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Miles yet to go...

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One of the downsides to leaving the office of Graduate Director is, quite literally, leaving the office of Graduate Director. You might recall that, upon taking the office as my own, I had the good fortune to install wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves:

Collin's big wall of books

Well, four and a half years have elapsed and surprisingly to no one, I've purchased a book or two in the interim. While my students were examining yesterday, I started boxing:

Boxing up

Now, to be fair, a couple of them were already full of stuff. But that's 15 boxes so far, and the result?

Fall of the Wall

And it should be noted that there is no other office in our department, save one perhaps, with the shelf space I have. So I've got a long ways to go yet before I can be said to have vacated my present office, and an even longer process of figuring out how to manage my stuff in a smaller space. Joy.

On the plus side, I'll have a window that (a) is not sealed for my protection, and (b) opens onto the outside world. So there's that.


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the page proofs for my book arrive

I have a couple of posts* brewing, but I'll let them simmer for a while longer. Today is a day of long awaited celebration:

My page proofs arrived today!

In the world of Collin, this is a VeryGoodSign™. The only cloud to this silver lining is that, of course, it adds a whole new section to my already over-burdened to-do list, as I will be indexing it myself (with some help from one of the grad students here) and of course, proofreading it.

But you'll allow me the requisite evening of relief and joy before reminding me of all the work that remains, I hope. And no jokes about how lucky I was that the Cubs infielders weren't responsible for catching or delivering it.

That is all.

(* Onesuch is in reply to StevenB over at ACRLog, who picked up last month's discussion about CCCC, and had some interesting things to say about the politics of that conversation...)

1 step forward?

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Lindsay Waters has a piece in yesterday's IHE about how we evaluate what we do in the academy, "A Call for Slow Writing." Now, you might recall that my own feelings about Waters are, shall we say, less than glowingly positive. But I will say that my feelings about this essay are mixed, and not in the worst way.

First, it's a well-wrought piece, showing off Waters' own skills at prose, and it is replete with erudition. I don't usually write like that, but there you have it. And second, I'm actually in complete agreement with the major point of the essay:

I have claimed elsewhere that the book-for-tenure system is coming to an end, that it is unsustainable, that its growth has been an obscenity, because it was mindless, because it sought to make something automatic and machine-like play the role that should only be played by the soul....There is no good reason why the essay should not replace the book, and a lot of good reasons why it should. I am tempted to say -- in order to be maximally provocative -- that anyone who publishes a book within six years of earning a Ph.D. should be denied tenure. The chances a person at that stage can have published something worth chopping that many trees down is unlikely.

Waters' argument is that we need to start unlearning the system that prompts us to push out writing as quickly as we do, in the interests of bumping up our pre-tenure numbers. I don't know that he'll have many takers for denying tenure to those who do publish books, but I will say that I very consciously reset my tenure clock when I moved from ODU to SU. And my book was better for it, I believe.

So far, so good. It's a little curmudgeonly of me, but I am willing to grant that most of our writing would be improved by shaking it free of the shadow of tenure. But then...

What I'm saying is that the first step to re-establishing the essay as the standard in humanistic writing is to reinvigorate the sentences we write, so that, when one reads an essay, one feels it. One feels it the way one tastes -- and here I'm going global -- a good curry. It really sets you back. Or maybe forward. Style, maniera, modo is what we readers demand.

It's hard for me not to react negatively--and here I'm going local--to the modo for modo's sake here. But the larger point is where I'm set back. To imagine that an entire profession sits around thinking, "hmmm, how can I write a really crappy sentence here?" is beyond laughable to me. Is there writing in the humanities that is largely indefensible from a stylistic point of view? Almost certainly. Are there writers in the humanities who consciously set out to produce inelegant prose? I seriously doubt it. So the notion that an entire tenure system is going to be changed by our conviction about the quality of our prose just sounds cranky to me, to be honest, and not serious at all.

Now, Waters goes on to talk about the editorial changes going on at boundary 2, and they sound great. I'm even willing to grant as part of a thought experiment that other journals follow suit. Not all, I'd imagine, but some. Let's even suppose that some of the essays written in this renaissance of clarity trickle upwards into book form. How long will that take? And where does the system tip?

Most importantly, though, what will any of this have to do with the demands placed upon us by our institutions? Who will be the first top-flight university to say that their tenure expectations are aberrant, and should be scaled back to allow more quality work? Which administrator, content with a system that translates qualitative work into quantities, is going to admit the "obscenity" when most university and college budgets already build into their calculations the retirements and tenure denials, and the budget line resets that they bring?


I've never been all that adept at the kind of nominal-dense, code-wordy prose that Waters and others decry, so I don't really take this stuff that personally. What I do take personally is the transfer of value judgments from the work (this work is difficult, obscure, and personally offensive) to the folk who write such works, in some kind of weird moral algebra. Honestly, I find that a little sloppy.

There are things that we can do. That much I agree with. We can strive to write as well as we can, certainly, and we can try to hold each other accountable as we read manuscripts, offer advice, direct projects, etc. But to imagine that we are the ones who have driven this system within which we toil is a little facile.

And this is from someone who's been fortunate enough to receive tenure. I'm not one of those who believes that the current system was good enough for me, so it's good enough for anyone else. But I don't see this essay offering anything like a solution for the problem it poses.

That is all, except to note that I'm not the CB who left a comment on the original post...

If you're like me, there's a hole in your aggregator where Clay Shirky used to appear regularly. In a lot of ways, he and the rest of the Many2Many crew helped to spark my interests in social software, web2, and network studies. So it's been a little lonelier at Google Reader without him. The hiatus, though, had its consequences: this week, Clay's book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (Amazon) was released. I was lucky enough to be quick on the draw when Clay posted an offer to bloggers for a free, advance copy in exchange for blogging it, and although I'd hoped to do so before its release (thereby proving my Relevance and insider status), the sad truth is that the crossword tournament and other things got in my way. But here I am now. And here you are. Here we go.

This book will be largely familiar to those of us who have been reading Clay for a few years, and equally familiar in tone and style to those of us who read Gladwell, Johnson, Anderson, etc. There's a genre that's emerged in the past few years that I think of as PopTech (although perhaps sociologists would correct me, since I think these book "intrude" on their territory more than any other)--books that translate both sociological concepts and the technology industries for the more casual reader. I don't think of PopTech as a bad thing--my own attitude is a more open sociology/rhetoric of knowledge kind of thing. So it's interesting to me that these kinds of books are where "my work" is being done most actively. Okay, that's neither here nor there, except to note that the book works hard to be engaging to those who have little stake in the conceptual end of things. Again, not a bad thing.

The about part: HCE is about understanding the changes that are happening as a result of the net, web2, etc. "These changes are profound because they are amplifying or extending our essential social skills, and our characteristic social failings as well" (14). The big change that this book narrates is the move from institutions/organizations as the primary site of social interaction to a more bottom-up activity. In a sense, this is an answer to what Clay calls the "institutional dilemma"--we need institutions to direct our group efforts, to act collectively, but a certain margin of those institutions is devoted to actually directing those efforts (19). "New social tools are altering this equation by lowering the costs of coordinating group action" (31).

One of the profound shifts that this book examines is the move from scarcity to abundance, a theme that you'll find in Anderson's Long Tail as well. But while the original thesis of the Long Tail dealt primarily with commerce and economics, Shirky's focus is on a more interpersonal scale. In an age of media scarcity, where access to publication and broadcast is limited, the "professionals" are those whose job it is to filter our media pre-publication. With social tools, more and more, it's instead "publish, then filter." But Shirky's careful not to suggest that utopia is just around the corner: "The limiting effect of scale on interaction is bad news for people hoping for the dawn of an egalitarian age ushered in by our social tools" (95). And that's one of the nice features of this book, overall, the fact that Shirky doesn't fall victim to the temptation to try and discuss these tools outside of their social context. It recalls for me his discussion of A-lists, power laws, etc., from the good old days. These tools may address technological or media issues, but that doesn't mean that our social or cognitive limitations have somehow vanished along with them.

One of my favorite posts from Shirky's site is "The FCC, Weblogs, and Inequality," which has my favorite subtitle of all time: "Diverse. Free. Equal. Pick two." He goes into a little more detail in the book, of course, but of particular interest to me was his discussion of power laws, motivation, and collaboration in Chapter 5, where he notes that "imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them" (125), which I take to be a gentler translation of that original point. The book shifts at this point to talking about collective action, flash mobs, political action, cultural capital, and small worlds. And that's an awfully skate overview of those latter chapters, I fear.

What happened for me as I read through the book was that by the final couple of chapters, it felt like all of the narratives and terms really coalesced into the overriding message of the book. And the final chapter pretty well sums it up: "Promise, Tool, Bargain." Only one of those is technological, you'll notice, and each is as essential as the other two. According to Shirky, "The promise creates the basic desire to participate...After getting the promise right (or right enough), the next hurdle is figuring out which tools will best help people approach the promise together...Then...A successful bargain among users must be a good fit for both the promise and the tools used" (261). Of these, the bargain was the trickiest for me, and it's the trickiest of the three in general, I think. But really, it's everything from explicit contract to implicit, phatic exchange.

I'm not sure that there's a formula, though. In fact, let me change that around: I'm sure there's not a formula, but one of the things that Shirky discusses in the second-to-last chapter is how these new tools make failure "free"--if no one's interested in your obscure Wikipedia page, or your Meetup group, or your Flickr account, or your blog post, then if that's not part of your bargain, you just drop it/them. In traditional organizations (pace James Dyson), there's not a lot of room for failure, which translates into lost resources, or adds to that margin of costs. Online, though, if your group doesn't fly, or your discussion list fades, or enough people don't pay attention to you, then you just go on to do other things. Failure is free.

And this may be the most interesting part of the book to me. "Cheap failure, valuable as it is on its own, is also a key part of a more complex advantage: the exploration of multiple possibilities" (247). In other words, as much as this is a book about organization and about social tools, I left the book thinking of it as a book about social and organizational invention, and I mean that more in the rhetorical sense than in the corporate sense of innovation. It's a nice bridge between the more technical ideas (power laws, e.g.) and the concrete, practical examples thereof. And it's a book that would be accessible to those of my colleagues who don't think of technology as something they "do." The tools are only part of the equation; in many cases, we're part of it ourselves.

As a close, I think this book would/will be valuable for those who are looking to connect up rhetoric of social movement kind of work with technology and/or the language of networks (which is getting full-on buzz in my field right now, I think). Donna mentioned something to this effect last week, and I think she's right to call for this kind of cross-pollination. It's definitely worth reading, and it's a good entry point for folks in my field to some of these issues.

That's all.

Cover to Garr Reynolds' Presentation ZenAs is the case with each holiday season, I have lots of new books to read, and perhaps one or two of them to review here. It's also the season, in our field at least, for the ubiquitous and much dreaded campus visit, where finalists visit campuses in droves to vie for those elusive tenure-track positions. Most of those visits involve the "research talk," another of those genres for which we have no equivalent elsewhere in the field. Research talks are usually longer than a typical conference presentation, but shorter than a keynote, and our motivation in giving them is never having to give them ever again. Ever.

And so, in the interest of the intersection of these seasons, allow me to recommend to you Garr Reynolds's Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (Amazon). Loyal readers will recognize Reynolds from the blog of the same name, which I read regularly and recommend nearly as often. In fact, it's possible to glean most of what appears in the book from the blog, but it's also easier to pass around the book, and I've already started my copy on its path of local circulation.

So I'm working a bit from memory here. It's a quick read, and an engaging one, as the book itself is designed, both physically and discursively, according to the same principles that it advocates, but a few things stuck with me. First, it may not do so in quite these terms, but PZ emphasizes the fact that a good presentation is a combination of visuals, orals, and verbals (or slides, script, and handouts), and that each of these elements deserves full treatment. The most attention is paid in the book to PowerPoint, and Reynolds takes great pains to separate the idea of a visual presentation from the (often really poor) ways it is executed. The supplemental approach to PP (e.g. pasting a handful of visuals into a tired PP template and cramming em full of bullet points) is not his approach. At. All.

His approach is much more Zen-like, emphasizing simplicity, clarity, elegance, and a small handful of basic design principles, and the results are instructive. There are good examples, a number of interesting voices included, and the result is a very readable book that nonetheless registers some really important points about presentation. And believe me: there are very few academic presentations out there that wouldn't be improved mightily by the advice therein.

I'm sorry not to be more specific, but as I said, I've already started circulating my copy, less than a week after it came in the mail. Take that as a good sign.

That is all.


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I need to get a-typing, if I'm going to meet my goal of reaching the 1000-entry plateau this summer. These entries won't write themselves. It's been a light first week, for various reasons. One of the biggies, though, is that I think I'm getting a little touch of arthritis in my right hand, which suggests to me that I need to rethink my current approach to mouse usage. It hurts when I type as well, but I think that my mice are curving my hand in a way that my knuckles aren't pleased with.

Anyhow, enough of the whine. One thing I wanted to note this week was Donna's entry about Jason Jones' interview with Steven Johnson. I'm a big fan of all of SBJ's books, but Ghost Map is one that I keep meaning to review (and in more detail than my discussion of it here). But the funny thing about Donna's entry was that I felt a little exposed. Not in any dramatic fashion or anything. But when she notes

Ah ha! I thought. So now I get the connection among many of the things Collin blogs about: Moretti, Johnson, and Latour, too.

I feel a little like I've had a secret made public. I'm not ashamed of my influences--far from it, in fact--nor of the fact that I have influences. We all do. But it's strange to have them named like that, the texts that recently have resonated with me and with each other. One of the things we do as academics is to assemble our own private bibliographic networks, and inevitably, the texts we value most highly drift towards the center of our network, and become the default frames that we bring with us both to subsequent reading and our own writing.

And interestingly enough, we don't always pay attention to each other's networks. Sure, every couple of years or so, there's a thread on a discussion list about the disciplinary desert island books, but even those threads ask us to represent the discipline. I would guess that most of those books/articles have very little to do with us personally. Moretti, Johnson, Latour, and others affect the way I see the world academically, but none of their works are rooted primarily in my discipline. I wonder from time to time about my colleagues' networks, and about what it would tell us about each other if we could generate and share an honest "cloud" of our influences.

It makes me curious to go back and assemble all of my bibliographies (the way that Derek did with coursework a ways back) and to see if there are patterns that I can detect. Are there thinkers I rely upon unconsciously? Probably. But for the moment, I'm going to pursue the various angles that writers like Moretti, Latour, and Johnson supply me, because I'm not close to done with them yet.

That is all.

Allow me, if you will, to counteract last entry's high snark quotient with a bit of referential reverence. Or reverential reference. Or re(f/v)erence. Whatevs. I thought that, since I've been talking a fair bit lately about this book, both here and in conversation, I might go ahead and put together a bit of a description/review for those of you who haven't tracked it down. So,

Sánchez, Raúl. The Function of Theory in Composition Studies. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005.

I should start by noting that this is a short, short book. It's a set of theoretical provocations that only runs about 100 pages, and so it reads deceptively quickly. Deceptive because the position that it takes is one that I hope we take up in our field in much more depth. Its thesis is pretty easily gleaned on the first page:

The function of theory in composition studies is to provide generalized accounts of what writing is and how writing works....Contrary to the beliefs of some composition theorists, it is possible, and, more importantly, necessary for composition studies to have an agenda for inquiry comprised of theory and empirical research in a mutually informing relationship (1).

Easy enough, right? Well, not quite. Sánchez promises an analysis of our current "theoretical disposition" with an eye towards effecting a shift in our field, one that makes more room for the empirical study of writing than currently exists. And a little more controversially, he argues that "the period of composition theory's ascendance coincides with its having stopped making trenchant theoretical statements about writing" (3).

The problem, he explains, is hermeneutics, which is "a major obstacle to the study of writing." Hermeneutics reduces writing to a mere "technology of representation," rendering it secondary to whatever something else it is called upon to represent. Sánchez returns on several occasions to the theme that a model of writing that depends on hermeneutics is insufficient to the task of coping with the proliferation and circulation of language in an increasingly networked world. (You will begin to sense some of this book's appeal for me.)

You want a little proof? Okay. Here's David Smit, in The End of Composition Studies, describing our current state of scholarly affairs with respect to writing: "At the heart of these current paradigms, models, and theories is the fundamental assumption that the way we understand one another through language is primarily interpretive, a matter of hermeneutics" (9). According to Smit, this is as close as we have to fact in our field.

So anyhow, you may also begin to sense this book's appeal when I tell you that Sánchez quickly turns to Derrida, criticizing our field for adopting (adapting, more likely) a certain version of deconstruction as a reading practice, while ignoring grammatology as a productive method. What's kind of odd about this adoption, of course, is that so much of Derrida's emphasis, early on at least, is on resisting the model of naive hermeneutics that our field has claimed in his name. Sánchez rightly observes that often, what passes for "deconstruction" is usually a modernist debunking, designed to move us closer to ultimate signifieds, freedom from ideology, pure knowledge, authentic subjectivity, etc.

One of my favorite lines? "The field has been working at theory for too long to have gotten so little out of it" (12). Nice.

I should probably speed up a little, and that's possible in part because the subsequent three chapters mount parallel arguments about the relationship between writing and knowledge (ch 2), ideology (ch 3), and culture (ch 4). One of the most consistent threads throughout is that too much of our theorizing has presumed that each of these concepts precedes writing, and is reflected with more or less accuracy in/through writing. Instead, Sánchez argues in each chapter that these concepts are themselves the consequences of writing rather than its causes. In the final chapter, he argues that two of our most cherished concepts for thinking about writing--rhetoric and the subject--have been so completely shot through with representationalism that we should work rather at setting them aside.

As Mark Noe notes in his less enthusiastic review, there is a sense in which this book could run for another 100 pages, and turn from a manifesto to an example of the kind of writing theory that the first 100 call for. And there's something to this critique of FTCS. What's interesting to me about the review, though, is the way that it focuses exclusively on the theory end of Sánchez's equation, accusing/diagnosing him of seeking "a purer, pre-Berlin, post-structuralism." It's a move that I find kind of curious, because while Berlin's work is taken to task in the book, Berlin's influence on the field and on our reception of theory almost demands that focus. Is Berlin "silenced" in the attempt? I don't know, but Noe's avowed desire ("I would dearly love for Sánchez to read Berlin’s writing as fluid, situated, open to revision/ revoicing") strikes me as exactly the kind of move that Sánchez critiques, the attempt to make everything fit together at the deepest level of our disciplinary hermeneutics, by sanding down the rough edges until everyone has a place at the theory buffet. Maybe I'm projecting.

What I notice, though, is despite the prominent place that empirical study has for Sánchez, Noe's review doesn't mention it at all. Literally. The word "empirical" is absent. for me, that's one of the things that distinguishes this book from other calls for "breaking from" theory, Theory, or theories. It's not one of many in that regard, and it's not simply the latest "exercise in one-upmanship" that Noe seems to claim it is.

Where Sánchez's book succeeds for me is what I talked about in the comments from my "how" entry of a couple of days ago. If writing is a "technology of representation," then it is ancillary to the real stuff, whatever that stuff might be. Its value is referential--either it faithfully reflects that something else, or it obscures it to varying degrees. Writing is a veil in this model, an obstacle that must be overcome, in order to arrive at some deeper truth of subjectivity, ideology, knowledge, culture, et al.

If we can somehow work ourselves away from this ubiquitous model of representation, what we will be doing in part is (re?)turning to a model of writing and/or theories of writing where writing itself matters. "The most salient feature of writing," Sánchez writes, "is therefore not its representational function, but its ability to proceed as if it has a representational function." When we forget the "as if," language becomes invisible, representational, referential. But language proceeds in other ways as well--the critical refrain of much of Derrida's early work is that language matters, that it matters as much if not more than the logos it signifies.

I don't know that I have that much more to say. I'll most likely be teaching this book in the fall, and pairing it with Latour's Reassembling the Social, which provides more detail, I think, about what a turn away from hermeneutics might look like and how we might get there. At the very least, you could say that I recommend this book. I think it opens some new spaces for inquiry, not only challenging us to think outside of hermeneutics but prompting us to rethink our engagements within the tradition of hermeneutics as well. They're discussions that I hope we'll begin to have in our field, and I think of worse places to begin those discussions than Sánchez's book.

That is all.

Spending the former on the latter, although to be fair, it's not that I can't read them, but rather that I simply don't have the time right now.

But for whatever reason, all of the books I'd ordered over the last while saw fit to arrive in the last day or two. Thus, freshly unwrapped on my office table you will find:

1. Thomas Sloane's Oxford UP Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, which normally I wouldn't have bought, but for the fact that Oxford lists the book at $150 and had it on sale for $40 through November 1st.

2. Lisa Gitelman's new book from MIT, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture

3. Mark Hansen's new book from Routledge, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media

4. Anna Munster's Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (the 3rd or 4th book in Dartmouth's relatively new visual culture series)

5. Rob Cross, Andrew Parker, and Lisa Sasson's Networks in the Knowledge Economy

6. A relatively fresh reprint of Manuel DeLanda's Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy

The last two I caught at about 1/3 their normal price on sale through Labyrinth, but the others (2-4) are just new and relevant to what I do. And their relevance will mock me, from my office table, in the weeks to come, I am sure.

Happy New Book Wednesday!! and/or Happy Unopened Book November!!

That's all. I'm saving all my clever for the Lost "Fall Finale" tonight. Whatever the Finale that actually means.

Clifford Geertz, 1926-2006

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Just heard that Clifford Geertz passed away yesterday. The Institute for Advanced Study has a full rundown of his career.

Noting that human beings are "symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animals," Geertz acknowledged and explored the innate desire of humanity to "make sense out of experience, to give it form and order."

Sound like anyone else we rhetoricians might be familiar with? I certainly don't claim exhaustive knowledge of Geertz's work, but The Interpretation of Cultures was part of my foundational coursework in rhetoric, and we could do worse as a field than to acknowledge that connection more explicitly. From Gary Olson's 1991 interview with Geertz for JAC:

Clifford Geertz says it all in one crisp, succinct sentence: "I'm probably a closet rhetorician, although I'm coming out of the closet a bit." For over three decades, Geertz has been attempting to steer anthropological scholarship away from a rigidly scientific model and toward a humanistic, interpretive, hermeneutic model--apparently with great success. Perhaps it is Geertz's preoccupation with seeing science and scholarship as rhetorical, as socially constructed, that makes his work so eminently appealing to many of us in rhetoric and composition. Geertz sees rhetoric as central to his own life and work.

Take a look at the interview--it's worth it, and not just for those of us engaged in what Geertz first called "thick description."

Update: More links over at Savage Minds

Collections vs Conversations

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Derek's citation of an entry over at Paul Matsuda's blog tripped a bit of a switch for me this evening, and the result is probably going to be a sizable post. Buckle your seat belt.

What I want to take issue with, ever so slightly, is the tried and true bit of wisdom that entering academia is a matter of "joining the conversation." We're fond, in rhetcomp, of Kenneth Burke's passage from Philosophy of Literary Form, as a metaphor for disciplinarity:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

There are critiques of the Habermasian character of the Burkean parlor, but that's not my concern. My concern is with the ease with which "putting in one's oar" is translated into the nominalism of "publication." As in, I need a publication, or to get a publication, or I don't have enough publications. I'm being somewhat specific here: I'm objecting to "publication" as a thing you have as opposed to "publishing" as an activity you engage in. And thus my concern is also with how we translate "listen for a while," because I think that's key for publishing (and perhaps less of an emphasis in publication).

For the past couple of years, I've been handing out Paul Matsuda's chapter "Coming to Voice: Publishing as a Graduate Student," from Casanave and Vandrick's Writing for Scholarly Publication (Amazon). In fact, I wrote about it, almost exactly a year ago, in the context of a discussion about the ongoingness of blogging. So it was kind of cool to see Paul repeat some of that essay in a blog entry a couple of weeks back. And it reminded me about why I hand out his chapter in the first place.

I wrote a year ago that "What's important about the essay is that it narrates a process that's not about acquiring disciplinary content so much as it is learning about the conversations, about seeing publication as an ongoing process," but I want to amend that statement slightly. I'm now beginning to wonder if even the metaphor of "conversations" pushes us too quickly towards the "publication" end of things.

As I mentioned early on, over at Rhetwork, the idea of collection has been gathering steam for me for a while. And so I want to contrast collection with conversation as a guiding metaphor for academic/intellectual activity, particularly at its early stages, i.e., in graduate school.

I'll add some citations to this eventually, but this summer, at RSA, I gave a paper where I suggested that collection, as Walter Benjamin describes it in "Unpacking My Library," operates as a hinge between narrative and database, in part based upon our affective investment in it. I may look at my big wall of books and see all the various connections among texts, in terms of their content, chronology, and my own encounters with them. In short, I may perceive it as a big wall of conversations, of disciplinary narratives. Someone else may happen upon it, and simply see a library, a database of rhetoric, critical theory, technology studies, et al.

The value of the collection, of having all these books here, is that I'll never know what's going to be useful. I can't predict, when I begin an essay, what will find its way in and what won't. I have the luxury of being able to work my way through my collection, following up on dimly perceived connections, my own added marginalia, etc. And the wall enacts on a material scale what's going on in my head as I constantly add articles, books, ideas, etc., to the collection of disciplinary knowledge that occupies a certain portion of my mind.

It probably feels like I've wandered from my point. My point is that we tend to think of our disciplines largely in terms of the narratives we construct, stories of the field's progress from point A to B to C or as conversations among certain luminaries occurring in the pages of journals and books. To treat the discipline as a database (where, a la Manovich, it's just "an infinite flat surface where individual texts are placed in no particular order” ) is to foreclose, initially at least, on the narratives that we tell ourselves about our fields.

But of course, disciplines are neither one nor the other; they're both. From the outside, the publications in a given discipline comprise a growing mountain of discourse that no one person could possibly master. From the inside, even a single article may yield all sorts of narrative information about where the writer's from, with whom she studied, to whom she's responding. We become quite adept at reconstructing conversations from a single voice, and the occluded genres of footnotes, citations, and bibliographies can only help us do so.

And when faced with the conceptual metaphor of a discipline as a gathering of conversations, as a parlor, our response is to want to join it, to enter the conversation. The uber-competitive job market only fuels this desire, as if it needed feeding. When faced with a conversation, there aren't a lot of other options.

I want instead to think about collection as an alternative metaphor for what we do, or an earlier stage of a longer process. In part, I'm prompted by Brendan's Katamari Interface and by Jeff's comments about DJs as researchers. When I think of the tools that I use most often, I can see them in terms of collecting:

  • blogs, collecting my thoughts and notes
  •, collecting my bookmarks
  • Library Thing, collecting my books
  • Bloglines, collecting my feeds

and so on. In talking about why it's important to "read it all," Paul explains:

I then scan through [the library] to explore the intertextuality--which sources get mentioned more frequently and how. I then collect more sources if I don't have them handy. Without this process, it wouldn't be possible to come up with viable research questions or to know what questions or concerns reviewers and readers might have.

This is exactly the kind of data mining that we become proficient at as academics, but it's awfully tough to accomplish unless you have that collection to begin with. As we gain experience, we learn how to read articles for their intertextuality, for the differences between primary and secondary sources, etc. But the conversations emerge from collection, not the other way around. And in fact, I want to suggest that the discipline as database also emerges from collection, but that's a different essay.

I'm most certainly not trying to sneak around the back way to saying that "grad students these days are too focused on publication blah blah blah," although there are probably hints of that here. To take a course is to engage in collection, as you read texts and add them either to your active memory or your shelves. It's something we all do, period. To read a journal is to add to your collection.

I'm doing a guest shot in our gateway course this week, and what I'll be talking about, what I'm interested in here, are the logics of thinking as a collector. There are all sorts of tools, not to mention plenty of great examples, for the process of managing your collection, but it's important, I think, to make the figural leap. That is, it's important to understand that what we do in graduate school is to collect.

When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards. And for the first couple of months, I would buy the random packs of cards, always with the assurance that there'd be at least a few cards that I didn't have. As that number began to shrink, I'd start trading my doubles for friends' doubles, of ones that I hadn't gotten yet. And it would get to the point where I'd need only a few to complete a team or even a season, and so I'd go and pay premium prices at the card shop for the one or three that I needed. As a collector, it was important to have the whole set, of course. Reading the journals in a field is a lot like buying store packs, and I don't mean that as an insult. But their output is constrained by their input. Some journals are like being able to buy a store pack with the guarantee that the cards are all from the same team. That's also what taking graduate courses are like, I think. At some point, though, you have to get really specific, and spend your time strategically, to find the key elements missing from your collection, and that means going beyond course work or journals, and tracing bibliographies, asking experts, etc. It means thinking like a collector.

On the one hand, thinking like a collector means just accumulating, rolling your brain/katamari over everything and anything it can pick up. But it also means thinking about how you're going to manage it, how you're going to be able to use, in two years, what you're reading now. I can tell you from experience, "Well of course I'll just remember it" won't work. Seriously. It was just about a year ago that I was coming off of a discussion of note-taking (I taught our gateway course last year), and wrote:

One of the things that I emphasized in class today was the need to develop systems that are sustainable, things you can do (and keep doing) after the initial motivation has passed and the glow has faded.

And that's what I'll end with this year. And probably this week in that course. Use folders, notebooks, blogs, whatever, but build sustainable collection practices that you can engage in tomorrow as well as two years from now. Collect, collect, collect.

Told you it'd be long. That's all.

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