That Time of Year Again

Playing with a newish GoogleMaps integration on my referrer logs—it attaches user info to a pin-on-the-map representation—I noticed a little traffic coming in from Pass and Cross.

Which reminds me: it's time for the annual ritual of hyping 9interviews.com! (A person needs ritual, right?) So allow me this round-up of chatter about the site:

Pass and Cross
"What makes them funny is that at the same time that they are absolutely ridiculous, there's more than a touch of truth to them. My picks--The Singer, The Trauma Scholar, The Irish Rave/Ethnographer"

Paris Hat
"please take a couple of minutes to look at this: 9interviews.com. The "singer" is amazing. These are RICH!"

Uncertain Principles
"Speaking of the MLA, The Little Professor points to 9 Interviews, a collection of short films of fake MLA interviews with job candidates. They're probably funnier to people who've been through that process, but there's some good stuff."

Detached Observer
"So while I'm at it, here is a link: if you are in any way affiliated with academia, go to 9interviews.com to see something hilarious ("trauma scholar" is my personal favorite)."

Poor Mojo Newswire
"Ever wonder why some people go to graduate school for a while, then abandon the idea of putting 'Prof.' before their name so they can hit what I've heard referred to as 'the service track?'"

Annual hype routine over.


Five-Paragraph Essay as Life Skillz???

Having taught in high school classes under the dark cloud of the WASL, Washington state's high-stakes standardized tests, I took particular interest in this article in the Central Kitsap Reporter. Midway through the piece, this passage jumped out at me (the following emphasis is mine):
“The kids see after awhile they’re (WASL tests) all alike,” Chapin added. “Once they’ve learned the form, they just have to sit down, get organized and do it.”

Next door in Andrews’ class, students were learning how to construct a five-paragraph essay while listening to a lively lecture on how this writing formula is used by professionals in the working world.

“Having a small class aimed at helping these kids is absolutely necessary,” Andrews said.

“It’s easier to focus in a smaller class because there’s no distractions, you can get the information easier,” said Chase Connolly, a junior.
As one of our in-house rhetoricians would say: WTF?

I mean, the five-paragraph essay "helps" students produce more words in timed writing situations, it "helps" students write easily gradable stuff, and in a few ways it encompasses evidence-based argumentation—but never before today have I encountered the claim, in print, that the five-paragraph essay is a "writing formula ... used by professionals in the working world."

Now, why isn't that "lively lecture" on YouTube? (For "lively lectures" that are on YouTube, click here.)

In other possibly more important news, viewers from around Sneezopolis have been writing in to say that they liked the cough-and-sneeze-into-your-sleeve video; at least a few have taken vows to adopt new coughing and sneezing techniques. Who says a simple quicktime movie can't change the world? To unbury the video a bit, I'll post it again in a click-on format:


FF: All in a Day's Work

Found near the house in Champaign:


UPDATE: Also "found" today (in the inbox), this HI-larious video working to change the ways we cough and sneeze.


More on Cheat Sheets

I wrote a couple of days ago about cheat sheets and wanted to follow up on that just a tad. Yrjö Engeström has a piece in CHAT Technical Reports out of Kansai University (you can download a pdf of the piece here; thanks to PP for turning me on to this article) that does a very nice job of discussing vernacular genres of cheat sheets.

Engeström describes how "cheating is contestation of the given activity system of school-going," and then not only gives us visual examples of vernacular cheat sheets, but also discusses his clever pedagogical response to what he learns from this kind of writing.

(click to enlarge; note that these are cheating belts designed to be worn during an exam)

Engeström's pedagogical uptake from this research is not to militate against cheating in obvious, confrontational or prohibitive ways, but to teach about cheating as literate practice. He writes:
"Cheating is an important form of student agency. By creating and using a cheating slip, the student controls his or her own behavior with the help of a tool he or she made. The hard part is the construction of a good cheating slip—the design phase or the 'closure part' of the agentic action."

From this, I can see a useful assignment in which students cover a lot of material and create a cheat sheet that is then explained and assessed in lieu of an exam or final paper.

This kind of response reminds me very powerfully of Mike's plagiarism assignment that, instead of approaching plagiarism confrontationally, sees it as a complex practice that can be most productively militated against by getting inside it and figuring it out as literate activity.

I mentioned, in my last post on cheat sheets, that one thing that interests me about them is their status as disposable writing (and found Friday is fast approaching!), and in that way cheat sheets are similar to electronic forms of cheating (texting during an exam, e.g.) in that both forms of writing are expressly for one rhetorical accomplishment—the test—and valueless after that moment.


Blogs Going Down

Via Bérubé, news that another blog has gone down—this time, we learn the reason:
System Offline

After family discussion regarding a commenter's threat of violence against our dog, Creek Running North has been taken offline.

Over at Lance Massey's blog there is a do-over, which is not nearly as extreme, and these two de-textualization events make me think of caustic soda, a blog at UIUC that has existed for over a year as only this message:

I recognize and accept that a number of statements that I made on my on-line journal “Caustic Soda”, in particular the blog post of 3 March 2005, were defamatory of [name], its Chairman, [name] and its executive officers.

I admit and acknowledge that these statements are false and completely without any foundation.

I unreservedly apologize to [name], its Chairman [name], and its executive officers for the distress and embarrassment caused to them by these statements.

I undertake not to repeat the statements, or make further statements of the same or similar effect in this or any other forum or media. I further undertake to remove any such posting anywhere that has not been deleted.

Though the most common cause of blog.death is disuse, here we see threats and misuse bringing blogs down. Wasn't it Hercules who whacked off the head(s) of the hydra, only to see more grow back? I gain reassurance in the fact that when blogs go down they (and their authors) can return/reconfigure in new places.


Cheat Sheets

I've been half hoping to find a cheat sheet around campus somewhere, but having failed to come across one, I recently broke down and started looking for examples on flickr.

Cheat sheets of the DIY variety (as opposed to highly produced ones like this one) function both as clandestine and sanctioned test-taking-tools; I'm drawn to them for:
  • the visual rhetoric of density in cheat sheets
  • the many ways authors mark emphasis in a cheat sheet
  • for the way this kind of writing can be part of a test-prep learning process—even if that learning is only really assessed in terms of short term memory
  • and for the embodied practices of information retrieval when a clandestine cheat sheet is involved

Flickr user gauravgollerkeri has this cheat sheet up on the site, and it's described as "One side of my cheat sheet for the killer exam-- AC436":

Another example is posted by aaronx85 and looks like this:

Though both of these cheat sheets were sanctioned as part of the test-taking situation, we know of clandestine cheat sheets, too.

In composition/rhetoric, our attention to plagiarism seems to keep us from attending much to other literate practices of cheating. Creating cheat sheets is hard work, and using them clandestinely is probably equally challenging. This Chronicle article, from last year, describes an exhibit devoted to cheating tools, including a pair of "panties ... [on] the front of which logarithms and mathematical formulas have been penned, upside down, in black ink ... as a contemporary artifact, a paean to the science of cheating."

I had a friend in college who I once saw preparing to cheat on his astronomy exam by writing various facts on his leg. Ripped jeans were all the rage in 1989, if you recall, and MB placed this writing-on-his-body carefully so it would be readily accessible through some of more frayed and tattered portions of his 501s. (In the interest of full reporting, I should note that MB dropped out of college that term or the next.)

Anyway, yeah: written practices of the vernacular cheat sheet involve careful and personal document design, thoughtful distillation and synthesis of the material, a visual rhetoric of density, and often bodily practices of subterfuge and information retrieval. Oh, and this all goes down around a piece of disposable writing, which is always worth thinking about in the context of what we often assume to be the unparalleled coupling of writing and permanence.


Found Recipe Friday

Sometimes, even the simplest things find their way into writing. I came across an example of this two days ago in the hallway near my office. (Bottom image is the reverse side.)

A few things we know about this text include 1) the blue pen died, 2) making the switch to red does not mark emphasis (as red might), 3) the recipe does not begin with an application of Blistex. Numbers two and three are forms of not-reading—the active suppression of semiotic cues.

But my question may be your question: do rudimentary gustatory assemblages such as this one really call for written description?


Three other artifacts have been recovered in the hallway outside my office, leading the Lead Researcher on this project to speculate that some particularly generous member of the UIUC community is planting artifacts near my office door just to keep me happy. For this, I give thanks.


The Beauty Arts

Found over at dana boyd's blog and posted to her YouTube account, a short film on the production of one slick headshot:

Agency: Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto
Co-CCOs: Nancy Vonk & Janet Kestin
ACD/Writer/Art Director: Tim Piper
Production Company: Reginald Pike
Director: Yael Staav
Music: Vapor Music, Toronto

Yeal Stave, who directed the above vid, has a video portfolio here; he's directed other ads for such products as Clorox and Bounce.

It's the last thirty seconds or so of the video, focused on Photoshop manipulation of the still image, that I find most interesting: neck elongation, shoulder narrowing, cheek tightening, bigger eyes, new hair, and significant color redistribution.

Anyone who's used the clone stamp in Photoshop knows that this kind of retouching is a piece of cake, but to see it in time-lapse (as opposed to just before-and-after comparison stills) is to see photo re-imaging as a composition process with specific choices that reflect particular signifying elements in the facial structure.

Since I'm teaching a session on Photoshop composition (including the production of image/texts and animated .gifs) on Friday, the video gets me wandering down the old familiar wonder.lane where I contemplate what ultimately is done with the knowledge, tools, and skills students acquire in my courses. Learning to use Photoshop well doesn't take much time, and it's a powerful composition technology. I can't think of anything that could emphasize this more than the above video; at the same time, you have to know that students will do what they choose with what they learn in the academy.


What Would it Take for You to Move to an Online Word Processor?

As we're coming up on an analysis of online word processors in my "Writing Technologies" class, I've been playing around a bit with Google docs. At the beginning of the semester, when drawing up the assignments for the course, I had planned to direct students to writely.com, but with the Google-ization of Planet Earth (gulp: there goes YouTube), it'll have to be Google Docs. (Well, that's not entirely true: I've linked to a few other options here.)

In writing a bit on/with Google Docs today, I got to wondering what it would take for me to move over to an online app for word processing. I now keep my (non-found) to-do lists at tadalist.com, my calendar at Google Calendar—so why not word process online?

Part of the challenge is that I get very attached to idiosyncratic elements in any software program. So, to move to Google Docs,

  • I'd want to know I wouldn't lose stuff any more regularly than I already do

  • I'd want to be able to use tables robustly, and to format those tables in at least as many ways as MS Word allows for

  • I'd want to be able to mail merge from at least one of my databases

  • I'd want an array of layouts, but mainly an accurate WYSIWYG view mode

  • I'd want fine (at least to .01) control over typographic measurements such as letter spacing, leading, and kerning

  • I'd want to be able to insert images that "stick" in place when text gets moved around

  • I'd want a robust track-changes capability

  • I'd want to be able to record audio comments on student work

  • and I'd want robust TOC capability for multi-chapter, multi-section documents

I want I want I want ...

I know, that might be a long list, but in many ways it's also a short list given every element one gets used to using on a daily basis.

I can't post a link here, but a grad student in our Graduate School of Library and Information Science has developed an online writing app with the ability to search linked databases for keywords in the author's online-word-processed text—so articles that match up are then immediately delivered to the author via links and pdfs right beside the writing window.

So this is to say that I think Google Docs (and other online writing tools) can transcend the paradigms of what we currently use, especially in the arenas of insta-research and collaborative composition, but moving out of the current shell always takes a deep breath and a bit of time.


Found Friday 3.0

The research team here at metaspencer monster blog! faces a number of challenges (don't even talk to me about funding for the intern hand-sanitizer fellowship), but one of the least discussed difficulties relates to the scope of our current data set.

When collecting artifacts of this kind, and when working toward generalized conclusions based on those artifacts, one generally tends to want a broad sample. The textual artifacts recently collected by the team, however, have been mainly educational in nature.

(click to make the item in the mirror larger than it appears)

In terms of the item above, it's all about the fold, which transform a simple sheet of paper into a low-tech test-prep technology. Try doing that with your tablet pc.

The following item, though an educational artifact, is also about birds: so it does double-duty.

(click to make the item in the mirror larger than it appears)


Visual Design of/and Argument

In my "Writing Technologies" class today, we spent another day discussing Ellen Lupton's Thinking with Type. If you haven't read/seen the book, it has a nice companion website that does some of what the book does.

At one point in our discussion, I held up an example of a traditionally designed classroom text—8.5" X 11" with 1" margin; Times or Times New Roman—and simply asked why? Why write this way? Why ask students to write this way? Why not something else? Having just studied how the history of the typewriter is integral to modern document production and design, I thought we were perfectly positioned to work on this question.

And we did; the discussion completely did it for me, as we moved back-and-forth between several issues and ideas centered on the role of type and design in argument and expression.

At one point in the discussion I found myself repeating something I'd said during the Q and A of a talk I gave a couple of years ago, insisting that to teach writing within the traditional design model is to teach a rhetorically impoverished form of expression. And what I didn't need to say is that impoverished rhetoric in many ways finds a home within existing structures of teaching-and-learning.

Though it didn't come up in class, I'm starting to worry a bit that the (now) broad uptake of multi-modal composition in comp studies is leaving the alphabetic under-theorized and under-taught as an expressive site for innovation—visual/typographic and in terms of form. Said another way, embracing and incorporating the multi-m can function within comp to sanction routines within the alphabetic.

It's because of days like this that I can't imagine trying to develop scholarship without teaching.


Ball = Cool

As one keen reader of metaspencer monster blog! recently noted, I was off at the Thomas R. Watson conference over the weekend. The conference was swell, Art Spiegelman smokes a lot, and I still struggle with the diphthong in "Louisville." (This could be because .5 of my parental units live in another Louisville, this one pronounced "Lewis-ville" and/or "Lewis-vile," depending on one's position on suburban sprawl.)

A highlight of the conference was attending a session that included both the presence of and a presentation by Cheryl Ball, who worked through a piece on scrapbooking aesthetics. Walking into the room, we found immaculate bags full of scrapbooking supplies, and it was not only okay to use them—it was our job.

I ended up learning, thanks to the inimitable Cheryl Ball's little experiment, that I am 90% more attentive to spoken discourse when fiddling with paper, scissors, and glue. Oh, and I also appreciated that we weren't given any directions, just supplies.

With my bag of goodies, I made this (click to make the object in the mirror larger than it appears):

Looking around the room, I watched in a state of giddy pleasure as others made various types of low-tech image/text creations, futzing with glue and paper, and I listened as one person (on the other side of the room) periodically crashed pieces of paper into tiny balls. All this while the presenters did their thing, working through three tightly connected pieces on teaching the multi-m.

After the session (btw, the equation Ball=Cool holds up 100%), I got all Banksy (for Looooaville) and installed my collagey-thing on a nearby bulletin board dedicated to the distribution of programmatic information. (Can you see it? It's right there in the middle.)

I know what you're thinking: Oh those academics ... they're so uncontained and wild! Well, you're right about that. It was a good time, and Louisville is all right by me.


Found Friday!

E, one of UIUC's many tireless researchers of the found, collected this lovely list and was kind enough to donate it to the archives here at metaspencer's monster blog!.

The list brings together, like no other single text could, a portrait of the academic shopper.

(click to enlarge and view in 3D!)

"Forced to Write"

You know how it is to have many irons in the fire. I know you do. One way I keep various interests percolating (if they have to do with language use) is with Google Alerts, which allows you to create search-bots for an array of single terms or, more interestingly, collocational phrases. Of course, Google's bots only scour online news sources, but what's nice about that is that you get current and various uses of your string.

I won't list all of my search strings, as I have a ton of them via different free services like Google's, but one of the most productive ones lately has been "forced to write." Today at wcnbc.com, for instance, we see this in print
I get more work done when I’m alone.

When I’m forced to write at the office, I wear the same sound-dampening headphones as the guys waving in passenger jets on the tarmac at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. I’m serious. I wear them. And people still come up to me and tap on my headphones to get my attention. I work with terribly friendly people. They’re much nicer than I.

and at grandprix.com there is this use of the phrase
So, despite the jet-lag (or perhaps because of it), I fished out some of the hotel's headed writing paper and fired off a letter to my mum. It was the first time I'd written to her since I'd been forced to write letters home as a prep school boarder ...

I first learned to do searches for discrete collocational phrases back in grad school when learning about language change, as archives like lexisnexis.com allow you to find the year, month, even the day when a catchy new phrase gets introduced and widely circulated in the news media. (Get into lexisnexis through your library gateway, as it's a pricey service; UIUC's gateway is here.)

Many instances of the phrase "forced to write" describe what might be termed a naturally-occurring exigence that does the forcing in the context of writing used in a figurative sense—being in the red leads one to "be forced to write off a particular debt," or we find an author talking about being "forced to write off their option deposits or joint-venture investments."

While the bot hauls these in, I generally scan over them to get to the good stuff, instances where epistolary or expository writing (almost never "creative") is made mandatory.

In this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for instance, we find the phrase in this context:
He, too, was shot down in Vietnam and spent almost seven years as a prisoner of war. He, too, was tortured and forced to write letters saying he was treated well.

In the instances I'm even more interested in, since way in the background I'm passively reassembling a piece on the uses of writing as punishment, teachers and school administrators do the forcing.

Directed rss and search bots like Google Alerts are like having a dozen frenetic, tireless research assistants, which then frees up the real research team for ... Found Friday!

Coming soon to a blog near you!


Letter Writing as Social Action

In my "Rhetoric of Social Engagement" seminar this semester, we're scanning rhetorical methods used for, in a general sense, changing the world. Sinced that's a kinda large frame, heh, so far we've focused on rhetorical criticism on social movements, street protests, direct action, and environmental intervention.

We haven't gotten to letter writing and position statements yet, in part because I tend to think of these tools as among the weakest means of bringing about change. They almost tend to coopt dissent. Letters are soooo easy to ignore, and when I think of "writing a letter" in response to being pissed off about something, I often think of those letters being directed to power holders and public forums like the old letters-to-the-editor page.

A group of UIUC professors has been writing letters in an effort to change things on campus, but they haven't been writing to the Trustees. Instead, letters have gone out to potential athletic recruits in an attempt to dissuade them from attending the U of I. This is all about UIUC's human mascot. You can read portions of the letter and reactions against here, here, and here.

The twice quoted snatch of the letter reads:
"In spite of what you may have recently read or heard in the media, after 16 years of debating this issue the UI Board of Trustees still refuses to take the necessary action and no end appears in sight.

"Thus, you may want to think twice about whether the University of Illinois is a good environment for you to further your education and athletic career. Do you want to play at a school that refuses to commit to equality for all races and that places more value on an outdated and divisive mascot than on a winning athletic program?"

Thanks to M for bringing these letters to my attention, as what I find interesting is how these profs take the simple "write a letter" approach to rhetorical engagement and use it not to alter widespread opinion in the public sphere, but to persuade a few people to act differently. The actions of those few people really matter, though, as sports programs depend on recruiting hot players.

(If you want to read more about this, check IHE in a couple of days. ;) )