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Sirc, Shipka, Summers

Note: This post is my response to Michael J. Faris’s call for a CCCarnival–individual bloggers responding to the same piece in CCC–on Geoffrey Sirc’s recent review essay “Resisting Entropy” (pdf). Check out Michael’s original post for links to other responses.

I guess I should respond to the most controversial points Sirc makes in his essay: his call that we reconsider “composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness” (510), his frustration with our preference for “savoring ideas” over “savoring prose,” his diss of “us[ing] student texts as the central content focus of a course” (516), and his surprising willingness to throw peer review out the window (518). I’m sure those are the things the other CCCarnival writers will be writing about, so I ought to as well. (I haven’t read anyone else’s responses yet, on purpose.)

But really, I’m thinking about Buffy. Namely, this video that made the rounds a while back:

(And ooh! A pop-up video version!) It’s been discussed to death a million times, but what makes this vid so important is that its creator Jonathan McIntosh wrote so much solid and public commentary on the rhetorical purposes he had in mind when he told this story of Buffy dusting Edward (which we might call meta in a fic/vid context). I.e. he wasn’t just playing around, but he wanted to alert people to the dangerous visions of masculinity and femininity built into the Twilight universe.

After reading Sirc’s piece, my guess is that  our pedagogical visions are most aligned when it comes to texts like “Buffy vs. Edward”: I suspect we both value classes that study texts that blur the boundaries between what counts as rhetoric or poetics and that happily include pop culture (even “literary” texts that tell stories instead of make heavy-handed points). So from that starting point, I felt myself aligned with Sirc on many of his points: his critique of Thomas Miller’s focus on political speeches at the expense of popular culture, his unabashed love for the prose of Henry James (enshrined in the #sircisms hashtag that Trent M. Kays has hilariously begun using), his praise of Byron Hawk’s and Jody Shipka’s moves to dismantle the rhetoric/poetic split, and his plea that we “shake off the gloom” of writing studies and writing itself.

Much of his advice seems to come back to a privileging of style as the heart of what we should be teaching in composition classes–style that is surprising, lively, gut-punchingly-dynamic. And on many days, I’m with him on that. When I turned extra attention to sentences themselves, rhetorical figures, and even They Say, I Say-derived templates in my last expository writing class, I started to feel that students were really learning writing in more concrete, beauty-infused ways than in any of my previous classes. And from Sirc’s glowing review, it sounds like Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole is about the best thing ever, partly because of its emphasis on surprise and effectiveness, but also partly because of her embrace of multimodality and her study of how composers actually compose. (Seriously, I’ve been telling people to pay more attention to composing processes for a while now; it feels affirming to hear that Shipka is helping us out with this needed gap in our knowledge.)

In the midst of all my gushing, though, I can sense myself avoiding the controversies I listed above. I suppose that’s partly because I don’t know what I think about all of them, but I admit that there’s also that bit of fear as a young scholar in the field who knows he hasn’t read everything everywhere; it’s hard to throw in your oar when you feel you might risk saying the wrong thing, annoying the wrong people. I mention that teardrop of fear not (just?) to gain a bit of sympathy, but to point out that these issues of literature in the classroom, the idea/prose split, the use of student texts, and peer review are all high-stakes issues that many have dedicated their hours to dissecting and discussing. It makes me wonder if the sheer bulk of scholarship our field has produced leads more often to the “gloom” that Sirc describes or more often to those discoveries of “the faintest hints of life” that renew our conversations and keep us going. That’s a study in itself: the attitudes and fears of young scholars who are inventing the university in their own ways.

But with that said, my one-sentence takes on some of the #sircisms that are sure to spark the most discussion:

  • Literature in the classroom: Let’s allow that lit can be useful for studies of style and the ways rhetorical points are blended with poetic surroundings (The Hunger Games, anyone?), but let’s always fight to keep class time from turning into a never-ending literature class that privileges the study of texts over their creation.
  • Ideas vs. prose: Let’s revive our interest in prose as Sirc (and Hawk?) promotes, but let’s not fall into the other trap (that Sirc is falling into) of dismissing the crucial work our field can do in areas of civic engagement and critical pedagogy.
  • Student texts: As someone who says that he values student writing so much in his classrooms (top of 516), I don’t understand why Sirc seems so hellbent on criticizing Harris, Miles, and Paine’s collection so thoroughly–especially since it seems hard for me to believe (having not read the book–or any of the four books Sirc reviews, by the way) that so many of the differently authored chapters take the “unnerving” (515) direction Sirc describes.
  • Peer review: I keep moving back and forth between Gut Reaction 1–“Sirc is simply transferring his own dislike of peer review to students, who can get seriously awesome writing instruction from a solid peer review session”–and Gut Reaction 2–“But even when I structure it well, peer review does so often seem to fail. . . .”

Finally, a note on the review’s medium and mode: after watching that Buffy video above, I can’t help but imagine what a live acted video review would look like, and what its strengths and weaknesses might be. I see Sirc in the Buffy (or Angel?) role, walking down a dark street in Sunnydale, Sex Pistols in the background. Thomas Miller, a vamp, leaps out and starts spouting his history of literary and literacy studies, but Sirc (because this is Sirc’s video, his review of these four books) stakes him. Hawk and Shipka approach, and Sirc gives them each a high five; maybe they make small talk about Hawk’s counter-history or Shipka’s pedagogies. But eventually, they make it to their destination: a large catacomb guarded by Harris, Miles, Paine, and all the authors of their collection, and a battle begins. Every time someone throws a punch, they make a claim: “Student [umph] texts [ugh] should be [POW!] the center of [arrgh!] our classes!” “No! [KAZAM!] They shouldn’t!”

There’s an obvious reason this is a bad (even mean) analogy: Buffy was fighting the minions of evil, staking demons and vampires who were hellbent on killing. Our conversations are much more even, with both sides having valid points that deserve attention. And I applaud work that moves us away from the agonistic model of scholarly discourse. Really, I do. But still, I dream of a review essay genre that tells a story, makes its points through a blend of the discursive and nondiscursive, and leaves audiences both entertained and thinking about the issues long after the review is over–much like Buffy vs. Edward.

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How Much Guilt with that Pleasure, Sir?

There’s an interesting conversation-starter over at ProfHacker: “Open Thread Wednesday: Guilty Pleasures?” In a fun spirit, author George Williams asks us to write about the food, books, movies, or whatever that we indulge in occasionally, but that we’re kind of embarrassed about. It’s a nice little post, and I’m interested to see what comments show up. (Only one so far: young adult vampire novels. Classic.)

But: it’s interesting to consider this from two different perspectives: fandom and spirituality.

I think that a common experience of fans who interact online is a gradual lowering of any worry that outsiders see their fandom as overblown, too-geeky, out-of-touch, etc. It’s freeing to realize that I’m not the only one who reads books on Tolkien’s languages (I prefer Sindarin to Quenya, thank you very much), reads Lostpedia after every episode, and so on. I think this freeing of the self from an unfounded cultural consensus (“Star Trek fans are too geeky, except for the new movie) is a good thing.  So the concept of the “guilty pleasure,” from this perspective, seems kind of sad, like stepping back and saying, “Even though I really like this, I realize that I’m supposed to not like it too much, so I’ll say here that I don’t really like it too much, even though I really do like it and will continue liking it. Do you like it too?”

That’s my first reaction. But then a second reaction comes, from the spiritual part of me (in my case, Christian). When anyone says, “I purposefully decide to put worship and service to God above my other pursuits,” that inherently means that occasionally, if I choose to dive full-force into any kind of pleasure, it can be distracting me from what I claim is my primary purpose, and primary pleasure: knowing God. And in that sense, pleasures can indeed be “guilty,” if they draw us away too often from the divine.

Don’t read that the wrong way: I’m all in favor of seeing culture as a place where we learn more about humanity, spirit, and things like Truth that get capital letters. Like Mark Driscoll, I don’t advocate that people with religious views eschew fandom. Quite the opposite–my spirituality is the heart of why I like shows like Star Trek and Lost. What I am saying is that my thoughts about God caused me to second-guess my first reaction to the ProfHacker article: first I thought, “Guilty pleasures? Let’s be people who enjoy pleasures without the need to pretend we feel guilty about them!” But then my second thought was, “But wait, self, are there places in your life where you actually should feel guilty about any of the pleasures mentioned in that article?” It’s a moment of quick self-checkery, quiet introspection. And I like those moments.

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When Fans Love Too Much

Jim Sterling has an intriguing post over at Destructoid called, expressively, “Videogame ‘Fans’ Need to Shut Up About Everything.” It’s written in reaction to Sonic 4 fans who are extremely distressed about what they see as their fandom being royally twisted up. There’s also some summaries of similar fan frustrations over new Fallout and Diablo games, alternately sad and hilarious.

My favorite lines from the article, with brief commentary:

Instead of fans, I declare that they should be known as people who need to shut the f*ck up about everything.

After the scare-quotes in the article title, this is the second place where these over-zealous critics have the label of fan taken away from them–even though they would probably call themselves the most fannish of them all. Interesting how labels operate differently for different groups, and how they function rhetorically.

One of the main problems with these so-called fans is the fact that they never want things to change.

I have to agree here; I remember when the fourth Smashing Pumpkins album (Adore) was released and it drove fans completely bonkers because it sounded different (!) than previous albums. I wanted everyone to chill out a little and trust the band to give us quality stuff, since they had followed through so superiorly in the past.

But the more I think about Sterling’s comment, the more it makes me wonder: to what extent do certain fandoms have a mean streak of conservatism in them? In other words, is there something inherent in a fan (or fandoms) that rewards leaning on the past and feels threatened by change? Certainly not always; I see lots of fan fiction as the complete opposite, with people seeing things they want to improve on in the original and stepping up to make those changes themselves. Somewhat on the same topic:

This situation, again, stems from the self-important assumption that fans are the be-all and end-all of videogame knowledge. . . .

Blizzard, for its part, mocked the sniveling of the self-professed fans, who had become so obsessed that they doctored images to make them darker in a bid to “help” Blizzard understand what its own game should look like. Once again, the sheer arrogance of that is astounding. . . .

We tend to hurt things we love more than things we hate.

Again, here’s the vision of the fans who hold on too tight, along with frustration at the “arrogance” that fans would know more than the content producer. That’s such a tricky tightrope to find an opinion on, at least for me. I find my gut reaction is with this article, with the Sonic 4 producers, with The Smashing Pumpkins: make an awesome product however you like, and I’ll try to judge it on its own merit, not on my perceptions of what it ought to have been.

But on the other hand, I want these frustrated fans to have space to make their own worlds too that fit their vision, you know? I love that people are so passionate about the stuff they love that they want it to be excellent and awesome, and I don’t want them to simply shut up when their hopes aren’t met. I want them to go out and do something creative on their own that tweaks the official product in awesome, folk-culture ways.

But obviously, that’s where fans of different types of media differ and where genre becomes important. A fan can be dissatisfied with the narrative of a show, movie, book, or even videogame, and rewrite that narrative in fan fiction. But it’s a lot harder for a fan to be dissatisfied with, say, Sonic 4, and then go out and make his own Sonic 4. (Though the startlingly amazing stuff over at Zelda Classic isn’t too far away from that….)

It’s the sheer selfishness of these so-called “fans” that really irritates me. They don’t care about other fans, or even the developers. They don’t give a shit that if a developer catered exactly to them, that they could risk making a game with limited appeal and lose money. You’d think a fan would be happy to see a game in their favorite series make some money, but apparently not.

Ah yes, money always comes into the picture. Sterling is quite right here, methinks. ‘Nuff said?

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