Thursday, August 30, 2012

Entry 3: Steal This Blog!

I know that the schedule told me to rest today, but like Cooper and Selfe's students, I'm feeling a little defiant. This is perhaps due to the fact that I'm flying out to my best friend's wedding bright and early tomorrow morning, and thus have been scrambling to get ahead of the game so that I can focus on giving trite-but-well-meaning speeches and recovering from the inevitable consequences of an open bar.

Before we jump in to this weeks readings, though, I'd like to share something with you all: these are some songs that Lanham's essay reminded me of. The composer is called by the name of Emily Howell. Please don't google that name or read the video descriptions just yet! I'll tell you all about the lovely Miss Howell later in this entry. Just listen, read on, and enjoy.

These four articles each expand on some of the challenges we've been talking about in class, but overall I found them to be both refreshingly optimistic and eerily prescient. The general theme of these essays seems to be, in short, that technology, specifically online technology, can empower the recipients of an idea (whether reader or student) in ways that would have been impossible prior to the internet. Of course, this hinges on our ability to, as Hawisher and Selfe put it, "identify and confront the potential problems that computers pose and redirect our efforts, if necessary, to make our classes centers of intellectual openness and exchange." (56) These essays, especially those of Cooper, Hawisher, and Selfe, were gratifying to read because they provide further support for an idea I've briefly touched on in previous entries: The best way to use technology in the classroom is indirectly.

As Cooper and Selfe explain, "the traditional hegemony of the teacher-student relationship, supported by the evaluative power of grades and the ideology of the educational institution assures that most of our students respond as we ask them to." (850), and in Hawisher and Selfe's essay this evaluative power is shown to be detrimental to open exchange between students as "classmates seemed to be searching for answers to the instructor's preset questions. And only three or four students were participating...Ostensibly computers were being used to 'share' writing, but the effect of such sharing was to make the class more teacher-centered and teacher-controlled." (61) Or, to put it more directly, when a teacher's presence is felt as a force of evaluation and hierarchy, students will fall back into the standard academic model of discussions that are "predominantly shaped by the value our society places on strong authority and competitiveness," (Cooper and Selfe, 852) and by "by giving up their total authority over how learning should take place and how to evaluate what has taken place, teachers enable students to learn how to learn." (857) As with my elementary school teachers using Word Muncher outside of the context of the classroom (as an option for recess), students are best served by technology when it is used to create a safe space where they can engage with one another without fear of academic or social consequences. As with the Panopticon, the students know that they are being observed (by the instructor, by one another) but the anonymous nature of the medium lowers the stakes, and "contributes to the egalitarian nature of the conference but also shifts the level of competition from that of personality to that of ideas." (853)

As gratifying as it was to have my ideas about teaching supported, however, I was much more excited by Lanham and Slatin's ideas about how the internet is changing Capital-L-Literature and Capital-R-Rhetoric. Of course these ideas about the effects of technology on academia are connected to their effects on teaching, but I felt a wave of relief wash over me as these two articles addressed the hand-wringing over questions like "what we are really doing, what the core curriculum really should be, and so on" (Lanham, 269). Their notion of digital texts as a means to transform written discourse from a hierarchical practice where the author controls the text to a collaboration where readers are free to bring their own ideas about order and content is liberating to me, both as an academic and as an artist.

To illustrate this, I'd like (as Slatin would encourage) to show you an article that illustrates some of Lanham's points. In this article author China MiĆ©ville argues that the web will alter the very identity of literature by creating a space where "Anyone who wants to shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on, will … be able to do so without much difficulty," and that writers should "be ready for guerrilla editors."

Slatin says that "the interactive reader of the electronic world incarnates the responsive reader of whom we make so much. Electronic readers can do all the things that are claimed for them - or choose not to do them." (268) Essentially, these texts empower readers, granting them a level of agency that was impossible to attain in a codex driven model of reading. The reader is no longer a passive recipient of an author's work, but an active participant imbuing him or her with "the freedom of movement and action...a freedom including the possibility of co-authorship," (Slatin, 878). We're already seeing examples of this. Video games, for instance, offer an increasing amount of agency to the audience, and the comments sections that have become standard in nearly every news site are transforming journalism into an interactive discourse.

Not only is the dynamic between author and reader changing, but the disciplines surrounding these fields must by necessity change with them. This solves larger social problems that have also been a source of great personal frustration: the "invidious distinction between high and low culture" (276) and the fact that "the history of criticism in arts and letters has been largely a history of arbitrary and invidious discriminations, single fixations across the spectra of expressivity" (277). These disciplinary divides, largely decided by arbitrary issues of funding, tenure, and academic ethos, have created a conditions where "the university world has for half a century been desperately seeking a 'core curriculum' for the arts and letters" and, as with Cooper and Selfe's classroomes, "the skills and mysteries of academic scholarship are not for the most part generalizable to other professions and, thus, are not necessarily useful to our students" (849) where "their own interests...their own styles of argumentation...are explicitly discouraged and often derided" (850). This applies not only to introductory composition courses, but - on one level or another - to all levels of academia (for example, in my very first semester of undergraduate creative writing, the entire first class was spent dictating what did and did not constitute "serious" writing. My own areas of interest happened to fall in the latter category). These two problems of uncertainty and alienation are both answered by Lanham and Slatin's models.

Lanham states that "Digital equivalency means that we can no longer pursue literary study by itself; other arts will form a part of literary study in an essential way" (273) and "Rhetoric becomes, through the digital equivalences such a matrix can plot, a general theory for all the arts." (278) The increasing availability of e-books and scanned textbooks renders the old barriers between disciplines obsolete, and has the more tangible effects of creating "an incredible personalization of learning, a radical democratization of 'textbooks'" and increased availability of "spoken accompaniments, language glossing...dynamically interactive bilingual texts," (271) all of which will encourage cross-disciplinary conversations between a wider range of formerly disenfranchised students and the creation of a classroom where "The instructor aims at a dynamic process, in which the student moves among three different states: from a user the student becomes a browser...ultimately, he or she becomes a fully involved co-author." (Slatin, 875) There are concerns with this model about copyright and piracy: "If 'textbooks' are distributed via local area will we protect the intellectual property of those who have created these works?" (280) But, true to Lanham's predictions, there are already numerous models by which these issues of copyright and payment are circumvented. There is mounting evidence that the need for a change in pedagogical and disciplinary paradigms is not a matter of if, but when. The common thread between all of these articles is the need for both openness and awareness on the part of teachers and academics. If we try to force technology to fit into the older models of discipline and assessment it will only serve to "support any number of negative pedagogical approaches that also grow out of our current values and our theoretics of writing" (Hawisher and Selfe, 56).

Finally, since I've gone on for so long, you've probably forgotten those first two links that I highlighted with my very-multi-modal red warning. Those songs, the works of the singular composer Emily Howell, is my strongest bit of evidence that the exponential effects of technology on literature, education and the arts are already upon us. As Lanham said, "Ovidian digitization in the arts has gone furthest, perhaps, in the composition, notation, and performance of music...What 'musical talent' is thought to be may itself change. New combinations of physical and neurochemical activity may become valorized as 'musical genes' under such a new system." (273-274) In fact, what even constitutes a "musician" is no longer quite as clear as it used to be. Emily Howell, though a musician in the sense that she composes new and unique musical texts, is not even human: she is a program designed by University of California at Santa Cruz professor David Cope. Emily is designed to "create completely original compositions. Emily Howell is adaptable and egolessly self-modifying in her ability to respond to audience criticism." She also shows just how blurry the lines have become between creator, creation, and audience.


  1. Hey Jacob,

    Awesome use of multi-modality :). And I'm sure as you suspected, I at least would not have known that the composer of the works was a program. You state that Emily is "egolessly self-modifying," how nice it would be then if all artists were (but I suppose that's why Emily is not considered human)--can she even be considered an artist? You state that "what even constitutes a 'musician' is no longer quite as clear" and I would agree. Considering Emily, what type of definition would you offer? Do you think it would be more inclusive or exclusive?

    Emily aside, I hadn't considered the opening of barriers between disciplines with e-books and scanned texts. Is it our responsibility though, as instructors to incorporate information outside of the discipline? If texts have become more widely available, I suppose one possible answer is why not? Students may learn more and gain an understanding of the perspectives different areas of study may have.


  2. Hey Aminah! Thanks for slogging through my long post. :)

    I don't know if we have a responsibility as instructors at all. More like opportunity. We were all drawn to our disciplines through long, winding paths that probably began with an interest that had nothing at all to do with literary theory or rhetoric. Before, practical concerns forced us to shelve our other interests and specialize, but I think that now, since technology makes it easier and easier, we can look for connections that we might not have been able to previously explore.

    Basically I agree: Why not?

  3. Emily. Interesting. This has me thinking about what is an author, which has me thinking about what is a text, which has me thinking about past discussions in the art world of what is art. And, as Aminah asks, might certain definitions of these terms include and exclude certain ideas/people/things/thoughts/ideologies...?

    Great discussion of Lanham and Slatin in particular. I think it's really fun and interesting to look back at their arguments and see where we've come and what still resonates (a lot, for me).

    Nice post. Thanks!

    (where was your wedding? hope you had fun!)