Class prep

I’m teaching a summer version of the upper-division Technical and Professional Writing service course, starting in a week. I haven’t taught an online course before, and you’d think it would play to my strengths – I am a very different creature in email than in person – but I’m still getting used to the strange idea that I won’t need to go to class and may never meet any of my students.

I’ve taken several online courses, of course, so I know that end of things, but I’m adjusting more slowly than I’d expected to the online teacher role. And to add to the adjustment, I decided to switch to a different text, Johnson-Sheehan’s TCT, so almost all of my materials need to be rewritten from stratch. I do such a wonderful job of making work for myself. I had been using Mike Markel’s TC, and it’s a fine book – and I will probably use it again, too – but I needed a change of scenery.

Of course, the two texts are more or less interchangeable – this course has some options in terms of arrangement and speed, but the content is largely determined. I’d like to teach this class around the proposal, having them write one at the start of the semester and another at the end, but I’d like a full semester for that kind of manuever. 10 weeks is not that long, really.

Autism & Writing

There are many good articles in the May CE besides my measly one, but one that stood out to me in terms of personal experience is the first one, Ann Jerecic’s “Neurodiversity.” She discusses, among other related issues, how to approach teaching academic writing with a student that has Asperger’s.

First – I’ve had students that match the definition of Gregory, her anonymous student. For one in particular, an excessive attention to details, rules, prescriptions – anything that enabled an analytical approach to writing – worked quite well. Once the rhetorical problem had been placed in a box, so to speak, and transformed into a mathematical equation of sorts, then some very readable writing emerged. There was still something off about it, a whiff of something overtly constructed – but that is a common observation about J. Random Freshman. There is a hint – a strong hint – in her article that the old C-T models of teaching writing are actually appropriate for this kind of student.

Second – a bit of an aside: having read some of Temple Grandin‘s writing (she is used as an example in the essay), I have to say I like her style quite a bit. The gaps work for me. Sometimes I don’t even notice them as she is so relentlessly linear – transitions, for her, are largely superfluous, in a Patrick O’Brian sort of way – it’s more about the flow than the water. If I didn’t have a ‘high-functioning autistic’ label to fall back on, I would call her writing passionate and driven. If she were a student of mine, I would, of course, suggest she make some of those connections explicit, and maybe combine some sentences with the same idea in mind, but it wouldn’t be for me; it would be for other readers. (And I would add that in the paragraphs Jerecic uses from Grandin, what better way to explain her associative way of thinking than by example – given it is, admittedly, the topic at hand?)

Third – I have been informed more than once – jokingly and not jokingly – that I am probably have Asperger’s. I didn’t dismiss it out of hand, but read up on the topic a few years ago to consider the possibility. And it’s true – I can be incredibly focused, working all day and night on a single problem. I can also be socially ineffective at times, to the point of being tongue-tied at a simple hello. And I can think almost exclusively in logical terms on highly inappropriate occasions, using strictly literal interpretations of language.

But I can also be incredibly lazy, getting nothing done and drifting from task to task, even highly interesting tasks (this post is a great example, as I am delaying a lengthy email on a completely different topic by writing here). I can visit with friends and family and carry on conversations with strangers. I can definitely react, quite frequently, without any recourse to logic whatsoever. And I adore metaphors, rhymes, and other such linguistic acrobatics.

So I cannot be simplified to a label – and this is a state that I would extend to others. No one can.

This brings me, obliquely, to the climax of Jurecic’s essay, where she seeks a “middle ground” and cautions against the extremes of, on one hand, classifying all students neurologically, and on the other, discounting all biological considerations. One of the key ideas I got from researching the subject is that there is a spectrum to Asperger’s and autism, and not necessarily a linear one; in other words, there is no typical set of symptoms. We can’t just point to anyone and say, “They have Asperger’s,” and then look up and apply the appropriate pedagogy – an ironically analytical solution. This idea lies behind Grandin’s Genius May Be An Abnormality – a mere label can block off possible educational routes, as well do hell for self-esteem.

So we must end up where we began, really – treating students as individuals, as new and different cases every time, as much as we might think, rationally, that we see recurring patterns of behavior that would allow us to put students in tidy boxes. We have to constantly fight the call to generalize and abstract our charges, even in a large classroom. Her quotes from Shaughnessy recognize, quite glibly, I think, that the problem at the college level is certainly not too much individual attention or that we know too much about writing. And in that sense, her article is about much more than its single-word title implies.


Concentrating on writing this week has paid off – I finally have a good draft of the gospel metaphor paper, something I would not be completely embarassed to send out. Note, of course, that I have not been encamped in my office for five days, given what I said a few posts back. That’s the thing about self-imposed deadlines – I always miss them, but by setting them, I gain enough momentum that it all gets done anyway.

In the next week or two, I’m going to get very sad, as several of my favorite TV shows are ending seasons. Lost has set up a huge 3rd season finale. Heroes is ending its 1st. And the Sopranos is about to end for good – I might write a lengthy reflection on it after it passes.

Objections to Turnitin

Reading Lindey (see last post) made me think about why I don’t like Turnitin, and why I’ve so far declined to use it. The UofM has a license, but has not yet made using it mandatory. This is good, as I would refuse to use it. I have three reasons: building trust with students, commercial interests, and loaded rhetoric.

1) Respect for students

I used to work in a laptop repair facility. Every day I had to walk through a metal detector before I could leave the building. This was because nearly all of us had a degree of access to a massive stockpile of computer parts that could be easily resold. I didn’t like the presumption of guilt, but I was ok with the process as I saw everyone in the building had to walk through the detector, from management down to the temps. There was no trust, but it was democratically applied, in much the same way that members of Congress, like everyone else, have to take off their shoes to get on a plane these days.

Turnitin also presupposes guilt. Students learn up front that they are suspects in an ongoing investigation (watch those crime metaphors for reason #3). Every time they turn in a paper, they must prove themselves once more.

But at least here, not all courses require such draconian measures. I’ve never heard of a graduate course requiring Turnitin. I’ve certainly never heard of a professor being asked to submit a paper to a journal through such a service. So not only is there a jaded eye from the start, but a double standard exists as to who is a suspect. Not everyone is being asked to walk through the detector – there are other lines, with higher trust levels. And in a supposedly democratic society, a tiered system of trust is appalling. Either everyone should go through the detector, or no one, in my book.

2) Commerical interests

I don’t mind the university spending money on copies of Windows, computers, janitors, teacher salaries, etc. These are all part of what is necessary for a modern education.

What I don’t like are companies that are in the education business solely for profit. I worked for one (which will go blissfully unnamed) a few summers ago, and quickly became disillusioned, as everything they did had a veneer of respectibility and concern, but in the end it was all assembly-line – at the end of the day, the organization existed only to perpetuate the organization. Opportunities for soul-searching were non-existent. Turnitin has that same stink about it. They are not there for students, but for a bottom line. Morally, they are at the same level as the sites that sell papers – they only make money off the other end of things. The less academia has to do with such entities, the better. Some are necessary evils – book publishers in particular – but plagiarism detection services (which makes me think of private eyes), we could do without.

I also don’t like how Turnitin retains old student papers, either, a state of affairs that parallels Google’s questionable ability to keep a copy of damn near everything that exists.

3) Loaded rhetoric

Plagiarism is almost always, save by progressive folks, described as a crime – a theft, a kidnapping (from the Latin root), or some sort of vaguely defined moral sin, the 11th commandment. It smears in the same way that an accusation of pedarasty does, even if the case is thrown out.

Efforts to combat plagiarism have the air of a police action. Rules for citing must be enforced. The UoM has a “task force” on plagiarism, which makes it sound like Chuck Norris is getting ready to storm Patterson. This bombastic nonsense all stems, I think, from viewing plagiarism as a crime – the academic streets need cleaning up. And thus the language resembles a police procedural.

We should be jumping for joy every time a student plagiarizes, because that means our existence as teachers of composition is validated, as we have something to teach them – citation, research, the need for critical thinking. We should get down on our knees and thank the Internet for making it easier to plagiarize, because it means we will be employed for the foreseeable future, stemming the metaphorical digital tide. We should be eternally glad that plagiarism is seen as a problem that needs fixing, because if all incoming students cited their sources fairly and accurately and did clever research out of the box, then there wouldn’t be much for us to do. We should leap to the opportunity to teach here. Plagiarism is a blessing, not a curse.

Of course, by doing so, we have to nod and wink at this constructed sin of citation called plagiarism, and allow it to continue to fester unabated so it can be treated. Because if we killed it off or contained it too well, as all these enforcement measures seem to be designed to do… I find this situation more than a little morally ambigious for composition studies; there is a hint of hypocrisy.

Alexander Lindey’s 1952 Plagiarism and Originality

One of the most pleasant things that can happen to me in a library is when I am looking for a book and I find others that I wasn’t specifically looking for that are also compelling.

This one was sitting horizontally on the shelf by itself in McWherter near the rhetoric section; someone had, evidently, plucked it from its vertical home, flipped though, found it wanting, and set it down. I picked it up, flipped through, instantly recognized good mid-XXth prose and took it with me.

Lindey’s approach to plagiarism is twofold. He examines it from the legal perspective of copyright law and important casework, and from a genre perspective through the arts – plays, novels, short stories, scupltures, paintings, music, and movies. He is very well read, pulling examples from all historical era – dodging, of course, the early Christian one with a single sentence under the ‘Plagiarism in Reverse” section – “To gain a wider and more heedful audience, the early Christian preceptors often ascribed the authorship of their commentaries to one or another of the apostles.” He seems to be a lawyer first and an academic second.

Now his take is limited for me as he is not writing in the age of the DMCA or the Internet, and he is not concerned with academic plagiarism – he doesn’t even mention it. But he does note, interestingly enough, how the “word-eating dragons,” radio and TV (still pretty new in ’52), have made “borrowing and theft” much easier.

Let’s see if I can summarize his position, though. His last chapter, “Summing Up,” makes this easier, of course…
All artistic works are interrelated and codependent; all artists borrow to some degree; the great and famous get away with it more easily than the humble and unknown; new media is making it easier to plagiarize; most cries of plagiarism come from innocent and legitimate borrowing; anyone can be charged with plagiarism despite their station; almost no one knows infringement law; nobody gets sued for copyright over a flop, only successes; fallacious reasoning is a standby of copyright trials; and judges are usually pretty good at decisions in these cases.

But perhaps most importantly, all cases of possible infringement are contextual and have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, partially because the definition of plagiarism is constantly shifting, and entirely dependent on genre (Copying in the art world is very different from novels, for example). Regardless of form, though, there is always a huge gray area between “definite” borrowing and “definite” plagiarism.

Today, I have a mission

And that mission is to finish the new draft of the gospel metaphor paper, tonight. I’m not leaving the office until it’s done. It has been a thorn in my side for way too long, and it needs to go out by the end of this month. All the research is there, the argument is as good as it will get – it just has to be cleaned up. I have done everything short of build a skyscraper out of toothpicks and detail my car to avoid working on it, though. It’s amazing how much housework and reading can get done when there is actual writing to do. This situation ends today.

I have even set up a reward – if I finish it tonight, I’ll come home and finish off demolishing France in my new run through EU3. It’s 1544 and Scotland has colonized eastern North America, conquered the Aztecs and the Incas, and formed Great Britain. Now all prevents Scottish dominion is pesky France, and the other night I took most of Burgundy from them by tricking them into war via their ally Norway. Austria is 20 years or so away from forming Germany – I think I can absorb most of France in time to fight them.

Aristotle’s Topics and Cicero’s Topica

My chair, who has an article that touches on the subject via Aristotle’s Rhetoric, gave me a short mission not too long ago – read Aristotle’s Topics (of which I have Robin Smith’s translation of I and VIII with various excerpts of the rest) and Cicero’s Topica (of which I have the Loeb), supposedly based on the former, and try to figure out what the hell happened, as Cicero doesn’t seem to using anything resembling our text of Aristotle. Some initial thoughts follow.

Cicero‘s text is a lot more focused. This observation of mine is due to his much appreciated habit of giving a short and specific legal example for every topic that he discusses. Aristotle’s examples tend to be universal, as he is trying to not only list lines of argument but develop a system or definition of deduction and various means for generating and practicing such. Cicero is also calling upon his vast experience in the courts.

Cicero‘s text is also more impressive for three reasons – he composed it at the height of the intrigues in Rome – sending it to Trebatius in July of 44 BC, three months after the assassination of Caesar – and if he can be believed, entirely from memory without his library on hand – and at sea, no less. Writing it, with all its comforting classifications, was probably a welcome distraction from worrying about the situation in Rome. Of course, he plots with Brutus in August and the first Phillippic is in September, so let’s not fool ourselves – he’s a busy fellow – but he is also an exacting fellow. I hesitate at first to believe that he claimed to know cold Aristotle’s Topics in vain, especially since Trebatius seems to have appealed to his intellectual vanity by being “repelled from reading the books by their obscurity.” (Although maybe his Greek was poor.)

Cicero knew SOME text on topics attributed to Aristotle, which he kept in his villa in Tuscany, and it was a text he felt comfortable showing to a friend in a casual setting. So it was probably a scroll in good shape, a recent copy made specifically for his library rather than a ragged relic full of holes. The possibility that this copy was part of Andronius’ 1st century BC edition of Aristotle’s works seems very slim – Cicero never mentions the guy, anywhere, so that edition, which is probably ours, is post-Cicero, past late 43 BC.

We know by 55 BC Cicero managed to read some works attributed to Aristotle via Tyrannio or Faustus. Also, de Orator, written in 55 BC, contains a much shorter but very similar treatment of the topics as in the 44 BC Topica. Cicero does not attribute that earlier version to Aristotle (although A. is mentioned in passing not long before the subject appears). De Inventione, ~87 BC, has a longer account of topics that seems more Aristotelian; the predications, for example, don’t quite match up but the author admits that they have been cherry-picked from rhetorical textbooks.

What can be made of all this? Two possibilities spring to mind. One, Cicero had a copy made for his library of a pre-Andronicus version of Aristotle’s Topics – and that this pre-Andronicus version is shorter and more focused than ours, perhaps even missing completely the opening musing on deduction and Book VIII’s account of practice debates. Cicero simply substituted his legal examples for Aristotle’s for exploratory purposes and felt he’d done ok.

Two, Cicero is fibbing a bit, and giving his friend what amounts to Cicero‘s account of the topics, with a lot of help from Hermagoras, and not Aristotle’s account. I’m sure he thought his own system leaner and superior to that of Aristotle’s oft meandering account, and he knew his friend, thinking the text obscure, will not know the difference. In this light, what was in that text in his villa is immaterial. Stuck on his boat, probably seasick, wondering if Anthony & co was going to kill him if he tried to return to Rome, and racking his brains to remember that obscure text that he’d had copied, without any library resources, Cicero likely gave up on representing Aristotle fairly. He either didn’t know or didn’t care that a new edition of Aristotle’s works was soon to appear; he had no one to account to for misrepresenting a relatively unknown Greek author dead for well over 200 years. Neither, unfortunately, did Andronicus. And in this light, our Aristotle is as Roman as he is Greek.

Of course, tomorrow I will think the opposite.

Post-Process Theory, ed. Thomas Kent

This little green book (well, it is not little, it has 12 essays and took most of a day to read) has been stubborn about finishing. Part of the problem, I think, is that many of the essays cover the same ground, rather than engaging each other (a common problem with anthologies). Nevertheless, I think I’ve triangulated an understanding of what post-process means as a disciplinary term, at least as of 1999.

Post-process seems to be a wholesale rejection of the process paradigm of writing, which displaced the current-traditional paradigm. Writing may be a process, it admits, but it is not a process that is classifiable, predictable, or even teachable. The required contextualization is too many variables to consider. Process theory, in this view, with its mandatory drafts, peer review, etc, is yet another artifical constraint on an endlessly complex system beyond the reach of quantitative means.

I can’t help thinking of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, where the position of electrons cannot be measured accurately without moving them, and the only way to determine exactly where they are (within certain bounds) is probability. I wonder if this connection to post-process has been made before in comp, as I didn’t see it in the book. Rhetoric fits easily into probabilistic terms, of course, as any rhetorical act, however skilled or tuned for kairos, has no guarantees.

This idea that writing cannot be taught, though… I’m not sure this is a useful proposition, even if it is true. Claiming that one knows nothing, as Socrates, is useful, as it removes ego from the formation of knowledge. Saying “I think, therefore I am,” as Descartes, is useful, for it, similarly, lays down a productive epistemological foundation.

I don’t see, at least immediately, where “writing cannot be taught” leads anywhere productive. For one, it is defeatist and offers a crutch – if students aren’t learning anything about writing, hey, it’s not anyone’s fault – writing cannot be taught, y’know.

Applying the HUP from before, there seems to be an undercurrent in post-process that the very attempt of teaching writing to students requires a model or process of writing that then becomes an aggressive imposition that leads to anything but the desired result. In other words, teaching writing is unavoidably oppressive.

In retrospect, I was circling around these issues in that paragraph article in CE without having the terminology. One point I was trying to make (poorly) is that you can offer alternatives and strategies to approaching paragraph-level structures without being prescriptive or unnecessarily confusing, an approach Angus seemed to be using just fine in 1862. This is a possible way to escape the process/post-process divide.

The main compliant of post-process seems to be, indeed, that process became the monster it sought to destroy, by settling in as an institutional assumption; and that the solution is to throw out assumptions about writing, which is an unpredictable entity, governed by ‘paralogic heurmeutic guesswork’, to paraphrase Kent.

I can’t seem to find a dictionary entry for ‘paralogic’. I assume, with my terrible Greek, that it means ‘alongside logic’, ‘beside words’ – some alternative to logic/discourse. Hermeneutic is an interesting choice; all writing is contextualized and requires interpetation, sure, but doesn’t hermeneutics, with all its exegesis baggage, imply a system of interpetation, with the hermeneutic circle an approach more likely of success? If there is a system, there there is a process after all. Maybe not a perfect or universal process, but a useful one?

Also, I am also suspecious of how many of these post-process essays are eager to cast writing entirely into the qualitative void. That’s too romantic for my blood. I think those minds will change once the first reasonable AI appears. I think of writing as sitting in both camps, capable of predictable, quantifiable moves (like some kinds of topic sentences, for example) and yet containing unpredictable rhetorical moves and effects.

Ehren Watada

I’ve been following the case of Ehren Watada, an Army lieutenant who refused to report to Iraq in 2006, since it started. He had a mistrial in Feburary, and a new trial is coming up in July.

His legal position is interesting, given that he volunteered after 9/11, has not gone the conscientius objector route, he requested to serve in Afghanistan instead, and that he cites the Numerberg Principles would force him, as an officer, to be put in the position of committing war crimes, given the war in Iraq is one of aggression and therefore prohibited.

He probably would have been better off legally, and smarter, had he gone to Iraq and then waited for a specific, questionable order – or taken the desk job he was offered. Also, as he really doesn’t have First Amendment rights worth a nickel, he should have left talking to the media and other such occasions solely to his lawyer.

That said, his moral stance is worthy of regard. It’s just too bad he got a commission before he figured it out.

Thomas Conley’s Rhetoric in the European Tradition

I’m not sure if this book can be adequately summarized here. I’ll try, though.

Conley’s book, which is from 1990, would still make a good overview text for a class in the history of rhetoric. It’s small and focused on a cyclical version of events and the most influential authors of each period, but it also attempts to be comprehensive. I particularly like it as it is not repetitive – a minor sin that a lot of histories commit.

The classical period of rhetoric is grouped into four camps, all with a distinct approach: Gorgian sophists, who taught all comers a speaker-focused approach without regard to what they chose to do with what they learned; Protagoras/Isocrates, who push for moralistic consensus in an educated, civil discourse; Plato, who holds up dialectic as the road to truth; and Aristotle, who classifies a neutral art that shifts according to circumstance. (John Poulakos’s Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece has a similiar though more conventional Sophists-Isocrates-Plato-Aristotle quartet.)

Conley’s is as good a model as any of the Greeks. Isocrates “wins” this four-sided debate, the Romans take up his educational approach, and the rest of history, if I’m reading Conley right, is the reappearance of the other three approaches in various disguises. Chapter 1, covering the Greeks, thus lays the foundation for the rest of the book, which then proceeds to demonstrate this cyclic structure through an impressive barrage of dead white guys.

Another key point that bears mentioning is that this reoccurence of classical ideas is not always disguised. Cicero in particular becomes the standard fallback point, acknowledged or not, for rhetorical theory for most of Western history (with Aristotle being an popular option in the last 200 years or so). Conley makes clear that rhetorics don’t spring from the earth fully formed by great men. They are dependent not only on classical tradition but on their historical contexts. Thus Campbell, with his ‘scientific’ rhetoric, is dependent on Cicero and Isocrates, with their old concern for making productive members of society, whether they be citizens or mere gentlemen, just as much as the Industrial Revolution and any new philosophical concerns.

Inassuch, the differences between a lot of these systems narrows considerably with Conley’s approach. Burke, in particular, is less imposing if he is contrasted against Protagoras/Isocrates, and the “new Ciceronianism” that the book concludes on, after a discussion of Habermas, is but a modern version of Cicero’s idealistic response to a dark political era.

I am interested in the sophists as quite a few composition folk like to mention them as an example of teaching rhetoric to all comers as a kind of democratic emaniciation – the main theme of Friere’s work. This clashes, alas, with my concept of the sophists as not being nearly as high-minded as some would think them – I put them on par with ITT or some other technical diploma mill, locales/individuals motivated chiefly by profit. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – witnessed by many students I’ve seen that think they can write well simply because they got A’s in English in high school. The sophists may have been great rhetors, but did they teach well? And did they teach the right things? This is where Isocrates comes in, slapping on a much-needed public service sticker to a wild and crazy subject.

If it is not clear, I really like this book.