April 2009 Archives

Well, no. Not really. But it is the last day of classes of the final semester of my tenure as the Director of Graduate Studies for the CCR Program at Syracuse. Technically, my time isn't up until the end of June, and double technically, I'll still be executing some duties through the following year.

The main one is our annual Placement Committee, which guides our veteran students through the job search process. This was something that the previous DGS and I developed when I first got here. That year, we had our first couple of students on the market (the program was only about 4-5 years old at the time), and they had to cobble together support and advice from various sources, which didn't work as well as it could have. So we decided to set up a subcommittee and develop some procedures that, beginning in the spring, would guide those students through the process, help them vet and revise their materials, provide simulated phone/f2f interviews and job talks, etc.

Because of the rhythm of the search process, though, it's a responsibility that begins in April and runs for 9-10 months, ideally. And so I'll be sticking around this job for that purpose, as a member (but no longer chair) of our Graduate Studies Committee, for another year or so.

In honor of the fact that this is my final go-round, at least for a while, with the Placement Committee, I spent some time over the last week revising the materials we hand out at our initial meeting, which is tomorrow. The 5-page guide/overview to the market is linked below--feel free to give it a glance, and/or share the link with someone who'll be hitting the market in the fall. It's not as detailed as the various books now available, and it's pretty specific to rhet/comp, but it's worked well for us for the past few years...

That's all.


Course Update #4: LF Tools

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Bradley asked me to say a little more about my comment from the other day about my ambivalence regarding the tools we're using in my class, so here we go.

I should say a few words first about what I tried to accomplish this semester. I've been thinking a lot in recent months about the relationship between narrative and database, and how it plays out across graduate education. Without numbing anyone's mind with too much detail, what I would say is that both "forms" are crucial. It's important to be able to build narratives about the field's development, for example, or to generate particular field-narratives (seminar papers, journal articles, etc.) as a result of one's work. At the same time, though, we hold ourselves responsible for what Paul Matsuda called his "mental intertextual map," (see last post) what I would describe as our disciplinary network. And that latter responsibility is more database than narrative. I think of the two as complementary--each "narrative" feeds into the database, helps us fill it out, and then we draw future narratives from the database/map that we've generated.

I've had great success in recent years urging students to take up database management tools and techniques as a means of managing the later stages of their graduate programs, which seem to me to require more database kinds of thinking than does coursework. Coursework, as I mentioned the other day, tends to be organized around what I called "directed reading," some sort of (narrative) arc that helps to structure a semester and give it some coherence. So the question that I asked myself last fall (and talked about a little at Watson 08) was: what would a course look like that attempted something more databasic, that didn't worry so much about narrative coherence?

And as I've said all along, the course has gone much better than I could have hoped for. I really think that the students have found it valuable, and I've been really happy with how enthusiastically they've taken it up. I've talked before about the set up for the course: over 10 weeks, we took the past 10 years of the field, 1 year per week. Each student chose a particular area of focus, and was responsible for (a) finding 4 essays in that area published during each of those 10 years; (b) posting notes to our class blog and tagging those entries in Delicious; and (c) sharing what s/he found during class. And, for the first time in my graduate teaching, I'm asking students to complete a "real" final exam. Next Saturday, the students will take a 3-hour exam, a simulation of one of our comprehensive exams.

In other words, I've asked them to focus for the past 10 weeks on building personal databases, and now (just as they'll do during exams), I'll ask them to construct a narrative of the development of their area over those 10 years, based on what they've found/noticed. We spent a fair amount of class time on Wednesday talking about how they might approach this task, what sorts of evidence they might find and use, etc.

So to my mind, there are two main things that we've been doing this semester. The first is aggregation, and I think that this is something we'll see more of in graduate education over the next several years. The most recent Teaching Carnival had a link to Mark Sample's annotated bibliography project, using Zotero and Citeline to create an aggregated class bibliography. And just as I was setting up my class, Michael Wesch was doing something similar in his Digital Ethnography class, using Zoho Creator to generate a 94-work bib on anonymity in a week. Both are cool projects, and they both speak to the usefulness of web2 tools for doing the kind of aggregation that I'm thinking about.

Me? I used Wordpress and Delicious. Part of my reliance on blogging tools is that I've spent the last 5 years thinking about how to use them in other ways. My work on CCC Online involved a number of significant tweaks. Thinking about it now, I might have tried Zoho, but ah well. I think that there are a number of ways to aggregate successfully nowadays.

The problem comes, however, from the other main point of my course, and I don't have as easy a term for it. If the point of aggregation is search and retrieval, then any of these tools are as good as any other, I think. And I don't mean to suggest that this isn't a worthy goal. But what are our options if we want to be able to take the next step with respect to an aggregated database? How do we take that accumulated body of information, and perform meaningful work with it?

In my mind, that's what I'm asking of my students next week. And it's what we ask of them on their comprehensive exams. And ultimately, it's what we do ourselves as scholars and writers--we construct our large maps of the field and eventually contribute to it ourselves, by clearing our research spaces, tracing out lines of thought that are "missing," etc.

I'm a big believer in the tag cloud as a heuristic, and so that's what I had in mind in asking my class to tag in delicious on top of WP. I have an article in the works that talks about this, but I believe that, especially for the humanities, tag clouds are a fairly easy way to generate some testable hypotheses about a body of textual data. The problem is that most of our tagcloud tools are partial. The tagclouding available to us in blogging platforms is rudimentary at best. TagCrowd and Wordle work best from actual text. If I'd been more careful, I might have been able to do a little more with Delicious, but honestly, their development has been pretty minimal, post-Yahoo.

Here's what I would wishlist for such a tool:
1. The stylized output of Wordle
2. The stoplist function of TagCrowd
3. Expanded faceted clowding (the related tags function in Delicious)
4. The ability to do some kind of timelining (like Chirag Mehta's PrezClouds)

Obviously, these are all possible. They're all available right now, only in incompatible tools. Wordle can take cloud delicious tags, but only at the level of an entire account, and without any kind of stoplist. Delicious seems like the best place for implementation, but I have no idea if it's even breathing. The point is to be able to take a decent-sized body of tags, though, and to visualize it in fairly simple ways, in order to discern patterns that might not be otherwise apparent. Sounds simple, but right now, the tools for doing so are mostly one-trick ponies.

My biggest wish would be for a tagclouding tool that was actually attached to something I could use for the data entry, so that I didn't have to ask folks to use two different sites to accomplish one thing. That's where my WP/Delish combo fell short this semester. I myself resented having to do both, and I was the one who made the choice. Heh.

My other wish would be some sort of middle-ground between the fully pre-determined interface of WP or MovableType, and what I assume is the ground-up blank slate of something like Zoho Creator. I don't want to have to do everything myself, in terms of setting something up, but I've spent the last 5 years using the MT interface against itself, because (at least until the recent integration of Custom Fields) I can't make any real changes to it. I'm a little weird that way, I suppose. I loved MT3--the MT command language was a perfect middle ground for me between programming and end use. I'm willing to spend time on a good middle-ground toolkit, but that's a rare category of software, from what I can tell.

Ah well. I feel like I'm rambling now. I don't think that what I'm after here is that difficult to accomplish, but I felt trapped this semester by the fact that I know enough to know where current apps don't meet my needs, but not enough to be able to do anything about it.

That's all.

Stats like these...

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...are really only possible during the first few weeks of the season. The Cubs are off to an okay start, going 8-6 in their first 14. So far this season, they have lost every single game where they've committed an error. And they have won every single game when they don't commit an error.

Definitely one of those meaningless stats that will not hold for much longer, but still. Kinda fun.

Ambient Reading

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Paul's got a great entry today, on "How to Read Everything?" Seriously great. Lots of good thoughts in there.

One of the things that's instructive about his entry is the list of various strategies that he's tried and abandoned, which is one of the things I recommend to folk on a regular basis. There are all sorts of ways to manage one's "mental intertextual map," and the trick is find the ones that will work for you at a given time.

One thing that I would add to Paul's account is that you have different needs at different times. My own strategies tend to resemble his quite a bit--I don't take a lot of notes myself, although that's changed a little as I've gotten older and more forgetful. Like him, I tend to have a very strong procedural memory--I remember colors, covers, the place on the page where an important quote is, etc. But I do do a little bit of underlining, not so I can go back through a text and cull the marks, but because I find that it reinforces my procedural memories. It keeps me on a given page and at a particular spot on the page a little longer, which seems to burn that spot into my memory a little more.

A couple of other points worth raising. There's a difference between reading a book and reading a discipline, even if we tend to use the same verb. So in "reading everything," I hear "everything" to mean the discipline, and that's a different strategy. You can "read" a journal in 10 minutes if you're reading it to know what's there, so that you can return to what's valuable to you later. And that kind of reading is ultimately quite valuable--Brian has written recently about "ambient research," and I just finished a collaborative piece with a friend on a similar topic--it's a matter of entering the flow of a discipline, getting a feel for what's going on, before you make the choices about where to drill down.

So maybe I'd describe this as a difference between ambient and directed reading. We are trained very heavily in directed reading, and rarely are advised about ambient reading. In part, this is because it comes as a result of enculturation, and so seems a "natural" outgrowth of that process. I think I could argue that what I've been working on in my graduate teaching in the past 4-5 years is pushing my students more towards a model of ambient reading, an approach that could productively complement the emphasis on directed reading that tends to dominate graduate coursework. And I think that part of my current interest in Web2 stuff is how those tools can help us accomplish that.

So there's that.

Course update #3

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This is going to be a short one, as I'm a little pressed for time, but expect a longer retrospective in the next day or two. Tonight, if I have time.

My course is still going quite well, but I've made a couple of changes. First, I lopped off a week, and inserted a catch-up week, so that folks could get on top of the note-blogging and the delicious account. What I realized early on was that I'm not super happy with the available tools; the combo of WP and Delicious has been okay, but not great. It's made it easy for folks to fall behind, and so I gave us a week off from the grind to get caught up. Were I to do a course like this again, I'd build it in. Normally, I do this in my syllabus anyway, but I didn't have this course organized soon enough to be able to.

The second change I made was to our class meetings, and to be fair, it was at the urging of a couple of the students. For the first 5 or so weeks, students were reporting out on their four articles in 10-15 minute chunks. After spring break, though, and after our pause week, we shifted to a model where they reported only one article at a time, and another person would pick up the conversation by connecting one of their articles with that one. As one of the students put it, it allowed us to focus on the conversation rather than coverage--as the semester went on, we were having trouble fitting everyone in anyway, as they became more comfortable with their areas.

This shift has them thinking less about their articles in blocs, and more in terms of the tags, themes, and the transitions that they might make from one of their essays to another person's. It has the added bonus, I think, of keeping everyone alert to connections and transitions.

I'm not sure that this would work straight out of the gate, though, so I'm happy with how it's gone. I think they needed to feel anchored in their areas, and so the longer report model was a good way to start. But as the weeks marched on, it was good to change it up, and to focus their attention differently during class time.

This week I hand out the question for our final exam, which they'll be taking in a little less than 2 weeks. I continue to be amazed at how well this all has gone, and continue to appreciate how enthusiastically the students have taken it up. I'm very thankful. Having the course go well has been a real boost for me this semester.

I have a few overall sorts of thoughts that I'll share soon, because there are aspects of the course that I feel like I've lucked into a bit, ones that wouldn't make this model quite as useful in other contexts. But I'll save those for another entry. One of the things I'm thinking about doing is inviting the students to write up the course with me and submit it to the Praxis section of Kairos, so I definitely have some incentive to keep thinking about it...

That's all. Happy Sunday.

Sprint v Marathon

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If late fall and early spring were examinazing! then my late spring and early summer are shaping up to be dissertastic! which should go some distance towards explaining why I seem to be fixated on that particular process as of late.

I wanted to make note of Jim's comparison of dissertation-writing to the baseball season, because I think he's dead-on accurate. The day Jim posted that, I was explaining to someone or other why I'm such a fan of baseball. I like the gradualness of the season, and while every once in a while, you can watch magical things happen (last season's Rays, e.g.), part of the appeal for me is its omnipresence. There's always a game on somewhere, so I can watch if I want. But I can also miss a game or a week as well, without feeling like I've missed too much. It's not a game that readily lends itself to the highlight, and it fits well into the zone of continuous partial attention (CPA) that characterizes my working spaces.

I'm not interested in spinning the allegory out too far here, though, except to note that writing the dissertation is a lot more like going through a season of baseball than it is other sports (and maybe other activities). To use another well-worn sports analogy, it's much more like a marathon than a sprint, and part of the trouble that folks have in making that transition is that, for their entire educational careers, they've been practicing the sprint. And there are some folk who manage, through luck or persistence, to sprint a mile, stop, sprint a mile, stop, sprint a mile, stop, until they've done a marathon's worth of sprints. In a sense, I did that with my own dissertation.

But when I got to the book, I wised up, I think. I still accomplished it in a very intense stretch of time, but the way I used that time was very different. Instead of bouncing back and forth between front and back burners, I kept my book on the CPA burner, and figured out how to manage different types of activities at different times, all of which kept me focused without burning me out.

But my advice here is not to do what I did, with either project. Rather, I'd say that it's important to be open to the possibility that the "rules" you've constructed for yourself and your writing--composed as they were during a time where your work was much shorter and burstier--might be revised. What I ended up doing was trying really hard not to love my quirks too hard. Use outlines, freewrites, bubblemaps, timed writing, journaling, notetaking systems, everything--in particular, try out those things that you don't think you need. Accept that the dissertation process is different from anything you've done before, and develop new habits and strategies to manage it. Try a different word processor, a new chair, a new workspace, a new workflow, everything. In the process, you'll learn more about what you need to get it done and what you thought you needed but don't.

The major projects that I've done (and there was a long stretch where this blog would count as onesuch) have always changed the way I write, sometimes for a while, sometimes forever. And I'm much more conscious of what I need to write well, which has served me well since then. In some ways, I'm tempted to argue that that's the real affordance of the dissertation--just as exams give you an unparalleled opportunity to learn the field, the dissertation gives you a similar opportunity to really learn who you are and can be as a writer.

I'd like that idea much more if it didn't sound like I was romanticizing the process unnecessarily. I don't mean to--I've both seen and been part of less-than-ideal dissertation situations--but I think that, even when things aren't going well, we can still learn a great deal about our writerly selves, for better or worse.

That's all. I feel like I have maybe 3 or 4 more posts about dissertating in me. We'll see how much time I have over the next few...



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