LOLcats & Literacy

This week, my digital rhetoric class took an unexpected turn. When a student presented about icanhascheezburger and lolcats speak, we started a spirited discussion about the difference between a language and a dialect. BTW, here there’s a lolcat translator!


Anyway, as we talked about some of the grammatical differences between a language and a dialect, I asked what’s at stake when we classify something as a language. At first the students were confused by the question, but I shared an example. In 1996 the Oakland, CA school district recognized ebonics or African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as the “primary” language of their students.  When we classify something as a language rather than a dialect, it changes its status, if we can teach it and more importantly if we should teach it.

In the case of LOLcats, whether it should be taught or not is interesting.  As more and more people communicate only by text, IM, and social media, it seems the language/dialect/pidgin of LOLcats may become more relevant.  Moreover, while the class didn’t get to this point, I wonder how much we need to think about the combination of the text and image. The text responds to or builds on the image.  They work together.

Impostor Syndrome Lives

A provost asked me if professional writing students actually get jobs. When I paused to consider how to best answer her question, she asked, “Don’t you know the answer?”

This weekend a student asked me if I like her research question and I thought, “Why are you asking me?” 

When I encouraged a student to rethink her approach, she later told me that she thought she wasn’t a good enough researcher and writer. 

A colleague asked me to recommend a theorist, I thought “They don’t respect me as a scholar” when I couldn’t namedrop fast enough.

I asked a student how she was doing. She responded, “I’m not very smart. I’m not sure I belong here.” 

A colleague asked me under her breath, “Will I ever feel good enough?” 

I once thought that I would get my PhD become Dr. Lukowski and believe in myself. However, two years later I can confidently say that I still feel like an impostor. Every time I’m observed teaching, present a conference paper, or submit am abstract I am sure that this will be the moment the they find out.

What am I afraid the spectral they will discover? That I’m a fraud. That I don’t deserve my degrees. And, that I have no business being in academe.

Of course, my rational mind knows that this is ridiculous, but the fears remain. Psychologists Clance and Imes (1978) coined the term “impostor syndrome” while describing high-achieving people who can’t accept their accomplishments fear being exposed as frauds. While Clance and Imes’s study focused on young college women, over the years we’ve discovered that many high-achievers complain of never feeling adequate. Business publications like Forbes and the Harvard Business Review post stories about over coming the syndrome by “re-framing failure” or “seeking support.”

However, for women in the workplace and the academy, failure and seeking support can have more consequences for our careers. So, while women are more likely to experience impostor syndrome, seeking support may not be an option. Women still face persistent sexism in academia; this Guardian story noted that while 66% of men have tenure, only 42% of women do. Moreover, several studies have shown that women are more likely to experience poverty and job loss. In other words, women have more reasons to be afraid and feel like frauds.

jorge cham from Piled Higher & Deeper

As I think about all of the women I quoted above, I wonder when we will feel good enough. How many awards, accolades, atta-girls, or great classes will it take? Or, is impostor syndrome part of our success? I sometime feel like my drive to do my best comes from my desire to prove them wrong. That, when the time comes, I’ll prove worthy because I’ve done enough.

Then again, maybe they‘re right.

Undergraduate Research – Just Do It

Admittedly, I wasn’t always the best student.  At the same time, I was interested in writing and research: I double majored in English and Political Science – both research intensive majors; I wrote a senior thesis for honors; and I briefly published an alternative campus

My alma mater – Alma College

newspaper called the Voyeur.

My professors encouraged me to do research and use the library, but I realize that they didn’t really teach me how to conduct research. Nobody clearly articulated the differences between qualitative and quantitative research. And nobody ever explained to me how these research practices could apply to my own writing.

So, when I decided to attend the Naylor Workshop for Undergraduate Research in Writing Studies conference as a mentor, I was a little dubious. I couldn’t really comprehend why we needed two-days to cover my “look in books” undergraduate research education.

Of course, after experiencing this workshop and meeting a bunch of really smart and interesting students, I’ve learned that there’s a lot undergraduate researchers can do.  I’ve listened to students interested in multimodality & ESL writers, code-meshing, supporting working writing-students, and transference. What’s more, this workshop is providing them tools to refine and pursue these research questions.  They’re getting feedback from peers and faculty who want to see them succeed.  It’s been a remarkable privilege.

But, as my mind begins to turn back to Memphis and Christian Brothers University, I realize that I need to redefine the way I teach research to my students. I need to encourage more work outside of books and the classroom. My class design and pedagogy needs to create space for surveys, focus groups, interviews, and corpus analyses. I need to rethink my approach.  As I think more about the ways my classes can engage in public advocacy, it seems more essential that I integrate more research.

Reflections on the New School Year

Twenty years ago, nearly to the day, I packed my mother’s Subaru Forester with everything I would need for my first year at college. My future roommate and I had corresponded all summer and agreed that in addition to clothes, bedding, and school supplies, I would bring the mini-fridge and CD boombox and she would bring the microwave, fishtank, and blacklight. After all, a dorm room just isn’t a dorm room without a black light. So, with a car packed to the gills, my mom backed the car down our gravel drive as my father and brother waved good bye, dogs circling their legs and barking. 

My mom, me, and my grandmother – 20 years ago

We sped through two lane highways that twisted and turned through treed hills and the iron-packed rocks of the Upper Peninsula, always moving south.When we finally reached Lake Michigan, we fell into blinding sunny beaches where the lake shimmered and the low sandy dunes pushed back against the waves. We crested a steep hill and the Mackinac Bridge stood before us; 500 foot tall ivory columns rising out the water. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles sped across the five mile long span where lakes Michigan and Huron met.

The Mackinac Bridge

Halfway across the bridge, nearly 200 feet above the water, my mother reached over, squeezed my knee and said, “Say goodbye to the UP, Gator.” Cheekily, I looked over my shoulder, laughed and waved, “Goodbye to the UP Gator!” Of course, now I know what my mom already knew – I would never really return to the backwood and backwards place that was my home. Sure, I would visit. I came home in the summer to swim in clean lakes and walk in the dark woods. I came home for Christmas to get snowed in for days and ski to the store for fresh milk. And years later, I came home to say goodbye to my mother and celebrate her life after she succumbed to cancer. Even then, I never really returned. I was a different person from that 17 year old girl.

So, two years ago, almost to the day, I drove my little Ford Focus, packed to the gills, through Arkansas on my way to my first real job after graduate school. I crested a low hill and saw the impossibly long and wide Mississippi River spanned by the two silvery white arcs Hernando de Soto Bridge. Instead of trees and dunes, the buildings that made Memphis’s skyline rose up from the shores of the river. I sighed with relief because I was nearly to my new home. And, as I crossed the bridge, I could almost hear my mom whisper in my ear, “Say goodbye to the UP, Gator.”

De Soto Bridge

Next week, we’re going to meet over 300 young people who’ve crossed bridges – both real and figurative to get here. They may struggle with the demands of college. They may be crossing a bridge to a new life with a trailer full of baggage behind them. However, we have the unique privilege to greet them when they arrive and help them make new lives for themselves.

Educating Digital Natives about Being Digital

As we near the end of my Digital Rhetoric course, I’ve started reflecting on what I hoped students learned this semester. I realized about halfway through the semester that we haven’t spent a lot of time learning how to write for the per se. In other words, while we talked about the power of social media and rhetorical velocity, we did not discuss how to craft the perfect Tweet or leverage Facebook for a marketing strategy.

Rather, we’ve spent most of our time talking about what the interwebs are. We discussed remediation, the consequences of collaborative writing, how genres have social action, how social inequalities persist online, and how truth is created and maintained. In other words, we talked about how the interwebs shapes our world and our perceptions.

I had a moment in which I felt guilty about not spending more time discussing the hows of digital rhetoric until I read this article in The Atlantic. Marcio Jose Sanchez suggests that students use the web all of the time, but that they don’t fully appreciate what being digital means. When we call current students digital natives we may be doing them a disservice because this moniker “falsely assumes that today’s students intrinsically understand the nuanced ways in which technologies shape the human experience—how they influence an individual’s identity, for example, or how they advance and stymie social progress—as well as the means by which information spreads thanks to phenomena such as algorithms and advertising.”

Digital natives need to learn how online environments shape the way we understand the world. Teaching them how the interwebs work will make them better writers, thinkers, creators, and appreciators of digital media.