Monthly Archives: November 2009

Share This Book!

Wow–if you haven’t seen the cool stuff going on at sharethiscourse.org, it’s time you browsed around a bit. A sweet, worldwide collection of scholars, IT workers, and brilliant thinkers are gathering together to think about what sharing means and then put it into practice to collaboratively create a shared book. I’m honored to be involved!

Here’s how they describe themselves:

Share This Course! is an experiment in creative collaboration.  We’re working together to understand how the sharing technologies and culture of the early 21st century can be applied to the specific task of creating a book which talks about this new world of shared culture, knowledge and power, a book titled Share This Book.

My biggest question is why there aren’t more people there in rhetoric and composition, which relates to my bigger, recurring question of why computers and writing scholars seem to cite each other and folks in lots of connecting disciplines, while folks in other disciplines don’t seem to know about the work in computers and writing. (In this case, the blindness seems to go the other way, too.) Sure, there’s a degree of simple “I didn’t know what was going on over there, so I didn’t know I should seek work in X area,” but isn’t that changing through changing communications tools?

For instance, here’s the wacky route I took to finding out about Share This Book:

  1. Janice Walker, a computers and writing scholar and alum of USF, visits a graduate class of mine in Spring 2009 to talk about information literacy and her LILAC project. I jumped at the chance, attended the information literacy conference in Savannah in September 2009, and joined the LILAC group.
  2. I decided to present on what I decided to call “remix literacy” but halfway through I realized that someone before me had surely thought of this phrase. I googled it, and found…
  3. This page for a course by Australian scholar Mark Pegrum, “Emerging Technologies in Education,” which covers “remix literacy,” among other awesome things.
  4. I started following Mark Pegrum on Twitter (@OzMark17).
  5. On November 17, he posted, “Interesting – “Share This Manifesto!”, statement by @mpesce about his new “Share This Book” project – http://is.gd/4Xvje
  6. I followed the link, poked around, and joined up.

My point in recounting all this, though, is that this kind of serendipitous searching is increasingly common, especially as we increasingly use tools (like Twitter) that are designed to get the ideas and news to us that we want to hear about. Right?

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Delpit’s Question

In Fall 2006, I took a course that was co-listed with Georgetown’s English department and the Georgetown Law School. I admit I can’t remember what the course was called, but it had to do with understanding the legal angles of the failure of U.S. primary and secondary schools. As part of the course, we volunteered with reading and homework help at a nearby community center, and as prep for considering the politics of reading, we read a lot of children’s books and wrote one ourselves.

Mine was a sci-fi story about a boy raised on the moon going to Hogwarts school on an elite space station. The story is called Delpit’s Question, and I figure this blog is as good a place as any to post it–partly because I’m excited to see the kinds of things Scribd can do in a blog setting. We also wrote an explanatory essay about what we were trying to do in the story; here’s a blurb:

The central question of the book, however, revolves around Delpit’s interactions with his teachers.  This conflict of understanding is designed specifically to demonstrate the structural, legal barriers to students trying to learn the curriculum and social codes of power in an unfamiliar setting.  Delpit’s question (“What do I know?”) is a tool for me to bring these underlying legal issues to the surface in his first two days at School in the Stars (SIS).  After all, I don’t want readers to walk away from this story only annoyed at the teachers’ close-minded attitudes; the corporate and government sponsors of SIS structured the school as elite setting designed to train elite children, and such goals (though unspoken) result in teachers being hired with certain blinders.  For a teacher to survive at SIS, he or she needs to be either White (American or European) or non-White but steeped so thoroughly in academic discourse that he retains no sense of identification with the discourse of his home culture (as with Mr. Amalendu).  It’s only natural that the things Delpit knows (the science of colors, music, predictive logic, ways of interacting) aren’t in line with the knowledge his teachers expect him to have.  In her article (pdf), Lisa Delpit quotes a Black principal taking doctoral classes who expresses her frustration with teachers who, when hearing her descriptions of racial and cultural bias, will only “look and nod.  The more I try to explain, they just look and nod, just keep looking and nodding.  They don’t really hear me” (124).  Ms. Merino is the prime example of this “silenced dialogue” in Delpit’s Question: when Delpit first approaches her she answers glibly and “smile[s] as if she had solved all of his problems” (26).  After Delpit goes beyond his comfort zone to push for a better answer, she still does nothing but dismiss his problems.  “That just can’t be helped,” she says towards the end of their exchange, exclaiming, “They all started talking just like the rest of us in no time!  I’m sure you’ll be no different!” (28)  Not only is Delpit’s knowledge not accepted as worthwhile at SIS, his ability to question that fact is squelched by a discourse that doesn’t allow room for his participation.

Enjoy! (Maybe. I wrote this a while ago, so I’m not completely positive of its quality. But it’s worth sharing.)

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Pirated Text

Here’s some loot that I stole from that book I’ve been reading, lovingly screencapped from Google Books. The guy she quotes, Krause, represents the ideas about textual ownership that evaporated in 18th century Germany.

Screenshot from Woodmansee's bookSo let’s think about my thievery here for a second (if that’s what it is). When I read that passage, I thought, “Holy smokes, I need to type this passage out and put it online.” If I had done so, there would surely be no breach of law; any claim that Krause’s estate might have ever been able to make about his intellectual property claim for this text–which he clearly wouldn’t want to make anyway!–has long since expired. Though I didn’t check, I have no doubt that his quote is in the public domain.

But instead of typing it, I saved myself some trouble by copying the screen from the Google Books scan of two pages of Woodmansee’s copyrighted book and then pasting them together with Photoshop. And that means, perhaps, that I’ve stolen the trouble that was spent back in 1994 to find and choose and translate this passage of Krause’s, massage it into original text, lay it out on the page, and publish the book that Google scanned. Is a screen shot of an actual book scan considered differently by the law than text that was retyped? And concerning fair use, it’s good that I only used a teensy bit of Woodmansee’s book, but it’s kind of up in the air if I’m using this image for any remixed new sort of purpose, since I’m really praising it–but I’m also saying more than that, aren’t I? Does my Photoshopping (can you find the seams in the image?) count as artistic or rhetorical manipulation for a new purpose?

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New Alternate Reality Game

Over on BoingBoing, Douglas Rushkoff wrote a description of a new alternate reality game that ties into the story of a graphic novel he was involved with. Part of his description:

So people might follow my characters through a series of graphic novels, and learn something about them that they can then use in the games, or an artifact they find in the game might help them decode something in the comics. And even the ARG that people are beginning to play right now – through which they are “finding the others,” and forging coalitions with other gamers in their own parts of the world to solve certain challenges – is a set-up for the bigger game, where these larger groups will be responsible for various aspects of the coming war.

Why, oh why, oh why can’t we find a way to work this kind of experience into writing classes? (No really, why?)

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Inventing “Art”

I keep thinking of ideas for posts, trying to decide what to write about, and then not writing anything. Oh well–my thoughts on Christianity in science fiction and fantasy will have to wait. For today, then:

I’ve only read one chapter of Martha Woodmansee’s The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics, but I think about it constantly–driving to work listening to the Xenocide audiobook, watching cheesy westerns while eating lunch, and multiple times in the English department as I overhear intersecting ideas.

Her thesis so far is pretty simple and compelling: we’re used to thinking of “art” as a concept that connects visual arts, poetry, literature, dance, and music. (What did I forget?) We’re also used to thinking of art as something that is valuable for its own, intrinsic sake; its value doesn’t have to be related to how popular it is or if it “does” anything in the world. Art can just be there and we like it for its own sake–say, when we look at a painting and say, “Hmm, yes…” or when we sit in masses of people to silently listen to a symphony or watch a ballet.

But Woodmansee points out that this way of thinking about art isn’t just “the way things are” but is a historically situated frame of thought that first arose in mid-18th century Germany. As capitalism and the middle class grew, economics put new kinds of pressures on artists, and it was in their best interest to dream up a vision of “low art” that the masses liked and a “high art” that didn’t have to please anybody except elites who wanted to feel like they were elite because they knew about the fancy, less crowd-pleasing stuff. Now there would be an audience for more obscure stuff too–whew!

Now, I find this hard to dispute (because I’m not really a scholar of aesthetics or anything) and compelling in a lot of ways. But there’s that little part of me that rebels, saying, “Okay fine, the way I think about ‘good art’ is part of my cultural heritage, not something that just appeared in my heart. But there’s still something beautiful and worthwhile and important in art that is beautiful for its own sake, reflecting the hard-to-explain goodness that echoes through us when we’re in its presence, hinting at things bigger than our fleshy bodies.”

But the more I think about her book, the more it resonates with me too. I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard between 3 creative writers who were going to present at a conference on “teaching genre in creative writing classes.” (I somewhat rudely pointed out that what they called “literary fiction” was as much a genre as sf. Oops?) They insisted that literary fiction focuses on character (and is thus “good”) while popular fiction like romance, fantasy, and sf is focused on plot. Now traditionally, sf has always had a strong sense of social critique to it; i.e., we’re supposed to get lured into the story by the spaceships and then leave with a better understanding of diversity or racism or war or religion or whatever. And when I apply Woodmansee here, it reminds me that “art” of this type, which we could call rhetorical because of its insistence of making change in the world (and not just leading readers to be engaged by characters), was set up for dismissal by the highbrow art world starting back in the 18th century.

In other words, sf is too popular and too rhetorical to be considered “art” by culture snobs, and it’s been that way for 250 years (and only 250 years).

And then when I start to think of art that excites me, it’s so often those rhetorical kinds of art that get to me–those stories and images and music and community-driven initiatives that pull people together to create change in the world, not just to be created for their own sake. I do enjoy hearing people somberly play classical music on their Stradivarius instruments, a whole whole lot, but it’s a two-plane enjoyment, on the levels of “This is beautiful, all on its own” and “This moves something that was surely put inside of me when I was born.” But I want to seek out art that has the third plane, too: “This can change the world.”

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