academia: September 2004 Archives

Plain ketchup

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Or rather, playing catch up, which is what I've been doing over the last couple of days. And now, ta-daaa, my Bloglines feeds are back at a manageable state, I did a little blogroll updating, and I'm feeling like I should be able to balance the travelogging with a little bit of your regularly scheduled programming.

I'm probably the last person on Planet Blog who (a) cares about this Guardian article from last week and (b) hasn't yet posted on it, but that's okay. The article mentions several of the people in my 'roll, and that's worth a post if nothing else.

Like Clancy, I thought that the portrayal of a resistance to blogging that somewhat missed the mark. McClellan writes

But many more traditional academics are suspicious of taking their ideas public in this way. For some, the blogging academic is the latest incarnation of the media don, ready to simplify complex ideas in return for a few minutes of fame. Others are wary of sharing ideas before they are ready - or of seeing original theories stolen before they are published.

Well, yes, there's a little of that, but far more important, I suspect, is the fact that daily writing is difficult. It requires a pretty deep commitment to a process that carries no guarantee of reward in a profession whose members are hyper-conscious of what meager rewards there are to be had.

I guess I'd put it like this: academia has operated for centuries according to a particular ratio between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and that ratio has its own rhythm. We are self-motivated to the degree that we sacrifice various portions of our lives to the pursuit of knowledge--no one enters academia believing it to be a fast track to any sort of "success" as society defines it. Our extrinsic motivation comes in the form of publications and/or presentations, recognition from a small circle of colleagues perhaps a couple of times a year. We internalize this model: writing is something we do "behind the scenes" and every once in a while, we derive some small bit of recognition for that work.

Blogging changes that ratio and that rhythm, period. It has changed the way I write, the frequency with which I write, and the reasons for which I write. Some of those changes are positive ones, while the jury's still out on others. Asking members of a highly conservative profession to simply chuck their customs and take up blogging is to fight against a great deal of inertia, both personal and professional. That's not to say that I don't see some benefit, particularly when it comes to abandoning some of academia's more absurd customs. But still...

To McClellan's credit, much more of the article discusses what is being done with weblogs rather than focusing on the faux-binary, and even that section is a pretty mild nod to the constraints of the genre. All in all, it was nice to see an article, even if it was written on another continent, that attempts to make some sense of just what it is that we do.

4C's the day

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I know that the discussion is pretty well over by this point, but like Jenny, I found myself today with a couple more thoughts that I wanted to throw up here. Jenny's right, I think, to ask what's going to happen when the organization moves up from what I think is its current plateau. There have been a number of recent initiatives designed to get the organization growing again, but not a lot of reflection (that I've seen, anyway) about what's going to happen if those initiatives succeed. If the conference doesn't grow (or change), I don't think they will, but at the very least, the issues are closely related.

I also wanted to shout out to John, whose replies (esp. over at Clancy's) were remarkably measured, fair, and informative. It would have been really easy for John to take offense at all of our bitching, or to take it personally, and he didn't. Instead, he provided some really good background on the organization and encouraged us to turn our critiques into positive contributions. The problems I have with CCCC are problems with the system, and problems with an organization that began as a tight-knit community, grew to become much larger, without changing its policies to match that growth.

Anyhow. Jenny asks:

And here's the big question that I wish someone would actually say publicly (and not just in the bars): When was the last time you went to a panel--NOT because you knew the folks or you wanted to see a star--and actually walked away with some seriously valuable ideas? When was the last time you went to a panel and walked away feeling like it was a waste of time? Which one happens to you more often? (I'm going on a limb here and saying that the first one isn't the more frequent.)

Isn't this a problem?

Oh yes, yes it is. The problem, and forgive me if this sounds too harsh or cynical, is that our flagship conference is not about valuable ideas. It's about "getting on the program," so that our home departments will underwrite a trip for us. That's not to say that people don't try (myself included), and it's not to say that there are no valuable ideas being circulated, but the fact of the matter is that, and I said this in a CCCC presentation a couple of years ago, the scholarship that most of us produce for the conference is disposable. I can't count the number of times I've been to sessions where presenters bragged about writing it on the plane or changed their topic entirely. The problem is that I'm at the point where it's not worth the potential waste of my time to go to a session on the off chance that it'll be valuable--I've lost that bet almost every time I've gone to one.

Lest I be accused of complete pessimism, though, here are three modest proposals for addressing that problem, for potentially improving the quality of the conference:

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).

CCCC Yearbook: Publish the best conference papers, say 3-4 from each major area, annually as a conference proceedings. Make the deadline for submission a month before the conference itself. The review process for this wouldn't have to begin until after the conference, but my guess is that the desire for publication would result in far fewer people willing to write it on the plane.

Graduate Student Awards: This isn't too different from the proceedings idea. Create a handful of awards for best graduate student papers. Put the deadline at the tail end of the fall semester, and for each area, award one full ride to CCCC: travel, hotel, meals. And label the award winners within the body of the program (i.e., not just a list at the beginning).

None of these are earth-shattering ideas. But they have one thing in common to my mind. If we're all sick of a system that seems to be getting more and more cynical and less and less valuable, then let's rethink some of what we do, and imagine ways to reward the people who don't waste our time. But we're not stupid. We put effort into our presentations commensurate to the perceived return on that investment, and perhaps a little more, but that's it. If the only "return" is a slot on the program, then small wonder that people don't take the presentations seriously. If we hope to change that, there need to be incentives to do so.

The Usual is Suspect

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As I wrote a few days ago, it's the season to be hearing about whether or not our proposals for our field's flagship conference (CCCC) have been accepted or rejected. Jeff and Jenny submitted a panel that wasn't accepted, and there's been a little grousing about the rejection. Like Jeff, I've had very good luck with proposals--I've only been rejected twice, I think, out of 11 or 12 proposals. And yet, every year, I know of very good people who have proposed interesting panels who don't get accepted. I know that this is probably the case for most people--we all think that our friends are the ones getting overlooked unfairly--but I thought that I might take a crack at explaining just what I find suspect in the whole CCCC process.

I'm not a disciplinary historian, but I know a few things. CCCC has grown subtantially in the past 20 or so years, and as a result, certain steps have been taken to insure fairness in the selection process, namely:

  • "No Multiple Submissions" - thousands of people submit proposals, and restricting them to a single proposal gives each person an equal shot at acceptance

  • Blind review - again with the equality. Insofar as a review process can ever be blind, proposals are ranked on merit rather than brand name recognition

So far, so good, or okay at least. Both of these measures exist for defensible rationales. What I find to be a lot less defensible, however, is the opaque process by which the reviewing takes place. Each year, the process is overseen by a new person (the CCCC chair), and that person is responsible for assembling the team of reviewers who make decisions about acceptance or rejection. As far as I can tell, though, there are three major ways of meeting that responsibility, i.e., choosing reviewers:

  • Knowing someone who has expertise in the necessary area

  • Knowing someone who knows someone who has expertise in the necessary area.

  • Finding a person from a previous year in an area and asking that person to repeat.

The problem here is that, in basically each case, reviewers are ultimately chosen because they know someone. I don't dispute their qualifications, but I dispute the idea that this process results in a team of reviewers that is representative of the field. More likely is that it represents a given Chair's socio-professional network. And it rewards those people who "know someone." The system we've got carries a great deal of "insider inertia," and inevitably, that inertia is reflected in the program each year. I haven't done this research yet, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that there are certain graduate programs disproportionately represented among the reviewers. I know for a fact that there are certain schools that are underrepresented, believe me. And this has an effect on the kinds of scholarship that are more or less likely to be accepted.

Whether this effect can be demonstrated or not, I don't know, because the materials necessary to do so are not made available for research. I know how I'd do it, though. More to the point here, though, is that the inside/outside quality of the review network means that the "fairness" they've achieved in the process is more limited than most people think. Reviewers may be "blind" to individual proposers' names, but they are not blind to the rhetoric of the proposals themselves, which is influenced by the training those proposers have received. And as a result, I've ended up doing well by retraining myself to write CCCC proposals in a certain way, by not appearing to come from a particular school. I've learned to perform my proposals in a way that's proven pretty successful.

Unquestionably, it's an ideal to say that I shouldn't have to do that. But there are ways that this situation could be made fairer. First, the process itself could be more transparent. I work to make it as transparent for our graduate students as I can, but there are certain policies that work against me here. Second, the selection process should be opened up to the membership--at the very least, as someone with 10 years of experience in computers and writing, regular participation at the conference, and fairly frequent publications, I should have the option of reviewing proposals, an option I won't have until I "know someone" who's Chair. And that's not right. There are lots of people who have the expertise, but lack the connections, and those people (myself included) are shut out of the process. No mechanism exists by which we might volunteer to be reviewers. It would cost very little to assemble a database, a qualified pool of potential reviewers from which Chairs might draw each year for given topics. It will ultimately be their choice, of course, but the rationale for those choices should be available for scrutiny, and should be based on more than acquaintance.

I'm not criticizing specific Chairs here, but rather the system. Since CCCC has grown to its current size, the fact of the matter is that there is no single person who can know the entire field. Reviewers are shortcuts in this regard. Without any kind of formal process, those shortcuts are based on the best available information. So why not make that information genuinely the best available? Rather than assuming that a Chair is omniscient upon election, provide that person with the data from which s/he can make informed selections. There was a time when the current process made sense, when it was possible for a Chair to "know" the field well enough to select reviewers. That time, however, is past--and it's time our processes caught up with our disciplinary realities.

San Francisco, March 2005

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That's where the Conference on College Composition and Communication will be next year, and my co-presenters and I were officially informed yesterday that we'll be part of the program. Notification is always something of an odd season around grad programs--on the one hand, CCCC is selective enough that you expect a little bit of congratulations; on the other, no one really asks anyone else, for fear that they didn't get accepted. Weird. Last year, since I hadn't proposed, I was fearless about asking--I didn't have to worry about being accepted when someone else wasn't.

So anyway, here's the proposal that we put together. Bear in mind both that we were predicting our interests (proposal due May 2004, presentation delivered March 2005) and that we were limited to 500 words (ours came in at around 440, I think.)

The Aftermath of Access: From Critical to Creative Computer Literacies

Access is a crucial topic for anyone who works with information technologies, as many scholars in rhetoric and composition have pointed out (e.g., Selfe, Moran). While it is certainly vital that we continue to work as a field to provide technology access, it is equally important that we avoid the trap of thinking of access as a purely material or economic issue. Despite our tendency to nominalize the term, "access" is a verb, one that raises questions about what is being accessed, how it is being accessed, and what the consequences of that access are.

Technology scholars frequently make a distinction between functional and critical computer literacies; in fact, our preoccupation with the issue of access is a result of the latter. This panel will argue that it is time that we add a third term to the first two: creative computer literacy. Following Adrian Miles and Jeremy Yuille, authors of the 2004 "Manifesto For Responsible Creative Computing," this panel will argue that we need to see technology as more than another site for critique, that information networks are new sites of cultural production as well. Miles’s and Yuille’s “Manifesto,” with its emphasis on network literacies, provides an intriguing set of topoi from which to rethink our discipline’s approach to computer literacies and access. The individual speakers will each respond to one or more of the "Manifesto" planks, exploring their implications for both scholars and pedagogues in rhetoric and composition.

Speaker 1 will assert that network literacy is based on the explorations, endeavors, and satisfactions emerging from amateur computing, rather than professional practices and standards. Network literacy involves the revaluation of “professional/amateur,” and this in turn forces us to rethink how we approach the literacy skills we attempt to instill in our students. Speaker 2 will focus specifically on the ways we represent ourselves on and engage with networks, examining the phenomenon of weblog "A-lists." Often the object of scorn and/or critique, A-lists also provide us with invaluable insight into how networks function, insight that can help writers rethink their approaches to online audiences. Speaker 3 will focus on the ways that computer programming languages extend our opportunities to teach writing in networked environments. Specifically, loops, conditional statements, and object-based methods or functions will be discussed as the basis for recognizing how code is writing. Speaker 4 will argue that, while we often valorize our ability to multitask, the “back channels” and underlife provided by networks may overwhelm our ability to engage in so-called “central” tasks. This paper raises the question of when the convenience of networks tips over into interference.

That's me checking in as Speaker #2, by the way.



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