Thursday, February 24, 2005

visual argument

what is my strongest connection to writing? i guess I like the way i guess its like i like the solace and m...the mystery....the escape of reading. That's reading...writing I like i gues is for me when its good it has the inensity of greate conversations. writing is read ing is solidtary...writing is reaching out.

Friday, February 11, 2005


What is research? For most people, myself included, research is an intimidating word. I guess I'm afraid that the stakes are so high when writing involves "research." Somehow you're supposed to know/grasp it all. Somehow you're supposed to find, digest/paraphrase, and synthesize (stitch together) the BEST information out there on a question. Oh! First you have to "find" a question worth pursuing. Unless the question is given to you by the exigency (the situation that called you into action), you have to create a question. How do you avoid well-trod terrain? How do you make your question interesting to you and resonate to others? Who are these other people? And what's the relationship of you--as a particular person with a particular history and cultural location--to the material you read and analyze and use? Should you efface yourself and just be a "brain" munching through data and arguments, detecting biases, finding nuggets of facts, lining them up and making sure they all blend together?

I think I got all my fears out there. There are probably others. Do you have some?
Let's simplify. Donald Murray suggests that "writing produces writing." First and foremost, research is writing. Writing produces writing. "Research-based" writing means that you're "writing with" (or against) other writers, who themselves are writing with (or against) other writers, who themselves....and so on.
So, research writing is an attempt to join a conversation, or to pull together the strands of two or more conversations. CONTEXT is all IMPORTANT. Trying to fathom the where/why/who/when and whose got something to win/lose behind an fragment (an article, a webpage, a book) is extremely important to understand how this piece is part of a larger WEB, or "conversation."

In some sense, research is an attempt to reach people who have left us traces of their concerns and thinking. But while we're reaching out for what others have said and thought in particular circumstances which are more or less recoverable or reconstructable, we are also trying to make sense of it IN LIGHT OF OUR OWN interests and concerns.

In the work you've done so far on the research project, what conversations have you uncovered? How are they relevant to your own concerns/interests? To begin to answer these questions is to join the conversation and locate yourself in it.
Writing produces writing.

Research is beginning, and beginning, and beginning. You don't have to finish, to have the last word, to know everything, to pull all the threads together.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


Instead of commenting on the organziation and grammar of our students' works, why not put ourselves on the spot? I've done this. I'll use an overhead to put a paragraph on the board that I wrote. Then I'll ask the class to help me edit it for coherence, then for grammar/mechanics. Instead of focusing on comma rules, I'll little by little mention the context surrounding the construction of the paragraph: the genre, the "invoked" audience, my purpose(s). My grammatical decisions then become part of my DEEP thinking about the whole dynamic rather than a matter of cleaning up the mess, polishing, cosmetics...

What is Discourse? Do we Teach "It"?

Kinneavy has caught the "Aristolean bug." Aristole was big into taxonomy. He taxonomized the gamut of communication, ethics, animals, logic, reality....Kitchen-ware. Just joking on the last one, but you get the idea: for A, classification and definition were essential to "knowing the world." There are Eastern philosophies (Zen Buddhism) whose "foundation" is an "anti-foundational" set of "moves" (a process) designed to unseat and unsettle and dissolve distinctions and definitions. "Deconstructionism", a kind of literary criticism and cultural critique (google it to k now more), is a kind of anti-foundational heuristic.

Generally speaking, we think of knowledge as something static, especially since the invention of printing when people could codify and institionalize what mattered (holy writ, encyclopedias, dictionaries). This is a gross overgeneralization (because, for one thing, the first dictionaries approached language as a dynamic organism, not as a fixed lexicon). Nevertheless, if you look at academic programs in all the disciplines and assessment practices, it's pretty clear that the West still beleives in "fundamental" (or "basic") knowledge is memorizable content. "Critical thinking" comes later, after the basics are memorized.

This is a long digression....the point is that Aristotle in part trusted that his distinctions and definitions would guide people's practice of logic, ethics, rhetoric, etc..

Kinneavy also believes that if he can codify all the codifiers, if he can superimpose all the schemes for describing the different types of "discourse" (langauge as social action), he could come up with a "unified theory" of how we do things with words.

The "constructivist" camp of education opposes the sense that knowledge transference is "learning." John Dewey and Paulo Freire and bell hooks are much-heralded proponentws of the notion that teachers should be PROBLEMATIZING "totalizing" schemes of knowledge (like that offerred by Kinneavy and Aristotle) rather than trying to formulate them.

Still, I guess it all comes down to this: what is useful? To put it another way, Kinneavy's schema is a "heuristic"...a thinking tool. It does help us see that some of the things we do with words are focused more on the encoder, some more on the audience, some more on the medium itself, and some are primarily concerend with "reality."

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Nystrand Notes

Nystrand provides a capsule of his argument: "English teachers need to think of writing as a verb, not a noun..[I]nformation (e.g., parts of speech, principles of rhetoric, types of paragraphs, etc.) makes sense to students only in the context of the activity itself" (155).

Against the notion that teachers provide for the one-way transmission of information ("content" in the form of heuristics--here's how you do this--, intrepretations or expert editing), Nystrand holds that teachers' primary responsibility is to orchestrate writing activities and feedback loops.

The beginning of the essay includes some interesting history on how linguistics and cognitive research proded writing scholars in the early 1970's to come at writing instruction less a matter of selecting and explicating exemplary writing than a pedagogy of setting up writing students to discover writing as a process. How?

  1. writers talk informally face-to-face with peers and teacher (and occasionally write formally in "reflective essays") about how they managed (or didn't manage) a writing assignment: Questions: should learning journals, reflective essays and peer conferences be graded? how do you get people to take it seriously? should students help decide the objectives of an assignment? should assignments be simulations of "real-world" writing situations (e.g., convince a mixed audience/a variety of stake-holders that internet filters should not be placed on computers at public libraries), or genre-exercises (where students begin with a greivance about school policy and researches and develops the appropriate genre (open letter? professional letter to a college official) for making the case that skateboards should be allowed on campus.
  2. veteran writers talk about (model) what they do Questions: is this only on a small scale (e.g., sentences) or whole projects? How much is too much? How much is enough? How do you avoid influencing students too much so that they don't have to struggle with questions about assignments?
  3. writers work collaboratively at different stages (brainstorming, decisions about genre/style/purpose/audience receptivity/knowledge, drafting, revision) in order to learn about "explicitness" (how much information does the audience need?) Question: how much is too much? When does it become interference? What if they are mislead by peer feedback?
  4. writers publish and see for themselves what the effect of their work is
  5. writers have a part in evaluating their own and each others' projects

Kress Notes

One way to get a handle on Kress' article is to try unpack the title, "'English' at the Crossroads: Rethinking Curricula of Communication in the Context of the Turn to the Visual." English is the study (and practice) of literacy (broadly construed). If you surveyed people who had passed through public school English, they would tell you that "English" meant reading "literature" (supposely aesthetically great works of creative fiction, drama, and poetry). Maybe it also includes writing essays that defend your interpretation of literature, or maybe your response to some public controversy. English teachers are often remembered as grammarians, flogging students with their red pens about misplaced commas and "awk" sentences. The "English" Kress refers to is probably not the "English" of public memory; its probably more the curriculum of English study viewed from a theoretical distance: " the subject which provides access to participation in public forms of communciation, as well as...understandings of and the abilities to produce culturally valued texts" (67). So, its English as a "discipline." Discipline meaning: a set of classifications and heuristics and values that shape the way texts are selected, read and produced in the interests of demonstrating one's "literacy." One of the classifications that English has used is probably the distinction between verbal and visual communication. Late in the essay, Kress observes:

The school, in Western socieites, says that writing is serious and most highly valued: music is for the aesthetic development of the individual, as is visual art. 86

Kress says that this distinction--this classification and boundary-makring between communication with words and communication with sounds and images--has not shaped what students are capable of in terms of the reading and writing propensities and acuities but also the "cognitive and affective potentials of individuals" (86).

We might call this situation a "paradigm" in so much these preferences are both philosophically grounded (words/essays require more logic/rationality than image/sound documents) and commonsensical: people balk at including photoshop in a "writing" class. Both and middle-brow folks defend the "seriousness" of words over the artiness of images/sounds.

So, little by little, and sometimes reiteratively, Kress tries to undercut this paradigm and suggest that we replace it with a new one that values not just certain new (jazzy) kinds of text (webpages, animations) but also openly engages (theorizes) the new "dispositions, knowledges and skills" of image-savvy, image-conscious, image-critical, "multi-modal" writers. He asserts (without providing any explicit support for) the notion that new "dispositions" ("cognitive and affective potentials of individuals") are at stake: the image-and-word-and-sound rhetor/composer will, Kress suggests, be

deeply at ease with change, difference, and constatntly transformative action. 67.

I think this "disposition" is seen more in the dedicated practioners of yoga or Zen Budhism or some kind of "back to the basics" philosophy (veganism, sustainable living, intentional communities) than it is people who know their way around Photoshop and Flash. The cliche is that those people are "geeks" and that they spend more time on screen than with people.

I think he overreaches somewhat as he tries to describe the stakes for his proposal to include more image-savvy, image-critical readers/writers. I don't see how someone's agency as an adaptor/chameleon ( that a good thing?) is profoundly shaped by the signifying systems they communicate/think in. Perhaps they are, but won't there be just as many "image-fundamentalists" as "image-eccentrics" and "image-dingbats"? The whole encoding and decoding of information (whether in visual media or print) is ideological: it takes place within contexts that constrain and encourage individuals in certain kinds of situation to certain kinds of practices. "Camp" and "punk rock" are two examples of (partly) "subversive" reading/writing encoding/decoding styles. I've seen camp and punk rock modes in print composition, though the historical "subcultures" are more visually-oriented (as in punk rock's use of retro fashion, nazi ensignias, saftypins, ransome-note typography).

I can see his point that in traditional approaches to literacy, the ideally literatre person is a "user" of a stable system of meaning: someone able to "quote" Shakespeare and deploy whom/who correctly. Someone who can "write a [correct] sentence." Someone who can write a succinct summary, follow directions, cross their T's. In the new paradigm, in which spatial logics (of visual media) are as welcome or important as the sequential/hierachical logics (of speech/print), the information "user" is a "remakers, transformer, re-shaper" of semiotic elements/resources. As he says, in the new paradigm,

Notions of language use--that is, deployment of existing resources without changing them--will need to be replaced by notions of the constatnt re-making of the resources in the process of their use, in action and in interaction. 84

In writing theorized by linguistics, Kress says, the GOAL ("assessable": think TEST) of communicative action is (proper) use. In writing theorized by semiosis, competence is "the capacity of design through the (re)shaping of the potentials of existing resources" (85).

Does this mean that creative and critical transformation of linguistic structures as well as "content" (what the experts "know" about canonical texts and paradigmatic methods of knowledge-making) is NOT encouraged in a print-based culture? This seems to be the drift.

What about parody and satire? Commentators on the "zeitgeist" like to point to the pervasiveness of something they call "irony" in popular culture; many everyday speech acts and popular programming come double-coded. They hallow out (or even critique) the rhetorical effectiveness (and ideological work) of commonplace expressions and genres.

What about the "critical thinking" (and "Second-wave" of critical thinking) movement? What "information literacy" movement? What about "critical pedagogy"? Feminism? Post-colonial and Queer studies? Granted, many of these are part of a rarified graduate school niche....but there seems to be a lot of evidence transformative practices in the culture despite our pragmatism (in the sense of "you gotta know how to "walk the walk" gotta have the standard "equipment for living": comma rules, conventional greetings, fashion/hygiene).

Enough criticism.

Kress gets us to think about how new media might challenge our approach/attidue towards the respected genre and composing practices. He values creativity/transformation over reiteration, which sound right to those of us who have bought into "constructivist" education (beginning with Dewey).

I really like his more modest argument that images bear more informative weight than they used to. He illustrates this with the two science textbooks on electricity. In the 1936 one, "everything that can be said can only be said in language" (72). That contrasts with the 1988 textbook in which the images classify and describe the parts/functionings of a circut; meanwhile, the text itself has changed from a formal pedagogue lecturing to students to an informal mentor referring to actions the reader has (or could have) taken: "In your first circuits, you used ...But if you look inside a computer.... Of course, some people (Michael Rock) have critiqued the way that USA Today has influenced the design of newspapers and textbooks....[more on this later].

I like the way he shows us how "critical distance" is couched in language versus image texts (82-83).

Thursday, January 13, 2005

"funny stuff"

One thing I didn't get to include in my literacy narrative was my interest in humorous writing: satire and parody. I really enjoy the wry humor of mcsweeneys online:

I'm not sure what a rhetorical approach to humorous writing would entail. I've read articles on Lenny Bruce, Chris Rock and other "socially relevant" humorists and of course these articles explain how the jokes call into question middle-class entitlements. I've also looked at some articles on the transgressive humor of southpark. Lot of the cartoons now (spongebob, cat/dog) seem to me to employ more surrealism than sitcom formulas....I'd like to know more about how humor might find a place in college writing.

John Talor Gatto: "Against School: How public education cripples our kids, and why"

This screed was published in Harpers Sept 2003. He summarizes Alexander Inglis (heard of him? Who hasn't?) 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education. The purpose of schooling is to 1. estalbish fixed habits of reaction authority" (to cow people) 2. to "make children as much alike as possible" (to mc-cookie-cutter them). 3. to create a gateway through which some "achievers" or "gifted" students will pass but most will not (to sort people) 4. to keep kids off the street and out of their homes since their parents work. Public schooling exists to dumb people down, to divide them (by grades), to demoralize them (by dividing them from their home cultures), and to cow them (and, if they don't cow-tow, to pathologize them). Gatto, ever cheerful, goes on: school also creates good employees and consumers--people restless for the next gadget or fix or approval rating from their bosses. "Individualistic" competitors, if you're talking about the kids who succeed, and unimaginative consumers if you're talking about the ones who end up feeling like they not smart enough.

literacy narrative

wrote story in 12th grade. read neitzsche in first year of college. took english and philosophy classes. enjoyed banging my head against Kant and unlacing the entrails of a Donne sonnet. Wrote and wrote and wrote a "senior thesis" that never really came off as a coherent, focused study of something. I can't even remember what I wrote about. Something about philosophy and Beckett? My friend/mentor's comment: "there are some nice sentences in it." I used an essay I wrote for a Latin American Novel course for graduate school applications; got in Rutgers and later UT-Austin. Grad school was groovey; 1,000/month and Austin was cheap then. Read, think, talk. Never found a period or a genre that called my name. Never connected with a teacher who would guide me in her/his research areas. Started out a dissertation on Pop Art and Metafiction. Later, that morphed into a "pedagogy" essay on the value of "cultural studies" methodologies to first-year composition and its theoretical turn towards questions of the writer's subjectivity, the ideology of the writing classroom, the "politics" (and "ethics") of knowledge. Defended the dissertation successfully (on the second try) and got my slip to be a composition teacher. Taught for three years as adjunct and then full-time lecturer before getting my first TT (tenure track) job at CNU (Newport News). My past research interests revolve around the teaching of writing as a reading of positions and ideology in "everyday" compositions. For me, its just as important for students to identify the "claims" and unpack the assumptions in a print argument as an advertising image, TV program, film or fashion look. So, I spent about four years (mostly fruitless, from a publishing, product-centered standpoint) thinking about what writers "read" as they "respond" to the world. One of the projects that came out of that period is still important to me: how to teach argument in FYC. My current reading is divided into stacks (literally: have you seen my office?): one is on linguistics and how to teach "registers" in Expository Writing class. The other is on visual rhetoric/lay0ut/design/visual argument and all the technology learning that goes with that. The viz stuff is critical for my revamping of First-Year Writing all the way through Technical Writing. I've said nothing about my "pleasure" reading: literary fiction (saudners, adam johnson, jim crace, all the mscweeneys writers and the website and journal, anything that catches my eye at the public library). I'm a profligate reader and transactional writer (meaning: I write to people (letters, emails, lecture notes) rather than disciplinary arguments). Of course, all this means I recieve all the daily allowance of aesthetic vitamins....what else? I started a novel...detective fiction in which the crime is a cipher....I spent many hours working on itat two different 6 month periods. It's fun; absorbing. I like an impossible project.