Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Selfes Strike Again

It’s easy to be extreme.

Subtract the nuances, those pesky gray areas that pervade our lives, and you’ll be safe to vent from your black or white pedestal of choice. As Jerry mentioned in Tuesday’s class, just because the horror stories of online predatory acts and Internet-based identity fraud have the potential to turn us into frightened old fogies, that doesn’t mean we should yield. We don’t want our students to think of us as the paranoid freak police, do we? I don’t. They already have plenty of reasons to think we're/I'm freakish.

Similarly, we can’t let the realities of social inequity in online spaces paralyze us from engaging in the important pedagogical work that new media provide. For example, while the racial profiling that happens on our nation’s border crossings surely shows its face in online spaces, such ugly misuses of power should not cause us to shut down our monitors and call it a hopeless battle against technology. Instead, as suggested by the smarty-pants Selfes, we need to strike a “necessary balance” of viewing technology both as a site where oppression exists as well as a place to pave rich possibilities, or “new discursive territory” (66).

And while my praise for the Selfes may be a tired tune by now, I’ve gotta commend them yet again for their ability to state the unfortunate realities without getting buried by them. As I continue to wrestle with how to approach technology in the classroom, their ultimate warning rings very true for me, and it is this: that our use of computers has the potential to “achieve both great good and great evil” (68). It's another push to be a critical user, not a passive one.

As they point out, marginalization happens through many “subtly potent gestures” (69), which refers back to the pervasive gray I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. It’s in those passing, nuanced, under-the-table occurrences when mistreatment most often happens. Just as Standard English has become the invisible default in computer interfaces, so too does hegemony creep up on us in sometimes not-so-obvious ways. Does that make it any less dangerous? Nope. In fact, the sly ways of profiling and other disempowering acts could be more dangerous if they appear with a low-fi consistency rather than an overt infrequency. If social hierarchies are build into the software design and infrastructure itself, we might be blinded to it all the more.

And while I found myself writing "isn't that a stretch?" in the Selfes' margins every once in a while (e.g. pointing to the white hand tool that moves boxes in computer programs as oppressive--come on, really?), I generally agree that guiding students to "recognize computer interfaces as non-innocent physical borders" (77) should be added to the agenda--pronto. On that note, I'd better go make some additions to tomorrow's 402 plan.

Roadkill Line-Up vs. Tucked-Away Technorati

I used to wait in long lines just to check my email. Volunteering for a year after college didn't really make buying a personal computer possible, so I'd wait... and wait... and wait... sometimes for an hour before I could participate in the world of e-communication that had seemed to overshadow all other forms. Scanning the faces of my fellow line-waiters, I'd often find that I was the only white person in sight.

Now, I roll out of bed, put the tea kettle on the burner, and fire up the ol' (and by ol' I mean a 2005 model--pretty ancient, huh?) iBook G4. In no time, I'm emailing with mom, checking on flights to a warmer destination, or blogging like I'm doing here today. I'm part of the technorati now. My dependence on the public library is no longer part of my life, and I'm thankful for the convenience that a personal laptop brings with it. But I'm also aware that I'm no longer exposed to the harsh everyday reminder that Internet access is clearly divided along lines of race and class. And for that, I'm not grateful. After all, why should I allow the digital divide be invisible to me when I know it exists? To some degree, I saw it right before my eyes, so why am I not taking steps to combat it now?

Is cyberspace the "democratic and progressive medium" (xii) that everyone claimed it to be in its mid-90s heyday? Nakamura replies with a booming "No way." And after being a dependent library email user for a short time, I'd have to agree. This stuff is far from being equal, yet postmodernist influences would have us believe that it is. The "roadkill" are alive and well (or not so well, I suppose), residing in low-income neighborhoods in every major U.S. city. In the middle of the city, yes, but isolated from cyberspace. Makes me think about Nakamura's later quote:

"While everyone in cyberspace is disoriented, people of color in cyberspace come to the medium already in this state, already marginalized, fragmented, and imbricated within systems of signification that frame them in multiple and often contradictory ways" (xvi).

So, before people of color even gain access to the Internet, before they are even subjected to the unrealistically categorized "menu-driven racial identity" aspects of cyberspace, they are marginalized and "cybertyped." And while breaking into online spaces is the first step toward having an influence over the infrastructure and discursive conventions that favor the privileged, Nakamura's warning that our online "fluid selves" are just as likely to be oppressed by the "cultural hegemonies, rules of conduct, and regulating cultural norms" that exist outside of cyberspace is important to keep in mind as our students engage in online learning/interaction. We need to remember that many of the same prejudices, pressures, and racist attitudes from the face-to-face world get transferred to these "theaters of identity" (I really like that term b/c it seems to suggest some of the performative realities that Katie and Shawn have discussed). And as an instructor, I take that as yet another call to engage students in the conversation of what kinds of power relations exist in online spaces. As a follow-up, I can suggest forming alliances, or "strategic affinities" (8) in order to become more active, critical participants in cyberspace.

But then I'm reminded that I'm talking to college students here--many of whom have personal computers of their own, and many of whom can't keep track of the countless techno-gadgets that dominate their lives and their backpacks.

If only some of our excess could be redistributed to the people in that library line...

Friday, February 15, 2008

IM: fiesta de chaos!

Well, our in-class IM-ing proved to be as de-centered as a conversation can get, I think. I was in the group led by Jim. It took us a while to get everyone logged on, etc., but once we did, I'd say we had a few "productive" discussion threads, as short as they may have been.

I found myself listening to Kristin's voice above others in that group, mainly because I was looking for a guide/someone to take control. As it turns out, Kristin was trying her hardest NOT to be in control. Still, I initially felt this responsibility to "accomplish something" in the look-we-are-being-academic sense of the phrase. Then, after the de-centering really took effect and all the jokes and emoticons were flying from every direction, I decided to stop forcing the issue and start joining the fun. And what fun it was... especially after we all joined forces and had a fiesta de chaos. Let loose, laugh, and know that as grad students, we'll surely find a way to analyze this in the language "academese" on Tuesday. It's in our blood to do so. :)

In classrooms of my own, I think I'd use IM-ing, but rather than let my students go wild, I'd hand them a few prompts that they would need to address as part of the activity. Then, as long as they cover those questions (even if it's minimal coverage), they can have as many emoticon wars and unrelated madness as they like.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sexual Chocolate

Non-academically speaking, Jeff Sirc is a total trip. I mean, before today, I could say that I had never read an academic essay that ended with the words “sexual chocolate”! And as unruly and outright abrasive as his views can be (see: full-fledged attack on D. Bartholomae), I appreciated the complete break from convention and politeness that Sirc displayed (I just tried to think of a word more casual than ‘display,’ since it seems hypocritical to throw down such an “academese” term directly after praising someone for the unconventional. But I failed. I’m a sucker.)

Comparing the field of composition studies to modern art, Sirc praised French artist Duchamp for pushing the expectations, challenging the bounds, and entertaining the alternative/rebellious side of modernism in art. Similarly, he’d like to see modern compositionists turn from their old ways of “defin[ing] [their] ends in terms of narrowly-conceived means (or better, conceiv[ing] of [their] means according to limited ends), despite the modern world’s take-over” (180). His main criticism, then, is that “experts” in our niche field (a field which, he seemed to think, is not too relevant, or of high importance, in the broader world of writing) have constructed a far too limited litmus test of what constitutes “good” versus “bad” writing. Instead, he thinks instructors should view writing in a way that allows student compositions to simply be celebrated as art for art’s sake--turning from assessment of subjective beauty to that of inclusive art.

Through his harsh criticism of David Bartholomae, Sirc asserts that compositionists need to rid themselves of arbitrary judgment-calls and social analyses that are based on individual taste and “literary hmm” and instead consider the dynamic compositional changes happening in the Interzone that can lead to a distracted wow.

George, Yancey, Wysocki

Speaking of dynamic compositional changes, these three seem to make powerful teammates in the battle for visual validity in composition studies. Much like Sirc, they are calling scholars to the task of expanding views and practices around visual literacy, so as not to view its manifestations as simple punctuations of written text, but rather as integral parts of the compositions themselves (Yancey 299). An important thing to note, too, is that both Wysocki and Yancey actually demonstrate a more complex use of the visual in their own compositions, which, Wysocki says, is meant to urge readers to “begin considering what kinds of constraints are placed on academic (and other argument by the ‘appropriate’ page layout we have inherited” (182).

From George’s perspective, most people have already accepted the idea that visual influences are an important and pervasive part of our society. Her argument, then, focuses on our tendency to be stuck in a “vague call for attention to ‘visual literacy’ in the writing class” (15) without articulating how complicated it is and how its application might work in a present-day classroom. In other words, “reading” the images in See Jane Run doesn’t hold a candle to the complex relationships involved in participating in multimodal design today. In her historical overview, George points to evidence that visual literacy instruction hasn’t reached far beyond using “low culture” images to support the “high culture” words on a page (31). I’m hearing echoes of Sirc in her notion that English teachers need to move beyond their Luddite ways of favoring the hallowed word-based composition over the “image-rich” realities that surround our students outside of our classroom walls. However, her own visual presentation and verbal discourse screams traditional "academese."

Wysocki focuses on the rhetorical decisions behind multimodal design, and while I appreciate her emphasis on social analysis, I think it's one that Sirc would find too imposing and/or uptight (see: his bashing of Bartholomae's social approach to his student's St. Croix travel narrative). As Wysocki states, “To be responsible teachers, then, we need to help our students (as well as ourselves) learn how different choices in visual arrangement in all texts (on screen and off) encourage different kinds of meaning making and encourage us to take up (overtly or not) various values” (186). In Wysocki's eyes, it's more than art for art's is about the self-reflexive in relation to the cultural.

And Yancey seems to agree, as she believes that multimodal literacies are “textured in relationship to each other” and “are social in a way that school literacy all too often only pretends to be” (302).

So, in contrast to Sirc's promotion of the freedom of individual expression without baggage of cultural meaning-making, these three scholars value the awareness of the socio-cultural situatedness of the composer. Where they would agree with him, though, is in the way he criticizes student assessments that are based on privileged taste and subjective preference. They also seem to agree that in this “convergence of digital and physical space” (Yancey quoting Frank Lantz, 302), students--and the world at large--will only benefit from going beyond being "passive recipients of technology" (Wysocki 192) and engaging in an active relationship with “...the intertexual, overlapping curricular spaces—between school and the public, including print and screen” (Yancey 320-321).

These readings all get me closer to an understanding of what teaching with technology could mean for me-- that instead of merely teaching students to "fill up those templates and fill in those electronic boxes" (Yancey 320), I can ask them to engage in, and reflect on, their everyday "rendezvous" (Sirc 184) with the multimodal texts that are already in their lives. I can stress the relationships, not the skills; the rhetorical choices, not the blind rule-following. But I can't promise that I can be cool enough to conclude my own academic compositions with phrases like “sexual chocolate.”

See, I even needed to add this meaningless closing line just to prove my point. :)