Teaching

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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Grad Seminar: Rhetorics and Literatures of Modern War

Last semester, I had the good fortune to co-develop and teach a graduate seminar titled “Rhetorics and Literatures of Modern War.” It was an intensely challenging and rewarding semester, due both to the insightful contributions of the graduate students and to the materials themselves. Much of the credit for the materials selection goes to my collaborator Dr. Susan Dente Ross, whose wisdom and efforts I remain grateful for, and to the many other folks (including Alexis Hart and Pete Molin and my former colleagues at West Point) who contributed suggestions and expertise.

The syllabus is available here: https://wp.me/a4aNQJ-tv (PDF). There’s of course far more we could have (and should have) included, but this approach—triangulating from multiple perspectives, multiple genres—felt like a good first attempt. If you’ve done or are doing something similar, I’d welcome hearing about it.

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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Doing Digital Research, Being Digitally Researched

I’m teaching a course this semester that I’ve taught a few times before at WSU but never felt like I really had a solid grasp on what it was supposed to do, until now. The course is Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 356, “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” From what I understand, it began as a course co-taught by folks from the rhetoric faculty and folks from the library, with an emphasis on how to navigate the library’s electronic databases and resources and the increasing interlinking of rhetoric and information technologies in the relatively early days of the World Wide Web. Circumstances have changes substantially since then, both in terms of how undergraduates learn to navigate the digital resources of library databases and the Web and in terms of how the course gets taught and what its emphases are. In the WSU course catalog, its description is as follows:

Social and cultural role of information; research with electronic sources; production, validation, storage, retrieval, evaluation, use, impact of electronic information.

Following some of the guidance and excellent examples of my DTC faculty colleagues (here’s a version from Kristin Arola), I first taught it as something like a contemporary topics and concepts course in WSU’s Digital Technology and Culture major with a focus on the availability and findability of digital information, including units on intellectual property and the politics of search. My adapted course description was as follows:

This class explores the cultural, legal, economic, political, and social roles of information. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which the self and society shape and are shaped by our changing information networks, and we will look at the structures of those networks. We will examine such topics as social and collaborative networking, information retrieval and management, the function of creativity within an information economy, and copyright law. Throughout the course, students will be encouraged to understand the function and limits of rhetoric in an age of information.

While that worked well enough at first, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, and Read more

Security Dreams

I probably shouldn’t do class-related readings on the NSA and information security right before going to bed. The past two nights have been a combination of first-week anxieties and stuff related to Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath and Frank Pasquale’s The Black Box Society, the latter of which is one of the books I assigned for Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 356, Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information, plus some weird house- and family-related stuff.

In Monday night’s dream, I’m wandering in an abandoned, crumbling neighborhood in late afternoon, the facades of houses caved in, burned and abandoned cars lining the streets, a smoky haze in the sky like what’s been visiting Pullman, dimming the sun. I go into one of the houses and it’s filled with irregular but oddly assembled debris: Read more

Good News, Good Projects

I was recently happy to have good news: last week, the WSU English Department graduate students gave me the “Most Supportive Faculty Member” award (which particularly delights me in that they’re amazing people with whom to work). Yesterday I learned that I’d won a teaching grant. And I’ll brag about my wife too: Lauralea today received an invitation to give a keynote address at a professional conference. We are apparently doing some good things professionally, and those good things seem to sometimes intersect: we’ll both be presenting about quantitative rhetorics and research at Feminisms & Rhetorics in the fall, as well.

In addition to that good news, my Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) 375 (“Languages, Texts, and Technologies”) students presented their final collaborative projects at the DTC showcase last night, and they. were. awesome. Seven teams (who all told me it was OK to post links to portions of their projects) did these things:

I’m kind of amazed, even though I know I shouldn’t be, to work with students who have such goodwill and creativity. The projects above reflect some of the best aspects of what I consider to be excellent multimodal collaborative scholarship.

And today, in class, we concluded with the intersections of James Gleick’s The Information, Marshall McLuhan, “The Library of Babel,” smartphone dating, big data, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and the Skyrim/Valve paid mods user revolt. A good end to a good semester.

Rhetrospect

I mentioned in September that I was teaching a graduate seminar in classical rhetoric last semester. I gave it the subtitle “rhetoric under empire” because I tried to craft a syllabus that foregrounded the relations of power and materiality that seem too often absent from classical rhetoric as it’s taught in rhetoric and composition studies. Certainly, there’s some attention paid to Corbett’s closed fist and open hand (ratio and elocutio), or as the image I stole from the Internet to publicize the course and now can’t source would have it, the fasces and the flowers.

fasces and flowers

The course went extraordinarily well and did everything I wanted to, and the students even seemed to like it. Folks in rhetoric and composition sometimes tend to think of classical rhetoric as dry, dull, deadly boring stuff, and that’s mostly the fault of the way it’s too often taught, I think. There’s an impulse I’ve seen to abstract and to theorize and to alienate from context: to take Aristotle and ask what we can use from his Rhetoric in the composition classroom and wind up with a lot of FYC essays pointing out instances of ethos, logos, and pathos in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”; or to ask undergraduates to identify rhetorical figures from the Ad Herennium and De Inventione in political speeches from the last election and wind up with a lot of etceterative taxonomies that offer scant sense of possible implications.

As admirable a volume as Bizzell and Herzberg’s Rhetorical Tradition is (and it is massively, wonderfully admirable: I’ve spent many hours lost in its pages), I think it’s partly to blame. The primary texts included in the volume can be categorized—with a few exceptions—as almost entirely rhetorical theory, and with that as one of our most well- and widely-known sources, of course it’s going to influence how we teach. So when I taught Cicero, I taught bits of the De Inventione and the De Oratore and the Brutus and Orator, but all in the context of his early speech in front of the dictator Sulla, all in the context of his bawdy and misogynistic oration for Caelius in conjunction with the love poems of Caelius’s rival Catullus, all in the context of his rhetorical judo with the Pro Ligario before Caesar as both judge and plaintiff. So, too, with Isocrates and the function of rhetoric during wartime and the debates over how literate the Spartans might have been; so, too, with Aristotle and Alexander and the paranoia and xenophobia; so, too, with those who enthuse about Quintilian without considering the imperial terror of Domitian and the indictment by Tacitus of “gain-getting rhetoric” — epideictic rhetoric as truly economic — when there was no space left for rhetoric as forensic or deliberative. To me, that sort of rhetoric understood in its material and social context is exciting and fresh and alive, not abstracted or theoretical or irrelevant: when you read his letter to Atticus, to Caelius, to his wife Terentia, there comes an entirely different human sense of who Cicero was that gives extraordinary vitality to his rhetoric.

It makes me think there’s risk in studying rhetoric, in that abstracting it into an object of scholarly exchange can lead to seeing only how it operates at that abstracted and theoretical level and missing completely the level of material and experiential consequence. So that’s why my classical_rhetoric_syllabus looked the way it did, and that’s why I’ll continue to teach it that way: it’s in a way the same thing I try to do in my emphasis on the economics of writing study; to look at the value of and motivation for the rhetorical labor we perform and the intellectual and affective capital we produce and distribute and experience and re-produce and re-value.

Graduate Seminar in Classical Rhetoric

I’ve loved classical rhetoric for a long time. This semester, I finally get to teach it.

I took Latin in high school and to fulfill my language requirement in graduate school, and had amazing teachers, including Bill Nickerson, Teresa Ramsby, and Elizabeth Keitel. To their credit, I now read Latin passably well, and have a little bookshelf of red-jacketed dual-language Loeb editions. Those instructors were all excellent at teaching not only the language but what was going on at the time, and their approach made classical rhetoric feel vital and alive in ways that it didn’t in some of the English-specific courses I took for my PhD. In the seminar I’m teaching this semester, I’ve tried to imitate their approach: this is ancient rhetoric in its amazing, breathtaking material context.

classical_rhetoric_509_syllabus

Maximally Multimodal

This semester I’m excited to be teaching a 300-level elective cross-listed in the English and Digital Technology and Culture majors as “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” I’m thrilled to be teaching the material, and it’s let me do some cool stuff in the classroom that I haven’t done before. We’ve been reading some selections from James Gleick and elsewhere about Claude Shannon and information theory (which fit together in interesting and provocative ways with Lessig’s thoughts in Free Culture on piracy on the one hand and with Michael Joyce’s hypertexts and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” on the other), and grappling with Shannon’s idea that information and meaning are separable — which led me to put together a lesson plan that (1) used some technologies in the classroom that I’d never taught with before and (2) was fairly highly multimodal in its incorporation of graphics, sound, and interactivity.

I started by posing a question, telling students: I’ve got two songs in mind. One is an old song by a band that I grew up listening to and liked a lot, and brings back memories of hanging out in my friend’s attic room. The other is a newer song with a nice beat that’s at once quirky and catchy — maybe an information theorist would argue that those terms imply each other. Which song is better? (Yes, I acknowledged it was a rhetorical question, meant to highlight the subject of the day’s work.)

I then showed the two songs again, in graphical form

spectrogram 1

spectogram 2

and asked: Which one is better? Can you tell how they might be different? Do these images carry more or less meaning than my descriptions? Would I be illegally pirating music by sharing the spectograms of their waveforms at sufficiently high resolution? What would the RIAA say?

That got some discussion going. The next step was to play the songs: I had both an iPhone and an iPad with me, one for playback and one for listening with Soundhound, a song-recognition app similar to Shazam, which functions in the way outlined by Claude Shannon: by measuring patterns (moments of peak frequency and amplitude) against an axis of time or frequency and then compared to a hash table linked to a sufficiently large database. The props worked, of course, identifying the songs in a few seconds each. (YouTube videos are linked from the above images: yes, I got to play “Gangnam Syle” as a part of a lesson.)

In addition to those two songs — which have meanings, obviously, beyond their meaning to me or beyond their waveforms — I then pulled out a ringer: Girl Talk’s “Oh No,” which Soundhound could only identify as either Black Sabbath or Ludacris. The point I was trying to demonstrate from Shannon was concerning the profound difference between information and meaning, and some songs (or texts, broadly construed) have more meaning than others, which can interfere with analyzing them as information. I also made the point that by such a definition, when one is doing the “electronic research” to which the course title refers, one is not looking for meaning, because one cannot a priori do so: instead, we look for information, which we convert into meaning.

That was as good a job as I’ve done this semester of stirring the pot and provoking discussion, and it turned into a really good, energizing lesson. Now to figure out how to do more stuff like that.

Not Quite the End Yet

Last week, I taught the last classes I’ll ever teach at West Point, and this morning I enjoyed my final teacherly interaction with West Point cadets in administering a term-end examination. It’s bittersweet: cadets, for the most part, are awesome, and I’ll miss them, and I’m also moving on to a position elsewhere that I couldn’t be happier about. (More on that soon.) Tonight, though, I’m in a terrible little hotel room (the price was what I could afford, and my good luck from conferences past seems to have borne karmic consequences) in Raleigh, North Carolina, getting ready for a presentation tomorrow at the 2012 Computers and Writing conference, and using my Army computer to finish up the immediate grading requirements for that examination I administered this morning. (The Army computer uses a secure VPN client to access the grading system on West Point’s closed network, whereas the iPad I brought along for the sake of convenience and non-secure personal internet stuff like blogging and Twitter.) So I’m at an academic conference, thinking about the end of my (second) association with the Army, thinking about the technologies I use for teaching at a military institution and the technologies I use for scholarship, and the sometimes odd intersections (or lack thereof) between the two. And that makes me think about the intersections between the military careers that the cadets I taught will go into and what they might or might not take from their four-year experience at West Point. And so while that’s all well and good and a little bit too serious, I’ll also point out that when I walked into the one of the exam rooms this morning and told the remaining cadets they had five minutes left, one of them started whistling the synthesizer lead to Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”

So I’m hoping I’ve left a good impression on most of them. I know there were some who couldn’t stand me or the classes I taught — with across-the-board required courses like FYC and Advanced Composition, I suspect that at least a few of you, my colleagues and peers and friends, encounter the occasional angry or resistant student — and that’s fine. It’s not like teaching is a popularity contest. (Although I wonder what would have happened if I had walked into class wearing a crown and a blue satin sash that said “MR. CONGENIALITY” in glittery silver letters. Too late now.) But some seemed to respond well, especially in the writing- and technology-intensive FYC course I co-piloted last semester, which produced some of the most positive end-of-semester anonymous course evaluations I’ve ever received, not to mention a Pearson correlation between total words written for their daily writing assignment and performance on the final exam of 0.246 (hat tip to the co-pilot, there) with a P-value of 0.006, suggesting a confident rejection of the null hypothesis and a positive relationship between practice and performance, and enthusiastic endorsements of the pedagogical applications of technologies like 750words.com and the Eli online peer review application. Students seemed to like the stuff we did that had empirically verifiable (and blind-graded by faculty other than my co-pilot and me) positive effects on how they developed as writers.

But some folks it’s harder to reach, and I wondered about that at the end of this semester, as well, and where to place the fault or the blame. We have that commonplace about how teaching is rhetorical and one has to persuade students to want to learn, even in a military environment, where the ultimate act of insubordination that would seem to exist beyond any form of hegemonic domination or punishment would be the refusal to learn: if West Point endorses (and it does) academic freedom, then part of that freedom has to be the freedom to say, “No, I prefer not to learn.” Doesn’t it? (What’s the difference between learning and indoctrination, aside from degrees of gentleness?) A lot of the cadets I’ve had the privilege of working with at West Point have had an incredibly well-developed and confident sense of self — and while that’s a great asset for an officer and a soldier, I think it can get in the way of good education. Good education involves doubt. It involves questioning. And some of these essays that I’m grading tonight — the last cadet essays I’ll ever grade — don’t doubt or question enough. They’re far too confident in the positions they assert, and that’s what makes some of them fail, even as I admit that such confidence is what my current (not for very much longer, Magenta says) institution tries to instill.

I was going to pick up that thread about multiple technological systems and attempt to tie it to Liam Corley’s recent College English piece about veterans, but I think I’ll let that wait for another entry. It’s late, and I’ve had a long day.