Monday, January 28, 2008

Teaching to Write for Computers (cat optional)

In Douglas Hesse’s article, “Saving a Place for Essayistic Literacy,” he seeks to “wrestle back the ‘essay’ from its history” in answer to some academics who seek to define a new kind of literacy in the computer age against the confines of the scholastic essay. Hess points to a contradiction, namely, that the logos driven academic essay with its well-defined topic and methods of documentation and perspicuity has moved far a field from the kinds of things the father of the genre, Montaigne, had actually written. Montaigne’s essays are not the articulation of airtight logical relationships in a linear development, but rather a series of overtly biased disjointed explorations steeped in rhetorical patterns more commonly found now in journalistic writing and yes, on the internet. The logical thread is there, but ironically for the technology involved it is not the industrial logical thread of the machine age that nosily stitches along prefab patterns, rather it is more like a single strand darning a pair of well-worn wool socks with a cat and a fire and glass of good port--spectacles if you need them (“post your photos here!”). There is a bit of old-fashioned musing that goes on in web spaces. It is as if the mind-stuff itself, those bits of refection, repose, and memory mix with the coinage of novel discoveries and armchair philosophy: The collection of the mind and the collection of things of the world.

I love the creative and anti-methodical approaches you find in internet spaces, and like Hess notes, there are plenty of traditional documents (academic essays, articles, reports, and the rest) on the web, so there isn’t an either or choice that needs to be made. In light of some calls from scholars for a new definition of writing literacy (Faigley and Romano) that takes its cues from the products of new technologies (and the call is still alive and well) I think Hesse’ point is valid and meaningful. There will, at least in the future of our student’s professional lives, be a need for cohesive logos/method driven documents like the academic essay and the formal report. Teachers like myself will continue to help students design and construct (even perform) in a variety of genres—on the web and on pulp. But I am unsure of how much web-based writing instruction is appropriate or useful.

The interesting fact is that Internet spaces have produced genres organically, partly based upon the technological possibilities and peoples' own ability to put them to use. I wonder if giving students courses in how to perform on the Internet in the same manner teachers taught the academic essay might even stifle and prevent new original and technologically emerging products? One problem with teaching web writing is that the entire formats and expectations are still emerging, which is a good thing, but it makes it hard to stay relevant. Think how quickly Internet guides and “how to” information about the web gets old fast. The textbooks often list defunct websites, search engines, bogus venues, and just plain outdated information that kill credibility and takes up valuable space.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Literacy, Teaching, and The Man

--Graph from website, European Heritage Alliance: Cultural Pride Without Extremism

Richard Ohmann’s quick review of the interrelated import of Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital, provides the historical meaning of “literacy” as tied to short-term economic interest and attempts to enforce social control. He notes the rise of intelligence testing during the First World War (immigrants couldn’t understand English! Who da’ thunk it?), and touches on the quasi- (pseudo)-scientific rationale behind literacy tests (22). Norbert Elliot’s 2005 book, On A Scale: A Social History of Writing Assessment in America, provides an extensive look of how the early intelligence-test designers were clueless when it came to understanding the difference between testable language ability and so-called intelligence scores. Defining literacy based upon English speaking norms and cultural practices and shared histories could show that immigrants from southern Europe and other regions were less intelligent. Case closed.

Despite the clear problems of validity, these tests promulgated racist narratives and created and justified inequitable access to education, employment, and other social opportunities. Even when these ideas were discarded, testing and notions of literacy remained bogged down with the baggage of white superiority and normative expectations. Notions of literacy were shaped along side of monopoly capital, providing a passive and flexible workforce with clear divisions between manager and workers (not to mention owners and managers) (Ohmann 23). Lester Faigley’s Literacy After the Revolution, picks up on the political economy as tied to the growth of the digital age, pointing to the same constraints that “would limit writing instruction to teaching students to replicate the traditional forms of academic and professional discourse” (32). Moreover, Faigley believes teachers aware of the social, political, and economic forces shaping the digital age can use this knowledge to improve their pedagogical practices and resist the limitations imposed by capital. Faigley hopes that the digital revolution can live up to its name by fostering more civically engaged and active students.

Finally, I want to touch on the social constructivist work by The New London Group in A Pedagogy of MultiLiteracies, because they also point to economic forces they term “fast capitalism,” whose “discourses of familiarity are frequently more subtlety and more rigorously exclusive than the most nasty—honestly nasty—of hierarchies. Replication of corporate culture demands assimilating to mainstream norms, and this really works only if a person already speaks the language of the mainstream” (12). This brings us back to Ohmann and intelligence testing, only this time it refers to the gates of language use that prohibit or restrict other rhetorical practices grounded in different ideologies and cultures. The Group does not use the term rhetoric/s, but I believe their take on “design” as tied to purpose and audience clearly corresponds to notions of both visual rhetoric (graphic design), contrastive rhetoric (multiliteracies), and code-switching rhetorics (hybrid discourse). If fact, there is much they touch on that has been taken up by authors like James Gee, who expands on the situated environments for active learning

Monday, January 21, 2008

“The thing with high-tech is that you always end up using scissors.”
--David Hockney, The Observer, 1994

Hawisher and Selfe in “The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Class,” note that despite hopes of shaping new student-centered pedagogy with computer technology, their use “simply reinforces those traditional notions of education that permeate our culture at it most basic level, teachers talk, students listen; teacher’s contributions are privileged; students respond in predictable, teacher pleasing ways” (35).
Looking back on the early hand wringing over the place and hope of computers to enact a more enlightened pedagogy doesn’t take us far from where many teachers are today. We still wonder if our classroom practices bear any resemblance to our professed theories of pedagogy, and technology in the classroom seems to activate this concern in a positive way for the most part. Hawisher and Selfe rightly point out where the goals of a student-centered pedagogy are thwarted by technology, I do wonder if many of these disjunctions between theory and practice are grounded in a deeper problem that is brought to light by the observing computers in the classroom. In any case, they make it clear that technology by itself will not enact any new regime. But then again, it might.

In terms of achieving a different classroom dynamic, Lester Faigley’s “The Achieved Utopia of the Networked Classroom, demonstrates the potential for student controlled electronic discussions to both uphold and disrupt teacher-centered approaches.
Faigley’s detailed account of synchronous discussions in his classes reminds me of being a distance degree student. I often found myself feeling like the only one who wanted to keep on topic, and there was little to no teacher input in many discussion forums. Most the discussions drifted off-topic, or lost relevance with postings done over weeks, most of it (I hate to admit) seemed a complete waste of time from my perspective. Some of the most productive uses of discussions had to do with the actual use of technology (how to use Dreamweaver).

To be fair, I do think that many of these early forums (like mine distance degree experience and especially Faigley’s account ) suffered from a lack of what I’ll provisionally call genre awareness, I mean, when computers come on the scene there was a lack of agreed use of public space. Think now of the specialized forums for hobbyists, and students like ourselves, who use these spaces for specific purposes and audiences. There are places for shooting the shit, so students seem less likely to take any forum as open for anything at all. I am still more likely to put a You Tube link in a blog, so while I’m still working with the genre potential there is always the technology offering these moments of disruption to the normal. In my own use of discussion forums, students seem savvy to the diverse uses and are not prone to the kinds of chat Faigley documents. Still, many discussion forums responses seemed canned and by rote, but I don’t know how much we can expect computers to influence the traditional schmoozing that some students find effective.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Access, Ownership, and Power: The Dig-Div-ide

Jeffery Grabill describes the practical and material concerns of power and technology that are more theoretically addressed by both Giddens and Foucault. These “rhetorical, ethical, and political issues and practices” (300) concerning who makes and uses digital technology name the kinds of power differentials open to individuals and groups to control and access technological resources touched upon by both Foucault and Giddens. Grabill’s article establishes access to technology as a public right and need, pointing to the institutions beyond the classroom to community literacy programs and libraries as nodes of access that must provide the resources. In this sense, it aligns with the position of Giddens, who specifically names resource allocation as a fundamental prerequisite to exercising institutional power. Moreover, Grabill discusses the infrastructural dimensions of access for what he terms the “techno poor” (303), especially as it concerns systems of design and decision making that create and maintain the technological forums needed to facilitate the democratic role of electronic communication (300).

Adam Banks takes up this issue of control and access in U.S. African American communities, who have in many instances created virtual spaces that foster black linguistic and discursive traditions by escaping the surveillance of language censorship occurring in classrooms and other forums more rigidly invested in maintaining dominant white rules of decorum and language use (68-9). Like Grabill, Banks views technological spaces as essential to less dominant populations (in this case, blacks) who seek places that honor and celebrate “difference,” and where “self-determination,” “resistance” and “oppositional identities and world views” are maintained and reproduced (69). Putting a human face on issues of power, Banks sees the loss of access to digital technology as one more step toward loss of identity for black Americans, and agrees with Grabill that “ownership of digital spaces and technologies” is paramount (71).

Anthony Walton’s historical overview of how technology has and is used as a weapon to exercise domination and maintain power differentials adds another facet to the discussion of power and agency. Walton writes, “the history of African-Americans since the discovery of the New World is the story of their encounters with technology” (16). Today, he notes, the technological boom has left blacks to participate only as “consumers,” which despite being characterized as moment of agency by a few radical free market economists, falls too far short of the kinds of control and access called for by others such as Banks. It is interesting that Walton touches on the unpredictable turns in technological innovations, from gunpowder to fiber optics, which have all found themselves becoming weapons or obstacles thwarting black equality. Each new technological innovation (what Giddens might have termed unintended consequences) is another wedge to maintain inequitable power relations.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

People have the power, so don't throw it out with the bathwater

Anthony Giddens’ “Agency and Structure” posits a greater degree of individual volitional agency than is normally acknowledged by social theorists such as Marx, Durkheim, Freud, and Althusser. These theorists posit a version of an overarching structure (economics, social utility, the sub-conscious, powerful ideological institutions) that compels people to behave as they do (think of Hegel's a priori Spirit as the fountainhead of history and time, things as they are). Giddens also takes issue with those who go to the other extreme, claiming that individual actors rationally and consciously make decisions without constraint. This is the tactic taken by radical free-market economists. Power then, according to Giddens is not entirely structure or actors, but rather, “power relations are always two-way, even if the power of one actor or party in the social relation is minimal compared to another” (93).

O.K., my ideology antennae start to flail when I read that power is a modality or resource used to conduct relationships among actors in a system unrelated to motivations or wants, but I am open to this broader conception of agency because it does remind me of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, which invests much in the consent of individuals in creating and reproducing systems of power. Gramsci writes about people acting in their self-perceived best interest, even if this is won by ideologically grounded persuasive means unconnected to their actual self-preservation, and might act to keep things stable (if imperfect) just to keep conditions from getting worse than they already are. The point is that social relationships large and small are all subject to change, even if some systems and institutions persist over time. In line with this, Giddens sees power as “centrally involved with human agency,” with both “transformative capacity and “domination” (89).

Foucault describes a similar notion of power that is cognizant of the good works it can produce: “If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? . . . It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression” (119). I’m at least convinced that power is not easily understood, and I am beginning to see how it functions as a resource or modality that is at its nature unconnected to outcomes, even as it is imbricated in structures (economic, political, social) that are dominating and repressive. Just don’t throw out the power with the bathwater. People have the power, just not all of it at any one time.

Thank goodness Foucault and Giddens’ conclusions are more succinctly stated (but less methodologically grounded) in Patti Smith’s “People have the Power”

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Submitted for your viewing pleasure (and control), the Panopticon!

The Panopticon, the building Jeremy Bentham designed, is very much a reality in some of today’s prison buildings. The entire project of shedding light on the dark corners of the growing urban masses is a driving social concern of Bentham’s “discovery.” One remarkable feature of the design, Foucault points out, is than it can “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Discipline and Punish 201). Foucault’s “panopticism” looks beyond this specific architectural design to the workings of the surveillance (outside and inside) in all areas of society, and especially to the political and social objectives brought to prisons, hospitals, the military, and, important to us, I think, schools. “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals,” Foucault writes, “on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used” (Discipline 205). As teachers in the university, I think we walk into and participate in a panoptic arena, which is also gifted with a degree of remarkable control without anybody really watching anything--ironic and decidedly panoptic.

Foucault’s conversation with Jean-Pierre Barou and Michelle Perrot makes clear that the Panopticon represents the idea of the “technology of power” ("Eye of Power" 148). Teachers do have power, and some of it is subtle. Just wearing the teacher “hat” gives a certain amount of power, and (here is the connection to technology, finally!) technology can increase a teacher’s ability to “watch,” even if not much watching is actually done. The university and web based virtual “spaces” for prescribed activities (webct, eLearning, Blackboard, etc.) are partaking of the spatial concerns of panopticism. For example, working as a TA grader for a world civilization course with nearly 100 students, I was instructed to read only a fraction of what students were required to submit to the webct message board. The week chosen is arbitrary and sporadic, but just the possibility that someone might read and grade any one of them seems to work in getting students to do these postings. I felt bad that no one would read what they worked on, it seemed unfair, but so did the workload.

In my own classes, I usually require postings to eLearning boards, partly to induce students to do the readings, and mostly because I like to read them for what I can learn about all the texts’ effectiveness and other dynamics of the course. Do I feel like the unseen figure in the watchtower? Not exactly, but I think that technology can add increased surveillance and control that can be misused, or (not much better) a waste of time. Of course, not all digital technology need be subject to surveillance or floating on the web, so maybe there is nothing inherently panoptic about digital technology. Or is there? Think of the hard-drives, the spatial concerns, and the surveillance capabilities!

Finally, (if you are still with me dear reader), I could discuss the power of opinion in the onslaught of news blogs and opinion blogs and the rest. There are also the rating systems of websites like YouTube, that rate videos by number of viewers, who are also invited to rate the videos. Here the panoptic gaze does create a public opinion that both judges and arranges virtual space. But really, I just want to link you now to a YouTube video of Johnny Cash doing “The Mercy Seat”, which I think captures the panoptic gaze and might make the hair on your spine stand up. Take note of the backlighting of the panoptic prison cell