Conference Notes

Why the Sparklepony Matters

There’s been a dust-up around my professional conference, CCCC (the Conference on College Composition and Communication, or informally, 4Cs or Cs), and the conference game that Wendi Sierra and others designed to help graduate students new to the discipline network and professionalize. The comments section at the Chronicle of Higher Education story that reported on the game is, as one would expect from most online comments sections, dismaying: defenders of the game are making smart, articulate, and carefully considered arguments, and there are also a lot of trolls and idiots, to include Florida State University English Department graduate student and teaching assistant Adam Weinstein, who wrote a nasty little piece for Gawker based only upon secondhand information from the Chronicle article and his perusal of Google to find Chris Kluwe’s book (which he dismisses in a phrase that makes it quite clear he has no idea what Kluwe is doing in the book) and his (yes, seriously) use of

Here’s the deal. The “sparklepony,” as an evolving concept, came out of Collin Brooke’s conference presentation in 2010, wherein Collin referenced the World of Warcraft Celestial Steed, a new in-game decorative mount/vehicle that players could purchase for $25. The Celestial Steed was quickly ycleped the “sparklepony” by the in-game community (Weinstein: you’ve got your etymology wrong, and need to work on taking your grad student research skills beyond Google) and Collin mentioned the appellation in his presentation, observing that this was an instance (I paraphrase from my own memory here, and apologize to Collin if I get him wrong) of an online luxury good: a way that WoW players could purchase items of value that stood only as class markers. The name and concept of the “sparklepony” was quickly and enthusiastically taken up by the conference Twitter backchannel, especially by scholars who shared Brooke’s interest in the intersections of technology and writing instruction, and who extended that interest into ludology or game studies, including—especially—Jill Morris. Jill made a number of physical-object “sparkleponies,” decorated with glitter and googly eyes and feathers. Those material instances of in-game digital objects became physical objects of value: scholars interested in the blur between digital and material worlds, including myself, coveted them. As such, they became the prize for the C’s the Day game.

That circumstance perhaps makes it clear that graduate students like Adam Weinstein need to be rather more careful in “journalism” (Gawker LOL) that attacks an entire field and scholars (established and emerging) in that field. Collin Brooke’s work demonstrated how immaterial and digitally reproducible objects became tokens of value in World of Warcraft, and suggested implications for how those immaterial objects (like writing) took on diverse forms of value, and how that valuation might have consequences for rhetorical practice. The ways Jill Morris remediated those digital objects into material objects, with diverse material forms of value, extended Brooke’s insights in important ways. Wendi Sierra’s incorporation of the Sparklepony as a token of material value into a systematic social form of professionalization for newcomers to an academic discipline illustrates in crucial ways how what Hardt and Negri have termed the “immaterial labor” [sic] associated with the information economy has important material consequences for composition scholarship—and therefore for composition pedagogy, and also more broadly for entry into the academic discipline.

In other words, this game has important professional and economic consequences, not just for graduate students, not just for professors, but for undergraduate students as well. Value aggregates, and as recent conferences have demonstrated, value aggregates in complex ways, especially when that ostensible boundary between F2F and online blurs—as it has in the case of the C’s the Day game. The Sparklepony, as object remediated from for-pay online game into online slang and from there into academic discourse and from there into practice of academic professionalization, is amazing: I love it in the same way I love the frozen time-golem of the train at the end of China Miéville’s Iron Council. The Sparklepony, for some, is a reminder of faculty obligations to help professionalize graduate students, and also a reminder of the ways that digital work intersects with the embodied materiality of F2F work—and the embodied materiality of F2F play.

CCCC09 A17: 21st-Century Writing Lives

The full title of this panel was “21st-Century Writing Lives: Redefining Development, Performance, and Intellectual Property in College Writing.”

Erin Krampetz, of the nonprofit Ashoka in Washington DC, began the session by describing the Stanford Study of Writing, which followed students for the five years from 2001 to 2006, from their first year at Stanford through the year after graduation, asking those students to submit to the study every piece of writing they created in that time. Krampetz joined the writing department as an undergraduate, and was one of the initial guinea pigs for the study. The longitudinal study accumulated a total of 14,776 pieces of student writing in its database, and every piece of that data is now being coded. When we think about longitudinal studies, Krampetz observed, we think about change: in the Stanford study, what changes? It’s tempting, she suggested, for researchers to tell stories that follow a timeline. For the Stanford study, however, the story is anything but linear and chronological, with all that staggering data.

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CCCC08 B15: Rhetorical Memory and Delivery 2.0

Kathie Gossett, Andrea Davis, and Carrie Lamanna (unfortunately, John Walter was unable to make it) began their panel with a quotation from Winifred Bryan Horner’s introduction to John Frederick Reynolds’ book Rhetorical Memory and Delivery: “We need to re-think rhetorical memory and delivery as pertaining to new media.” Their panel explored some of the ways in which memory and delivery could be re-thought in relation to new media.

Kathie’s presentation title was “Remembering When: the Temporal Mechanics of Multimodal Composing.” We’re familiar with the traditional modes of composing, Kathie asserted: visual, textual, aural. However, she proposed a perhaps previously underconsidered mode of expression: the temporal.

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CCCC08 A25: Virtual Realities

Doug Eyman, the chair, introduced the panel (the full title being “Reading and Writing Virtual Realities”) by describing his excitment not just about writing about games in our composition courses, but about writing in games. In fact, Doug noted, one of the chief concerns of the panel was not just with reading games as texts, but with reading how games work and can work in writing instruction.

Stephanie Vie’s presentation was first. She described an activity she had developed for a tech writing course, based on the conventional and long-standing genre of writing a set of instructions. Many of us may be familiar with asking students to write a paper explaining how to make a peanut butter sandwich, or perform some similar task. Stephanie noted that many of her students are gamers, and so decided to ask them to work in groups to produce collaboratively-authored game walkthroughs that would instruct another group how to make it to a specific point in a game of their choice. The students chose games like Tomb Raider, Half Life, and Metal Gear Solid; ones that had interesting plots and characters and multiple ways of achieving certain objectives. Stephanie assigned them to groups of 3 or 4, and the groups’ first assignment was to figure out what point in the game to play to and how, specifically, to play the game. The method of gameplay was a specific requirement of the assignment: they couldn’t just play randomly, but had to choose whether to try to play most efficiently, to achieve the objective in the least amount of time, to amass the most points or kills or treasure or experience, or to complete specific in-game quests. Stephanie then had the students negotiate group dynamics in very particular ways, particularly given that some students were more skilled at the games and some less so, and that some were more interested and some less so.

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CCCC08 Day 1

Arrived late yesterday morning after a 6 AM flight, in time for an early lunch and a nap, some exploring around NOLA’s central business district, and then a wonderful late dinner and live cajun music at Mulate’s. My hotel’s accomodations came at well under half one third of the price of the conference hotel, and the same could unfortunately be said of their quality: my first room had a Bartleby view through a single narrow window of chicken-wire security glass, with the barest dim daylight at noon, so I asked for another, and got a room with burned-out light bulbs and walls that shake when the door closes. But it’s got daylight, at least, despite the rather primitive facilities. After scant sleep before my flight, I hoped to catch up last night before helping to facilitate our all-day workshop today on course management systems, but given the room and impending workshop, I dreamed all night of my room’s electric, plumbing, HVAC, robotic maintenance, audio-visual, computing, and high-tech surveillance systems being managed by BlackBoard and WebCT. Like a dream of the opposite of being watched over by machines of loving grace, punctuated by sudden stirrings, awakenings, BlackBoard flushing the toilet next door, eCollege huffing its automated iron over my closet-hanging clothes, WebCT bitterly cycling the ice machine.

The workshop went fine. Good presentations, demonstrations, and hands-on guidance all around, even on BlackBoard and WebCT (I spoke not a word of their nocturnal activities), and I think Dennis and I did well, as well, on open-source and alternative solutions. It was a long day, though, and afterwards up into the skyward suites of the conference hotel to chat with some people I hadn’t seen in a while and then to Bourbon Street and back again. So I’m here, seeing familiar faces, going to panels tomorrow, hoping to make the time to take notes.

More soon.

CCCC07.P04: Pedagogic Violence

The full title of this session was “Pedagogic Violence and Emotions of (Self-) Assessment: Anger, Mortification, Shame,” or, as panel chair Elizabeth Weiser summed it up, “The Happy Panel!”

Amy Robillard began her presentation, “The Functions and Effects of Angry Responses to Plagiarism,” with some questions to the audience: “How many of us have suspected plagiarism?” All hands went up. “Felt insulted by it?” All hands. “Felt angry?” Again: all. Robillard offered an anecdote from a course she had taught wherein a student turned in a paper with one passage in a noticeably lighter font than the rest of the passage. She Googled the passage and discovered that the student had actually plagiarized three separate passages in the paper from weblogs. Robillard described her anger at the attempt at deceit, and her anger at the student’s implicit presumption of stupidity on Robillard’s part; the presumption that Robillard would somehow be dumb enough not to recognize plagiarism when she saw it. This anger, Robillard suggested, helped her to maintain an identity as a writing instructor sufficiently expert to make the distinction between that which is plagiarized and that which is not. But of course, she acknowledged, she could have missed it as well, because it was the font color that spurred her curiosity — and that acknowledgment led for Robillard both to a possible anger at self for writing teacher and to the question (itself carrying an inherent affective teacherly freight) of how many plagiarizers go uncaught.

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CCCC07 O.07: Wireless Identities

After this, I’ve got notes on one more, and that’ll be it for this year. As far as process goes, typing up my notes like this helps me figure out what I learned at conferences, and I hope also honors in some way others’ work of composing and presenting — but it’s also a way of archiving, of coming back to how others’ ideas have shaped my thinking in previous years and tracking how those threads and themes evolve.

This session, “Creating Wireless Identities and Literacy in Higher Education,” was of particular interest to me because of the ways my institution has attempted to position itself as a leader in the use of wireless technologies. Several years ago, the Point was recognized for being one of the top “un-wired” institutions in the nation — and yet in my classroom practice, I see frequent connectivity problems and reluctance on the Cadet side towards bringing their government-issued laptops to class. That resistance is reinforced by some faculty member’s distrust of what open and connected laptops might mean in a composition classroom: what if we’re not actively surveilling their screens, the worry goes, and they do something other than what we want them to do with their computers? What if our wireless network facilitates a somehow illegitimate backchannel discussion of classroom activities? I came to the session, then, out of particular interest in its subtitle: “How Emerging Technology Changes Institutional, Programmatic, and Classroom Roles.”

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CCCC07 N: Re/Visions of a Field

At this excellent (and disappointingly under-attended) featured session, “Re/Visions of a Field: Representing Disciplinary Identities in the Pages of College Composition and Communication,” Deborah Holdstein began by talking about her work as the editor of CCC and offering an overview of article titles from the journal from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Her rhetorical intent in so doing was quite clear: the titles sounded very similar in focus and scope to the concerns our field discusses today. That they sound familiar, as Holdstein put it, is a “modest revelation,” but one that we ought to heed and act on for important reasons. Holdstein pointed to Joseph Harris’s 1999 comment as editor of CCC that in 1949, composition didn’t yet exist as a discipline: in fact, Holdstein pointed out, a prototype for the current state of composition studies was set in the 1950s in the pages of that same journal. Yet despite the longstanding disciplinary concerns that recur in those pages, we are largely neglectful of our bibliographic reach and scope: the CCC bibliography was for a long time unavailable, and we’ve all but lost our deep connection to rhetoric and rhetorical history. We ought to use our past more than we do, Holdstein argued, pointing as an example and possible model to Cheryl Glenn’s 2006 MLA examination of the usable past of rhetoric in the pages of 1960s issues of CCC. The journal has been an accountable voice for scholarship, and we stand obligated to use that history of the “golden age” of composition as a precursor and foundation upon which to build our scholarship today, lest we continue to find ourselves rehashing old debates. Holdstein’s argument seems beyond dispute here, and I might extend it beyond CCC (which was, of course, the focus of the presentation: this is in no way a criticism of Holdstein): Helen Sard Hughes anticipated by 70 years or so the controversy among James Berlin, Linda Brodkey, Maxine Hairston, and others about what should and shouldn’t be taught in composition courses in her 1922 English Journal piece on “English, Economics, and Literature;” and Arthur Coon’s 1947 College English essay “An Economic X Marks the Spot” prefigures the debates over the labor of teaching college writing by half a century. The bibliographic reach and scope Holdstein describes is part of her reason for instituting the Re-Visions feature at the CCC Online Archive, she said, and she hopes to continue such conversations in the journal’s paper and online pages. Ultimately, she said, she’s humbled to peruse the journal’s old pages. Many of our practical concerns remain the same, and we ought to take this history and use it as we seek change: the past, as Jefferson said, is prologue.

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CCCC07 F30: Self in Online Environments

Quinn Warnick and James Donelan’s panel, “The Construction of Self in Online Environments: Helping Students Create and Understand the Virtual Realm,” was small but well-attended, and what was perhaps most interesting was the way that discussion afterwards worked to bridge the apparent gulfs in philosophies and approaches. I don’t think Warnick and Donelan ever explicitly disagreed with one another, but they were clearly approaching a common theme from divergent perspectives.

Warnick’s presentation, “Would Aristotle Link to Wikipedia? The Role of Ethos in a Hypertext Age,” began by noting that to speak about Wikipedia is to speak about a moving target, and that Wikipedia’s evolving rhetorical ethos led him to continue to revise his presentation and conclusions until the day before he presented. Which sounds like a much better apologia than the unfortunate (and unfortunately common) CCCC confession that one wrote it on the plane — but in Warnick’s case, it certainly wasn’t an apologia: his analyses and conclusions were sharp and spot-on. Warnick framed his examination of Wikipedia’s ethos and its apparent sourcelessness, its lack of attribution, in the context of the familiar question from Foucault and Beckett: “What does it matter who is speaking?”

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