Update

For those of you who do read this blog, rest assured that it is not dead, not by a long shot. I’ll come back with more regular updates in the near future.

As a side note, I just picked up Richard Lanham’s The Electronic Word and Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. More to come on those in the near future.

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Virtual News Anchor

Virtual News Anchor

So the guys at Northwestern University have put a new spin on the news aggregator. News At Seven pulls feeds from the Internet along with relevant photos. The feeds are then formatted into a half-hour long news show that is read by–get this–the virtual character Alex from the game Half-Life 2.

A few of the videos are available online through the link above (YouTube-style). The show I queued up starts with the NPR news update music and proceeds to a Dateline-like studio where Alex rather boringly stands in front of a screen that displays the day’s news. Her voice quality is decent, not seamless like the voice-acted role she plays in the game, of course, but not as disjointed as the “Stephen Hawking” voice.

Entertaining, but is it the future of news reporting? Perhaps, though I doubt an aggregator can formulate the stories as well as a human being. I know from personal experience that journalism is not the most belletristic form of art, but it still requires a fair amount of intuition and style, things a computer cannot capture. For basic news reports and briefs, perhaps. But entire articles and shows?

Idologues in the Classroom

Maxine Hairston’s article struck a chord with me. First of all, she criticizes English departments for their politicization, which I take to be a jab at literary theory. Secondly, she makes me completely self-aware of how politics fit in to my writing class. For her, ideology in the classroom is unprofessional if it seeks to convert student over to that way of thinking. It is important to remove the ideology from composition if it is to become more than a tool for ideologues in the English departments.

Hairston says that if composition hopes to come into its own, it needs to have “psychological and intellectual independence from the literary critics who are at the center of power in most English departments” (Hairston 697). Literary theory is a hang-up for Hairston, and I can see why. Theory plays with power structures and analyzes issues removed from the text itself. As a personal example, I can’t think of how long it has been since I read a piece of “literature.” Yet I have read countless articles that talk about the way literature should be used in classrooms and other essays on how articles about literature should be used—and so on.

Hairston writes that literary theory—and by this I think she means departments controlled by theorists—uses that theory to more or less perform social experiments in comp classrooms. At some institutions, this may be guided by departmental policy; at others it might be practiced by grad instructors. And if it was only a matter of bringing politics into the classroom, I would say let it be, but often it is far more than discussion.

In the case when a department decides that certain textbooks will be used and certain points emphasized in the classroom, that department’s motivation deserves examination. Why those books? Why those ideas? Is there an agenda here? I think it’s likely that there is, and while that agenda may be conceived with the goal of educating students, it is hard to avoid pulling students into a belief system they do not have the power to avoid or recognize. As scholars, we consider ourselves experts and often naively think that our idea of a student’s “best interest” is the correct one. When we blunder into thinking that we know what is best for students—and that it is only a matter of them “seeing the light”—then ideology has taken over.

Grad instructors have another problem. Many grads, as I think Hairston points out, are in the middle of programs focused primarily on theory. This is true for me, as I mentioned above.

So, inundated with theory, the graduate student approaches the classroom.

So, inundated with theory, the graduate student approaches the classroom. Moreover, grad instructors often lack the experience needed to look at their teaching critically. They fall into the same trap that I fear students in the ideology-laced classroom fall into—I seriously hesitate to use the term “brainwashing,” but I can’t think of a more apt term.

One common view, Hairston writes, is that “students don’t have anything to write about, so [instructors] have to give them topics. Those topics used to be literary; now they’re political” (Hairston 698). I know this is true in my class. While I envy Hairston and Donald Murray, who think that student texts should be the center of a course, I know that a class of 30 students cannot handle that kind of curriculum. In an ideal course of 15 students or fewer, I think using student texts as course texts would be appropriate. So, unable to do what so many suggest, I fell back on politics this semester, crafting a unit that revolved around the news media’s relation to ethics and the Iraq war. With two international students from the Middle East in my class, this has been a challenging subject. One of those students has found his voice on the conflict, a voice that differs from the rest of my American-born students.

Yet he is the exception. In speaking to my students, I can see that what Hairston says is true. Writers learn best when they write about things they care about. Few students, Hairston writes, “will do their best when they are compelled to write on a topic they perceive as politically charged and about which they feel uninformed, no matter how thought-provoking and important the instructor assumes the topic to be” (Hairston 708). My class exemplifies this, and it has caused me to review how I will shape the second half of the semester, perhaps with less ideology.

Where does this leave us? I think that Hairston’s ideas have merit, and I think writing classes (mine in particular) have wandered from their primary purpose. Teaching writing should be simple; it should be craft. But it is not. I don’t have answers, only the same sort of questions that have been brought up in class all semester: what do we do now? Are we frozen by theory?

The Human Conversation

The notion of conversation stuck with me as I finished Kenneth Bruffee’s essay. From time to time, I find myself lost in theory, praxis, pedagogy, rhetoric, and dialogue. I am confronted by an overwhelming sense that the work we do as scholars is meaningless. What good does it do to argue about literature and composition in an impartial, sterile universe where neither the inclusion of marginal authors into the canon nor the philosophies of famous French thinkers mean anything? Perhaps this is a fleeting nihilist streak in me, but it runs deep.

When I get into such a mood, I must stop. I take a mental step backward and tell myself that all the things scholars do (literary or otherwise) is part of a game. We play the game, and if we do well, we are rewarded with tenure or personal satisfaction. Questioning the game makes no sense since that road leads to despair and madness. We play the game, for no better reason than everybody else is playing it. After all, objectively, what does it accomplish to examine the scribblings of people who have been dead two hundred years of more?

So if I want to continue working, I have to stop practical thought and return to the text with some measure of faith and a pinch of suspended disbelief. The work I do, I tell myself, may not be good for the universe, but it is good for me now.

Given all of this, it is natural that I connected with the quotation Bruffee takes from Michael Oakeshott, who writes that we are the inheritors of a conversation “begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries … which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance” (Oakeshott, quoted in Bruffee 419). This conversation is the game I referred to earlier. It is the ongoing activity that I, from time to time, have to consciously choose to take part in. And while I am enthused to find that someone else thinks as I do about the “game,” I am not so enthused about the implications of this line of thinking.

Since humanity takes part in an eternal conversation, some have connected the conversation to thought itself. Geertz writes that “human thought is consummately social” (Bruffee 420), a thought Bruffee furthers when he says thought is “an artifact created by social interaction” (420). Social interaction in the conversation validates human thought. “To think well as individuals,” Bruffee writes, “we must learn to think well collectively—that is, we must learn to converse well” (421). Thought serves the conversation, empowering it. No matter what I do, my thoughts are part of the conversation; all I think or say is social.

I am uncomfortable with this because I also believe in human agency, that ideas have the power to alter perception and, hence, reality—now, I do not equate thought and writing. I think they are two different creatures; related but not identical, the two are perhaps close enough to lump them into a conversation about the conversation. James Berlin thinks similarly: “since language is a social phenomenon that is a product of a particular historical moment, our notions of the observing self, the communities in which the self functions, and the very structures of the material world are social constructions” (“Rhetoric” 731). In a way, I agree with Berlin when he writes that “to teach writing is to argue for a version of reality, and the best way of knowing and communicating it” (“Contemporary Composition” 256). Writing teaches students to shape their own versions of reality by describing what they perceive. Granted, writing is technically useless without an audience (“discourse community”), and I do not claim that students should follow the “expressionist” path Berlin describes. Yet I think there needs to be a balance between human agency and complicity in the conversation.

That’s where John Trimbur comes in. Trimbur believes the coversation, as outlined by Rorty this time, ignores its conflict with identity. The conversation persists because of “our loyalty” to it. There is no end to the conversation, only “continuance” (Trimbur 466). Conflicts are homogenized; they become “abnormal discourses” that restabilize the conversation (468). Trimbur believes we cannot ignore the conflict because it is “a standard feature of contemporary social existence” (469). In response, he wants to preserve the conversation and the consensus that feeds it by making consensus a Platonic ideal, safely perched on a “horizon which may never be reached” (Trimbur 476).

Trimbur instead wants us to read the gaps and irregularities, the “dissensus.” Only in this way can we deal with the conversation in a way that preserves our identities. Rather than identifying one thread of the conversation as privileged, scholars can take an almost hypertextual, non-hierarchical view.

So overall, I find myself uncomfortably wedged between wanting to accept the conversation and wanting to assert my identity, and I think this has to do with the cultural moment in which I find myself. But more on that at a later time. Suffice to say, I think that a perch somewhere in the middle of Trimbur’s conflict-theory and the idea of the all-encompassing conversation is where I belong. It is only a matter of reconciling the theories and finding just what that perch means.

Hatchfest Panel

Well, here’s to being sick and missing out on big things. I was ill Friday, which forced me to cancel my composition class. On top of that, it also forced me to miss out on a panel at Bozeman’s two-year-old film festival, Hatchfest. The panel was on the future of digital technology and featured the creator of Pong.

I don’t pretend to know what this panel was about, considering that it is a film festival, but it would have been interesting, no doubt. Unfortunately, their Web site offers little in the way of information. If anyone out there happened to be in Bozeman, Mont., and attended this particular panel at the Hatch festival, drop me a line and let me know what was discussed.

Ramblings on Nonlinear Storytelling in Film

A new film looks to do for movies what hypertext fiction tried to do for print in the 1990s. The film, “The Onyx Project,” tells the story of a special operations mission in Afghanistan, typical military fare. What makes the film interesting is that the viewer is presented with clickable options at the end of each scene that determine the direction the film takes. In some cases, a link is highlighted to encourage viewers to go in a certain direction, and there is also a shuffle feature that randomly selects the next scene.

The film is available on DVD today and stars Oscar-winner David Strathairn. The disc contains almost five hours of footage, guaranteeing that–at least for a few run-throughs–each viewing experience will be unique.

This reminds me of Michael Joyce’s afternoon, which followed the same basic idea in “print”–for lack of a better term. What difference does nonlinear reading make when it is transformed into the visual world? What do we gain by it, or lose by it?

We gain a sense of control over the film, but at this time I do not think it is more than a novelty. Nonlinear storytelling in movies will not catch on any more than it has in print. This is chiefly because movies are social events. Watching a movie alone is a rare thing. This technology places the viewer in front of a computer screen rather than on a couch with friends. And while watching “The Onyx Project” as a group might provoke some interesting discussions over where the viewing should go, for the most part I see it as a solitary activity.

Does hypertext (hypermedia) gain something in this visual genre? It is certainly an extension of the visual focus that Bolter writes about in Writing Space, and I think he would see it as a natural extension of where the World Wide Web is headed: towards multimedia exhibitions. It is interesting that the filmmakers chose to use text links rather than thumbnail images of the following scenes. I think that could produce more intense debate within the reader over where the story should go. The entire film is an odd mixture of different media.

There is a privileged order to the film, hence the highlighted links, but the user has the choice in the end. The viewing can either follow the favored path or blaze new trails. In that way it is transitional. It gives the viewer the opportunity to treat this film like any old movie or take it to another level by using its hypertextual features. If we are aiming at a move into the hypertextual realm, then this is certainly the way to do it–a picture perfect representation of Bolter’s remediation. It recombines elements of old media and merges them with new media.

None of this hangs together or makes sense, I’m sure. I’ll likely revisit it in the future.

Geekspeak Baffles Neophiles

According to a poll reported on the BBC, a large number of people who buy high-tech gadgetry do not understand the terms that describe what their devices do. Those surveyed described themselves as being “online.” That is to say, a significant portion of the people who are using the Internet and its related technologies do not know how to describe what they are doing.