind of feels like any kind of criticism, constructive or otherwise, will be taken as piling on.” The stuff I’ve already described is characteristic of the CCCC leadership’s ongoing inability to manage the public face of scholarship for the discipline’s flagship conference, but what really made this year worse than others in the past was the clear decision by the organizers to prevent the majority of presenters from easily engaging in the conversations usually associated with academic conferences, and to create a two-tiered system wherein those selected to present synchronously had the opportunity to engage with their audiences, whereas those relegated to “on-demand” status had no opportunity to engage with their audiences within the space of the conference. In other words: if you were presenting or viewing an “on-demand” session, CCCC wasn’t interested in you talking to other conferees about it. In a conference with this year’s theme dedicated to social justice, the comparative proportions of BIPOC conference participants who were silenced by the myopic two-tier system seems to me to contravene rather than support the priorities expressed in Dr. Staci Perryman-Clark’s CFP. Or, OK, even more bluntly: I don’t know about the current CCCC leadership, but I go to conferences for the chance to learn and ask questions, and I had a problem with the exclusion of all of the presenters in the “on-demand” sessions from the ability to ask questions.

As Steve Krause puts it, the CCCC leadership’s conference planning this year seems most interested in

trying to prevent the possibility that anyone anywhere could share a link to my presentation materials. Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t that kind of the point of scholarship? That we present materials (presentations, articles, keynote speeches, whatever) in the hopes that those ideas and thoughts and arguments are made available to (potential) readers who are anyone and anywhere?

Yes, Steve, it is! In fact, Dr. Perryman-Clark emphasized that idea in her CFP, noting that “systems of power and privilege enable certain folks to send the invitations and vet guest lists, determining who is worth inviting and who is not,” and proposing as a consequence that CCCC participants and leadership

hold ourselves accountable for the gate-entry and gate-keeping we practice with our students and each other. For if we don’t, not only will our ethical reputation be at stake but we also risk being so exclusive that our relevance becomes extinct and shifting demographics may potentially lead to a decline in the membership we once treasured, protected, and justified the exclusivity of in the spirit of protecting rigor and the academic integrity of writing studies.

This year’s conference, as insulated as it was from current events by preventing conversation and requiring materials to be completed weeks ahead of time, seemed to me to venture into that territory of exclusivity.

CCCC2022: Racial Capitalism and the Labor Theory of Value in Composition Pedagogy

This year’s online meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC, or 4Cs) was interesting for a variety of reasons, about which I’ll have more to say soon. In the interim, here’s the video of my presentation (with captions now, rather than the less-accessible 4Cs version).

As you’ll see, the presentation is a little elliptical, since I edited it from about 6000 words down to less than 2000. Here’s the written version, with references.

Vanity Project

I’m teaching all online this semester, and I miss the classroom. Part of what I miss is the sociality, of course; the ritual of getting dressed for work and going in to the office. And I like being well-dressed for work—I held a day job during my first year of grad school, and of course the Army and uniform influence, and part of it is that I have some nice hand-me-down sport coats and blazers from my dad and other nice stuff I’ve scored at thrift stores—and my feeling is that it shows respect for my colleagues and students, like, “Hey, I take this gig seriously.” And I’ve been doing arting as a hobby for a while, enjoying playing with a stylus and tablet and Corel Painter, a natural-media-imitating app. So I figured I’d have some tongue-in-cheek fun with the Zoom interface and remediation.

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Hypothetical Seminar for English Departments Using Graduate Teaching Labor

I put this together more as a provocation and thinking-tool than as an actual working syllabus, since it’d be, uh, laborious to squeeze—even tightly—into a 15-week semester. I’ve also been inspired by seeing the insightful work of some of my amazing current and former WSU colleagues, work from which these ideas derive and depart in ways that make the flaws and faults in what follows mine alone. Call it old-school and somewhat arbitrary at alphabetized 10 shorter and 10 longer, but I guess part of what I’m posing here is: if I’ve shamefully and myopically overlooked a certain essential text that more perfectly fits into the framework implied below, what would you cut first in order to replace with your candidate, and why? And what kinds of sequencings might you imagine?

The politics herein may prompt eye-rolling.If that’s the case, I can only offer a mea culpa and suggest putting it under a Straussian reading, if you’re into that sort of thing😉.

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All I Want for Christmas. . .

. . . Is for you to get vaccinated. Hey, GOP friends and former West Point colleagues: do you support the military? I know you’re aware that National Guard soldiers are spending their holidays away from their families in Indiana, Maine, Nevada, New York, Ohio, and elsewhere. And they’re doing that because the ICUs there are overwhelmed with people infected, the majority of whom are unvaccinated, and who got it from people who were unvaccinated. And I know you might believe that it’s your body and therefore your decision, but in this holiday season when we remind ourselves to think of others, I hope you might consider the effects of your decision. Because, honestly, I do want you to live—and even if you despise people with politics like mine, what better way to own the libs than to have more living GOP voters?

Happy holidays to you. Stay well.

Recent Fiction

I’m really enjoying teaching English 419: The Twentieth-Century Novel as a sort of break from what feel to me like the more pedagogically and rhetorically challenging classes in digital technologies and composition and rhetoric that I usually teach. Teaching has its persuasive components, as any good teacher knows—students who are invested in the material learn better and more easily, so part of my mission is to engage students and persuade them that the material is worth investing in—and novels, for undergraduates in particular, I think offer a more direct rout into engagement through the simple pleasure of reading. And in my teaching evaluations from students, my most commented-upon characteristic for the past 20 years or so of my teaching has been my enthusiasm, and sometimes enthusiasm for the pleasures of the text (even when coupled to the difficulty of the text) can provide a more direct route into that engagement. In the courses I usually teach—rhetoric, composition, digital technologies—my enthusiasm often translates into arguments along the lines of “Look, this is important!” whereas this semester, my arguments have been more like, “Look, this is cool!” That’s an oversimplification, of course, but I guess a way of me saying, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to have said, over and over again this semester, “Look, this is cool!” as we’ve made our way through

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Glenn Close, Like a White Girl

I’m sure I’m not the only one from the DC area who had that thought watching the Oscars. I was delighted to see her shout-out to the city’s official music, and I wonder how many people who aren’t from DC recognize the genre or even remember the song.

The post’s title, of course, invokes another hit by E.U.: 1989’s “Shake It Like a White Girl,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to that era’s intersections of race, music, and dance in the nation’s capital, on the album that also had “Buck Wild” and a re-release of the collaboration with Salt-N-Pepa, “Shake Your Thang.”

Go-go’s syncopated swing has made other occasional forays into the musical mainstream. Prominent examples include Kurtis Blow, Morris Day and the Time (with “Skillet,” the addition of rock guitars by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis seemed inspired in that late 80s/early 90s moment, a la Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” or Cypress Hill, but has not aged well), and even a couple of more recent hits by Beyoncé like “Green Light” and “Crazy in Love”: listen for go-go’s defining snare and bass drum dotted quarter-and-eighth rhythm during the verse.

None of those forays, to my mind, had the force and power of the 7-second snippet of Trouble Funk’s “Pump Me Up” that Hank Shocklee used as the intro to Public Enemy’s galvanizing “Fight the Power” from Do the Right Thing, a song still quickens my pulse every time I hear it. For those unfamiliar with the genre, “Godfather of Go-Go” Chuck Brown’s Go-Go Swing Live is likely the smoothest introduction, but the high-energy live recordings by Trouble Funk and Rare Essence, the latter with its absolutely scorching cover of the Bar-Kays’ “Holy Ghost” at 15:54, are more my speed.

And a few weeks before the Oscars aired, I was in DC with extraordinarily fortunate timing, in that I was able to catch the cherry blossoms in full bloom for the first time in decades.

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Contracts and Capital

I just completed teaching a section of first-year composition using labor contracts, and I have some thoughts. I originally intended to post this last Saturday for thematic appropriateness, on May Day — but like I said, I just completed the semester, and so I was a little swamped — a little overworked, let’s say, which takes us back to thematic appropriateness.

I’ve written in the past about the labor theory of value and its implications for the economics of composition, and I’ve been following Asao Inoue’s work on labor contracts with excitement. I’m definitely planning on further investigating the applications of grading contracts in my future first-year composition teaching and theorizing, both as a result of my economic interests and as a result of the persuasiveness of Inoue’s arguments, but there are some aspects of the way Inoue theorizes labor contracts that differ from my own understanding.

Some of those aspects have to do with exigence: to me, labor contracts are an appropriate fit for composition because of the way I understand composition as economic: as I’ve repeatedly argued, technologies are defined by the ways they substitute capital-intensive processes for labor-intensive processes, and the substitution of capital for labor is definitionally an economic activity, and therefore — given that writing is a technology — all of composition studies is a suitable and necessary domain for economic inquiry. For me, that’s a methodological orientation. For Inoue, the exigence is not itself economy but equity: early in Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, he gives a big-picture overview of his argument that “all grading and assessment exist within systems that uphold singular, dominant standards that are racist, and White supremacist when used uniformly,” and that “This problem is present in any grading system that incorporates a standard, no matter who is judging, no matter the particulars of the standard” (16). So for Inoue, the overriding exigency lies in working toward an ultimately anti-racist pedagogy — the ends, rather than the method.

I share the desire to work toward an anti-racist pedagogy, but I came to thinking about labor contracts from an economic perspective, rather than the ecological perspective Inoue explicitly aligns himself in his critique of the “false” belief “that grading is just an institutional necessity, something we can ask students to ignore, at least while they are learning” due to the way that belief “ignore[s] the way grades work in classrooms, how they shape many aspects of the entire ecology, how they influence students’ and teachers’ actions” (18). Certainly, “ecology” has been a popular and apt metaphor in composition scholarship of the past 20 or so years (Marilyn Cooper’s original article was 1986, but my sense is that the metaphor’s use didn’t really take off in terms of citations and published scholarship—Edbauer, Dobrin, Syverson, and others—until around the early 2000s), but if we’re talking about labor contracts, then it seems to me to be a curiously misplaced metaphor: while appealing in its derivation from the biological sciences’ definition of a system of organisms interacting with one another and their environment, the emphasis therein is on organisms and nature. I suggest we might borrow the insight from Raymond Williams that in such a sense, the natural is opposed to both the cultural (with its sense from culture of the artificial human tending of growth, whether natural or otherwise) and the technological, both of which senses I see as being more firmly tied to what happens in the composition classroom, and if we’re talking cultural and technological systems of labor, exchange, production, and capital—as Inoue is doing—then a focusing theoretical lens that operates as less of a metaphor, and less multiply mediated, would seem to offer more analytical potential. The composition classroom, and its associated pedagogies and theories, seem to me to be more reasonably constructed as economy rather than ecology. As Inoue demonstrates, there is considerable abstract and concrete value at the levels of exchange and use being generated and appropriated in the technological and cultural context of composition as a discipline.

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