Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Breaking News" - "Out of Print"

My hard copy of the March 31 New Yorker arrived on Friday March 28, and today I read Eric Alterman's excellent piece "Out of Print: The Death and Life of the American Newspaper." Searching for an online link to it, I see that already it has been blogged frequently. It's bee breaking news for 2 days, and I am out of date.

There's so much I want to say about this piece. First, I'll admit that I am a reader of newspapers in print. Yes. I grew up with the Washington Post every morning in the 1950's, mostly read first by Dad (news, sports) and Mom (Home, Food, Entertainment) sections, leaving not a lot for me at the breakfast table. But I needed news to take to Phoebe Hearst Elementary school and then Alice Deal Junior High, so I got my chances. Once I recall cutting an article about the Suez Canal from the London Times read by our neighbor across the alley, a Polish man who worked for the World Bank. Our family had no TV, so news came from the paper and we worked hard to keep up. (We also got the New Yorker in those days too, so it's a long affiliation to be reading it, a long loyalty to getting news and ideas in print.

Alterman contrasts Walter Lippman's elitist perspective with John Dewey's democratic goals about what counts as news, who gets to make news, what is the role of the newscaster and the citizen in a democracy. This is exactly my dilemma in teaching students in the argument class (with focus on public discourse) because the majority of my students say they do not follow the news regularly in any form, not in print, not even in Arianna Huffington's Huffington Post and its related blog, which Alterman uses extensively as a comparison to the traditional print news.

One of Alterman's points is epistemology (though he doesn't call it that) - how do we know what we know and what counts as knowledge and how does knowledge get made and by whom. In the "old days " of print journalism, reporters made the news and told viewers what had happened. A good citizen was supposed to consume news in order to know enough to make wise decisions. Nowadays, with the interactive online news, it is people who make the news (at least, that appears to be Huffington's position).

Here's another great and related point that Alterman makes:
[N]ewspapers have helped to define the meaning of America to its citizens. To choose one date at random, on the morning of Monday, February 11th, I picked up the paper-and-ink New York Times detainees—the front page featured a unique combination of articles, stories that might disappear from our collective consciousness were there no longer any institution to generate and publish them. These included a report from Nairobi, by Jeffrey on my doorstep, and, in addition to the stories one could have found anywhere—Obama defeating Clinton again and the Bush Administration’s decision to seek the death penalty for six GuantánamoGettleman, on the effect of Kenya’s ethnic violence on the country’s middle class; a dispatch from Doha, by Tamar Lewin, on the growth of American university campuses in Qatar; and, in a scoop that was featured on the Huffington Post’s politics page and excited much of the blogosphere that day, a story, by Michael R. Gordon, about the existence of a study by the RAND Corporation which offered a harsh critique of the Bush Administration’s performance in Iraq. The juxtaposition of these disparate topics forms both a baseline of knowledge for the paper’s readers and a picture of the world they inhabit. In “Imagined Communities” (1983), an influential book on the origins of nationalism, the political scientist Benedict Anderson recalls Hegel’s comparison of the ritual of the morning paper to that of morning prayer: “Each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.” It is at least partially through the “imagined community” of the daily newspaper, Anderson writes, that nations are forged.

I can easily imagine this community - my family eating breakfast like everyone else on our street an all of us reading The Washington Post, and getting a clear sense of what it meant to be a citizen of the District of Columbia, a citizen of the capital of the US, a citizen of the world. We all shared the common knowledge. But now -- what happens now? How do people know what it means to be a citizen of Corvallis, Oregon? And where I live across the valley, I read an evening paper, and the ritual isn't quite the same. One doesn't imagine that everyone in the county is simultaneously reading the paper before supper. One doesn't imagine a brother/sisterhood of readers simultaneously partaking in their citizenly duty to become informed. And why will this be a problem? For now, I will leave you with Alterman's conclusion (and recommend that you read his entire article):

Finally, we need to consider what will become of those people, both at home and abroad, who depend on such journalistic enterprises to keep them safe from various forms of torture, oppression, and injustice. “People do awful things to each other,” the veteran war photographer George Guthrie says in “Night and Day,” Tom Stoppard’s 1978 play about foreign correspondents. “But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.” Ever since James Franklin’s New England Courant started coming off the presses, the daily newspaper, more than any other medium, has provided the information that the nation needed if it was to be kept out of “the dark.” Just how an Internet-based news culture can spread the kind of “light” that is necessary to prevent terrible things, without the armies of reporters and photographers that newspapers have traditionally employed, is a question that even the most ardent democrat in John Dewey’s tradition may not wish to see answered.

This article will be shared with my students on Monday, and I hope some of them take it to heart. And I imagine I will write about this again.

Image Credit: "Eustace Tilley" classic New Yorker cover, this one Feb 18, 1939 (notice price 15-cents! compared to $4.99 for my March 31, 2008 issue) from (March 29, 2008), which is a course in the American Studies Program at University of Virginia.

Friday, March 28, 2008

"Ultimate Blogs" by Sarah Boxer

Many thanks to my friend Mary for sending me to David Kamp's review in the New York Times Book Review of Sarah Boxer's new book Ultimate Blogs. And whether or not these are "ultimate," here's how Kamp describes her project:
Boxer never explicitly explains why she endeavored to take on this project, and in an essay published last month in The New York Review of Books, she indicates that she was put up to it by an editor. “Two years ago,” she writes in that piece, “I was given a dreadful idea for a book: create an anthology of blogs” — her wariness stemming from a gut feeling that the two media, books and blogs, were hopelessly incompatible. I’d hazard a guess that what made Boxer overcome her initial qualms was the chance to play curator — to show, as she puts it in her introduction to “Ultimate Blogs,” that “some bloggers out there actually write good bloggy prose that non-blog readers can read.”
And indeed, my blogging friends do write good "bloggy prose" - check out "Random Reading" by Paula, "Info-Fetishist" by Anne-Marie, and "Collage of Citations" by Michael, for just a few.

I like the way Kamp tells us about Boxer's book:
It’s an aptly eclectic collection. We get some small-timers, like the cutesie-poo 19-year-old Singaporean who calls her blog It’s Raining Noodles and the mock-suave Guatemalan-American dude who blogs from our nation’s capital as El Guapo in D.C.; some mainstream-media guys who’ve found edifying side careers as bloggers, like Matthew Yglesias, an editor at The Atlantic, and Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical-music critic; some calculatedly histrionic vituperators, like the London-based woman who calls her blog Eurotrash and the Texas-based woman who calls hers I Blame the Patriarchy; some chin-strokers, like the Nobel-winning economist Gary S. Becker and the federal circuit judge Richard Posner, who share a blog in which they bat serious issues back and forth; some alt-comix types whose work appears in panel form; and at least one heavily trafficked Web site, the Smoking Gun, which is best known for the documents it unearths via the Freedom of Information Act and which, to me [Kamp], doesn’t count as a blog.
This list gives some sense of Boxer's criteria, as Kamp explains:
Her selections could not be inordinately “linky,” she says, because “you cannot click on a link in a printed book.” Nor could they be particularly timely, because most blog posts are pegged to a specific day’s events and therefore get stale quickly. So Boxer has selected 27 blogs whose work is (relatively) timeless and link-free yet somehow still, she says, “bloggy to the core”: “conversational and reckless, composed on the fly for anonymous intimates ... public and private, grand and niggling.”

Kamp generally likes the book, as his comment makes clear:
Some of the stuff gathered in “Ultimate Blogs” does exactly what it’s supposed to do: alert readers to engaging voices they might otherwise not get turned on to. I liked being introduced to AngryBlackBitch, who is not so much angry as comically (if sincerely) exercised about matters of race, and who resists wherever possible using the nominative singular pronoun (“I”), instead referring to herself as “a bitch” — e.g., “A bitch has run the spectrum of emotions about Oprah’s new school.” The blogger behind the curtain is actually a 34-year-old woman named Pamela Merritt who works in sales and marketing at a St. Louis newspaper. (After each excerpt in “Ultimate Blogs,” there’s a page in which Boxer invites the author to reveal his or her identity and chat a bit — as when Johnny Carson used to summon stand-up comics to his couch after they’d finished their routines.)
Creating new publics and engaging readers, is one of the great advantages of the virtual arena for public intellectuals.

But ultimately, Kamp is a bit disappointed with Boxer's book. After I read it, I'll let you know what I think. Or, please, share what you think.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Making or analyzing arguments - according to Stanley Fish

When I get time (when would that be?) I enjoy reading Stanley Fish's "Think Again" column from the New York Times. Here's what he said recently in his "Why I Write These Columns" post from March 9:

Every once in a while I feel that it might be helpful to readers if I explained what it is I am trying to do in these columns. It is easier to state the negative: For the most part, it is not my purpose in this space to urge positions, or come down on one side or the other of a controversial question. Of course, I do those things occasionally and sometimes inadvertently, but more often than not I am analyzing arguments rather than making them; or, to be more precise, I am making arguments about arguments, especially ones I find incoherent or insufficiently examined.
Says Fish, further down,

The difference between making arguments and analyzing them is not always recognized, and when it is missed, readers get outraged about things I never said.
This is exactly the challenge for our students in the rhetorical analysis essay. They are sometimes busy arguing about the content - what was said - that they cannot see the method - how it was said.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

According to the Scrabble dictionary, "za" is a word! - and so is trike

I didn't realize that "za" was a word until I read Margie Boule's article about a very successful and competitive kids Scrabble team in Oregon. In fact, I didn't know that Oregon had state Scrabble champs, either. In the past, when I played Scrabble, I didn't even have the "official dictionary" but now I do. It would have come in handy the time I played "trike" on a triple word score (the K is a high point letter - maybe 5 points?). My partner had never heard of a trike - where did she grow up, anyway? So I had to get support from the folks in the other room, all of whom had grown up with trikes, of course. But I was thinking of the child's tricycle - like this one, though I didn't have the fringe. And they were thinking of the motorcycle version!

Of course, trike is in the official Scrabble dictionary. Along with lots of words that begin with Q not followed by U - such as QAT. By the way, "za" is officially short for "pizza."

(Even Wikipedia explains about the Scrabble dictionary. But considering that it only originated in 1978 that's no surprise that I didn't have one at first, since I started playing Scrabble in 1960, I think. There's even an online Scrabble dictionary.)

Photo credit for the child's tricycle: from Modern Seniors

Photo credit for the motorcycle Trike:

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hosting a conversation --- and maybe entering it as well

So, in scholarship we usually refer to "entering the conversation" as our approach to following up on and moving forward with ideas from other scholars - the Burkean Parlor - so I'm wondering how that is somewhat enacted in panel presentations at conferences. And here is an insightful (and helpful) essay by Linda Kerber from the Chronicle of Higher Ed on tips for chairing a panel, which is in many ways like hosting a party. In fact I use the "hosting a panel, hosting a party" analogy with my writing students as they are looking for sources and speakers for their papers. I ask them who they are going to invite to their party, who they want to talk about the issue. In other words, I want them to think about the speakers as real people, not just facts to support a preconceived position. As Kerber says
[C]hairing a session can be an art form. A good host can establish a friendly atmosphere in the room, make the speakers feel authentically welcome, and go a long way toward ensuring that interesting questions are asked and a solid discussion ensues. (That last is not guaranteed, but there are ways of increasing the possibility it will happen.) Here are some of the steps a chair can take to encourage an effective session.
Her advice seems wise and helpful. Newcomers to academia (even regulars) could use some of these points.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

"A kind word for bullsh*t"

An academic essay entitled "A Kind Word for Bullshit" drew me in right away as soon as I saw it on the cover of the Feb 2008 issue of College Composition and Communications where Philip Eubanks and John D. Schaeffer write an argument of definition about "academic bullshit":
The phrase "academic bullshit" presents compositionists with a special dilemma. Because compositions study, teach, and produce academic writing, they are open to the accusation that they both tolerate and perpetuate academic bullshit. We argue that confrontings this problem must begin with a careful definition of "bullshit" and "academic bullshit." In contrast to Harry Frankfurt's checklist method of definition [in his Princeton UP 2005 book On Bullshit], we examine "bullshit" as a graded [graduated] category. We suggest that some varieties of academic bullshit may be both unavoidable and beneficial. (372)
As they point out, the work of scholarly academics is "serious, and we naturally take offense at critiques that call our writing and scholarship pretentious (which impugns our character) or nonrigorous (which impugns our minds)" (373). Here Eubanks and Schaeffer set up the importance of their argument, answering the questions we (and Graff & Berkenstein in They Say, I Say) ask our students to answer - "so what" and "who cares?"

Part of their argument lies in distinguishing bullshiting from lying because ""bullshit is disconnected from the truth in a way that lying never is" (375). By definition liars are intentional about saying what they believe to be untrue, whereas in bullshitting the point is less about the truth and more about the image one creates.

Thus, their argument revolves greatly on the way that "bullshitting" is an appeal to ethos, a technique admired by some for the "masculine, aggressive, ludic" (379) style of braggadocio. The technique might even be slyly recommended as in "If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit" (373).

They cite Dave Barry and Isocrates, among others, which is a nice spectrum but somehow they overlook David Bartholomae's "Inventing the University" which argues that we should teach students to be apprentice academics in writing in a scholarly style. What can happen, though, is stilted vague student writing. Anyone who has taught first year composition has surely read any number of student papers that try to "baffle.. with bullshit" instead of making a sincere effort at entering the conversation by critically engaging with sources. As Eubanks and Schaeffer point out, however, "[n]o one, not even the "bullster," would contend that bullshit can really substitute for well-informed and thoughtful writing" (386).

This essay was a delightful break in a weekend of grading. I highly recommend it, and apologize for the too-brief summary. (Great use of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and the neat distinction of bullshit versus chicken shit.)

Friday, March 14, 2008

A frabjous day

A rainy dark morning (the sun has not yet overcome the jolt of Daylight Savings Time) - but a frabjous day anyway, end of Dead Week, last day of classes for winter term (though my last classes were yesterday) and the start of grading. But today, mostly trying to catch up on many reports that have been progressing slowly. Meanwhile, listening to Berlioz' "Romeo and Juliet" symphony on KWAX - the music more jittery than I anticipated for this love story - maybe I'm just remembering the Zeffirelli film (1968). I'm wanting more the quiet mood evoked in Inara Verzemnieks March 9 essay "Tea and Liminal Spaces" about Portland performance artist Gary Wiseman and his Tea Project. It sounds lovely to gather quietly with strangers on a cold dark morning and sip tea. Reading this essay over breakfast this morning -- I am nearly caught up on left over Sunday Oregonians - was a nice way to finish the term / start the two weeks of slightly less hectic pace - no real spring break but likely a day at the coast at some point (and taxes at some point). Later I will post on 2 essays about America's alliteracy.

ps: It's been so dark these mornings I didn't even realize that pink hyacinths are blooming in my yard - I saw them in the headlights as I drove away this morning. But tomorrow - Saturday - I will be home in daylight to admire all the flowers!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Bathroom wall as original blog?

Brandon, one of my students in writing class, just had a great idea. He suggests that bathroom walls could be seen as the original blogs because people leave comments and others reply. What do you think?

Source for image:

Friday, March 07, 2008

On keeping a notebook

This morning I had the pleasure of re-reading Joan Didion's great essay "On Keeping a Notebook" because one of the grad students wanted to use it for next term's comp class. Of course I love the essay with its stream of consciousness and the great concrete details. I suggested that she have her students keep a notebook during the term - a Blue Book would work, light weight and standard sized, though maybe too institutional? Students definitely need practice in including more specific details in their work, so this is a good model for journaling. It's also a good model for reflection, for putting oneself in the picture - that "what this means to me is - - -" move that we hope for as part of critical thinking. Though it's not a great model for an academic essay, which is the assignment.

So, is blogging is like keeping a notebook? Yes and no. Because for Didion, the notebook (but not the essay) is writer-based, something for herself. She says "we are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees" - which describes many blogs. I would not claim that my postings were graceful pensees, though it would be nice, but I'm sure many fall short. Still I keep a notebook as well - handwritten and always handy the way the blog is not (at least not for me without a wifi laptop and home network). A notebook, says Didion, is "something private, about bits of the mind's string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker. And sometimes even the maker has difficulty with the meaning." Amen to that. Our notebooks, she says, "give us away."

Thursday, March 06, 2008

What Johnny SHOULD read

Now it's dark outside and I wanted to head home earlier, but the library just sent an email that a book is in and since I won't be on campus tomorrow, I should walk over to get it. E. D. Hirsch on Cultural Literacy. I think I don't agree with him entirely, but there might be something good to use for WR 121 in terms of the conversation about what people should know. This theory looks interesting. Apparently the question is "Cultural Literacy: Can it Work for You?"

The conversation has long been whether or not Johnny could or would read, but now it seems the question is what Johnny SHOULD read. I should be reading student papers, so that's what I'll do now.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


OK, I have been wanting to blog about this really interesting book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell that I borrowed from my colleague Jeremy. The premise of "rapid cognition" is that people have an innate intuitive knowing about things that is sometimes (often? always?) smarter than logical reasoning. Gladwell cites art experts who sensed at a glance that a statue for sale was a fake, despite scientific tests authenticating the age of the marble etc. This is the same way that writing instructors look at a student's draft and know it's not their work - whether too much help from a friend or borrowed entirely. Students ask us what website or database we use to check - such as the infamous and expensive anti-plagiarism site "Turnitin". I think they would not like to know that we can often just tell in a "blink."

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

10 minutes a day

I'm shocked and saddened to see that my last post was Jan 21 -- where does the time go? Every day I think of what I want to write, but somehow never manage to even find the 10-minutes a day that my friend Michael says would be enough. He manages much more on his two very smart blogs Collage and Sisyphean. Meanwhile, I feel totally overwhelmed at work reading papers from my students, plagiarized papers by other people's students, proposals and requested essays for next term's first year comp classes, observations and paper sets for the graduate teaching assistants whom I'm observing, etc etc. You don't actually want to know! I did manage to read this week's New Yorker memoir about New York Bishop Paul Moore, by his daughter Honor. (Apparently it's an excerpt from her new book The Bishop's Daughter.) As a child, I knew Bishop Moore slightly in Washington DC when he was suffragan bishop at the National Cathedral where I worked. I didn't know Honor then. Apparently she's a theater critic for the New York Times.
OK - this took me about 10 minutes - so Michael is right! I promise not to wait another month before posting again. I've missed it.