A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Are You Experienced?

It occurred to me while writing my last post that, in suggesting we make a place for the undocumented (and perhaps the undocumentable) in publications in comp/writing studies, some readers would say, "Have you read any work on the possibilities and problematics of experience as a font of knowledge in writing research?" I wasn't able to address this concern then, but I'll take a quick stab at it now.

I'm not talking about experience in the same way it is generally thought of in comp research, i.e., as personal or private experience. I'm talking here about shared experience that is nevertheless not a part of the historical record. I'm willing to bet we've all felt the sense that the spirit of a particular movement or conversation is richer, more complex, messier than its textual incarnation(s) seem to suggest. For example, there is a sense among some researchers that the "ethical turn" in writing research has served to demonize traditionally empirical methods (as the term empirical has come to be understood in comp, meaning non-situated, non-ethnographic methods) . Yet if you read the influential works in the ethical turn--Kirsch and Ritchie's "Beyond the Personal," the essays in Mortensen and Kirsch's Ethics and Representation, e.g., you just won't find this rabidly anti-positivist, demonizing bent.

Still, I don't think researchers like Ellen Barton, Davida Charney, Susan Peck MacDonald, and (to a lesser extent) Cindy Johanek are simply--to borrow a phrase from my previous post--fleeing reality. It seems to me more likely that they have all had interactions with others in the discipline whose speech or behavior, unmoderated by editorial processes and unchecked by speakers' internal censors, implies or outright states that researchers who do empirical research are at best naïve and at worst cynical careerists. It may be that there are "vulgar" ethicists out there who, modelling the epistemic choices of people like Kirsch, Mortensen, Ritchie, and others, nevertheless fail to model their thoughtfulness and acceptance of difference. (It may also be that a once rabid anti-positivism is both tamed and dialectically preserved as a historical moment that is present in work in the ethical turn but that need no longer be trotted out at every rhetorical occasion, in which case careful historiographic and textual/citation analysis could illuminate it sufficiently.)

How, then, do we represent this shared, at least partially common, but undocumented, experience in our published work? Or do we?

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Ethics of Academic Reading

We were discussing the "New Abolitionist" debate in my Intro to Composition class tonight, and suddenly I found myself giving--to both my students and myself--an impromptu discourse on the ethics of academic reading.

After discussion had snaked its way through several of the central points of contention between advocates and critics of abolishing the universal FYC requirement, I decided to pull back the curtain and say what I really thought about one of the texts we read for this week. In "Reframing the Great Debate on First-Year Writing" (CCC 50, Feb.), Roemer, Schulz, and Durst defend the FYC class as a potential "site of struggle and change within the institutional hierarchy of academia" (378). As they do so, they make it clear that they have no great love for the new abolitionists, who share an "evisceratingly negative depiction of the first-year course, its students, its teachers, and its defenders" (378). What I began to tell my class was that there is no evidence to support this claim, that new abolitionist arguments are often based on a deep respect for the complex literacies students bring with them to college, and that new abolitionists care deeply about those who teach FYC. I meant to tell my students that Roemer, Schulz, and Durst had fled reality, plain and simple.

But as I spoke, I began to remember Maureen Daly Goggin's and Susan Kay Miller's contextualization of the debate in "What is New About the 'New Abolitionists'" (Composition Studies 28:2). Their "brief history" of the new abolitionist debate recounts not only published, written volleys in the skirmish, but also C's roundtables at which people with stakes in various positions in the debate were present. I began to wonder what the tone of these roundtables must have been. I know from my research that written, published arguments in disciplinary debates are often mostly or totally cleansed of deep emotion that tends to drive such exchanges. I began to see that, perhaps, when Roemer, Schulz, and Durst characterized new abolitionists with such vague constructions as "those who argue against the (FYC) requirement" and "members of our field" in place of specific, supported references to authors and texts, they may have been trying to capture the spirit of those face-to-face encounters (and doubtless many others) in a genre and discipline that are decidedly stacked against relying on the undocumented as evidence.

I remain critical of the position Roemer, Schulz, and Durst take, but I am no longer willing to dismiss their critique of new abolitionists as either simple fantasy or, worse, sloppy research. In fact, I'm left with the nagging sense that their version of the debate, despite my instincts to the contrary, is potentially more reflective of reality than characterizations of the debate that have access to, or choose to use only, its published offerings. Indeed, I am left with the question of whether--and how--we ought to carve out a space in academic argument for using the undocumented, and perhaps the undocumentable, as evidence.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

File under "duh!"

Lee and I went to the Black Swamp Arts Festival last weekend. It was a much cooler festival than I thought it would be. The art--a pleasant surprise to say the least--ranged from kitchy to folksy to fine, and the music line-up was nothing to sneeze at either. Though I didn't make it to the evening performances Friday, BG is a small enough place that I could hear The Fixx pretty clearly from my back yard. I forgot they had so many good songs; the only hit of theirs I could spontaneously recall I was "Red Skies." What a treat it was, then, when sounds of "Stand or Fall," "One Thing Leads to Another," and "Saved by Zero" drifted through the unseasonable coolness of my screened porch.

But this post isn't about art or music. It's a cautionary tale about festival food. Just off the main exhibit area was an assortment of 15 or so food trailers offering a bit of everything: gumbo, BBQ ribs, cheese steaks, hot dogs, tamales, giant fried tenderloin sandwiches--you name it. Now, all my foodie instincts were telling me to go with the BBQ, in particular the smoked Hungarian sausage. A no-brainer, I know, but the line was, like, really long. So instead I went with the short line: "One pad thai, please." [Cut to me trying to identify the protein in said pad thai--looked like red tofu, tasted like fish parts.] Ick, ick, ick. Luckily, there had also been a short beer line. And enough people had ordered Stella Artois that day that it didn't have a chance to get nasty sitting in the lines, so it was nice and crisp, and, mercifully, it flushed the cloying fishy-tamarind-sweetness from my mouth.

So what's the moral? No, it's not, "Don't get Thai food from any structure that will be leaving town later that day." I'm sure Thai food has as much potential to be portable and great as BBQ does. The moral is, "Wait in line. (Dozens of carb-addicted festival-goers can't be wrong.)" Next year I'm definitely getting the sausage--unless there's a short line for steak tartare.

(Edited to add: I forgot to mention that, try as I may, I continually call "The Black Swamp Arts Festival" "The Black Arts Swamp Festival." I wonder whether I'm the only one.)

Sunday, September 10, 2006


The new semester always seems to me like starting a bike ride from the house in Missouri where I grew up: things are pretty flat for about a mile, and then, around Weaver Rd.--aka, farm rd. 178--the hills kick in. At first, they aren't so bad--a few moderate undulations just to remind you that biking is an aerobic activity. But then come the real hills, the double-diamond asphalt monsters that, depending on which direction you're biking, either hurl you through space so fast that your face looks like Dennis Quaid's on the centrifuge in The Right Stuff or simply make you hate, hate, hate gravity. (When I rode this route literally instead of figuratively, I was 15 yrs. old and thought nothing of putting in 10, 15, or more miles in a day on my spiffy Schwinn 12-speed, but still the granddaddy of them all--the one known simply as the hill by Cari Noble's house--forced me to get off and walk once or twice. I hope Cari never saw me.)

As far as the semester goes, then, I've just pushed through the four-way stop at Scenic and Weaver, and I'm nearing the top of my first climb (the one where my dad got the Mercedes airborne and totalled it, presumably, I always thought, because he hated it and wanted to get back into a Lincoln): it's the beginning of the fourth week, and week three saw the first little signs that this ride might pose a challenge or two. The energy and the momentum I had built up in the flatland of the early weeks are both waning. Last week, it took me just a little longer to get readings and discussion forums posted to Blackboard, and it saw my first small planning hiccup when I forgot to double-check the syllabus for my "Teaching Grammar in Context" class and drafted a full-class lesson plan on a day we were supposed to be workshopping. It's also getting harder to squeeze in reading and outlining for the article I'm working on.

So, now I'm calling for the first time on my reserves, relying just a bit more on discipline and drive than on excitement and energy to get me into the office. But, here it is Sunday night, and I am in my office, and I do have my teaching week mapped out, and I did manage to devote some mental energy this weekend to my scholarship, with more sure to come this week.

It feels good to be on the back end of that first hill, small as it may have been. And it was good practice. After all, only two more hills (which should put us somewhere around midterm), and I'm at the one by Cari Noble's house. Here's hoping I won't be walking into Halloween.

(Update: Ok, so I'm both nearing the top of the first hill and on the back end of it. My literary prowess apparently doesn't extend to proofreading for conceit-related consistency.)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

On Not Being Freaked Out

[Note: I'm treating this entry as one for the historical record. I'll come back to it after my two-year review and see whether I'm still feeling as sanguine about life in academia.]

Many of you know that my wife, Lee, and I have just begun new jobs in the English Department / Ph.D. Program in Rhetoric and Writing at BGSU in Ohio. So, not even three weeks into the semester, we're still under a constant barrage of new information, from where to go for good Indian food to what committee(s) we'll serve on to the name of that person in the hall I keep smiling at awkwardly without introducing myself. (James Bond I'm not.) But this one was a particularly big week: it was the week we reviewed tenure requirements with the department chair, including finally perusing the documents that outline the standards to which we will no doubt be steadfastly held.

Both Lee and I knew the broad strokes of what we needed to do to get tenure at BGSU before we took the jobs. But now that we're here, actually in the tenure pipeline, it's as if the potential energy of just knowing what we'd need to do for tenure were suddenly, jarringly converted to the kinetic energy of realizing that--holy shit--we're going to have to get our asses in gear.

The thing is, though, I felt disingenuous when I joined my other colleagues (there are six new tenure-line faculty in English right now, so we had the tenure meeting en masse) in fretting about how we'll ever pull it off. Shuddering at the size of the tenure file that was provided for us as an example. Getting wide-eyed at the prospect of publishing a book or five refereed articles in five years. That kind of thing. I felt disingenuous because, when I think, "holy shit, I'd better get my ass in gear," I'm feeling excited, energized. I say it with an eager grin, not a nervous smile.

Why? It took me a while to figure it out, but I think it's because the standards to which I'm being held at BGSU don't exceed those of my internal academic compass. That is, if after five years, when I go up for tenure review (in the sixth year), I have done enough for me to be satisfied with myself as a teacher, colleague, and member of the discipline of rhet/comp (yes, it is a discipline--but that's another post), then there's just no way I won't also receive tenure.

Please, though, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I will receive tenure. Even if I thought so, which I don't [edited to add: by this I simply mean I don't think it's just going to automatically happen], I wouldn't say so, because--well, let's just say I read my share of tragedies during grad school. I'm just saying that if things go in a way that makes me proud of myself and my career--and you can bet I'll be working extremely hard to see that they do--then I won't need to worry about anybody else's standards. Mine will always be higher.