March 2009 Archives


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Steve had a nice comment to my last post:

I would add as a slightly different but related truism: there are a lot of different ways to skin the same cat. I think that everyone working on a diss or a book or major project lives in terror of coming across a title that appears to be about the same topic. But there are a lot of ways to take different angles on something. We did a job search this year, and it was interesting to see how many of our top candidates were doing essentially the same thing but doing them just differently enough to be unique.

Every project is a snowflake, I suppose.

What I didn't say in my last post was that, when that conversation started, my first thought was that I was going to have to offer this advice. It's far more common, I think, for writers to come across an essay or book that feels like it's covered the same ground. I'll never forget reading Mark Taylor's The Moment of Complexity the first time--I had just read, over the course of maybe 5 or 6 months, a bunch of the primary sources that Taylor relied on, and that material was percolating in my head. Then I picked up Taylor and all of a sudden, he was saying all the things that had only formed half-baked in my own head. It made it simultaneously exhilarating, deflating, and easy to read.

When it comes to working on the dissertation, though, I think that the terror that Steve describes above is a biggie. And part of that is our attachment to values like Originality--what seems like an original thought or approach in the context of a graduate program may be old news in another discipline, another program, or wherever. I've seen dissertators overhaul their methods because they found someone who had done something similar, and I think that's almost always a mistake.

First, I think that it's more productive to think of one's project in terms of its contribution rather than in terms of its originality. That's tougher than I make it sound. Part of the problem is that our model for designing projects (the old CARS model from Swales) focuses on distinction in a way that can be misread. The fact is that there are many dimensions along which a project can be distinct from another: method, site, background, genealogy, application, approach, etc. What we forget in the humanities sometimes is that small distinctions (applying a particular method to this site instead of that one) can produce important insights. Perhaps a pedagogical approach or curriculum that's worked well in one context does not in another. Maybe an interpretive attitude suited for certain artifacts is less suited for others. And so on.

My second point is related to yesterday's post, and that's that rather than living in terror of someone having been there before, we should think of those instances as opportunities for conversation. I've never read a book that was the absolute final word on something, my own included. There's always lots of room for additional work. And that's the kind of work that 99% of us actually do, connecting this idea to that one, bridging one tradition with another, building upon what's come before. The fantasy of initiating paradigm shifts is all well and good, but when it hangs up our ability to get work done, it's time to set it aside and focus instead on doing good work, making a strong contribution to the discipline.

I have those fantasies too, but they're best combined with a sense of humor and a commitment to the work itself.

That's all.


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I was talking with one of my many dissertators the other day. She was worried because she had read a couple of texts, one article and one book, that purported to do what she herself planned for her dissertation. However, she discovered upon reading them that, in fact, they weren't doing anything like what she wanted to do. I think that she was concerned that she was going to have to conform to their particular approach and that subsequently she'd be doing something that she didn't like.

I relate this little story not to get people guessing about the person in question, although some of you might know who it is, but rather to relay some of the best advice that I received/absorbed whilst in graduate school myself. Namely,

The best thing you can find is someone or something to work against.

I mean "against" here in two different ways, both of which are captured by the supercheesy pick-up line "If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?" I wish I had a better example, but there you go.

One of the things that I've really been emphasizing over the past few years as a graduate instructor is the importance of visualizing (and spatializing) research networks. We speak of the importance of situating one's work, but I've really pushed at that to make it more concrete. In fact, it's been a few years now since I assigned straight-up seminar papers in my graduate courses. Instead I've tried to design courses and assignments that focus on certain elements of the scholarship process. Concept maps are probably my fave, as long-time readers will notice...

Anyhow, against is a word that suggests both opposition/distinction to and contact with someone or something, and for the texts that matter most to the work I do, I work against them in both senses. Most books start out weighted in one direction or the other, and the ones that I value most tend to balance out, as I see the weaknesses of the ones I like and the virtues of the ones I don't.

So yeah, find the stuff that you can work against. If I had rules, that'd be one of em.

That's all.

A discipline remixed?

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Couple of days ago, I had a conversation with a colleague, and in one of those hallway moments, we chatted about how interesting it would be if we could do a collection where we invited a bunch of folk from the discipline to each take a piece of the disciplinary/organization network, and revise it as we saw fit. On the one hand, there are a lot of big issues that could stand to be solved, not the least of which are things like institutional classism, over-reliance on and undercompensation of part-time faculty, disciplinary overproduction, etc.

But I guess we were thinking more along the lines of the smaller things that could ripple out into broader improvements. The problem with tackling the large issues is that they are embedded so completely into the interlocking systems of profession, organization, institutions, and culture that they're not easily solvable. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be working on them--on the contrary, they should be our constant focus. But it's equally interesting to me to think about all of the small things that could improve given a creative nudge.

There'd be no way to organize and publish such a collection in time for it to have value, of course, and that in itself is one of the things that's wrong. One of the potential advantages of having a large disciplinary organization is aggregation, but that's something that happens infrequently in our org, and even when it does, it's done in less than ideal ways. What might be aggregated? Oh, information about graduate programs, graduate courses, conference papers, emerging writing majors and the courses taught there, teaching strategies, syllabi, position announcements, membership contact info and cv's, etc. And that's really just off the top of my head. One of the potential disadvantages of having a large disciplinary organization is that it can reinforce patterned isolation, and crowd out any attempts to circumvent that problem to the outskirts of members' attention.

That's all for now. Maybe I'll toss up a post later that outlines my imaginary chapter. But I've got some actual chapter writing to complete first.

a strange moment of resonance

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Lots of chatter yesterday over the working paper "Professors on the Production Line, Students on their Own," written by Mark Bauerlein, and covered by IHE.

I don't have a great deal to say about the report, but I would note 3 things. First, a gigantic piece of the puzzle that's missing from Bauerlein's analysis is the degree to which the administrative push towards part-time faculty has had a similarly chilling effect on the quality of instruction. I don't take issue with the fact that the current system is far more likely to reward full-time faculty for focusing on scholarship, but that's only one piece of the puzzle. Bauerlein's paper mentions adjuncts in places, but tends to lump them together with graduate students as people on-the-way to the tenure-track.

Second, there's a great deal of slippage among literary studies (where some of his most pointed arguments come from), the humanities, and education as the putative scope of this "report." As I noted yesterday elsewhere,

We need to intensify the pedagogy. Teachers must raise the engagement rates by command. For instance, they could require one-on-one conferences, add more and steadier homework assignments, build a consultation component into the syllabus, and track student progress closely during the term. Students should be made to recognize their enrollment in a course as a participatory process.

the first paragraph of B's conclusion is a list of practices that are already considered standard operating procedure by many of us in rhetoric and composition. I could be far snarkier about this if I wanted.

Finally, it was interesting to see an instance of the "network plateau" argument I chatted about the other day. To wit,

The first ten books on Moby-Dick mattered because Melville's epic had altered American literary history forever, and its critical interpretation and positioning remained partial and uncertain. But by the 40th and 41st books, Moby-Dick had lost its potency as a scholarly well-spring. An early work on Moby-Dick might have established it as a Great American Novel and changed the syllabus of American literature. But by 1995, another book on Moby-Dick, however astute and eloquent, was just that--another book on Moby-Dick. The general value of Moby-Dick as a great novel that students should read and study survives, but the necessity of researching it has withered.

In order to agree with this argument wholesale, one has to agree with certain premises about the nature of the discipline, the function of scholarship, etc., but as I don't consider myself a literary scholar, I'll leave that to someone else. I was just struck by the resonance of this line of argument with the network/scale stuff.

That's all.

The more, the messier

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Even after not having been there, one of the nice things about CCCC, at least in a program where many people go, are the conversations that take place afterward. And although I'm a grouser, I would admit secretly to a certain amount of energizing that takes place even as I think the conference needs improvement desperately.

So the question of scale. When I wrote that I thought that the conference had gone awry for reasons of scale, it would be more accurate to say that the conference hasn't scaled along with the membership. And by that, I mean to challenge the commonsense idea of "the more, the merrier," or what's sometimes described in network studies as the "network effect," the idea that as more users opt in to something, the more value the network accrues for everyone who's part of it. The classic example of this is the fax machine. The more fax machines that people buy, the more value it has as a communication device for everyone who already owns one. And this is true of utilities in general.

There's a great piece over at RWW today on the reverse network effect, though, which is something I've seen less discussion of. The basic idea is that, unlike an app like Skype or PayPal, where the network effect is pretty much ongoing, social networking applications, for most users, actually plateau in usefulness, regardless of how many users there are. It doesn't matter to anyone who doesn't work for Facebook that the service now has 175 million users rather than 50 or 100 million.

Bernard Lunn explains:

In a social network, the value for existing users of a new user joining the network plateaus once users have most of their own contacts in that network.

There's a finite limit to the amount of networking/socializing we can do, and once we reach that limit, we will either stop growing our network, or the quality of that network will change. Perhaps we will turn from "hanging out with close friends" to "social butterflying," for instance. I would argue that this process is never necessarily stable--that there are both centripetal and centrifugal forces at play--that we are our own "deictic systems." Nevertheless, I think this sense of plateau-ing is largely correct.

To bring this back to discussions of the conference, I think that there's a point in our careers (and while it may happen at different times for each of us, I think it still is pretty common) where the conference shifts from being a place to meet new folk to being one where we caretake the connections we already have.

Here's how I'd test it, if I were of a mind to do a project: I would do a massive survey of conference attendees, and ask them to answer the following two questions: which sessions did you attend? why did you choose them?

My guess is that new and relatively new attendees are more likely to attend sessions because (a) they want to learn more about a topic, (b) they want to see a scholar whose work they respect/admire, and/or (c) the person/people they were with decided to go. Furthermore, I suspect that not only do more experienced conference-goers attend fewer sessions, but that they are far more likely to attend sessions by people whom they already know (ie, friends, colleagues, and/or students) than for the reasons above. It's not a perfect threshold, but I suspect that the patterns would emerge if you separated out folks who had been to 4 or fewer and 5 or more.

Partly, that's because attending sessions is one of the ways you reinforce extant ties as a conference vet. And those ties carry trust and affinity, but also obligation. I can remember plenty of times where another panel sounded more interesting to me personally, but where I opted instead for panels of those whom I wanted to support.

I'm most certainly not saying that one reason is better than another. What I am saying, though, is that once you've gone to CCCC a few times, your motivations may shift. Inevitably, there is a point at which the network value provided by the conference plateaus. Doesn't mean that you stop meeting new people completely, or that you never go to a panel with speakers you don't know, just that these activities are much less likely.

And these network plateaus organize themselves differently. For some people, it may be a SIG or Caucus that they attend every year. Some people may basically attend CCCC to catch up with their grad school friends. Some may attend as a way of mentoring their own students. Some may only do it to keep up with the work being done in their speciality. Again, none of these reasons is better than any other, just different. And these are all valid reasons to hold the conference and to attend the conference.

For me, a question worth asking, though, is whether or not there's a point after which that plateau begins to turn into a downward slope, as Lunn describes it. I think it fair to say that the recent (@5 years) spate of articles and CCCC papers bemoaning the absence of X, Y, or Z is a sign of this. And I notice that spate because many of them are drawing upon CCCC programs as evidence of this fact.

In some ways, our conference is designed according to an implicit faith in the constancy of a disciplinary network effect. I talked a little about this here when folks were talking about CCCC rejections, about how more specialized research was disadvantaged by the decisions made regarding the submission process. I also think that there's at least an implicit assumption that good proposals are those that target a general audience, including newcomers to the field. There's a reverse network effect as a result, one that Alex talked about yesterday, where the same questions are repeated year after year, because we're not encouraged to assume any prior knowledge in our proposals or our presentations.

But you may say to yourself, this is not my beautiful MLA!

In many ways, MLA suffers from the opposite problem, I suppose, given the way that their conference is organized and designed. Tied as it is to the misery of the job search, MLA doesn't have to worry about attracting newcomers.

But surely there's some in-between space. I have to believe that it's possible for a conference of this scope and size to be able to accommodate newcomers while still be rewarding for those whose motivations differ. The fact that folk use the CCCC program as evidence of our field's failings and/or neglect and/or fragmentation should be a sign to all of us that there are plenty of us who want something more from the conference, that it might be a place that serves both community and discipline.

Would it surprise you to learn that I've been talking about this for 5 years now? Here's an idea I posted in 2004, complete with my old skool design if you follow the link:

Book of the Year: Every year, several books in our field are nominated for a book of the year award (and one or two receive it). Plan a series of sessions, each of which focuses on one of the BOTY nominees. Allow the author to hand-pick 2-3 people to give presentations about the book and then the author would be a respondent. Participants in the BOTY series would be allowed to do a second presentation (assuming that their proposal had been accepted).

I still love this idea. And here's the thing. It would be a thread of sessions that (a) rewards the best scholarship being done in the field that year (in book form, at least); (b) rewards the writers of those books (by featuring their work in the program; (c) recognizes that work in a highly visible way; (d) functions as a centralizing force for the discipline and conference; (e) introduces newcomers to the best work being done by experienced colleagues; and (f) provides some space for sessions where advanced discussions of quality work might happen.

But I'm drifting off-point a little, and this has become much longer than I'd planned initially. (It started as a one-para linklove post to RWW.) Here's my broader point: for certain people in our field, there is an advantage to having a 5000-person conference rather than a 500-person one. There are more people to meet, sessions to choose from, etc. For others in our field, the advantage is reversed, because many of them may feel that the smaller conferences (like RSA, e.g.) allow you to accomplish more specialized, sophisticated work.

As for me? I believe that a genuinely flagship conference should be able to achieve both the social value of 5000 and the disciplinary value of 500. And I'm hypothesizing here that our org has pursued the former at the expense of the latter, even though I honestly believe that this expense has been largely unintended. That's the reverse network effect.

And that is all.


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"When we tested this new name, the thing that we got back from our 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd, which is quite a lot of our audience, is actually this is how you'd text it," Mr. Howe said. "It made us feel much cooler, much more cutting-edge, much more hip, which was kind of bang-on what we wanted to achieve communication-wise."

Umm, okay. I'm not sure that rebranding is the best answer to a network's "best year in history." But they seem awfully confident about it.

Let the brackets commence!

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I have to admit that I was a little surprised to see Syracuse nab a 3 seed. I thought for sure that they'd be a 4 or 5 (I thought the UConn game pushed them up to 4), and that as a result, they have to be in the North Carolina bracket, since they try to avoid interconference matches before the regional finals. They were in that bracket anyway, to my surprise, but with a road that feels a little more doable--in some ways, though, Oklahoma could be a tougher match, assuming they make it that far. Griffin is an inside scorer and a rebounder who could quickly thin out the back line of the 2-3 with foul trouble, if SU's not careful.

But it's not out of the realm of possibility to ride Syracuse for 3 or 4 rounds--if you'd asked me a month ago if that were possible, I would have laughed at you. Now I'm cautiously optimistic. I wish that the current lineup had one more year in em, bc I think this group could compete for the final 4 with a little more experience and polish, but I doubt that Flynn will stay another year. So fingers crossed for this year.

And if you're looking to show off your predictive prowess, then bring it on over to Yahoo.

That is all.

According to legend, St. Lunardi was a 14th century monk, who inaugurated one of the most violent traditions in the history of Christendom. Drawing inspiration perhaps from knightly tournaments, Lunardi would, once a year, select 64 of his colleagues to participate in the Great Feast. Invitees were asked to gather in groups of four at select locations throughout Europe, whereupon they were to bludgeon one another until only one remained conscious. The winners of these "pods" were rewarded with lavish desserts (hence the moniker "Sweet Sixteen").

The sixteen remaining participants were then redistributed to four secondary sites, where they repeated the process, leaving only a final four. Having survived their respective brackets, those four were invited to join Lunardi at his home, where they endured a third and final test of their fortitude, once again involving copious pummeling. The last person standing was then invited to share Lunardi's feast, all the while listening to the 834 verses of "One Shining Moment" as performed by the finest bards in Europe.

While the Feast of St. Lunardi itself takes place over several weeks, involving the ongoing consumption of large amounts of snacks, the holiday itself takes place in modern times on what is traditionally the Day of Selection, where Lunardi would announce which of his colleagues would be participating that year.

Non-blogging the Cs

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That's what I'm doing, I guess. I do have the excuse of not actually being there. With the exception so far of Dennis and Alex, there are a lot of folk who don't share my excuse who are non-blogging it just as hard as I am.

That's a really backwards way, I suppose, of a little bemoaning on my part. I'm happy to update status and tweet, but if you don't believe that something's been lost in the grand migration to nanoblogging, well, I'd disagree. Not that CCCC was ever a hotbed of blogtastic simulcasting or anything, but the peak of that activity seems to have passed. In an age of increased networking and transparency, the conference seems content to slide back into pre-web levels of opacity. And by the conference, I mean us, of course. I hear tell that the wifi at this year's conference is dismal, which is certainly a contributing factor, but again, it's not as though it's something that we don't have control over. Or at least influence. Wifi should be considered a conference utility not unlike meeting spaces or electricity, and we should be holding our conference sites to pretty high standards.

Anyways. What actually prompted my post was Steve's link to Dan's presentation, and his ruminations on the conference in general:

what's the point of conferences nowadays? Sure, it's about networking, having meetings in person (always more efficient than meetings online, I will admit), getting "away" in the sense of a retreat, getting "away" in the sense of an opportunity to go out with friends, etc. It's fun. But now that it is possible- even pretty easy- to put a presentation like this up on the web, I'm not sure if the pros of a face to face meet-up outweigh the cons of conferences- the costs of registration/lodging/food, the time away from work/family/friends/home, the damage to the earth resulting from air travel, the bad eating/drinking habits, etc.

My answer to this is similarly ambivalent, seeing as how this is the 2nd year in a row that I've missed CCCC, and I can't really lay claim to missing it especially. It's always been one of those things for me that I enjoy when I'm there, but don't really like getting ready for, getting to, or recovering from.

That being said, I think one of the things that's important about CCCC is that it's the one time where we catch a glimpse of the true size of our network/discipline. It's only a glimpse, mind you, but still. As large and unwieldy as the conference is, our discipline is larger still, and it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves of that on an annual basis. I think we forget sometimes. Larger in terms of people, but also larger in terms of interests, perspectives, and philosophy.

But that being said, I think it fair to note that the conference has largely run afoul of the problems of scale. I think it's designed for a much smaller group, and I think our vision of it has not really kept pace with its growth. I've written on a few other occasions about how that's the case, so I won't go into details, but I do honestly believe that it's not a matter of tweaking. I'd love to see some overhauls and I'd love to see some conversations about the possibilities, but I'm not optimistic that either will ever occur. And I've written (and ranted to anyone who'll listen) about why I don't feel that optimism is warranted, and don't really feel like dredging up those args either.

I do think a national conference is worth it, but I'm not sure our national conference is worth it. But then, it's what we've got, and so I'm thinking now about Louisville, and wishing that a few more panel reviews find their way online in the next couple of days.

That's all.

A brief update

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Still not really feeling like talking about it, but I should mention that I just had a very nice conversation with Kent Williamson from NCTE.

And by very nice, I mean that I had a chance to explain what all has been happening from my end, and he had a chance to explain where he thought communication had broken down. I definitely left the conversation feeling a little better than I had, and that was good.

I know that there are at least a few people who have been writing on my behalf, forwarding my post, etc., and I thank you for that. And now I'm really going to go think about other stuff for a bit. ;-)

CCC Online

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I don't really want to talk about it. But ah well.

Here's how it felt. Imagine that you were in a fixed-term position at a university. You know that your time will be up eventually, but you feel like you've done pretty good work, and you feel some genuine loyalty to the school, and have some ideas about how things might go better. Then, one day, you open the MLA Job List, and find the description for your position. Your school has decided to change the position substantially, and to provide it with a number of benefits that you've never received. And at no point did they ever ask you about it, invite you to talk with them about the position and how it might be improved, or even let you know that the advertisement was going to appear.

You might be understandably disappointed.

The thing is, the CCC Online Archive is up, but it's broken. And it's broken for several reasons.

I made the mistake last summer of imagining that I could upgrade both the front and back ends of the site simultaneously. Shortly into that process, my grandfather passed away. I didn't come back from his funeral until the end of the first week of the semester, already basically 3 weeks behind in my preparation for my graduate seminar. Needless to say, the semester did not go well from my perspective.

On top of that, 3 of our senior faculty were on leave this year, and that's on a faculty of 12, if you count our two split-appointed faculty. In a small department, there is already a massive service load, and that didn't help. Add to that the fact that 2 of our junior faculty are standing for tenure this year, and add to that the fact that 2 of our senior faculty stood for promotion to full. Did I mention that I also chaired our search this year? Also, I made the mistake of following through on my bright idea of back-to-back conference presentations in October. The search itself got started late, although not because of my own delay in starting the semester, and as a result, we were conducting phone interviews the week before Christmas. Thanks to weather, car trouble, and the late timing of our search, I got to spend my first ever holiday season away from my family. But then, I had the joy of turning 40 to keep me warm. And with the turn of the year came the graduate admissions process which, for all of its importance, is effectively a second search committee process.

So yeah, not the best year of my life. One of my very best friends tells me that one of these days, I'm going to have to let myself grieve. I don't know whether to feel relief or despair over that.

I should also mention that, last spring, my college's support for the site was not renewed. It didn't help that my title was changed from Associate/Online Editor to CCC Online Archivist. One of those titles is not like the other when it comes to making a case for institutional support. And that's an observation that I might have made had I ever been consulted about the title change.

So yeah, the site's broken. Part of the reason why I didn't spend more time this summer, or start earlier, is that NCTE decided to overhaul their own site, thereby breaking all of the NCTE-target links on CCCOA. I paid someone out-of-pocket to help me fix those links. And didn't get going on the upgrade as soon as I'd planned.

When I did, I learned the hard way that Movable Type 4 was a good product for some things, and not for others. It is not a piece of software, unfortunately, that is friendly to those of us who prefer to design our own sites. Perhaps I could have and should have discovered this before I upgraded the software, but it also changed the format by which it constructed permalinks, leaving all of the interior links and all of the trackback links broken, with no easy way to reconstruct them. That in turn has rendered all of the links at our delicious page broken. Needless to say, it's going to be a long summer for me.

My issues with NCTE take place in that context, but honestly, their treatment of me has been poor regardless of context. I think that there are some good things about the way they're changing the position. I was never offered a gratis NCTE/CCCC membership, conference fee, or even a copy of the journal, so I'm glad to see that they're offering something, however small, to the person who'll take this over. I'm also glad to see that some kind of tech support will be in the mix, because I never received any. I'm glad to see that they're thinking of the position/site as something to be included in their overall vision, because it's been pretty clear to me that my work has not been.

Could I have done more to promote that connection? Perhaps. But I offered to come to Urbana on my own dime to meet with them and work with them, an offer that was either not taken seriously, or simply forgotten. By now, I suspect that in their eyes, I'm a loose cannon, though. Frankly, my patience was eroded by a long history of non-communication from NCTE, on issues that I should have at least been consulted about. And so yeah, I've lashed out a bit. No one from NCTE has ever contacted me to see if there was anything they could do, they've never contacted me to warn me about site changes that affected CCCOA, and they've maintained a pattern of making decisions about my position and the site and then passing them along as fait accompli. If from their perspective, I've behaved less than professionally, my reason is that I've been treated less than professionally.

I plan on continuing my work on the site, because there is value to it that can't be found anywhere else. Unfortunately for me, this will basically be volunteer work, and much of it will be reconstructive. But I do believe it's worth doing. I still believe in the vision for the site that I originally proposed.

As for NCTE, I hope that the next iteration of the site is more to their liking. And I hope that they manage better treatment of whomever they find to take it over. I'm not interested in spearheading a boycott, or making a big public stink over it. And I certainly don't want anyone to feel bad or disloyal for considering it. My overwhelming mood is comprised of equal parts disappointment and exhaustion. I'm more inclined to wax ironic than outraged. Here's a little something that you may not know: I was on the team of graduate student volunteers who designed the first websites for CCCC. And back in the day, I floated the idea of providing an online database making the abstracts searchable, only to be told that it could never happen. I don't know that I was the first or only person to have that idea, but 7-8 years later, it happened. And my guess is that the functionality I've tried to build into CCCOA will find its way into the NCTE site eventually as well. And our field will be better for it.

All I know is that it won't be me doing it.

And in the grand scheme, this episode is just one among many. I haven't let myself grieve and I haven't let myself really turn 40 yet. As I've been telling people lately (a lot, it feels like), I need to get some distance and figure out, if I don't want it to look like it does now, what I want my life to look like.

Yeah, that's all.



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