Writing This, Not That: Conference Prep

Academic conferences were more exciting back in the 1990s.

There you have it.  Months of research and contemplation on the state of the humanities over the last thirty years, reading this about the “science wars” and this about the fate of writing at the end of the century.  All so that I can make the bold claim–commonly heard among the late thirty-something year old set–things were better back when.

Of course it wasn’t all better when. But that is the thing about research.  It complicates clichés and grand claims.  Big theses ideas are in vogue now (Tipping Point started that trend, Steven Johnson’s work may finish it). But conference papers, in all disciplines, tend to eschew the broad strokes in favor of a message, an emerging idea, an almost-true finding. The conference paper is that unique hybrid genre that is not really grand (books, films) but not so small (unpublished papers).  Conferences exist somewhere in “the adjacent possible” to use a term that Biologist Stuart Kauffman coined.

This post is about how I am avoiding preparing my own paper for an upcoming conference  by studying the history of academic conferences from 1992-2002.  Cultural studies and the culture wars, the creation of departments for and about writing, the invention of a science of “complexity”–these were all subjects cooked up at academic gatherings (and, also, in very long edited collections).

I am obsessed with conferences.  Except the one I have to go to.

One major difference between conferences then and now was a sense of urgency about the presentations.  The rhetoric of resolve and urgency pulsating through this work can be attributed to fierce debates about the future of the university, and virulent attacks against English departments in particular.  Humanities conferences and edited collections of the 1990s were gutsy and polemic.  You get the sense that whatever the topic was (identity politics or the canon or critical theory) it mattered.

It is strange to think of scholarship in last days before the digital age more “now” than what we get now.  When scholars gave “papers” back then they were, actually, on paper.  They had linear arguments, barely any visuals, were read aloud to audiences, printed in standard essay format.  They looked just like the conference papers and essays written a hundred years earlier.

But while these relics may appear outdated, they do not feel old and worn. See this cultural studies anthology or this anthology about writing and culture–examples of passion and position and personality.  The culture wars inspired these critical-polemical pieces.  Today our battles are more dispersed;  we are more inclined towards the “relational” than the oppositional.

Uncovering connections or “networks” in writing and cultural practices is important, and good work comes from this kind of scholarship (see this helpful, if tame new collection for example). We live in an age when the lines between matter and human, social and private are  blurred (See this explanation by Tiffany Shlain and this book by Jane Bennett.)

Yet something changed after the culture wars ended without a clear winner or loser.  The study of literature and writing lost its edge.  Books and ideas, writing and literature have been replaced by areas of culture that feel more real and true.  Food, for instance.

There are countless tomes on the relationship between food and culture.  But I think of the Eat This, Not That books as representative of the enthusiasm and confidence, the sense of urgency and import, that was once directed at texts.

I know that’s too simple.  My thesis–then we had books, now there are kale chips–does not account for the emerging new disciplines of the post-postculture-wars age.

One such discipline is Writing Studies.  It talks about being a field that studies how writing makes connections and relations.  But it is also a discipline that distinguishes as much as it relates.

In their recent  “plea for writing” Sidney I. Dobrin, J. A. Rice, and Michael Vastola explain that the field of Writing Studies is about “theorizing writing qua writing sans subject.”  They mean that the study of writing should not be about ways to teach writing, but about writing itself: “not bound by the canons, grammars, and rhetorics of pedagogy that have been naturalized as the methods though which writing is learned and performed.”

Writing Studies is this: subjectless.  It is not that: about the writer, the student, the process.

I have a follow-up question for this new writing diet. Does it work? Will it work to inspire the many coming to the upcoming composition and communication conference? Because conferences are outlier genres in the academy.  They hang out in the in between space of the academy, the boundary between being this and that: published and not, polished and process.  Will Writing Studies be able to straddle this fine line?

Time will tell (exactly two week of time).

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Blurry Resolutions: Writing in the New Year

My new year begins with a commitment to focus on the primary subject of my book: the near past. Reunion: The Role of English Departments in Reshaping Writing is about how English departments influenced epistemological and cultural change in the 1990s and how we are living with this change today.  In this decade, we get the only example in the history of English in American when scholars in cultural studies, composition studies, and literary studies were united on a primary question: why do scholarship?

I decided that my historical research on the 1990s would be confined to the years 1992-2000. In the Introduction to the book I offer a few historical, political, and literary reasons for this.  But here I will offer another one.  These years mark my time in college and graduate school, when I spent most of my days in or around English departments. But though English was my home discipline, like most students, I pursued my degree blissfully unaware that the structural foundation of my field was altering profoundly.  The central terms of my discipine, “literature,” “writing,” “culture,” together formed the triumvirate that defined the culture and science wars and shaped a new direction for language, literary, and rhetorical study in the years to come.

*** A memory: the summer of 1992, around midnight.  My mother, only a few years older than I am now is lying in bed alone reading and marking up my copy (from a freshman year writing course) of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory (first published in 1983, revised in 1996). ***

Reunion will require some self-reckoning.   Why return to the 1990s?  What is left unsaid and unfinished?  What do I want to resurrect through the veil of historical and rhetorical scholarship?

So the book is, on the one hand, about the cultural shift in the discipline of English in the 1990s.  On the other hand, it’s a treatise about bearing witness, and the vexing, perpetual problem of observing with hindsight.

Even if the hindsight is blurry.

Everything I am reading now speaks to the problem of looking back to the recent past in search of something in the soon to be present.

1. Life and Times of Cultural Studies: The Politics and Transformation of the Structures of Knowledge, (2003) Richard Lee.  A history of cultural studies in the English-speaking world.

Main idea: “The institutionalization of the intellectual movement [of cultural studies] however, was accompanied by what was often remarked to be an exhaustion of the political project.”

Note: there is evidence about the failure of cultural studies to unite theory and practice  but a lot of work goes into avoiding the ambiguity of phrases like “by what was often remarked to be”.

2. Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today Cynthia G. Franklin (2009).  A study of memoirs written by academics and the relationship between this genre and changes in “the university today.”

Main idea: “As I argue for a serious consideration of the subgenre of contemporary academic memoir, I am especially interested in how academic memoirs anticipate and impact contemporary considerations of humanism and the state of the humanities.”

Note: I like this book but have no idea what to do with it. What if she is right, that scholarly-personal musings do (as surely they must) predict, transform, and create epistemological and institutional landscapes of the humanities?

And, best of all, I am reading two primary texts from the 1990’s:

1. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education, Gerald Graff (1992)

2. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, John Guillory (1993)

Both of these books are brilliant–and prescient–in their eager optimism (Graff) and persistent pessimism (Guillory): united in the belief that the humanities always requires finding a resolution between memory (loss) and meaning (future).

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The Company of Categories

This blog began as a chronicle of my near midlife career. For me, and maybe others at a crossroad, I hoped it could sound a weekly alarm in prose: “write or wrestle with regret.”

“Alarm” signals immediate need, even emergency.  And writing this blog sometimes felt like that.  It’s clear that the book-report/writing process entries could belong in a category I could call “alarm.”  Tag: product.

But sometimes writing the blog was like hitting a snooze button.  My musings on the end of summer and the start of fall (thinly masked mediations on melancholy) belong in this category:  “snooze.”  Tag: process.

I started thinking about the company of the categories I keep last Monday at the CUNY Graduate Center, when I had the priviledge of speaking at an event for Ph.D students and faculty sponsored by the GCCRC (a branch of the CUNY Composition and Rhetoric Community).  The topic chosen for the evening was the relationship between informal and scholarly writing.

At this half-life in my year of blogging, I thought it would be a good time to find out if the alarm and the snooze posts could coexist.

So I gave the group a tour of my blog, stopping to speak about posts that perform the blurred lines of public-personal-scholarly writing.

At the end of the talk, one participant asked a key question that prompted this post. She asked, “how does a blogger find readers?”

The answer offered by everyone was clear: create good categories and tags, those devices that enable blog entries to be “found” (linked to others).

I agree in theory.  But in practice I’ve been dismissive of categories and tagging.  I find them too driven, purposeful, and promotional. I’m always striving for something a little more illusive, something like the potential of prose. It’s the reader’s job to label and the writer’s job to, well, get out of the way.

Blame it on the French. Their theory taught me to read into texts, not climb all over them with categories.  Roland Barthes said it best: the minute we write, “our subject slips away” and “the author enters into his own death.”

But thanks to this extraordinary group of student-scholars, this author is newly energized.  I have found a truce between reader-writer and reading-writing, between the alarm and the snooze.

Reconciliation happened when I came face to face (in real life, real time) with actual people asking  questions that pushed my thinking beyond a false potential/purpose “binary opposition” (that’s a phrase to take me back)….

Careful keywords can help our many identities and identifications coexist.  But so can good, live conversation–not composed but contractual.

I now welcome a new category for this blog: camaraderie.  Tag: reality check.

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Ammunition for the New Culture Wars: Writing, College, and More Writing

Sometime in August I decided I’d go from blogging once a week (roughly) to blogging once a month.  I’d be busy writing so I wouldn’t be able to write.

At least not write this blog, with its dubious relationship to “real” work. While it is true that in August I had almost-finished pieces waiting for singular focus, once I let go of continuous posting, I embraced sanctioned disconnect.

Time for a separation between writer and reader I thought.  Some “space” from each other would yield heightened clarity and purposeful progress.

But blogging forces a persistent relationship with an audience. Without that, my work space was too quiet. Writing for academic journals and book presses requires attention to readers, but not the kind of readers who talk back and stay tuned.  Editors are tied to you by the timing of your submission.  Readers are bound by the continued relevance of your words.

Still, deadlines loom.  Is the path to progress paved by circuitous connections or determined direction?

My dilemma about writing–breadth or depth?–mirrors a larger debate about higher education. Do we pursue curriculum built on thematic concerns or should we “cover” core material?  Is college for professional “preparation” or is it for helping students stave off that inevitable skill-driven reality?

Progressive literacy initiatives like Writing Across the Curriculum programs often highlight conflicting aims of curriculum. When I coordinated a WAC program we told overwhelmed but well-meaning teachers to sacrifice “content” for critical thinking.  Our motto:  less is more. Teaching with writing, fostering small group projects, and using interactive technology offered an additive affect to learning, even if took up more class time than lectures do.

After ten years of faculty development, we got some believers. Professors report an increase in students’ interest, focus, and commitment to their courses.  But ten years later I also realize that getting students and professors talking and writing about learning only brings this central dilemma of college into sharper focus.

The question of canon versus connection or critical thinking versus skills preparation pervades Andrew Delbanco’s recent book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.   The “what” of college’s “should be”  is of great interest to writing scholars and teachers.  It is, after all, the first-year composition course that most often greets students as they embark on the enterprise of higher education. Delbanco’s book isn’t about writing but it is about the culture of learning, with lessons that speak to anyone who cares about the “college experience.”

Delbanco, who is a professor of American Studies at Columbia University, was one of my introductions to higher education when I was enrolled in his survey of American literature. That was in the early 1990s, when the “what” of courses like American lit–Melville or Morrison?–occupied academics and the popular press.  (See the cover of John Guillory’s book Cultural Capital for an apt picture of that time.)

Here Delbanco shifts his critical gaze from canons to college, from literary criticism to liberal arts analysis.  The undergraduate curriculum, what we sometimes call “distribution courses” is at the heart of what he sees as  a uniquely American contribution–of profound value and at risk of extinction.  Tomes on the fate of college are creeping up everywhere.  But College resists a rhetoric of crisis, with its requisite praise and blame.  Instead Delbanco offers history, pragmatism, and passion using prose as meditative as one of his literary heroes, Emerson.

But for all his reason and wisdom, Delbanco’s worry about the “liberal arts” curriculum and the future of young people’s minds radiates every page. He rebukes many who demand a more skills-based focus to higher education and also argues against a focus on “meritocracy”–largely an excuse to increase educational inequality.  Evidence that points to short-minded politicians sits next to testimonies of college’s value from the Puritans onward.  History and politics, but also a personal plea about pedagogy–that the teacher and student relationship that cannot be exchanged for technology–turn this book into a manifesto for a new/old mission statement.  That mission statement might read: the life of the mind knows no better home than the college campus. And everyone in a democracy deserves that life. Delbanco writes: “Very few colleges tell their students what to think,” and “most are unwilling even to tell them what’s worth thinking about.”

What’s “worth” thinking about might be a good definition for issues that stirred up those “culture wars” of the late 1980’s and 1990’s, when attention to “crisis” in American higher education reached its most feverish pitch.  But as Delbanco’s book attests, the central problems of those culture wars were never fully addressed. What is the relationship between knowledge acquisition and educational access? Between what’s rigorous and what’s relatable?  Between covering material and connecting to it? They linger in the form of debates about tenure, adjunct labor, remediation, skills, and “preparedness.”

When writers debated these issues in the 1990’s they pitted the public against the academy.  One reason for this is because “they”—the people declaring crisis and offering solutions—were largely entrenched in the systems they decried: cultural critics in leading newspapers, political pundits on television, established professors at well-known universities.

The writers were distinguished from the readers.  There was too much space between them.

Today distinctions are not so finely drawn between who writes and reads, who writes back to “crises” and how these responses get read.  That shift in the technologies of communication suggests that though the issues may be the same, our return to them must be different.

The culture wars have become the college wars.  But its warriors can be writers. The message for today might be that more matters: more participation, more posting, more response, more access, so that writers and readers recall that the space they inhabit is mutual and necessarily reciprocal.

See you next week.

Dedicated to all affected by Sandy. And to my cousin.  Though very far from this particular storm, he knew enough to send me the kind of message that helps regenerate any writer. Even when the power goes out.


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Writing Wisdom from Professor September

Every September, I have the same dream:  I am not going to graduate from college. The undergraduate kind.

I did graduate, seventeen years ago in 1995.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t be found out (unpaid library fines, unsigned Bursar receipt, the other Math requirement I “forgot” or assumed could be exchanged for a very similar course in Philosophy or French).

This fall, I didn’t have the dream.  I think it’s because I am not back at school.  September 1st, officially, is day one of sabbatical.

Starting a sabbatical in September is impossible.  It’s the least serious month of the year.  It ushers in stuff, gets things rolling, suggests. But September doesn’t actually do anything.  Unless you count school-supply-buying and calendar organizing accomplishments.

If September were an essay, it would be perpetually in-process.  September is the opening paragraph that you need, after eight weeks, to stop tweaking. But you can’t. Those first sentences are like sirens.

That’s why I thought I would bypass September by finishing some writing by August.  A few days ago I shared one section of what I thought was my completed article, “Complexity Circa 1993: The Discovery of Pedagogy.”  Because they are friends who are also scholars, these readers are supportive, honest, and know something about writing and its swift seasonal shifts.

They helped me see that the essay has a lot of pieces to it, but not quite the puzzle–challenging but not yet targeted.

To me that means one thing. The essay’s stuck in September.

I love September—the air, the promise, the clothes.  But I tried this year to skip it, to move from summer to winter without bumping into the awkward reality of what early fall knows: you’re going to have to add some layers.  Soon.

So before October arrives, I will bring some December into my article.  For as much as I detest the winter, I think it symbolizes the kind of seriousness a polished product needs.  The dark days of December through February are dense but short, deep but with a very clear direction.  At least in New York, when the sun’s gone by 4 30pm, the goal is to get to and from your destination with clarity. It’s cold and windy outside, hot and crowded on the trains.  You want to finish the day, get on with the night.

I may not be teaching, but I can’t escape September’s writing lesson.  A good essay looks behind and ahead at the same time.  It has an arch, a story to tell, and is firmly grounded in this moment.  And while the light of a bright, first paragraph matters, it needs to answer to the realities of deep reading.

In a time when research, especially in the humanities, is critiqued for not making things or saving people, it takes just one attempt (or 1,000) at producing a serious idea for print to realize: the scholarly essay is a feat of incredible invention.  To do scholarship, you must think like September but write knowing that December will ask for reckoning.

And when you do that, the essay transgresses seasons and transforms what the French philosopher Foucault called “the order of things.”  Process and product, September, December and the rest; it all mixes up when you want to make meaning.

Welcome back to school.

Posted in Complexity Theory and Writing, Sabbatical and the Writing Process | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Tao of Summer Camp: Complexity in a Word

Last week, I spent many hours in the car and a few out in the wilderness north and west of New York City.  My oldest child and I were “touring” potential sleep-away camps.  I know that’s a whole year away.  But any educator (or child) knows the truth of these dog days.  The start of August only means one thing: it’s fall already.  August is when I look up from whatever I’m usually not finished with and move on to plotting the end of December.

But my coming sabbatical shifted this August’s gaze. Instead of looking up toward the future of the fall semester, my son and I looked out. We glanced past the borders of the Bronx and into the bunks, bugs, lakes, mountains and potential memories for summer 2013.  Here was the plan: three stops in four days and the perfect fit for my son’s first experience away would be revealed—a place that would match my big dreams and modest budget and his fantasy/nightmare of leaving home.

An element of the ridiculousness trailed me as I left the library and focused on the navigation system programmed for the occasion.  My friend, a social worker, helped me concretize the impossibility of this quest.  She asked me what we were looking for in a summer camp.  The reality of the question—was this not the ultimate example of helicopter parenting?—was as revealing as my answer.  I was in search of nothing short of the simplicity of childhood.  That’s all.  Sleep-away camp as enlightenment.

Two decades of devotion to deconstruction and Dylan and I was sure I had stopped worshipping the idols of ideals.  And months of reading systems and chaos theory settled me, I thought, comfortably into a realm of post-humanism that left aspirations like childhood innocence behind.

But it turns out that theory is no match for motherhood.  Three exits on the Taconic and I realized that I was on a journey for certainty and truth, if only achieved vicariously through my children.

I believe, really I do, in complexity.  No, I don’t believe in it.  We are it.  All of us live “in a moment of unprecedented complexity” as Mark C. Taylor writes in The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture.   We are active participants in transformations but not independent agents in this networked reality.  Information, knowledge, and change move in patterns not lines.  Whether cells or culture, pedagogy or parenting, systems evolve “between too much and too little order” (Taylor 14).  This is self-organization: the constant recursive process of emergence and enactment.

Where was recursion on this excursion?  I had signed up for tours where the guides convinced us that everything was in place for our children to have their four weeks of programmed nirvana.

The summer began with me rethinking the 1990’s and the culture wars, reading David Denby’s Great Books and Michael Berube’s Public Access. It was ending on a road to nowhere, navigating a minivan motivated by magical thinking and driven by the ghost of Rousseau.

So it was something of a surprise to discover that the search was, as it always is, about something other than finding a future.  And I found this at a place where the past persists and where where my memories–of childhood, family, fantasies of a future–are most muddled: deep regret and sorrow mixed with unparalleled (still) camaraderie.

On day two of our journey, my son and I walked down the steps to Lake Ellis.  Here was where I spent several summers as a lifeguard, my last one in 1992.  As soon as I saw our reflection in that water I realized what this trip was for. It wasn’t enlightenment.  And it wasn’t its counterthesis either. What I was after has a word but not a definition. I was after “crodje.”

“Defining crodje gives you crodje.” That’s how my brother David would reluctantly respond (head cocked, eyes glanced anywhere but forward) when a few hapless campers, confused enough to seek a definition from camp-conceived linguistic eurekas, would beg for meaning.  From the end of the 1980’s to the mid 1990’s, there was a whole vocabulary concocted  by David (and sometimes by my sister and me too).  In the ecosystem that is camp—ripe as it is for spreading viruses and languages—David’s lexicon spread fast and stuck. But none was as powerful as the ultimate camp word he coined.  “Crodje.”

Crodje is a word, but it’s also a place, a state, a way.  It’s the essence of the contradiction of childhood (and, it seems, near mid-life):  once we know we are in it, it’s already gone.

Crodje is not a perfect good time.  But it’s not cynicism either.  It’s being present in the middle of possibility and reality.

Here are some things that are crodje: sabbatical, summer, swimming.   They are emergent and enacted–recreating and already embedded in something. How do you hold onto that split second when you are not wet, not dry, not in motion but not still—suspended in air, about to submerge? Who knows.  That’s crodje.

So is the euphoria of (finally) finding friends who laugh at your jokes, only to understand that they disappear when the first fall winds of late August blow. You’re sixteen and fifty pages into Persuasion and then the realization: you’ll never again “find” Jane Austen. Crodje.

Crodje is recognition that matters and it’s nearly impossible to be without.

See you in September.

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Moving from the Middle: The Definition of Meaning

Last week I reflected on an article I am writing about an influential 1994 conference on the sciences of “Complexity.” I am making a connection between this conference and the way we understand, enact, and teach writing.

I am using Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality (the conference’s published proceedings) as one of my primary texts.  It is not–all 717 pages of the scientific papers and the debates around them– beach reading. (But, really what is?  If summer is when you could “get away”–to the beach or park or someone else’s summer house–wouldn’t it be the right time to read exactly what, in mid-February, feels like one more burden in a day that’s dark by 4pm?)

But…considerable surprise and delight surfaced as I read this (inside, with the blinds shut up). Because some very “low-stakes” activities accompany the data on “complex systems.” “Low-stakes” is a term taken from a well-known essay by Peter Elbow. It refers to writing activities that are not assessed in the way we think of “grading” in academia.  Low-stakes writing helps students (or anyone) “write to learn”–to figure out what to say and how, to explore and experiment without the usual consequences of school-based work.

I’ve been keeping a list of complexity’s favorite low-stakes lessons, but that is for another time.  Yet the pairing of low-stakes activities and “complexity” proved fascinating and beguiling.  It led me (in last week’s post) to make the following statement about writing and beginners (or disciplines and disciples):

Once complexity becomes “C”omplexity (the mid 1990s) and writing becomes “W”riting (solidified as such in the same decade) they are more manageable entities to describe and define.  This is good–we need to be able to observe our world.  But disciplines also breed distinctions that deny access.  Strong disciplines and closed systems open vision but restrict expanded participation.

More on what it means to “expand participation” next week.  For now, I’ll only say this. Without expanded participation in the way of beginners’ access, we have nothing but boundaries.

It is next week (and then some).  So here is that one paragraph on what I mean by “expand participation”:

“Access” as associated with writing has a long and rich history, especially at my home university, the City University of New York, where open admissions, political activism, literacy, and the birth of Composition are all connected.  But by “access” and “expanded participation” I conjure this history and have a very present take on it in mind.   I mean having a definition of writing that is expansive: wide enough so that students at every level can explore the ways writing moves, and how we move it, and, in turn, each other.  That kind of participation in writing demands more than a “Writing in the Disciplines” approach to learning and more than a “skills” and “outcomes” driven first-year Composition course.  It means considering Writing a project where everyone is making its definition.

At this 1994 conference on complexity, scientists presented their research and data and then had to come together to figure out how that molded into a definition of complexity.

In 2012 we know the meaning of writing and Writing and plug in research and data to keep it simple.

I am stuck in the middle of these two moments in time.  I think at one point we thought that low stakes was it–the journey was the destination, the process was the panacea.  If only we wrote and wrote and told our students to do the same, we’d find our text, our discipline. The meaning was in the looking.  And now our assessment-based education culture (and discipline) seems all endgame.  We work backwards: we begin our classes, and sometimes research, with a defined outcome.  The definition gets molded out of a prescribed purpose. The meaning is in the beginning.

That feels short-sighted.

So, more on an expanded definition of middle next week.



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Paradox Found: How To Write About Complexity

I’m writing on article on complexity.

But then who isn’t?

And there you have it. The ultimate non-discovery of my subject of study. Writing and complexity are everywhere already written. Put in another way, the article has to be finished but already is.

Here’s why.

Writing—creating relationships with language—is a complex activity and part of a complex system.  A complex system is one “in which elements interact and affect each other so that it is difficult to separate the behavior of individual elements” says Carlos Gershenson in his 2008 edited collection Complexity: Five Questions.  In other words, complex systems self-organize: there is no one part that generates the whole, no whole that is not in refiguring along with the parts.

Examples of complex systems include ant colonies and the internet, globalization and poetry (see Ira Livingston for a rich unpacking of this unlikely last candidate). Understanding complex systems in our contemporary moment matters, if we believe Nobel Prize Winner Murray Gell-Mann and Biologist Stuart Kauffman, journalist Steven Johnson and Education and literary critic Cathy Davidson to name some of the believers.

Writing self-organizes.  The  “whole” can only be made out of many parts that feel unrelated but connect to another by way of dissection and replacement: repeated cutting and pasting. Some writing parts of are recycled. Some are discovered as new but later recognized as revised bits from elsewhere.

Writing is complex, complexity is writing. Such recursive wrangling can lead to charges of impenetrable “philosophizing” and irrelevant naval gazing.

But that would be too simple.  Because to observe complex systems is an act of radical and practical participation in them. One way to observe complexity is to write about it.

I’m trying.

Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking about “complexity” and “writing” but researching  “Complexity” and “Writing.” The disciplines of Complexity and Writing became my topics.  This is not quite same as the phenomena and practice of complexity and writing.  Disciplines are definable.  Practice and phenomena are complex.

Once complexity becomes “C”omplexity (the mid 1990s) and writing becomes “W”riting (solidified as such in the same decade) they are more manageable entities to describe and define.  This is good–we need to be able to observe our world.  But disciplines also breed distinctions that deny access.  Strong disciplines and closed systems open vision but restrict expanded participation.

More on what it means to “expand participation” next week.  For now, I’ll only say this. Without expanded participation in the way of beginners’ access, we have nothing but boundaries.

But back to the article on complexity and writing.  In this piece, I distinguish between “complexity” and “C”omplexity” (the phenomena and the system that contains it) and between writing (the act of composing) and Writing (the discipline that describes, defines, researches and teaches the act).  Both came into their own in the 1990s. Why and how complexity emerged as a credible counter to Newtonian science and a term of popular significance in this decade are questions relevant to the explosion of the term today.

Amidst the height of the culture wars and the attacks on higher education, Complexity emerged.  And so did the birth of “Writing Studies”—a subject distinct from both its relatives in literary studies and its past life as “Composition” or “Rhetoric” (for one description of a department of Writing Studies see this). Tracing the evolution of these systems as a product of the 1990s helps understand the dynamic relationship between crisis and innovation, practice and theory, new ideas and abandoned or destroyed structures.

Now we need to understand what might have happened with complexity and writing when we built the systems that contain them.

Paradox found. To write about complexity, acknowledge that the piece has already begun.

Posted in Complexity Theory and Writing | Tagged , | 4 Comments

It’s Hard to Run in High Altitudes and Other Reflections on Writing with Mindfulness

I’m writing this post above the clouds, on route home to NYC after three days in Estes Park, Colorado for the AEPL conference, “Inviting the Edge: Mindfulness in the Writing Classroom and Beyond.”  Here I respond to the question any academic conference begs: “What did you get out of it?”  I have three answers: 1) I found out that running in high altitudes made this long-time runner slow and barely able to breath 2) Being “mindful” requires grounded attention, work that is grueling, rigorous, and practical and 3) 1 and 2, running and staying still, sometimes confront each other in the act of writing.

Throughout the conference, teachers and scholars approached “mindfulness” not as a state of being assumed but as an activity acquired through practice.  Being present is one way to notice where we are in writing and life. At the same time, it’s a way to “detach” from any hang-ups that block a clear view of where we are.

Writing with mindfulness made the most sense to me articulated as a narrative, a quest, for finding a topic.  This was how Doug Hesse, Professor and Director of the University Writing Program at the University of Denver and the conference’s keynote speaker, began his talk.  Hesse used objects and images, personal history and cultural critique to ask how information of our present lives comes together in stories.  He narrated the evolution of his search for a keynote “topic” and through that story, came, circuitously, to a thesis.

That thesis came in the form of a charge: to notice the difference between two kinds of writing: narrating data in order to turn it into pithy prose and narrating in order to offer history and perspective, memory and vision.  The second sort–mindful writing?–has  long been the domain of a genre that maybe in jeopardy.  That genre is the “long form” essay.

Writing is everywhere in this digital age. But also everywhere is discourse that, in Hesse’s words, often seeks the “bon-mot” or snark, offering meaning that is “implied” not “stated.”  Without any indictment of technology (Hesse is an avid user) Hesse asked that we consider the proliferation of writing today and where it’s going.

That might be the most important question to ask of any writing topic.

To be clear:  I like pith, wit, innuendo. Even snark. In writing, in culture, in life. They confirm that, yes, I–“we”–are on the inside of the keen joke, the right position.  They affirm:  I exist.

But how much affirmation do we need, and where, ultimately does it go?  Can the academy and writing in the academy suspend affirmation for a bit and ask instead for heightened participation in our changing culture?

I don’t want to sound too rhapsodic (thought transporting, the conference did have its usual moments of scholarly angst and I was sure to insist on some discomfort by wearing my completely un-mountain-mindful sandals).  But being at this conference did offer a radical alternative to the standard  affirmations of academic conventions.

To be present at this untraditional conference I needed to suspend disbelief. And disbelief and critique define, if not identify, academics as academics. Doing yoga, long periods of quiet writing, chanting (well, pretending to chant) are all activities that suggest a wacky and wanton neglect of scholarly seriousness.  Where were the arguments? The theses? The running across greatness in the form of the year’s big idea?  The mindful workshops here focused on how to realize “what is” as writers, teachers, scholars–not what was or could be. Yet attention to the present was not some excuse for rejecting rigor.  Here in the mountains I experienced a kind of intensity of focus that confounded and enveloped me.

It takes practice, sometimes two or three days, to stay with, and run into a “discovery.” Rigorous attention is required when paying attention for seventy-five minute sessions. The standard questions of stuffy convention hall elevators:  “Is there some other panel more suited?” “Would I get more out of something or someone or somewhere else?” had no place here.  The culture of this conference was to stay put and listen. It lacked the “bon-mot” and,  in turn,  avoided manic meandering–the constant checking of conference programs for who’s who or could be,  the shuffling between panels, the looking around to find the next new thing not to miss.

I was grounded.  No pacing about the conference and, because I was a stranger to the altitude, no running up the Rocky mountains either.

And, when the workshops were over and it was time for an afternoon break, I realized that I had to learn to breathe without going for a run.  Put another way, we can progress in our thinking or writing without accelerating, without moving it forward.

Revision is “seeing writing again,”  just like Nancy Sommers once argued.  But it’s also seeing what is already there.  It’s staying with, and staying put, with the writing.

Without the potential for distraction or my routine escape (running) I had to face what was right in front of me: the twelve pages of researched prose I prepared for the conference.

“Distraction in Innovation” was the title of my paper, prepared for Saturday afternoon–the final session of the conference.  I think it offered the audience an opportunity to link  what we think of as “lower-order” writing (distracted or crappy writing done at the start of a piece or crappy writing done by novice writers) and what we consider “big ideas”—the stuff of intellectual “paradigm shifts.” It revealed examples of “higher order” distraction in great critical thinkers, the paradigm-shifters of  literary criticism (using Cleanth Brooks’ work in New Criticism as an example) and hinted at a relationship between this kind of criticism and the writing of beginning students in first-year comp classes.

But it moved fast.  Fast enough that I now want to return to the connections I tied together to make this conference paper, a fifteen minute story of how ideas work.  Before my sneakers hit the concrete again (only a few hours), I will try to employ some mindful techniques in order to think how I could have made these ideas more grounded for the audience, more tangible in “the present.”

But I will also consider presentness that moves over time and place.  I’ll ask questions of the article that take me not just to the mind and body, but also to the brain, the domain of that neglected genre–the essay. For it is the brain that holds memory and that makes the present noisy, unruly, and sometimes very busy.  Mindfulness bumping heads with the messy quest for purpose: perhaps this is a mess for writing to sort out.

So: What can be remembered from this essay?  Does it participate in something larger than the temporary affirmation of its existence?

I’ll have to find out when my feet get back moving on the crowded concrete of my home-town’s city streets.

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Writers Block

Last year, in the name of progress, I stopped recycling.  No more retooling old writing material for new purposes.  Sustainability be damned; I would forgo one of the key lessons of graduate school and go it alone: make it new, write an entirely different conference paper/article/book chapter.  I would do this not because the practice of reusing was beneath me but, rather,  because it was beyond me.  Around March of 2011 I realized that I no longer related to this work that had been so close to me for so long. Laser-focus attention on one manuscript, the “big” book, made my words sound so familiar they had become alien.

For any writer, or anyone trying to sustain writing over time, this condition is the result of dizzying revision–making the writing better and making it useable again and again.  Philip Roth sums up the practice best via his character Lonoff (the Malamud avatar) in The Ghost Writer:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again….

Writing as revisiting where you already are.

If there is such a thing as post-unpublishedprose depression, it sinks in when your sentences’ stretch marks are so severe that they can’t be tamed with an updated citation or a new angle.  That’s the state I was in when I abandoned much of what I had written in the recent past.  New research on the history of complexity studies, on materiality, and on the politics and culture of the 1990’s would not get tied up in knots but remain straight and future-directed.  Progress.

Now I think that promise of novelty and innovation was a distraction. Perhaps a good one.  Eighteen months after I tried to run away from what I thought was dead prose I am returning to find out if there is something alive, something between familiarity and alienation.

For this upcoming AEPL conference I am reconnecting with some “old” historical research.  Research on New Criticism (the “formalist” literary movement that changed forever how we read literature and how we teach it, setting in motion generations of “close readers” of the “text itself”) feels like it belongs anew. Some of these ideas got started in an article I did for the special issue of College English, Materiality, Genre, and Language Use”.  (At the end of this post I include some of this talk and discuss how I think new histories of major intellectual “paradigm shifts” like New Criticism can tell us something about writing.)

There are two reasons why I found myself in this familiar territory again.  First, I looked over all my “new” writing of the last year and a half.  Whether a book review of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter or a description of what my College’s Writing in the Majors Program does, it turns out that lots of what seemed novel were relatives of the ideas I’ve been hanging around with for years.

Normally that would depress me.  But in honor of complexity studies, and in particular the work of Physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam, I am celebrating the axiom that everything is one big idea.  That idea needs visibility in order to test its validity and its vitality.

Here’s what Bar-Yam, discussing the New England Complex Studies Institute (NECSI) and its early attempts to define the origins of complexity as a transdisciplinary field of study, says about the relationship between connecting ideas and creating new ones:

The first task of NECSI was to organize a conference, the International Conference on Complex Systems, to declare the importance of the new field and give a venue for people to meet and discuss what we were interested in. I invited many guest researchers with broad vision to present at the conference…. At the first conference many of them stood up and started their lecture with the exact words, “And now for something completely different.”  They didn’t see the connections to the talk before theirs.  By the second conference this was said by fewer people and by the third or fourth we stopped hearing it.

Complexity happens when ideas are in conference with one another.

The second reason why I’m linking old writing with new projects is this: it belongs here; it has found a home.  How do I know that?

From my “Writers Block.”

The ever-prolific Steven Johnson famously describes the social nature of idea generating in his blog and books. And Randall Collins‘ work researches the origin of intellectual ideas in “social intellectual networks”–like-minded groups.  I think of these groups as blocks: writers talking about writing together.

This is my celebration of Writers Block.

Writers Block.  Definition: a real-time coming together of those whose writing processes and products are discussed as ongoing, mutually important realities.  Different from: “Writer’s Block”—an individual stuck in his or her composing—and “Reading Block”: a condition that comes from reading so much so fast that the prose can’t move out of the confines of itsef in order to be meaningful in other contexts.

A Writers Block can offer the long view of innovation and progress: that it’s an effort of consistent cutting and pasting.  When we hear one idea said aloud we know that there necessarily had to be something before, after and around it.

The blank page still has to be filled.  But it’s the mix that matters.


Excerpts from a draft of the talk “Distraction and the Seeds of Innovation” for the  AEPL conference, June 28-July 1, Estes Park, Colorado.

(From the Introduction):

One argument of this piece is that we cannot seed innovation thought a particular heuristic or mediation. Rather we have to acknowledge that the idea and the process of getting there are both a part of single activity. The procrastination, or “bad beginning” I just described is one way I practiced “higher order distraction.”  Higher order distraction is distraction that gets acknowledged as an element of the larger idea.  My lower-order, or bad beginning became a higher order distraction when it was visible, described, defined, and in turn, realized as relevant.

Through process pedagogy and cultural studies, deconstruction and the student-centered classroom, we in English studies have done a good job of breaking down distinctions between high and low culture, between student and professional writing, between composition and rhetoric.  But my goal in this talk is not to break down distinctions but to put them together.  As part of a larger project, a book I am writing this year called Reunion: Writing and Teaching the Locations of Innovation this talk considers how bad beginnings and big ideas emerge together and how the literacy activities of my discipline, English studies, can make that visible.

(From the Conclusion):

A central task for new critics was to distinguish between what was internal to the text and profession and what was external, what was natural and what was processed.  Scholarly writing like Brooks’ essay in College English mixed the two, but made clear that this was the not the natural order of things.  Segregation between kinds of scholarship would increase in the years just before and then during and after the rein of the New Critics. Literary criticism appeared in books and journal articles while various redirections in the discipline, such as the turn toward a research-centered agenda in the 1920’s and 1930’s and conflicts which arose in response to the new criticism of the 1940’s and 1950’s were addressed in conference panels at the MLA and the NCTE.  This distinction led the way for the separation between a critic and a scholar, and between the critic and the text, an important separation that marked, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the difference between researchers, or scholars and critics, which had a “generalist” appeal to them. The difference between the immediate concerns of the field, relegated to the oral domains of the discipline, and the more permanent, scholarly concerns of the field, published in journals, was formalized in the late 1940’s.  In 1947 the editor of the PMLA began to differentiate between “brown” and “blue” issues of the journal:  blue for scholarship in literary studies and brown for “proceedings” or “transactions” of meetings or committees. From 1883 through 1970, the PMLA published the MLA conference proceedings, bulletins, and committee votes and policies as supplements to the regularly published volumes of scholarship. Other redirections in the social structure of the culture, including the growth of colleges and the increase in college students, the addition of women students and faculty and the wide gaps in the literacy levels of students, were seen as issues for teachers, administrators, and those who did not engage in what Eliot called the work of the “individual soul.”  Teachers of the new freshman composition or communication courses were most likely to confront issues of student population, learning, and curriculum in their “informal” gatherings and publications.

The example here proved to be only one in an untold history of distraction and fight with distraction in literary and rhetorical story.  What happens when we don’t acknowledge the melding of brown and blue, high and low, distraction and disciplinary revelation?  I think the answer is that we lose the many ways the work we do in rhetorical, literary and cultural study connects with a complex networked world.

When I say “the work we do” I mean the practice of literary criticism, rhetorical theory, mindfulness and writing—the stuff of conferences, publication, teaching.  But I also mean to highlight the work we do with beginning writing very particularly. In the larger book project, I continue my study of “paradigm shifts” through the present day.  But in the second half, which I hope to initiate with a chapter entitled “Beginning Again: Basic Writing’s Complex Possibilities” I turn from reading to writing.

The large and varied world of first-year writing instruction is perhaps the most maligned area of English studies, if not the most discussed and the most profitable. But its properties as a laboratory for complexity are undervalued.  And I think the many layers of distraction and innovation that goes on by teachers, students, and institutions in the name of beginning or bad or lower level writing begs for reinterpretation.





Posted in What is Composition Studies?, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments