Rhetoric

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.

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.

New Preps

Like most of us, I’ve been adjusting to the pedagogical, administrative, and interpersonal exigencies of COVID-19. Like most of us, I’ve found some of those adjustments challenging, particularly as they relate to making workload allowances for students and myself — for me, being a single dad for three to four weeks at a stretch without available daycare has required some re-thinking of priorities. In the fall semester of 2020, I found myself teaching our graduate seminar in classical rhetoric (which we’re in the process of re-thinking, especially in light of the recent conversations in classics among folks like Shelley Haley, Shadi Bartsch, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Mary Beard, and others about the problems of whiteness) and our Digital Technology and Culture courses on information structures and the history of digital technologies as a one-course overload, which led me to do some of that re-thinking of priorities. And our enrollments for this coming fall are still in flux, so I wound up with the opportunity to teach a couple of courses that I haven’t taught before, which is kind of nice — I’ve been feeling the need for a bit of a pedagogical reset.

I’ll leave discussing the first new prep for last, because it’s for me the most interesting and challenging. But for the second new prep, there were only a few classes in the schedule that were needing to be taught and that I felt like I had the expertise and desire to teach. The first possibility was an open upper-division literature elective that only fulfilled elective requirements, and I wrote up a proposal for an elective in postmodern and experimental fiction, since that’s where a lot of my MFA coursework was. And because we’re trying to increase or at least maintain our enrollments, we’ve been encouraged to advertise the courses we’re offering, and I decided to take the opportunity to fool around with Photoshop and try to teach myself more about using layer masks and such. Not a great first effort, but I’m happy with what I learned from doing it:

experimental and postmodern fiction flyer
larger version, full version

And yeah, you can see my protanopia, I think, in addition to the other dubious design choices—I had to ask for help re which colors went with which. Beyond that, though, in putting together the syllabus I took a look around the web at other college courses teaching postmodern and experimental fiction—and it was saddening to see how white and how male the reading lists were. I mean, I know all the problems with authenticity arguments and such, but still, beyond the inevitable and to-be-expected sexism and racism still visible in much of American academia, there are even female scholars who publish on feminism without a single female author in their postmodern/experimental reading lists. My own reading list is only somewhat less homogenous, I’ll acknowledge.

Long story short, 492 is harder to fill than some of our other upper-division courses, and then the grad student who was scheduled to teach our course on the 20th-century novel while the usual faculty member to teach is on sabbatical decided not to, so I was asked if I’d be interested in doing that instead, and I said yes, with part of my thinking being that it would be a relatively easy adjustment to make in terms of content. Part of the question for me, beyond how to adequately represent the twentieth-century novel in English in a single semester’s readings, was then: how to represent those twentieth-century readings visually? I figure it’s not too controversial to select 9/11 as the marker of the cultural end of the 20th century, so then I found myself seeking visuals from around the beginning of the 20th century with similar themes, and a picture from mother of American modernism Georgia O’Keeffe seemed to mostly fit the bill, although with the actual painting dated 1926, I admit it’s stretching the bounds of contemporaneity. Certainly looks better than the first flyer to my amateur’s eye.

The 20th Century Novel flyer
larger version, full version

And you know what the biggest stumbling block was? Thinking I had to start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For whatever reasons—the zombie of the canon still rotting at the back of my unconscious, not being able to get past my own undergraduate experience, or whatever—that idea just would not get out of my head. Until finally, looking at that previous syllabus on Experimental and Postmodern Fiction and thinking about the problems with whiteness there made me stop and say: why do I keep thinking the twentieth-century novel needs to be defined by whiteness? How might it be otherwise? That line of thought helped me ask: what novel in English—American novel, I would say, because to my mind in many ways the twentieth century was the American century—would I want to define the beginning of the twentieth century? That was easy and immediate: Cane, and the metonymic way in which it embodies and anticipates so much of what comes after, culturally speaking. Once I recognized that, everything else fell easily into place, including the theming and the sequencing.

The cultural anxieties around race, truth, and trauma that I’ve been hinting at above and in the linked syllabi have been dominating my attention this past year, much as they have for many of us, and they coalesced in an alarming way around the 2020 election and its aftermath. The final course I’ll describe is one in rhetoric rather than literature, and it reflects and embodies those anxieties and the way I’ve been thinking about them since the events of January 6. Perhaps obviously, the tagline on the flyer—”We’re doomed. Now what?”—is shamelessly plagiarized from Roy Scranton’s book of the same name, but since I’m assigning Scranton in the course, I’m not going to worry about it too much. But yes, I’ve been trying to be mindful of the overdetermined nature of our continuing crisis, and examinations of that overdetermined nature seems to me to be part of what’s missing from many of the rhetorical analyses of and responses to that crisis.

flyer for English 460, the scope of rhetoric
larger version, full version

Here’s my take, and a big part of the animating spirit behind the design for 460: to my mind, the discourses surrounding the 2020 United States Presidential Election and its aftermath, culminating in the United States Capitol events of January 6, indicate a massive complex of problems in our national rhetorics. Writing curricula and the study of rhetoric—and especially academic programs in rhetoric and composition— offer possibly unique and powerful ways to respond to that complex of problems, potentially in ways that extend recent academia-wide conversations re-envisioning the democratic possibilities of the public land-grant university. This complex of overdetermined problems includes

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An Oration

(via Jacobin)

AN ORATION delivered at Greenville, Headquarters of the Western Army, North-West of the Ohio, July 4th, 1795, by the Reverend Morgan J. Rhees.

Illustrious Americans! Noble Patriots! You commemorate a glorious day—the Birthday of Freedom in the New World! Yes, Columbia, thou art free. The twentieth year of thy independence commences this day. Thou has taken the lead in regenerating the world. Look back, look forward; think of the past, anticipate the future and behold with astonishment the transactions of the present time!

The globe revolves on the axis of Liberty; the new world has put the old in motion; the light of truth, running rapid like lightning, flashes convictions in the heart of every civilized nation. Yes, the thunder of American remonstrance has fallen so heavy on the lead of the tyrant that other nations, encouraged by her example, will extirpate all despots from the earth!

. . .

Citizens of the United States: Be not frightened in beholding so many emigrants flocking to your territory. If all the inhabitants of the world were to pay you a visit, you can compliment each of them with half an acre of land. But, sirs, look forward and behold with transports of joy this vast continent from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, forming one grand Republic of Brethren.

At present it is impossible to calculate on the rapidity of revolutions. What formerly took a century to accomplish is brought to pass in a day. If the snow ball as it rolls, multiplies its magnitude, the torrent being checked for a season, runs with greater rapidity. So the cause of truth and liberty, being opposed by despots, will gain greater energy, and will eventually, like a mighty deluge, sweep every refuge of his from the earth.

. . .

Citizens of United States: Whilst you commemorate a glorious resolution, call to mind your first principles of action — never forget them nor those who assisted you to put your principles in practice.

. . .

Citizens and Soldiers of America—Sons of Liberty: It is you I address. Banish from your land the remains of slavery. Be consistent with your congressional declaration of rights and you will be happy. Remember there never was nor will be a period when justice should not be done. Do what is just and leave the event with God. Justice is the pillar that upholds the whole fabric of human society, and mercy is the genial ray which cheers and warms the habitations of man. The perfection of our social character consists in properly tempering the two with one another, in holding that middle course which admits of our being just without being rigid and allows us to be generous without being unjust.

Slavery and Composition: Some Economic Context

My current book project, still very much in the early stages, examines the interrelationships among the American 19th-century slave economy, the technological and economic advances of the Industrial Revolution and the corresponding expansion of literacy, and the growth of American higher education and the emergence of composition as a discipline. That means for right now I’m pulling together threads from a whole bunch of different sources and disciplines and noting correspondences while trying to resist the urge to assign direct causality—but even so, there are multiple intersecting narratives, and they feel like they have a shape to them that’s been emerging from the way I’ve looked at composition and economics in other contexts.

So here’s a very brief and partial early version of some aspects of those intersecting narratives, arguing that the origins of composition studies flows directly from the value of the labor appropriated in the early American slave economy.

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Forthcoming in Collected

The editors of the collection Rhet Ops: Rhetoric and Information Warfare recently informed the authors, me included, that it’s available for pre-order from Pitt Press, and up on Amazon as well, due out in October.

I’m excited, because it’s been one of the rare remaining opportunities I’ve had to re-focus on the intersection of the military, rhetoric, and Marxian economics that I was looking at while working on my first book (delayed revisions at last completed) but have since moved on from. Part of the reason I’ve moved on is because the military/veteran stuff, while important to me, also has felt more and more like self-focused and self-interested identity politics, and I feel like there’s more than enough of that scholarship already from straight white men like me. So my desire has been to turn my introvert’s attention outward, and that attention lately has been focused on the beginnings of book #2, on the historical intersections of the 19th-century American slave economy, the technological and economic boom of the Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of the American system of higher education and the discipline of composition in particular.

I’ll have more to say here on those topics. For now, my thanks to the editors, Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson, and my thanks to you for reading if you’re still with me. An excerpt from the nice blurb from Christa Teston:

The other thing I really love about this book is the ways it integrates Marxist material rhetorics (and even Foucault) in meaningful, contemporary ways. For all of the ways our field has moved on into ‘new’ materialisms and other re-imaginings of extant theories, we sometimes lose sight of these foundational scholarly contributions.

I’ve been arguing for a while that the engagement we’ve “moved on” from was never really much of an engagement to begin with.

Rationale for a Graduate Seminar in Digital Technology and Culture

Proposed syllabi for graduate seminars are due Monday, and while I’ve got the documents themselves together, I also want to be able to better articulate the exigency for this particular seminar I’ve proposed a syllabus for. There’s no guarantee my proposal will fit the Department’s needs better than any other proposals, of course, so this is partly an exercise in hopeful thinking, but it’s also helping me to figure out why I’m interested in investigating certain topics. The course, “Studies in Technology and Culture” (DTC 561 / ENGL 561), examines “key concepts, tools, and possibilities afforded by engaging with technology through a critical cultural lens,” and is one of the two required courses for the interdisciplinary WSU graduate certificate in Digital Humanities and Culture, a certificate designed to “enhance already existing graduate programs in the humanities and the social sciences, . . . [offering] graduate-level coursework in critical methods, textual analysis, composing practices, and hands-on production for engaging with humanistic studies in, as well as about, digital environments.” I see a couple important points there:

  • first, the certificate’s “critical cultural lens” indicates a reflexive and dialectical (practice- and theory-based) analysis of cultural phenomena as in process and under construction by human and nonhuman agents, and toward the notion of culture as a “noun of process” (from the etymological tracing of Raymond Williams, who points out that the original verb form of “culture” was transitive) representing complex multiple self-developing practices relating to symbolic action; and
  • second, the certificate’s interdisciplinary aspects contribute in rich ways to its digital focus, given its required electives that examine how (AMST 522) the economics of access in the digital divide reinforce inequalities, how (DTC 477) the commodification of information and digital tools can contribute to the stratification of their use, how (DTC 478) interface designs can sometimes reinforce stratification and inequality, how (HIST 527) public history projects incorporating digital technologies can attempt to resist the dominant appropriation or suppression of the heritage of subjugated cultures through practices of responsible representation, and how (HIST 529) ethical digital curation and archiving practices can serve equitable and inclusive ends.

One possible intersection of both points might be understood as the intersection of process and information, which is how I would theme the seminar. Such a theme would represent the familiar cultural studies topoi of race, sexuality, class, gender, ethnicity, age, religion, ability, and others as points of contestation over information. The processes via which information is produced, distributed, owned, used, and re-produced shape and are shaped by those topoi and their intersections with digital technologies. Furthermore, I see tendencies in our emerging studies of digital technology and culture that replicate past trajectories whereby early adopters of technologies (often members of privileged cultural groups) tend to centralize, monopolize, and territorialize research domains—fields that shape processes related to the development of information—especially in an academic context shaped by the eagerness of funding agents to throw money at technology. Given such eagerness, the certificate’s welcome emphasis on “hands-on production” might offer an opportunity to counter that territorializing impulse.

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