Making Things

Looking back over the past few months, I guess I've been feeling a bit crafty. Not crafty bwah-ha-ha, but crafty glue and scissors. Of course, it's nothing like the level of craft that registered gurus of craft get into (Brandy Agerbeck is an example), but for me it's crafty.

I've been intermittently crafty, at one point finding a gigantic bag of adding machine paper at a thrift store and telling myself "I simply have to do something with this." I still have about a zillion rolls of the stuff, but from one I wove these paper dealies:

Then, a couple of days ago, after finishing up an almost-final-draft of some extremely time consuming administrative materials I have to have done by, ahhk, September 11th, I went out to the garage, scrounged up an old window and various other scraps of wood and things, and made a cabinet to replace the Hulking Monster Cabinet that has been looming way to large in my dining room.

Where a Hulking Monster once was, there is now a much smaller and more oven-looking item. Oh well.

When I get all crafty, I feel almost exactly the way I do when I get all writerly (writey?), which is to say that in both instances I simply want to make something. I know that the cultivation of this desire, with or without a discernible exigence, is often missing from academic writing classes. I know, too, that few writers describe themselves as writers because they "like to make things." I've heard making-things-up, but seldom making.

In academia, you get familiar with the class of writers who write because it's their job, and then there is the class of writers who write for dough (generally not of the academic variety), the class of writers who write for fame, the class of writers who write to leave some kind of permanent or semi-permanent mark on the old planet, but what about a class of writers who like to compose text because it is an act of making something? I'm going to start asking people about this, perhaps starting with my students this morning at 10:00.


Back-To-School Encounters

A knock on the office door: "Is this English 300? I mean, I'm looking for English 300?" Together, we look at the number on my door. It reads "300." "Yeah, this is it," I say.

Lost Student pokes head in my office and looks around. "Geesh. I found it Wednesday [which was a Monday] just fine, but now ..." Soon we discover she's in the wrong building.

In her wake I look down and see this piece of paper getting trampled in the hallway. It is, perhaps, the quintessential back-to-school document:

The same day, two more students walk in my office (one after knocking), both needing help finding their classes. After some quick online reference, they're on their way.

I find that one of my classrooms seats fifty and has twenty students enrolled; the other seats eight and has fifteen students enrolled. When I switch to a "high-tech" media classroom—none of the equipment is hooked up.

But I'm not grumbling: it's nice to have these back-to-school encounters and to find myself caught up in the campus.buzz once again.


More on Flickr

Another cool flickr add-on, this one trained to look for the tag "stencil":



You'll probably view this video and say to yourself, Um, yeah. This is because the video is from what is more than likely a case of you-had-to-be-there, but in the event that it is not a case of you-had-to-be-there, I'm posting the video anyway.

Convocation, fall semester 2006: Explosive!


Mystery 12.3

I keep finding things I don't quite understand over near one of the elementary schools by my house.

You cut up some little hearts and flowerish things, then you put them in a small ZiplocTM bag? But why? To keep them dry? To hand out a regulated set of said objects to students in the class? Because little paper shapes are dirty, like a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich?

These explanations make no sense to me, maybe because they're not really explanations but wild speculative conjecture made by someone who's never lived in baggie land.

My relationship with this baggie, though, pretty much sums up my thoughts and feelings about artifact analysis. The artifact it, but its history is invariably a lived one to some extent, and how can we ever know what's really up with our little baggie-like-artifacts without having seen them created, spent time with the baggie-stuffers, and perhaps dropped our own little baggies on the way to third grade? With that many angles on the project and no fewer, I'd begin to feel comfortable in making sense of said baggie.


Why a Course Website

I just got through prepping for my fall courses—the syllabi, the course calendars, copies of readings over to e-reserves, and the course websites. (If you're interested, you can see the sites here and here.

I've made a website for every class I've taught since 2002, which comes to something like a dozen websites, give or take a few class-blogging-hubs, wikis, and moodleized content management pages. This time around, though, I asked myself why?

Why build a course website when some students never seen to go there and others seem to see it as a substitute for going to class? Why build a course website when it can mean writing an entire shadow set of documentation composed for the web (shorter, more visual, differently designed)? And why build a course website when it may do nothing to help students learn (in my courses)?

Even with these questions in mind, I built the sites. I'll list the reasons I built them in a sec, but before doing so I should say that I partly put the websites together because this is what I do before I teach a class. Some people bake cookies at the end of the semester, others cancel the final exam, I make course websites. Part of it, for me, is habitual, routine, and uncritical. But on to the reasons:

Why a Course Website?
  • websites are an easy way to distribute information: I put the syllabus up there, the calendar indicating what we're doing, links, readings, and sometimes a course.blog with notes and reflections on how the semester is going. This means that, since the site is always up before the first class meeting, students are sometimes able to decide if they want to enroll without having to sit through the first meeting. It also means that, when things change (due dates, readings, links) the site can be easily updated and everyone can be brought up to speed. I don't think this is much different from passing around revisions printed on paper, but in some instances it can be.

  • the archival feature: One of the tricks of teaching is keeping track of what you teach, often for purposes of teaching it again in the same way, differently, or more effectively. Also, this meticulous keeping-track is helpful when it comes time to represent one's teaching to get a job, keep a job, or get promoted. Class websites are excellent in this way, as they archive all course materials in one easy-to-find place that remains accessible, clean, never involves a creaky file cabinet, and in some ways is perpetually current-seeming even if the class is long gone.

  • websites are fancy, and fancy things are good, right?: This reason both points to my skepticism about course websites and my recognition of their virtues. A few times I've had students tell me they marveled at the course website, knowing "it was the class for me" before ever setting foot in the classroom. As many times, I've received email or comments from other teachers and students not in one of my classes reporting that they checked out one of my course websites and was all "wow, that looks like a great class." The course may have been great, or it may not have been, but course websites present a course with polish and electronic flair. This is course website as instructional packaging. In this way, the course website is DIY courseware, fancying up what might otherwise be "just another class."

  • if you teach about new media and see yourself as a "new media person," like, how could you not have a course website?

  • websites help students learn: I know, you were wondering when I was going to get to this one. No kidding, when I first started teaching and building companion websites for my courses, I believed this to be true. I considered the course website a place where students could access materials in ways they couldn't in print (images, video, sound, text)—and then I learned, after spending hours on those early websites, that few students ever went to the site. Now, I soon learned that there are ways to compel students to visit a course website, and there are also ways to make such a visit not only compulsory but in their best interest, fun, and even enjoyable—but I'm still skeptical of the assumption behind the course website that websites help students learn. Good content can be easier to learn from than poor content, but I no longer think a course website is any better than a print assignment sheet, say, or worksheet. Many more reasons justify a course website than teaching-and-learning, at least given what I teach, but this does not make a course website unjustifiable.

  • the course website can be part of a paperless classroom: Yes. This is cool. I have been doing this lately and am totally for this.

  • course website as hub: For the last year or so, I've been trying to think of (and design) my course websites as hubs more than focal points. This means that the site is a place to branch off to content from rather than a content-destination. So the message board can be linked to (or syndicated through an iframe) on the course website, as can readings organized on del.icio.us, as can an array of online texts and, ultimately, course projects. If the students are blogging for the class, aggregate links to the blogs through the site or, better yet, link to bloglines where students consume the blogs of their classmates through rss. In this way, the course website is more a tool and less a text, and I'm increasingly comfortable with this formulation.


Headshot Placeholders

Sometimes I'm struck by how many icons we work with naturally and daily online. Take what might be called the "headshot placeholder icon, a way of indicating that there is room for a headshot and that said headshot hasn't been uploaded yet.

Such headshot icons range from signifying "upload your weeble-like headshot" to "upload your Tom Selleck headshot," but it only takes a glance to know what is being expressed by the icon. In part, I think, the message is conveyed by the vacancy of gray in some of the images, the anonymous facelessness in all of them, and in the most obvious samples the overwritten "Photo Coming Soon!" text.

We've come to be quite icon literate, I guess: your cart icons (), shortcut icons (), and even silly ones like and .

The shortcut icon is as close as we've come to reanimating cartouche culture, whereas the little doo-dad icons (Photo coming soon!) seem more about conveying a commonplace through a vernacular visual vocabulary that has plenty of elasticity built into it.


On Buried Comments

The architecture of most blogging packages is such that the older the post the more buried it becomes (by newer posts). Instead of surfacing content, as other organization structures do, bringing old and new content to a front page and giving both equal prominence, blogs bury, cover over, and push aside the past.

And not only do older posts sift down deeper and deeper into the archive box, but so do the comments attached to those boxed-up posts. This gets particularly weird when someone comments on an old post, as I learned Boodge did yesterday to something I posted in the distant past: July 7th. Since you almost certainly missed what Boodge said, I'll post it here. Boodge writes:

And average Americans think they have it tough, try being a skateboarder. Honestly, we don't even look at those signs, we don't care we're going to skate your shit wheter you like it or not. Of course we go to jail for "criminal trespassing," but hey it's all about for the love of skating! Sk8 or Die!

# posted by the boodge : 11:27 AM

but you wouldn't know it because that comment is nowhere even close to this front page.

Now, not all interfaces work like blogger.com. For instance, the basic templates over at motime.com list "most recent comments" in the sidebar, so you can see new comments no matter the post they're attached to. Yes, motime is cool, and it's not only because it is run by the Howard, PongoManiac.

Diverging now from the whole blogs-bury-content thing, here are some things I think and have noticed about comments on blogs:
  • a lot of people see the number of comments a post receives as a barometer of that post's quality and importance. This is evidenced pretty clearly by a post by Jim that I was first alerted to by Jenny. Jim writes: "The odd thing, though, is that sometimes things I design to be provocative fall like lead, and then something innocuous generates multiple comments." Multiple comments seems to indicate a post that is good-and-important (in what Jim says), whereas few comments seems to mark the un-provocative.

  • (but I think that) the number of comments a post receives is an inadequate barometer of the importance or quality of that post

  • the comment section of most blogs can be a place where topical direction shifts in cool ways (from the original post), and I like it when this happens, but also where flame-wars erupt and posts get hijacked

  • when I used to blog without a comments function on my blog, I'd periodically get emails saying "You stink! I wish I could comment on this blog!"—leading me to conclude that having the ability to comment is part of why readers read (or said another way: readers like to read stuff by blogging authors who position themselves as open to comments/commentary)

  • comment etiquette seems to increasingly be that blog authors need to acknowledge comments in the comments; this is convenient given comment-counting-culture

  • comment strings like this one can become as much as or more interesting than the original post, truly expanding "the text" in blog.discourse


iTunes Lyrics Widget

While I try not to sing the praises of computers too loudly, in this case I can't help myself—sing!—the iTunes lyrics widget for mac is downright amazing.

Something is playing in iTunes, like Tom Waits just a second ago, but he's grumbling as he usually does so you can't make out a word that he's saying. No problem: slide the cursor over to the iTunes lyrics widget and, presto!, the lyrics.

Thanks to the sharing function in iTunes, too, most of what I've been listening to on my office mac hasn't been on my drive but resides elsewhere in the network. (Go to the preferences menu in iTunes, then "sharing," click on "share my music." You'll then have access to the tunes and other media of anyone on your network who has iTunes open and has clicked "share my music.")

While I'm not at all convinced that a wired computer is the best writing machine out there, it sure is a satisfying complacency device when it comes to hours of office work.


Flickr Javascript Slideshow

Just tried out this simple javascript slideshow that pulls images from a batched set in flickr:

I think it works and looks pretty good.

This little applet is one of about a zillion flickr tools that serve as companions to a site that is, on its own, an already malleable storage resource, archive, and instance of social software in its simplest form.

Speaking of which, I spent part of yesterday bookmarking, tagging, and organizing all of the readings for my "Writing Technologies" class in del.icio.us (they're batched at the top of my list as 481).

I originally got this idea from cbd who, in a very useful post, details a simple set of steps and nitty gritty of using del.ico.us in this way.

Students in my writing.tech course will maintain their own del.ic pages, too, so (once we're all networked) it'll be easy to share links and grow our list of resources/links collectively. This will take a bit of fascism planning on my end, in terms of establishing guidelines for batching and tagging, and I predict some diligence in encouraging students to bookmark with Martha Stewart in mind: you simply have to be orderly when working with a large number of bookmarks. In bouncing around other del.ic pages, I see some chaos in people's lists of links.


Finding Lincoln on the Map

On a lazy summer day in July, the prez of UIUC held a press conference to talk about plans to renovate an aging building: Lincoln Hall. The building is quite dilapidated and the renovation much needed, but what I found interesting about the press conference was the abundance of Lincolnism.

press conference
(photo curtesy of D. Hawhee image services)

Lincolnism abounds in Illinois, making anything that's pro-Lincoln or even minorly Lincolnian reveared in this state; any argument that seems even referentially pro-Lincoln becomes unassailable. Predictably, then, one of the arguments being made for the building's renovation was that, with Lincoln's bicentennial on the horizon, wouldn't it be a shame to have Lincoln Hall looking shabby while celebrating "this great man"?

(BTW: Brace yourselves, folks. There is already a Lincoln Bicentennial Commission ramping up Big Plans for 2009, a year when we'll all be spending the new Lincoln coin and building special Lincoln-themed floats for Pride.)

At any rate, during the Lincoln-Hall-is-great-and-needs-to-be-renovated (which is to say: gutted, stripped of its charm, and made "ready for the new 21st century"), an odd moment occurred during the q-and-a. There was a question gently doubting the President's commitment to the renovation, and in response, President White responded by saying:
I'm going to take this project on as if I was part of a married couple and we were renovating our house.

Now that's commitment. Flavoring the renovation with this marital and domestic flavor seemed a little odd, but I suppose not surprising given the lengths we'll all go to to protect our dear Lincoln.

On another campus note, I've been looking around for a decent map of campus, one that has a bit more aesthetic appeal than some of the more dreary specimens most readily available online. Whenever I look at this one, for instance, I wonder if I have my glasses on. And this one, though a little more charming, offers like way-too-little in the way of detail.

Google Maps, unfortunately and tellingly, represents the entire Champaign-Urbana area as an interstellar blob of pixels

which makes one feel, on a good day, under-attended to. On a bad day, being totally ignored by Google Maps can be devastating. There are distant planets represented by Hubbell images in greater detail.

The map I'm looking for will doctored by students in my upcoming "Writing Technologies" class, and I predict that the little home-remodel project that is Lincoln Hall will figure prominently in their ventures.


Cicada Skins

For much of the past couple weeks, I've been greeted by cicada skins wherever I go. This morning's exoskeleton was clinging to the bike rack outside my building, and after locking my bike I thought for a moment and then plucked the vacant skin from its perch.

Reading the cicada's exoskeleton (and plight) in ways analogue to moments of metamorphosis in our own lives happens almost immediately every time I see a skin: breaking out! moving upward! leaving old habits behind! And since they ain't got cicadas where I come from, upon arriving in Ill. I read up on the bugs in the usual places, learning that they creep out of the ground, burst out of their ground-bound bods while crawling up something like a bike rack, and then head for the trees for mating and song. So come on: who can't see or hope to see some aspect of themselves in that narrative?

The cicada's song is part squeal, part buzz, part "are my ears ringing?"—but an acquired taste that does not take long to develop, particularly since it signals the warm and lazy days of summer when things like ice and shade take on new meaning.

I have to say, though, that I've pretty much had it with imbuing "they mate and then they die" narratives with even a modicum of romantic, spiritual, or existential value. A few random samplings of this script from around el web include:

"Male ants live only long enough to mate and then they die."

"Salmon leap over great obstacles to get home and mate, and then they die." (You will hear this one a lot if you reside in the Pacific Northwest.)

"[Some species of butterflies] emerge for only about 2 weeks as adults, they develop wings, and genitals, mate and then they die."

"[Flying termites] swarm, they mate, and then they die."

The cicada and other bugs that combine brief stints of mating with sudden death, as I see it, have it about as rough as it comes. There is the obvious absence of revision and reflection time built into the mating, combined with an overlapping shortage of time to plan for one's untimely demise—particularly since one is so busy hastily mating.

Because of this, the cicada skin that's now sitting on a shelf in my office will stand (for however long it lasts) as a symbol of what not to do.


Cheap and Open

From Sam, a very webby critique of consolidation and corporatization of the web.

we are the web.org

For successful web-based critique, see funny, see moving images, see simple design, see a memorable url, see a message articulated in consumable discourse.


Online Archives, or, Part I in a Series Titled "Why the Web is Great"

The Translator sends me this link, check it!, to a comprehensive online archive of Nazi propaganda materials—posters, speeches, literature, pamphlets, and more.

I go first to the posters and scroll through the super long list of thumbnails, noticing quite a few birds in the iconography. Raptors figure prominently in a number of the posters, all drawing on the whole predatory-eagle-thing. But there's also this one of Duck Man, with the caption translated on the site as "Shame on you, chatterer! The enemy is listening. Silence is your duty" and by The Translator as "Shame on you, blabber-mouth. The enemy is listening. Silence is obligation."

I have no idea why Duck Man has four-fingered hands, but the duck head is apparently supposed to connote a chattery, quacky, thoughtless dabbling duck/worker of some kind, which is a little bit weird for me to see since I haven't seen another representation of ducks as chattery. They do often mumble to themselves, though, so I can see how this works. Florence Merrian, in a 1889 field guide to North American birds, writes a lot about "gossipy" birds—but the avian coffee klatch never includes dabblers.

Anyway, online archives like this make the web, I think, unquestionably great. You can listen to the wax cylinders over at UCSB, explore personal memories in the Memory Archive, view the Getty Images through a number of portals, look at old postcards in the Culture Archive, or even check out images of grill teddies in NYC thanks to one zany archivist or another. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with this archive of road signs, but the WTO History Project archive will be one of the things we examine in my fall seminar on "The Rhetoric of Social Engagement." It's easy to be an archivist online; it's easy to find and use archives online; and it's even easy to turn non-archive-like things into archives online.

Search Flickr for the term "P1000819.JPG" and view an archive of eight-hundred-and-nineteenth images shot on a Panasonic DMC-FX9 camera. Search eBay for instances where leather is spelled lether and boom! pow! bang!—enter a hidden archive of misspellings.

Nothing beats sitting in a rare book room and going through boxes of stuff, I'm not saying that, but I often feel I can scan and see more when using an online archive, and the ability to make the ostensibly non-archival function archivally is particular to zah web!


The Mel Gibson Arrest Report, or, Why Learning To Write Well is a Good Idea

I just got done reading the Mel Gibson arrest report in which it is described how Mel drives around Malibu wasted, tries to evade arrest, threatens the officers, verbally assaults them, and goes off on an anti-Semitic tirade or two. Though the report is physically tough to read (the version linked to above appear to be a scan of a fax), I thought it was pretty well written.

I'd even go so far as to say that it's a perfect example of the police report genre: concise, seemingly dry and objective, focused on a regular presentation of facts, peppered with such phrases as "the officer" and "the arresting officer," and always moving from point A (the offense) to point B (the booking). I wanted to read the report itself, though, because I thought it sounded odd that an anti-semitic tirade would have made it into the document. As represented in a few news outlets, what Gibson was saying sounded almost like nutty mumbling with little relevance to the arrest. This would make the anti-Semitic remarks possibly out of place in an arrest report where, in a sense, the author is charged with narrating events relevant in a prosecution.

But no no no, some of Gibson's bigotry was part of his direct threats to the arresting officer—"Are you a Jew?"—as he is also quoted as saying "I'm going to fuck you" and "You mother fucker" to the cops.

All no-no's. I almost hate to say it, but Mel would not score well on the How Evil Are You? quiz.

I learn from a few other reports that Mel's father is a Holocaust denier, and that Mel's own behavior while cuffed in Malibu is in some ways consistent with several readings of The Passion of Christ—a film I sadly missed in order to spend time sitting quietly.

So yeah: learn to write well, become a cop, bust Mel Gibson, produce a highly readable and detailed arrest report, and find your words read all over the world.