Friday, February 15, 2008

My WRAB 2008 presentation

I'll be presenting at Writing Research Across Borders in just over a week. The presentation, "When everyone is on the border: Writing for net work," is based on my upcoming book; the conference presenters were also kind enough to subtitle the panel after that book.

If you're not planning on going, feel free to look through my slides:

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Some depressing statistics on where the US ranks in the world in terms of mobile phone penetration, networks, and handsets

Near the bottom among industrialized nations, just above (shudder) Canada, far behind (for instance) the Philippines and Singapore. Read the whole thing.

Communities Dominate Brands: Who is ahead and who is behind on mobile telecoms

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Zamzar defeats .docx

I don't have Office 2007, and am starting to get Office 2007 (.docx) files via email. Today, rather than requesting a previous version file, I used conversion app Zamzar to take care of it. Zamzar is brower-based; you upload the file and Zamzar soon sends you a link to download the converted file.

I wouldn't dream of using a service like this for something confidential, but for casual use, it's great. Warning: the free version has a delay -- in this case, about ten minutes. 

Zamzar - Free online file conversion

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Monday, February 11, 2008

A Spinuzzi on the big screen

This movie does not look entertaining, but it does feature George Segal playing "Dominic Spinuzzi." That means I will probably have to see it.

Three Days to Vegas (2007)

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Reading :: The Rhetoric of Cool

The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media
by Jeff Rice

I've been meaning to read this book for a while, but a positive review from one of my grad students pushed it to the top of my reading list. This student, who is pretty smart in his own right, used Rice's framework (which I'll describe in a moment) to analyze issues such as plagiarism. Personally, I'm a sucker for well-articulated and tightly integrated analysis frameworks, and from the student's description, I could see some real potential for discussing issues such as multiplicity (see Law, Latour, Mol) and dialogism (Bakhtin) in the context of knowledge work.

So does this book fit the bill? Honestly, I'm still trying to figure that out. I am still enamored with the analytical framework, but I'm not entirely sure how Rice is positioning it.

Let me explain. Rice outlines a "rhetoric of cool," an alternate way to analyze texts and particularly new media texts, and argues that this rhetoric of cool highlights a path not taken: "these meanings already exist within a specific moment that runs parallel to a composition studies' history that begins in 1963" (p.3). Most of the book performs this rhetoric of cool; Rice discusses composition theory and pedagogy, mostly pedagogy, contrasting its current state as emerging around 1963 with what it might have looked like if different choices had been made. Those choices are articulated around the points of his framework: chora, appropriation, juxtaposition, commutation, nonlinearity, and imagery. As he reminds us a couple of times, this theoretical argument is paralleled by a composition textbook that puts these notions into practice in the classroom.

So what is "cool" anyway? Rice explains that cool can be understand in terms of chora: an argumentative strategy in which different meanings are associated and placed in tension in order to produce discourse. Rather than choosing one meaning, the practitioner of chora uses all of them. Rice performs that here, discussing and describing various meanings of "cool," drawing from sources as diverse as McLuhan, Burroughs, and texts on jazz, hip-hop, and anthropology. Cool, therefore, is defined through association across several different and sometimes conflicting meanings. Rice does something similar with the date 1963, which functions as a touchstone across the entire book: 1963 is seen as the year that composition studies "earns its capital C" by extending beyond teaching lore to research and theory (p.12), but it is also the year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the March on Washington took place, as well as a seemingly endless list of other events in technology, culture, politics, and the arts. Like "cool," "1963" is defined associationally. On the one hand, this allows Rice to really demonstrate this notion of chora and provides a really interesting approach for laminating an associational argument. On the other hand, it means that the two tentpoles of the argument, "cool" and "1963," are forever indeterminate. I had trouble determining whether this framework actually constituted a rhetoric of cool, or whether "cool" just happened to be a term that is well analyzed through the rhetorical analysis afforded by approach; similarly, especially in the later chapters, it sometimes seemed to me that Rice was reaching when picking out still more events and examples from 1963, events and examples that could have been replaced by those pulled from earlier or later years.

Whatever you call it, Rice's framework has some real potential for analyzing new media texts, particularly highly collaborative and internetworked ones. At the same time, Rice tends to orient again and again to the composition classroom, and this is where I think he gets into some real trouble. For instance, he's very interested in examples such as Sprite's ReMix ad campaign and album covers, and he claims that a rhetoric of cool sheds new light on these practices -- practices that should be, but are not, examined in composition textbooks (p.107). But it's not like Sprite's ad campaign evolved in some dark cave and burst out on the scene fully-formed. Advertising, marketing, creative writing, music, and graphic design are separate fields, each with their own theorists, their own frameworks, and their own practices. This stuff isn't new, it's just traditionally been opaque to composition, and I'm not entirely convinced that compositionists should be expanding their field to cover these other fields. One, they're simply not equipped to do it in terms of theoretical and analytical tools or in terms of a deep disciplinary history, the way that these other fields and disciplines are. Two, doing so without a road map or clear linkage leads to a diffusion of the field, making composition more interdisciplinary than self-contained, and that destabilizes the field's arguments for separate standing and value. When Rice indicts the field for not focusing on images --

I make the distinction [between traditional rhetorical analysis and visual rhetorical analysis] because the pedagogical decision to not teach students how to work with imagery reflects not only an anti-visual ideological position but also a desire to use print in order to de-emphasize the existence of nonconventional or disruptive subject matter along with perceived nonconventional forms of writing (like images) (p.149)

-- he indicts composition teachers, who are spectacularly unequipped and untrained in performing such analyses, for not performing them, and ignores the well-equipped and well-trained instructors in graphic design whose students perform this sort of work routinely. Encouraging interdisciplinary partnerships or promoting more general courses in graphic design, marketing, and other areas might be more productive than trying to annex big unwieldy chunks of pedagogical territory from those fields.

Rice doesn't clearly articulate the limits of composition, but what he describes sounds like cultural studies rather than composition per se.

I'm also not convinced by Rice's characterization of composition theory. He tends to characterize it through examinations of textbooks -- and textbooks in any field or discipline tend to simplify theory to provide "training wheels" for new students. Just as an introductory physics textbook tends to focus on Newtonian physics rather than quantum physics, introductory comp textbooks tend to focus on rhetorical appeals, fallacies, and Toulmin structure; that doesn't mean that composition studies are forever stuck on these analytical terms. Quite the opposite!

Again, despite these criticisms, I encourage computers and writing folks to read the book. As I said, the framework of chora, appropriation, juxtaposition, commutation, nonlinearity, and imagery makes for a productive and interesting analytical framework for examining new media texts -- and, I think, other texts as well. As for the book's framing and pedagogical application, you've heard my piece; try it out and see what you think.

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Reading :: Ethnography Step by Step

Ethnography Step by Step
By David M. Fetterman

I've been really enjoying reading qualitative methods texts lately. On the hunt for another book, I spotted this one on the library shelves. It's part of the SAGE Applied Social Research Methods series, a very strong series for this type of book, and it's on ethnography, which I have always found to be very loosely defined methodologically. So why not give it a whirl?

I didn't regret it, but my world has not been turned upside down by this book. Ethnography is a big topic, and this slim book does a decent job of introducing it, but I didn't get a lot of new insights from it. Fetterman covers the basics in terms of describing rigor and validity in ethnographic terms, drawing the etic/emic distinction, overviewing interviewing techniques and other data collection techniques, and reviewing analysis techniques.

It's in the analysis chapter, by the way, that the methodological looseness of ethnography really shows. Fetterman lists analytical techniques such as "thinking," "triangulation," "patterns," and "key events" before going to more defined approaches such as maps, flowcharts, org charts, matrices, and content analysis. Fetterman also discusses "crystallization": a convergence of similarities that strike the ethnographer as relevant or important (p.101). And he adds here: "Every study has classic moments when everything falls into place. After months of thought and immersion in the culture, a special configuration gels" (p.101). As I implied, this orientation -- in which ethnography is seen ultimately as a road-to-Damascus moment in which opening oneself up to culture produces a crystallizing moment of insight -- engenders a methodological looseness. The truly rigorous work Fetterman describes serves to support such a moment of insight, but it is seen as useless without this moment of epiphany. (Lest I seem to be blowing this out of proportion, note that the next chapter is entitled "Recording the miracle.") I can see why Miles and Huberman's book on analysis made such a big splash.

For my particular interests, the most interesting and simultaneously out-of-date chapter was Chapter 4, which covered ethnographic equipment. Written in 1989, this chapter actually has a picture of a Toshiba laptop and talks glowingly about its "640K of memory, two disk drives, and a backlit supertwist LCD screen" (p.75). And the section on desktop computers speaks breathlessly of IBM PS/2s, with their 20MB hard drives. Wow.

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Don't buy that iPhone quite yet

$100 price drop on iPhones and iPods coming in the next two months | 9 to 5 Mac

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Remember the Milk

Although we've been using activeCollab for project management in the CWRL, I've been looking for an analogous space for personal task management. In particular, I was looking for a lightweight task manager that would allow the following:
  • tasks that can be listed all together or in projects, and sorted by date and project
  • a decent print format for tasks
  • tagging for separating projects
  • mobile access
The last point has become especially important to me since the last time I surveyed the landscape of project and task management systems. I now access the Internet regularly through my phone, which is with me almost constantly -- more so than the printouts I make for project management purposes.

After looking at several options, I settled on a task manager I've been hearing about for a while: Remember the Milk. Despite the name, it turned out to be just what I was looking for. The task management can be broken into separate lists (defaults include "Work" and "Personal"), but I lump everything under work (doesn't everyone?) and break out projects with the free tagging that is allowed for each task. The result is that a tagcloud shows all projects, with the size of the tag indicating the number of tasks remaining in that project. The tags hang next to each task, so I can print the screen and get a comprehensive list of tasks across all projects. (RTM's formatted printing, however, removes the tags.) Most importantly, the mobile interface (at is very clean and simple, similar to MySpace's mobile interface.

RTM was partially inspired by GMail. Unfortunately they don't appear to have a single quick-add natural language field like GCal does. But they do have Twitter and IM integration, so it may be that you can add tasks easily that way. I'll play with it over the next few days and see.