Supporting Faculty Writing

We tend to think of writing as a solitary activity.  We have this vision of the angsty poet, the shy novelist, or the anarchist academic sitting alone in a tiny dormered apartment or alone in the English country side struggling through their latest opus – utterly alone.  We prof_walter_stibbs_younghave this silly notion that writing happens in a vacuum.

Every good writer I know uses workshops, asks for feedback, forwards drafts to peers, or at the very least talks through ideas with colleagues. While the first step of writing might happen alone, a lot of good writing happens in community. Creative writing courses are almost exclusively set up at workshops where students share writing and provide regular feedback to their peers.

Any graduate student who had good friends and a good director can tell you how awesome it was to write with support. And yet, once we finish our dissertations and get that job (we hope), we’re often left utterly alone.  The network of friends are gone.  The mentor has moved on to other needy graduate students. For young faculty, asking their new peers for help is akin to admitting they don’t have the chops for this job. Ironically, it’s at these early stages that we expect faculty to produce the most writing – we rip away the supports and ask people to stand alone.

Note, that I’m not addressing all of the added stresses  – increased teaching load, family obligations, making new friends, committee work, and mentoring students.Not to mention a perceived need to make an impact in a new place. The Professor Is In suggests being selfish!

So, what are we to do?  I’m going to start a faculty writing group like those found at Macalester College or the Duke University Faculty Writing Group. Study after study has shown that faculty writing groups work. They help faculty protect their time for writing, especially women. They develop a sense of scholarly community, which filters down to students. They increase publication rates. In other words, the recreate that community writers need to succeed.

140 Characters – Censored

Twitter censors content from certain countries.  They creatively call this “country withheld content.” So, if you’re from China and want to post a dissenting tweet, Twitter will delete it and post something like this:

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This started in 2012, so I am admittedly a little behind the times (I blame my dissertation).

I bring this up because my students love to claim that Twitter is more free and more fair than other forms of social media. They like to point out something is more “pure” about expressing themselves in 140 characters.

And, while there may be something direct about this compression of expression, this censorship raises questions about the future of social media in protest movements. Is it so far-fetched to think that the Department of Homeland security could decide to target a domestic terror group and censor their tweets?

Communicating Loss

When my mother died five or so years ago, I didn’t know how to tell people.  I wanted to avoid talking about it, about why I missed a week of classes, about why I went social media silent. Instead of posting about it, I shared the eulogy I delivered at her funeral as a Note on Facebook. I think Notes were more popular at the time and her eulogy is sandwiched between a list of Shakespearean Porno Titles and a list of words that I discovered while writing my dissertation.  Looking back, a eulogy, a post, or a photo on Facebook are all completely inadequate to the task of sharing how much I lost when my mother died.

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Me, My Mom, and My Brother – 80s Chic

So, why do we post about loss on social media?  In a way, it’s a fast way to alert everyone in your life about what’s going on. From the casual acquaintance to your best friend, everyone knows in a second that you’re in pain.  They can share this information with your co-workers and anyone who might accidentally bump into and ask an insensitive question.

For example, a dear friend of mine recently suffered a brain aneurysm. After calling everyone to let them know, his wife has used Caring Bridge to keep his friends and family updated.  She’s also used it to ask people for help covering her classes, keeping her daughters busy, and keeping the vast number of friends who are scientists on alert. She’s posted links to Caring Bridge on her and her husband’s Facebook, but everything else has been through CB. With their friends and family scattered all over the country, this format seems the best way to communicate – social media at its best.

At the same time, I think some people share loss, disease, and other pain on social media because they need to legitimize or call attention to their suffering. I see people on Facebook lap up the platitudes. They publicize drama and mourning in a way that offends my Midwestern reserve. Handle your shit quietly. Suffer in silence.  Be strong. However, I don’t know if that’s the answer either.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – I could see any of these used a way to share stories and create a group eulogy or hold a virtual funeral. I’m not sure if I’m comfortable streaming a funeral as this New York Times story suggests, but digital spaces and social media seem like they could become legitimate ways for people to share their stories and connect through loss.

Pathos and American Politics

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From Power & Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World special exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi – Florence

During the most recent debate, a friend texted me: “This is gutter level. Really gross.” I responded, “This is what happens when we base politics on feelings and not logic.” While my text was an in the moment gut reaction, I can’t help but this there’s something to it. The debate often degraded to emotional appeals. Trump appealed to his base using fear of immigrants, lawlessness, and the government. Clinton appealed to her base citing unity and inclusivity.  In either case, I’m not particularly impressed. This is because they depend on pathetic appeals; that is to say, they use pathos to prove to their audience that they are the best candidate.

Both candidates like to use emotion evoking examples to energize their audiences. For example, Trump often cites dangerous terrorists, drug dealers, and rapists who illegally gain entry into this country. His examples are often shadowy specters that menace Americans.  On the other hand, Clinton often uses very specific examples to create an emotional response. She often brings up the parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan and Trump’s repeated denigration of American Muslims and later their family. She appeals to any parent who can’t imagine losing a child.

These rhetorical practices can be dangerous. In The Rhetoric, Aristotle warns readers against over-using pathos: “It is not right to pervert the judge [jurymen] by moving him to anger or envy or pity – one might as well warp a carpenter’s rule before using it … They will often have allowed themselves to be so much influenced by feeling of friendship or hatred or self-interest that they lose any clear vision of the truth and have their judgement obscured by considerations of personal pleasure or pain” (1.1). In other words, emotion or pathos can warp a person’s ability to make sound decisions.

So, when we listen to the debates, stump speeches, and advertisements, we’re not getting a reasoned, well-articulated argument. We’re not being persuaded through logos or even ethos. It’s all pathos – and well – that’s some gutter level rhetoric.

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!

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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.

Silence and Power

To anyone who studies rhetoric, the power of silence and silencing is not a new subject.  Cheryl Glen has published extensively on the subject, and her book Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence provides a comprehensive approach.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about silence as power a lot lately.  This comes from a few events, most notably the recent debate between HRC and Trump. It also comes from a discussion I had with my professional writing class about gendered communication in the workplace.  And, an email I received from one of my collaborators on a book project.

Let’s start with the easiest target – the debate. In all fairness, I should admit that I will not vote for Trump. However, I don’t think many experts in politics, public speaking, or rhetoric would dispute that Hilary did a better job. She was more professional and more on target. On the other hand, Trump interrupted Hilary 51 times. Instead, Hilary just looked at the camera and waited her turn.

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In response, one woman (E.Van Every) on Twitter posted: “To the men amazed Clinton hasn’t snapped: Every woman you know has learned to do this. This is our life in society. #debatenight” And she’s right.  Women are used to being interrupted, talked over, and silenced by their male counterparts. And at the same time, can any of us deny that by being silent, Hilary won the debate?  By smiling and listening, Hilary looked more presidential.

Maybe we need to address the difference between being silenced and using silence. In the workplace, women are routinely silenced in meetings by their male counterparts.  Even in academic settings, I’ve seen male professors take over panels, dominate Q&A, and monopolize friendly discussions at bars. Even in a the progressive space of Obama’s administration, women were silenced. Obama’s women staffers created a strategy they called “amplification” in which women would repeat the points of women speakers. Being silenced isn’t powerful.

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Photo: Washington Post

And yet, a recent email exchange with one of my collaborators for a book project demonstrates how powerful silence can be. She emailed us about an upcoming deadline, but none of us responded immediately. A day later, she emailed and asked, “Ok y’all, I’m starting to feel weird about this. Did you make a decision that I don’t know about?” It turns out we were all just really busy and hoped someone else would answer.  As a result, our silence made her fear the worst.  Our silence had power.

How to Collaborate

Or, as my tattoo artist says, “How to not be a dick.”

After discussing tatoos as medium, I asked my tattooist if tattoos are collaborative.  I wondered because in many ways, my skin just seems like his canvas. So, I was surprised when he unequivocally said, “Hell yeah it’s a collaboration.” As we talked, he used a ship metaphor to describe the process; the client has the impulse that puts the ship in the water and the tattoo artist has the talent and wherewithal to pilot it.  He said that a bad tattoo experience occurs when one side of the equation is over-balanced.  If the client is too controlling or the artist is too obsessed with their vision – the collaboration doesn’t go well. And, most importantly, the work may suffer.

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Wilma and Betty get work done!

I bring this up because I’ve been having a similar conversation with my friend Wilma, who I’ve collaborated with in the past. She described another colleague who reached out to collaborate on a project for which Wilma and I already drafted an abstract. The colleague sent Wilma an abstract and asked her to “look for ways to make it more digital rhetoric friendly.” In other words, rather than coming to Wilma with a potential project and discussing how they could work together, the colleague just wanted Wilma to add to her pre-existing project. Wilma was an add-on, an accessory – not a true collaborator.

Wilma brought this up because she and I were already writing an abstract for the same edited collection. Ironically, I also had a project that partially fit call for papers (CFP).  However, our interaction went more like this:

Me: Hey Wilma, I have this paper sitting around about Jane Addams.  I was thinking about responding to this  CFP with it, but I’m not sure where it would go from there.

Wilma: Ohhhh, what’s your paper about. Maybe I have something that will complement it.

And so on…. Our project came together because I asked Wilma to draw on her own expertise to to build on my project – not sign off on it.  I used my own strengths and Wilma used hers. This is why we work well together.

In other words, collaboration is a lot like a dance. You may occasionally have times in which you walk solo into the spotlight, but most of the dance is about working with your partner(s) to make something amazing.  When I think about how this relates to writing, it becomes clear that collaborative writing must find that balance between working alone and working together.

My friend Wilma and I want to be the next Ede and Lunsford or Hawisher and Selfe. We work well together because we recognize that one of us may be busy and the other needs to step it up for a while.  Or, that changes to one another’s prose isn’t personal – it’s about the product. Our process of collaboration serves the product.