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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.

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.

Party like it's 1999/2000

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I figure it's time for a little update on how my course is going.

We're 2 weeks into the "10 years in 10 weeks" part of the course, and while I'm going to wait a bit for the kinks to iron out of the database part of the course before I think about it, the class sessions themselves have been interesting.

To remind: what I'm asking the students to do is to read each week that year's Braddock and Kinneavy Award winners (the best essays annually from CCC and JAC respectively), and then each student has to locate 4 other essays from that year (ideally no overlap among students), annotate them on our course blog and tag them on a course delicious site.

I was a little unsure about how class meetings would go, given that we were approaching class with a minimum of shared material. For the past two weeks, we've gone around the class and reported out, with me reporting on the 2 Award winners. First week, the reporting went pretty quickly, since we'd planned on using the second half of class to do the delicious work as a class. This week, though, we had to rush at the end to fit everyone in, and that was with 2 folks missing from class. This week, people in class (myself included) started talking back to the reports, asking questions, noting patterns, etc., and to my mind, that's a good thing.

I think it would be easy to fall into a groove where we were asking too much of our essays--it seems obviously risky to attribute to 4-6 essays some sort of essential year-ness, but that's not what's happening so far. Instead, I think we're doing a good job so far of treating the things we notice as hypotheses to be tested rather than conclusions to jump to. And what's been interesting about the class sessions themselves is that I think we're all learning a bit about the range of topics that different people are taking up (cross-cultural rhetorics, WAC, WC, queer rhet/comp, technology, race, etc). I'm encouraging people to listen for connections across "areas" as well as patterns within their own foci, and I feel like that that's happening.

For my own purposes, it's been interesting to read the two Award winners across each other, finding themes and tags in common in essays that I wouldn't have paired in a million years otherwise. And I'm looking forward to seeing what happens once everyone begins readings essays that are citing some of the ones that we've already covered.

The "payoff" for the course will be a final exam, one that simulates one of the minor exams that our students do as part of their comprehensives. I've never given a final exam in a graduate course before, but it made a great deal of sense to me in the context of this course design. It'll give the students practice at exams, the opacity of which tends to be intimidating for some of them. But more importantly, it will hopefully have been good practice at assembling a focused list of works, reading that list steadily, and reading it with the kind of openness and alertness that we ask from our students at the exam stage.

If I can say so without jinxing, it seems to be working well. The interesting thing about it, though, is that, in addition to helping them learn to prepare and read through a topic area, this process will expose them to a range of different areas, encourage them to see some of the connections among the various areas in our field, and perhaps even encourage some of the meta questions that I find really fascinating: how do areas develop? why do certain areas develop in certain ways, and others in different ones? etc. There's some interesting politics and sociology of knowledge that I'm hoping we'll get at a little this semester.

So if I sound optimistic about the course, there's good reason. I think the folks in my course have really taken this idea up well so far, and I hope that continues.

At Watson last fall, I gave a talk that was about, among other things, the idea of the "antilibrary" from Taleb's Black Swan, the idea that significant parts of our libraries are unread because for researchers, having read something is less valuable than knowing where to find it when you need it. And at the end of the talk, I said something like this:

this is less about technology, and more about rethinking our basic practices to include collection as one of our goals. For example, imagine a graduate seminar where instead of studying 2 or 3 articles chosen by the professor, students are instead responsible for locating and representing 2 or 3 articles that they've found themselves on that week's topic. Instead of 10 sets of detailed notes on the week's readings, each student would walk away with detailed notes for 25-30 essays. The conversational dynamics of such a course would be different, certainly, but such a seminar could accomplish a great deal in a short span of time if it were devoted to mapping out broad sets of texts rather than mastering a small handful. The point would be to shift our focus from reading to a combination, at the very least, of reading and not reading.

So this spring, I decided to take myself up on this thought experiment. The experimental part of the course won't begin in earnest for a couple of weeks yet, but I've started assembling the online portion of it. Here's the idea:

Over the last ten weeks of the course, we're going to be looking at the past ten years of composition and rhetoric, one year per week. During the week, everyone in the course will read that year's Braddock Award winner from CCC and the Kinneavy Award winner from JAC. In addition, each of the students will be locating 4 essays (or book chapters) published in that calendar year, taking notes on each, posting those notes to our course blog, and then tagging that entry in delicious. (I'll be doing the same for the shared essays.) Multiply this by 10 students, and by the end of the semester, we'll have a database of more than 400 essays from the past 10 years of the field.

I've encouraged them to use this exercise as a way of doing some preliminary research for their comprehensive exams, so the database won't be representative. Nevertheless, we'll be paying attention, via tags, to methods, key thinkers, etc., and so my hope is that certain patterns will emerge. I'll be encouraging them to think about their focus areas rather than extrapolating their findings to the discipline as a whole, so I'm hoping that some value will come of it.

And I'm certainly curious to see how our discussions will go. I'm still not sure how that part of things will work out. But that's what I'll be thinking about in my teaching this sem.

9 days late, a semester begins

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I don't blog much about my courses, but the semester did finally begin for me this past week, with the first meeting of my computers and writing graduate course. I took Alex's advice from a couple of posts ago, and reoriented my approach to it. Rather than thinking about it in terms of what the students should know about what it is that I do, I'm trying to design the course with an eye towards what they'll be able to do with it once we're through.

And so the focus is much more on various tools and approaches than it is an introduction to the sub-discipline. The syllabus only exists in wiki form right now, and it's password-protected, so I'll try and share parts of it here in upcoming weeks.

First night seemed to go pretty well. I've always been a believer that it's better to have too much to get to than not enough, and along those lines, we will definitely be starting next week with leftovers. I've set myself a pretty ambitious course plan, though, one that's going to be tough to work ahead on. We'll see how that goes.

Syllabus Muse?

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So here's a question.

I'm working up my syllabus for a course I'm teaching this fall, a doctoral seminar on Computers and Writing. I've got tons of notes on it, but I'm struggling a little bit with exactly how I want to (a) organize it, and (b) reduce the readings to a manageable set. Later today, I'll probably toss up a page that offers up my progress-to-date, but in the meantime, I thought I'd ask for a little collective wisdom. Here are my constraints:

The course is going to be 1/3 workshop, 2/3 seminar. That is, each week, we're spending at least an hour in our lab, where I'll be running a series of hands-on intros to a broad range of tools and platforms. The goal will be familiarity rather than mastery, of course, but I'm a big believer in the doing alongside the thinking.

One corollary of this is that I will be asking the students to work outside of class on their technology skills, and so I'll be requiring a little less reading than I normally might for a seminar. I'm pretty much decided that I'm not ordering books--my plans are to go with 3-4 chapters/articles per week.

And of course, the problem here is that a given week's topic could pretty much be the theme for an entire course, so I need to really distill rather than overwhelm. At the same time, I've got shelves and shelves of stuff I could use, not to mention all the stuff online. I'm still debating internally about whether it's best to shoot for a rough chronology of C&W or to focus on more recent developments for the most part.

Nothing to it but to do it, I suppose. Look for updates later today. Oh, and the collective wisdom part is this: what texts, perspectives, ideas do y'all think are indispensable for a course on C&W, one that's likely to be the only sustained exposure to the sub-d that these students will experience?

Cautionary Graphics

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If you teach courses that involve information design, it can be really useful to have, and sometimes difficult to find, examples that are (a) actually published and (b) egregiously bad. There's a great instance of just such a negative example of info design over at Presentation Zen.

2nd to last

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Last night was the second-to-last meeting of my course on research methods in RhetComp. Needless to say, it's not been a normal semester, but the course itself has gone fairly well (I think). It's a course that should be 2 or 3 semesters long, I fear, in order to provide time for both exposure to the variety of methods and time enough to actually test some of them out. So it's been an exercise in compromise, figuring out how to make it manageable and comprehensive at the same time.

Anyhow, the final two meetings diverged from the normal formula of providing some how-to readings alongside some examples of implementation. Next week, we're reading a piece by Clay Spinuzzi ("Lost in the translation: Shifting claims in the migration of a research technique" (LEA)) and Raul Sanchez's The Function of Theory in Composition Studies (Amazon ), with an eye towards some meta discussion about method in the field. This week, though, we did something else that I conceived as meta--we read Shepherd, St. John, and Striphas' (eds.) Communication as ...: Perspectives on Theory (Amazon ):

comm-theory.jpg It's an interesting book, on a number of levels. Growing out of an NCA panel, the editors asked a number of contributors (27 total, inc the editors) to compose short, citation-light, polemic essays about their preferred metaphors for communication. The editors argue specifically in their introduction about resisting uncritical pluralism, and so the chapters make the case for communication as relationality, ritual, transcendence, vision, embodiment, raced, dialogue, diffusion, dissemination, articulation, translation, failure (!), and many others. The quality of individual contributions are uneven, of course, some taking the task more seriously than others, but the overall impact of the book is an interesting one.

One of the challenges for us last night was that the book makes an argument at one scale (stake a claim for your preferred metaphor) while performing at a different one (aggregating these various claims). The result is something of a buffet, even as the editors disparage that very approach. The irony of Sonja Foss's blurb for the book ("Communication as is an excellent way to introduce students to various perspectives in the discipline. It makes the point that there is no right or wrong way to study communication but that the different perspectives are all legitimate and useful.") is that, in fact, the editors do suggest that some ways are better than others. Or rather, it might be more accurate to say that while they don't advocate for the "one, true metaphor," they find some value in asking their contributors to write as if--to write as if they were required to make a choice, unburdened by extensive citation, torturous qualifications, and/or empirical methods.

So while the book is perhaps operating under a performative contradiction, I found it to be a really refreshing and productive book. It's a book about method in one sense--my original inclination was to pair it up with some stuff from Lakoff and Johnson on conceptual metaphor--but more importantly, I think, it's a book that points to the value and importance of conceptual stylistics. The point I wanted to make with the book is that it matters which terms we use to describe our conceptions of rhetoric, composition, writing, communication, etc. Those terms stake claims, and they do so whether we adopt those positions consciously or not. It's rare, though, that those claims are made as directly as they by the contributors in this book.

I think some of us were left last night wishing that a similar book existed for our own discipline. The relationship between theory and method in communication studies is a different one than pertains in our neck of the woods, owing at least in part to our closer association with the humanities and with English in particular. The differences aren't stark enough to make this book less valuable to us, but they're present enough to raise the issue.

In all, though, this was a really productive way to end a semester on methods, and I could see the value of a book like this for a gateway course in the discipline as well. It'd need a couple of caveats, but in the absence of an analogous project for RhetComp, I think that a book like this has something important to say to us.

Go read it. That's all.

ye olde workshoppes

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For some reason, I find myself at the end of the semester awash in workshops, organizing three in the space of about a week. The first was last week, but not much preparation was required, since I've been doing our end-of-year session on the job market almost every year I've been at Syracuse. I did put together a new handout for everyone, though, with a condensed job search timeline and a list of possible dossier ingredients. In the past, that material has been shared with the seniormost folks, but not the general public.

(I should explain that the session takes place in 2 halves: the first is for the whole program, and we ask those who have been on the market to share their experiences and advice; the second is only for those on the market in the upcoming year, and we go over the process, organize summer meetings, etc.)

It's a hard sell, for all of us, I fear. Now more than any other time of the year, things are winding down, and it's difficult to reverse that mindset, and to think in terms of a year-long process of searching for a position that begins right now (the search, that is, not the positions).

My other workshops are actually a pair, today and Thursday, which combine with a couple hours of reading to function as a "mini-seminar," which is how part of our professional development process works round these parts. There are a couple of them this week and next that count towards next year's requirements, so they're "early bird" sessions of a sort that also function to benefit those early birds who have taken care of their grading by this point.

Anyhow, today's session was on, and I could have taken another full hour just to cover the ground that I'd planned. What with the "perpetual beta" and all, it's not simply a matter of walking in and filling two hours. I needed to reacquaint myself with some features that I don't use, see what was new, and I ended up putting together a 4-page handout with URLs and reference points for the material I covered.

One point that came to mind during the session that I didn't mention the other day in my little RSS rant (RSS is one of the topics for Thursday), and that's that another of the real values of online journals, and of print journals that make an effort to 2.0-ize their web presence. Although not alot of folk have started using it this way yet, one of the things that our site does is to make permalinks available for each article, which allows users to bookmark them in, CiteULike, etc. (without waiting for 5 years, or whatever JStor's moving wall is). It also means that you can link to CCC articles in online syllabi or bibliographies, although again, not many folk are using the site that way yet.

And these are among the ways that the CCCOA is itself working with Web 2.0 attitudes. I asked today's workshoppers to read O'Reilly's original essay, and there were two things that jumped out at me on this, my umpteenth reading. The first was the emphasis that he places on permalinks--the flip-side of continually updated content and the importance of being able to link to that content. The second is the emphasis that we've placed not on providing data--after all, very little of our content is not also accessible directly from NCTE both in print and on screen. But we enable various services and processes that connect up with other small pieces like, and that's where our innovation rests.

It's about performing our disciplinarity in online spaces, not as a replacement for our own brains or hands, but as network, as Jeff has written over and over. There are all sorts of tools and processes and services that will help us do this, and not flash in the pan stuff either. Small, simple pieces, like permalinks, RSS, bookmarking, et al., just waiting for us to take them up and put them to work.

Ah well. This is the resigned version of the ranty post from this weekend. And to think that the original impetus for this post was Laura's somewhat disenchanted take on workshops. It's to our credit that, even at this time of year, none of the three workshops I'm doing are "just in time and just for me" particularly. Which makes them a little easier on me, if not less work.

Anyhow, that is all. I need to think about something else after Games 1 & 2 in Detroit, after all.

In an episode that demonstrates where my media preferences and habits lie, I caught a post of Kathleen's today a couple of hours in advance of the digested email list to which she refers.

Anyhow, in this conversation, a senior scholar raises the question of whether or not students should be blogging about people who may one day be their colleagues. In short, this scholar has a Google alert set to inform him of mentions of his name, and he wonders about the ethics of allowing students to post their initial forays into his work publicly ("While I am happy that folks are reading my stuff, I am aghast that their entries are on the web for all to read.").

It's an interesting question. Like Kathleen, I don't think it's "unethical" per se, as long as it's made quite clear to the students what the potential drawbacks are should they choose to make themselves identifiable.

But I do think it's a question of ethics in the sense of ethos, which is what I take Kathleen to be talking about. It's important (for different reasons at different points along the academic spectrum) to understand the ethical consequences of blogging, the ways that it may help to construct an identity that potential employers and colleagues may one way be able to access. That's one of the lessons that emerged from the whole Tribble flap.

I think another point worth raising is that, soon enough, these same people (in the case of graduate students) will be writing articles that are in the journals for all to read. It's not quite the same thing, true, but there's one thing about the comparison that does work. It's easy in graduate school (and beyond) to imagine that scholarship, particularly in the humanities, is a matter of moving around quotes and citations, almost treating our sources as chess pieces in our various writerly gambits. It's easy to forget that the proper names that appear on our books and in our articles are more than simply functions. They also signify real people, who will react to our work and our citations in various ways. In other words, it's easy to forget that we are often writing about real people with varying levels of investment in the ideas and quotations that we patch together with our own writing.

I'm not always good at it myself, imagining how the people whose work I draw on would themselves respond to my appropriations. But I think that many of us have to undergo the transition where we write dissertations that challenge "the field," only to realize eventually that we ourselves are "the field," that there is no objective field-out-there but instead networks of colleagues, each of whom tries just as hard as we do to get it right, to advance our understanding, to contribute to knowledge.

Transforming one's self from a student to a scholar is in part a matter of coming to terms with the fact that your audience as a scholar is in fact real, addressed rather than invoked. And I don't mean to make it sound as though my transformation is complete--I think it takes a long time to shake the temptation to treat the field as a reified, monolithic whole in need of correction, revision, or enlightenment. I struggle with this myself.

But one of the things that blogging can do, particularly if one does it in the context of a community of scholars, is to make that transition easier. I'll be spending time with a lot of other bloggers in New York next week, some whom I've known (and I know) pre-blog, but many of whom became "real" to me first through this space. And in a lot of ways, that community has become the audience that I write to, even when I'm not writing in this space.

Not everyone who keeps a class blog is going to have the same experience as I have, certainly, but the potential rewards are substantial, I think, if they develop some sense of the ethos they must develop and the audience they may one day address under more formal circumstances.

That's all.



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