conferential: October 2008 Archives

Disengaging Theory

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So, like I said, I was at this conference during the past few days. I'm going back and forth over whether to write about my time there, because what I have to say will inevitably be taken up in ways I don't intend. But ah well.

A few things that you should understand. The conference was very small, more like a working group than a conference per se, and in that, it bore some resemblance to the Convergences shindig we put on a few years ago. Because the conference needed to be small, it was invite-only. And invitations went out to a lot of people whose work I admire, from both the comp and comm sides of the rhetoric aisle. For two days, we shifted seats around a circle, giving presentations on a range of topics related to rhetoric and theory. So far, so good.

Here's the thing. And you need to understand that this is most certainly not me looking for some sort of validation or compliment or disagreement. The thing is, I didn't belong there. At all.

I've been struggling to deal with this over the last few days, trying to come up with a good analogy that will get at what I've been feeling. I don't mean to say that I don't like, respect, and admire the people at the conference, because I do. I don't mean to say that I wasn't happy to see them, talk to them, and spend time outside the conference with them, because I was. But in terms of my paper, my contributions to the conversations, and my ability to follow those conversations, I no more belonged there than I did the conference on digestive disorders (!!) taking place next door. It was as though I was attending a conference in a different discipline or one taking place in a slightly different language than my own.

The best I've been able to come up with is that it was like watching an athlete trying to come back after a few years away from the game. You can tell that this person knows what to do, but the body just won't cooperate. It's kind of sad and embarrassing. So it was kind of like that, except that it slowly dawned on me as I was sitting there that I was the player. I understood what was going on around me, of course, but I didn't really have the same repertoire of texts to rely upon, I wasn't the same kind of writer, and I definitely couldn't have hit a fastball to save my life.

What's peculiar to me about this was that I don't think it really occurred to me ahead of time how much I didn't deserve to be there, and so I've been a little shell-shocked over the past few days. There was a time, 5-7 years ago, when this conference would have been like an oasis in the desert of the discipline for me, when it would have gotten me fired up and motivated to get back to work. And I suppose I vaguely thought that this would be the case even though I've drifted away from theoretical stuff in my own work and I'm at a place where it's not really asked of me.

This kind of scholarship has never been at what I would call the center of my field, but given my background and my social network, it's been much more central to my conception of the field. And so to discover that I no longer have the particular language, skills, or background required for it was more than a little humbling. And no, that's not an attempt to fish for compliments about how smart I am despite this--rationally, that's not a question for me. I know that I'm not stupid, regardless of how stupid I may have felt over the past few days.

But I've always just taken for granted a certain amount of foundational work that I did in graduate school--that I worked really hard at in graduate school. Studying with the people I did, and having the degree I did, and having the expertise I thought I did was part of my core academic identity, the foundation upon which everything else I've done has been built. And yes, I've moved in other directions, picked up other interests, focused on other texts, and so forth. But I assumed that at least some of this other stuff was still there, regardless of how deeply it's been buried.

What I found out this weekend is that it's gone, by and large. And if you detect a little self-pity hereabouts, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. I've spent a lot of time over the past 12-15 months grieving, and that was my overwhelming emotion the final night of the conference, so much so that I basically left early to be by myself. Only instead of losing someone else, I felt like I lost a part of myself. And the truth is that this loss has been gradual and entirely justified given my personal and professional circumstances. Yet, somehow, I wasn't called upon to face it, and had to wait until the worst kind of performance anxiety nightmare situation to realize that I had no business being in that room, with those people, talking about those topics.

So yeah. That's how my weekend was. I don't know what else to say.

Engaging Theory

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That's the name of the conference I'm at this weekend. And for a host of reasons, it's been a very different experience than was Watson. About which, more soon. In the meantime, we were asked to post 4-page discussion papers to the assembled folk, and while it's on the conference website, I thought I'd go ahead and stick mine up here--it was written for a panel on "Technological Inventions:"

The 'Intellectual Venture' of Academy 2.0

In the May issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell published "In the Air," a
feature story about former Microsoft exec Nathan Myhrvold, and about invention more
generally. Gladwell argues that we have been too quick to treat all invention as though it were synonymous with artistic creation. Following sociologist Robert Merton, Gladwell
suggests that "our romantic notion of genius," while it may hold true for great works of
art, is less useful when it comes to knowledge in general. Many of the paradigm-shifting
inventions in science and technology have in fact been "multiples;" in other words,
multiple people, otherwise unconnected, "discover" the same idea or "invent" the same
technology at roughly the same time. For Gladwell, these good ideas are "in the air,"
discoverable not only by the solitary genius but by many people in the right place and
time. Myhrvold's ongoing project, a company called Intellectual Ventures, is an attempt
to capitalize on this idea by bringing in leading minds in many different fields to come
together for invention sessions, with the idea that approaching problems from
unconventional directions might lead to solutions. Myhrvold's company, which he
expected might file a hundred patents a year, is currently filing more than 500 a year,
with a backlog of ideas in the thousands ("In the Air").

Merton is neither the only nor even the most recent thinker to tackle the question of invention, however. Recent work in network studies and organizational theory has attempted to understand invention as something more tangible than the product of genius on the one hand, and as something less formulaic or horoscopic than one might find in the fairly recent genre of corporate self-help manuals. Ronald Burt, for example, has been working for years as an organizational sociologist, studying the ways that organizations are formed around what he calls brokerage and closure, the primary strategies by which members of organizations form social capital. In any social network above a certain size, people tend to form stronger ties among the members of their immediate sub-networks. We know our departmental colleagues, by and large, better than we know the average member of another department. We are more likely to spend time at academic conferences with friends than with strangers. One positive effect of this closure is the trust, respect, and affinity that members of this smaller network feel for one another--this is one form of social capital. But when a larger network separates out into many smaller ones, communication gaps emerge among those smaller networks; Burt describes these as "structural holes." And at the same time that we benefit from them, the danger is that these relatively closed networks will trend towards groupthink, becoming echo-chambers. For Burt, then, brokerage names the opposite tendency, the ability of members of multiple networks to bridge the structural holes that separate them. Brokerage and closure are, respectively, centrifugal (trending outward) and centripetal (trending inward) forces operating within a network. Both are necessary components of any network. But good ideas, Burt writes, occur with more frequency when there are opportunities for brokerage, when people are encouraged to range beyond their comfort zones and/or echo chambers and to export their own ideas and import others.

It is worth thinking about insights like Burt's when we consider the knowledge production and circulation in academic disciplines. As Andrew Abbott observes, disciplines are prone to spread as widely as possible, but within the network formed by the discipline, the reward system encourages closure rather than brokerage. That is, it encourages us to specialize such that, even as the discipline's "turf" expands, the structural holes among specialties and subdisciplines multiply as well. As disciplines grow, the amount of work one must do to comprehend even a portion of one's own discipline likewise grows, and thus we focus our attention in our specialties. David Smit's observations about the fragmentation of rhetoric and composition provide one recent account of this. As the field has increased in population and importance, its members have cast their research nets further and further afield in order to locate subjects of study. It is not unusual to read essays in CCC, for example, whose bibliographies are comprised mostly, if not entirely, of texts that would be largely unfamiliar to the majority of that journal's subscribers. And this is to say nothing of the structural holes that separate composition and communication. Despite recent attempts at brokerage by the ARS and others, most of us remain largely ignorant of developments in fields that are closely related to our own. The specialization that would once have occurred at the point in our careers where our work had matured has slowly crept earlier and earlier in the educational process, to the point where our students feel pressured to specialize before they've even taken a PhD seminar. They are taught that the sooner they specialize the better, because otherwise they will struggle to present and to publish, as they now must do before they've earned the degree.

One of the classic accounts for accomplishing these goals comes from John Swales, whose discussions of academic writing yields the important step of "creating a research space" (CARS), although the C is sometimes related as "clearing" or "carving out" a space for one's work. Structural holes, in other words, are often portrayed in our field not as opportunities for brokerage but as opportunities for the replication of closure. In rhetoric and composition, where most faculty still serve in literature departments, too often "originality" is conferred on research by the obscurity of the object of study rather than method, approach, or ability to engage with the field more broadly. Research spaces are perceived, for better or worse, not as carefully constructed engagements with the discipline (and certainly not among multiple disciplines), but as unspoiled territory that can be claimed and populated with articles and books.

As Gladwell's account of Intellectual Ventures makes clear, there is certainly value to be had in specialization; the expertise of IV's participants is one of the primary reasons for its success. But each participant also brings the trained incapacities of the specialist. Myhrvold's project brokers among those specialists, allowing them to pool their knowledge as a means of approaching intractable problems in one or more of their fields, allowing one's person incapacity to be met with another's capacity. The importance and benefits of that kind of collaboration receive little attention in our field, an unusual omission considering the emphasis that we often place on the virtues of collaboration and the social nature of language. But we have been slow to practice what we preach, especially at disciplinary scales. Even sites of potential brokerage, like our national conventions, are frequently too large for attendees to venture beyond the comfort of relatively closed social networks and academic specialties. When we come face to face with the sheer size of a discipline, our tendency is to retreat to more manageable scales; our disciplines themselves are shaped by this tendency, as Abbott observes in Chaos of Disciplines, often in self-similar ways.

It is unlikely that any of us possesses the kinds of resources at Myhrvold's disposal. But with the recent emergence of software platforms gathered under the umbrella of Web 2.0, those resources aren't necessary. If Web 1.0 was about siloes and exclusive, owned content (closure), Web 2.0 has seen a boom in participatory culture, sites whose function is to allow users to share content (brokerage). You can find pools of photos at Flickr, bookmarks and tags at Delicious, books and reviews at LibraryThing, and so on. When I want to follow up on a book I've read, particularly if it's outside of my field, I'm more likely to visit Amazon than I am any academic site or siloed publisher search engine. In the past five years, the tools available for us to broker our structural holes, to explore beyond our closures, have increased exponentially, such that it's less a matter of resources now and more a matter of commitment to something beyond staking our individual claims on shrinking patches of disciplinary turf.

But professional inertia works against any such commitment. We still hold to the artistic model of invention, both in our attitudes towards intellectual property and in the institutional structures that reward what we do. If Gladwell and others are right, these attitudes may actually work against us; we may spend so much time clearing our research spaces that we miss out on what's "in the air." It's not a question of choosing one or the other; as Burt explains in his work, both are valid forms of accruing social capital, and each provides us with value that the other cannot. The question instead is one of balance, and that balance is difficult to strike in an institutional culture that, for all of its talk of interdisciplinarity, still privileges closure over brokerage when it comes to rewarding the making of knowledge. That attitude trickles down into our attitudes towards the new media available to us. I've lost count of the number of colleagues I've seen speak and write dismissively of weblogs, wikis, Facebook, et al. Those of us who blog as academics are frequently charged with "wasting" our time on such sites when, presumably, we should be using it to generate another article or two. From the perspective of a closure- inflected system, it can be difficult to see the ways that social media transform the ways we read, write, think, and communicate.

It's a lot less difficult to simply treat these media as tools that make our scholarly lives more convenient. If we're looking for a particular essay, we can locate it faster online than we would walking to the campus library, for example. Our hard drives can slowly take the place of file cabinets, as we convert our libraries to PDFs. Our computers can give us more access, faster, to more of the field than ever before, certainly, but we have the opportunity now to rethink the structures underlying that access. We have a chance to rethink our institutions, our cultures, and even our disciplines in important ways. Much like Myhrvold's project does for its participants, new media offer us unprecedented opportunities for brokerage, if we can develop the collective attitude necessary to "waste" a little time on invention.


Whatever the virtues of this little ditty, in addition to the unintended irony of talking about resources in our current financial climate (i wrote it in early Sept), among them you would not count "similarity to the other conference papers." Seriously. Sore-Thumbsville. Check em out yourself if you're tempted to attribute any false modesty to me on this.

I'll have a little more to say, but I've got some sleep and more than a little driving to do first. So for tonight, that's all.

Reflections on a Watson

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I have four observations, two personal and two disciplinary.

1. I have basically forgiven myself for needing to spend time during the first part of the conference getting my presentation together, even though it violates my standards about preparedness. This has not been an easy semester, and while I would have liked to have the whole thing together by Monday, as I'd planned, I had the paper itself basically written, and the slides planned in my head. I just need to force myself to feel that pressure a little earlier, esp for MLA this year.

2. This was the first conference that I've been to in my academic career where I wasn't relying on caffeine to get me up in the morning. It was, needless to say, a struggle.

3. Especially hearing the plenaries this time around, I was struck how different my own local situation is from many of the people whose talks I heard. I have been critical lately of work that extrapolates from a small set of local phenomena to the discipline, and that will likely not change in the near future. There were several points during the conference where I wanted to interrupt and explain that not all of us reside in English departments anymore--I don't live in the same kind of neighborhood as many of my colleagues do, and that realization seems to be really slow to sink in.

4. And that brings me to a larger issue. Based on a number of conversations, and based upon some of the very stark differences among the plenaries, I am more and more convinced that the next major dispute in our field is going to be conducted between those of us who reside in English departments and think of RhetComp as a member of the English studies family, and those of us who have in mind something more like Writing studies, and who sometimes see English studies as an anchor that keeps us from doing more with our field. Heck, I've always been a fan of the idea that I first saw at U Baltimore, where literary study was considered a subset of communication design, rather than patriarch of the language clan.

And frankly, I found more provocative those talks where there weren't tacit assumptions about the English-iness of our field. And I know that I'm not alone in that regard. I think that we're going to see, increasingly, scholarship that takes some of our most deeply embedded conceptual disciplinary metaphors to task over the next decade. Some of that work happened at Watson, which was nice. But there's more on the horizon, I think. As I thought about how I would answer the question implied by "the new work of composing" over the last few days, I kept circling back to a set of issues and directions for inquiry that owe much more to the social and design sciences than to English studies. I think we're starting to see these developments in various locales, but I think too that it's on the verge of trickling up.

We'll see.

[Update: Laura's posted the thoughts that she promises in the comments...]



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