Teaching and a Trip to the Gramsci Monument: August in The Bronx

When August 1st arrives, it’s always a shock.  But this August 1st bring something more than shock. It brings recognition: back to reality. Today marks the first day of my last month before sabbatical ends and I return, after a year off, to teaching.  So this blog will be step 1 in my re-entry–a way to merge the semester that’s approaching and the summer that’s fading. My three courses for fall 2013 are:

1.  Introduction to Writing, for beginning composition students at Lehman College, CUNY

2. The Novel, for advanced English majors at Lehman College, CUNY

3. The 1990s: Complexity Science, Cultural Studies, Composition, and A New Humanities for Ph.D. students at The Graduate Center, CUNY

In the past, I’ve structured each class as an idea, often phrased as a question, like “What is Writing?” or “What Does the Novel Mean in an Age of Computers?” This year, I am trying to structure the three classes to work as one. This shift in perspective is thanks to a sabbatical reading about a host of changes that were brewing in the 1990s–in science, technology, ideology, culture.  I see these shifts coming to a head today.  And so I am thinking about my research on the 1990s and my teaching in 2013 as connected to a larger theme, something about the relationship between being at the beginning and being advanced, between introductory ideas and complex systems, between personal identity and social politics.

A complicated relationship between past and present, novelty and the already existing, art and the everyday, is currently on display in an art installation in the Bronx: the Gramsci Monument,  sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation.You don’t need to know much about the Italian political philosopher for whom the monument is built (Antonio Gramsci, who wrote the Prison Notebooks while in jail) to be moved by this project. The artist is Thomas Hirschhorn but construction of the monument was a collaborative affair, worked on in conjunction with the residents of the Forest Houses housing project.  The “piece” (or pieces) of this project,  make up a mini-neighborhood, with an area for an open-mike, for children to do art projects, for the radio station, the newspaper, the library and cafe.


By visiting, as my family did last week, you participate in its mission.  That mission is laid out by the artist, Thomas Hirschhorn, in four points:

 Establish a new term of monument

 –Provoke encounters

 –Create an event

 –Think Gramsci today

The lessons of this space last well past the initial visit.  In viewing and participating, I became an expert and a beginner, a poseur and an intellectual, an artist and an accidental tourist all at once. The visit also helped me re-frame my return to teaching.  September is not a new beginning but a continuation of a construction project (art monument?) already in progress.

See you in class.

Posted in Writing | 4 Comments

Leaning In and Moving On: A Seat at the Writing Table

Like everyone other woman in a certain place in life, I am reading Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.  This is Sandberg’s manifesto on why feminism has stalled.  She argues that women don’t assert themselves enough, don’t demand “a seat at the table.” It’s a phrase that gets repeated like the chorus of a pop song.  “Lean In” has become a catchy truism.  It has taken up residence in my psyche before I’ve had the chance to question whether I want its accompanying baggage.

The table of her Lean In is in the corporate boardroom, where big things happen: risky ideas, influential connections, game-changing decisions. Sandberg describes how she is often the only woman seated at this table.  But in every arena women are not filling important leadership positions where risk and reward await because they don’t “lean in.” They don’t believe they can.  But they should.  We should.  Though obstacles have and will come along the way, Sandberg says the first step to getting ahead is to assume you should be there.

No doubt Sandberg was not thinking of English professors when she went looking for a cure to what ails women in the workforce. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of leaning in and whether there is a relationship between writing a book and “getting a seat” at the proverbial table.

Writing a book, like “leaning in” at work is risky, aggressive, and full of uncertainty.  You must insist that your characters–or in my case, cultural and literary events and ideas–matter.  In doing so, you insist that you matter.  That I matter.

That’s hard to do.  Writers don’t know if the work matters until the thing is finished and is read by others.  That is, if it gets read. So we have to believe in the ending even though we are at the beginning.

I’m reading Lean In while listening to music–a soundtrack that I wouldn’t, at first, deem a likely pairing for Sandberg’s treatise.   The CD of songs I have here is called  “My Last Mixed Tape” : “Alternative Music of the 1990s”.  

I got the CD–not a real mixed tape like from my adolescent angst days– at (deep breath) Starbucks.  I hereby swear that this was my first time buying music next to free samples of caramel macchiatos.  But the circumstances were trying. I had just finished giving a paper at an academic conference: twenty minutes talk time, twenty hours work load.  I spoke for a small crowd in a huge hotel that time forgot (the wallpaper was pre-mixed tape era).  Still dressed for winter–it was 40 degrees inside despite the desert climate– I found this Starbucks after a string of bikini shops and bars, and a futile search for green vegetables and shade.

The CD is full of those post Cold-War, pre-digital age anthems of emptiness and anxiety.  Radiohead’s “No Surprises” is here. So is Belle and Sebastian.  Nirvana is not here, but should be.  

The songs relate to the manuscript I am working on about writing and culture in the 1990s.  But they also tell us something about cultural and historical depictions of success, then and now.  Instead of the 2013 world of  “leaning In,” many culture makers of the 1990s– from academics like Bill Readings to artists like Sean Landers— were feeling tied down by a world that could not acknowledge or accommodate a diversity of identities, emotions or experiences. The CD seemed to say, circa 1993, “better to lean out.”

I grabbed the CD in an attempt to live in both of these worlds–the 1990s and today.  I wanted to go back in time, press pause on the insistent drive to power, reignite the ethos of grunge–serious and thoughtful critique from the margins.  But I also hoped that these songs would propel my writing project forward, back into the room and at the writing table of success. The package printed printed on the cover suggested this possibility.  It reads, “A mix tape can convey a mood or a theme…or it can be like this CD—a collection from the ‘90s heyday of mix tapes that you just gotta here.”

“Would this music speak to the mood or the theme of my book?” the 97 degree heat of Vegas had me asking.  Perhaps this compilation could tell me something that the intellectuals of the library stacks could not. Or at least tell me something about how we (or corporate) are mass-producing nostalgia for that decade, now that we are far from it.

I played the CD in the privacy of my hotel room of no view. Not bad, not great. Liz Phair and Pavement did offer a welcome way out of Vegas.  And, for a brief moment I leaned all the way into another geography, another generation, a familiar, if fuzzy picture of possibility.  There we are, my sister and brother in May 1993, 1994. It’s summer. Maybe.  We are sitting together.  I think.  We are in David’s tiny bedroom.  He is there.  The shades are down. And we are listening to “alternative.”

But just as I tried to capture that room and our places in it, they were gone. The mood yielded a moment in time and a spot in history.  But it did not make a book.

Turns out, even in Vegas, there is no one quick fix, no easy ticket to getting a seat at the table.  Sandberg would agree.  We need more than nostalgia or desire; we need hard work, confidence and a healthy dose of tolerance for risk to get our seat at the table.   

But that doesn’t tell the whole story of success either. At least not for writing.  Because a “seat at the table” assumes that this table is already there.  Our job is to go out there and sit right down. 

Only some businesses are filled with empty rooms that require setting a table of our own making.  A writer’s workplace is like this.  A writer has to lean into ideas so that they can exist and progress.  But she also needs to know when to get up and move on, when all of that forward moving misses the mark, losing what was once there, or bypassing what is right in front of us.  She needs to know when the table we sit at is either too desolate or too crowded or too popular: furnished by memory’s ghosts or with soundtracks already compiled by coffee shop chains. 

I’ve got no catch phrase, no refrain, for making this balancing act work.  Only this: though we may be stuck in the desert sometimes, let there be no cure in the quest for something, somewhere, alternative.

Posted in Family, Writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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.

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

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.


Posted in The Culture Wars, Then and Now | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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.

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