No Other Moment Besides

We are now well into the heart of the semester. Midterms loom (if you give midterms, which I hear are still a thing). It's time for an annual round of "what's wrong with my students?" posts. 

First things first, it is important to recognize that the kids these days narrative is largely composed and maintained by the news media. At some point in the history of journalism, somebody realized "The kids are alright" wouldn't move copy, and so we have suffered from endless stories about why kids can't write, why kids are having sex all the time and generally doing stupid shit that puts them at risk. And, of course, most of it is true. Kids have a bad habit of doing stupid shit and not caring about what we want from them. And kids are probably worse now more than ever. Not like when we were kids, which I myself remember as a series of injustices perpetuated upon me by people older and taller than me. 

I am not interested in debating the veracity of such claims. I am interested in the attitudes cultivated by such claims and their concomitant acts. In particular, I am interested in what this narrative does to teachers, what it does to pedagogy. 

Take for example, this Psychology Today column about student "resilience": "Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges." (The evidence here is just other people making the claim that students aren't resilient. Fair enough.)

Again, I have no doubt that teachers have these experiences. I have no doubt these are truthful accounts. Again, I don't care. But three concerns do present themselves to me.

  1. The instinct to treat such incidents as symptomatic. As academics, we are trained to see the general from the particular: a particular form, subject matter, or attitude in a literary work, for instance, is symptomatic of its larger historical or cultural context, or symptomatic of the author's particular set of commitments or ideological positions. This might be a good way to deal with texts, but it's a pretty shitty way of dealing with people, in particular students still in the process of formation. I see my students for a fraction of their lives. Three days a week, for a couple of hours at time for sixteen weeks (assuming the video game playing, pot smoking fornicators bother to show up). That's it. I'll say it again, that's it. I am deeply uncomfortable reading anything they do as symptomatic of something else. As someone invested in actor-network-theory, whose's mantra is follow the actors, I let my students describe themselves. I offer no explanations as to why they do what they do. I find such explanations empirically and ethically suspect. And I find such explanations unhelpful. I am not here to diagnose my students; I am here to teach them. 
  2. We are part of the story. Such stories, such reports, assume such symptoms exist independently of the pedagogical context, of the teaching moment. This is how these students are in some vacuum sealed reality: it's essential to their character. As if student subjectivity is a walled city unchanged by what confronts it. That is, these stories, by privileging the teacher's response, generally fail to fully explore how these incidents might be driven by the instructor. How is the pedagogy and the power of the instructor creating (or not creating) empowerment on the part of students. I suspect that many times students crack under the pressure of assignments and projects over which they have little control and, paradoxically (but commonly) assignments that provide no creative constraints. For instance, "write about what you want to write about" isn't any more empowering than "please memorize chapter two; it is a trap that students see right through. Maybe students aren't resilient because they know full well that resistance is futile? (They might be lazy-ass snap-chatters, but they aren't stupid.)
  3. What are we doing here, exactly? Woven into these complaints about student resilience is a thread I can't help but pull at: namely, there isn't a whole lot of faculty resistance here either. This strikes me as a story about how hard is it to do your job: a complaint that students arrive in need of help and support and guidance in being students. Like a time when a colleague once complained that most students in his introduction to poetry class hadn't read much poetry, and if they had is was mostly stuff like Shel Silverstein (What the hell is wrong with Shel Silverstein this young assistant professor muttered to himself at the time?). Right, they are in an intro poetry class that you teach. Teach them some poems. There is also in these stories no hint of reassessing our mission, which the above story nods to. As I have written elsewhere about pedagogy, why shouldn't students resist us. Maybe their resistance, if it's symptomatic of anything, is bad pedagogy, or unthinking pedagogy. I often think of my son and myself as a father in such moments. Being honest, but also guessing, I suspect that at least half of the times I get upset with my son my reasons are not good ones. I am not upset because his behavior is a manifestation of some problematic trait or attitude. I am not mad because he could have hurt himself or someone else. I'm mad, plain and simply, cause the little shit said "no" to me. To me! He thwarted my will, and I am the adult, I'm in charge. I get mad because of my own lack of resistance in the face of his resistance, which is nothing other than his unique existence in the world. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this realization makes me the kind of parent who will raise a child destined to disappoint his professors and concerned news anchors and bloggers around the world.

Every thing one could and has said about students today is probably true, but I don't care about that truth. I care about what these stories and their incessant telling do to us. I care about what they do to students. How do these stories position our students? As problems to be solved? As a jumble of symptoms to be treated? We learn nothing about ourselves as teachers this way. My advice, for what's it worth, is to follow the students. Take everything they say at face value. This is no mere naïveté that I am proposing: students are neither saints nor angels. They are people, and people are complex from moment to moment. We know our students briefly and in finite ways. Be there for them then, in that moment, and no other moment besides. 

[UPDATE: Nathan Kreuter rightly pointed out that I am being a little unfair to Grey. I should have been clearer that it's not so much Grey's post itself; I agree with much of what he says in the Psychology Today piece. (What strikes me about his argument is how such a lack of autonomy persists in college.) It's just the way these stories concatenate that troubles me. The comments on his column are evidence of what I am talking about.]

Geocaching in the Writing Classroom

I just put the finishing touches on a working draft of an article on my use of geocaching in a public rhetoric course I am just about done teaching. This article explores a collaborative, location-based composition project designed for student writers to rhetorically engage a responsive public through digital, placed-based (or locative) media. I have turned the comments on for this post, so that I might solicit feedback on the article's introduction, which defines the argument's contours.

 Georgetown University 
      /* Style Definitions */
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	color:black;}   Map, within the Geocaching mobile application, showing all ten caches placed by the class.

Map, within the Geocaching mobile application, showing all ten caches placed by the class.

Writing moves (in) the world. As writing moves it engages, bumping into others and generating effects. In bouncing around, writing shapes space and becomes a part of the environment. In this way, the writing classroom becomes a public, or what Rosa Eberly calls a protopublic, wherein writing moves through space composing connections among people, places, and things. Such a classroom pushes students into locales beyond itself where student writing engages and moves people and also invites feedback and evaluation. Writing composes connections: its agonism produces publics.

In this article, I describe and reflect upon a collaborative composition project I designed to explore how rhetoric and writing (collective action, urban design, public policy) shape publics and how public places themselves (civic spaces, parks, and mundane features such as traffic lights and trashcans) work to shape rhetorical activity. I was eager to have the students work together on larger project exploring public rhetoric. In addition to the desire to make such a project collaborative, I wanted the project to physically move students outside of the classroom and into the public places around them: to explore those places as both a function of rhetorical activity and to see how those places generate rhetorical activity. How do public places afford, constrain or otherwise shape the ways in which people relate to and communicate with one another? How do public places, which are more than inert containers, evolve in responses to such rhetorical interactions? Likewise, how do different media, digital and analogue, factor into rhetorical activity? To investigate all of these questions, the collaborative project (alongside the semester individual assignment focused on serialized production) was built around geocaching. As “an outdoor recreational activity,” geocaching participants use Global Positioning System (GPS) devices (e.g., handheld receivers and GPS enabled smart phones) to “hide and seek containers, called ‘geocaches’ or ‘caches’” (Wikipedia).

For example, I might hide a small geocache in the form of a plastic 35mm film canister camouflaged within a shrub. Using a handheld GPS device I gather the geographical coordinates for the cache. I compose a brief description, provide a clue and then upload the geocache information to the official geocaching website for it to be published. Once approved and published by a volunteer within the geocaching the community, the geocache becomes visible to other participants. Inside the cache would be a log that successful geocachers would date and sign. Using the official geocaching mobile application on their GPS enabled smart phone or handheld GPS device, they then log their finding letting me know what they think about the cache or its locations—in this case, adjacent to a mural celebrating the musical legacy of my hometown. They might also share a spoiler free picture.

Geocaching relies on what is often referred to as locative media: portable media designed both to function while moving and to work within the confines of physical locations. As Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva write, such media “are connecting us to the physical world and providing a framework for geographically located social interactions” (61). Their articulation of locative media induces something like geocaching (an activity, we shall see, that is still largely discursive) to resonate with the goals of public rhetoric and writing pedagogy. Writing is itself a locative medium as it moves through and works within places. Making the connection between writing and locative media even stronger, they write, “Mobile phones have become writing utensils for net localities” (Gordan & de Souza e Silva 53).

Collaborative geocaching exposed my students to the mundane yet nevertheless vital features of the city and the ways in which such features shape their own experiences. For instance, in my own recent experiments with geocaching I located a cache in a secluded park in a neighborhood made very inaccessible by virtue of one-way and blocked-off streets. The neighborhood, located just south of a major east-west artery, struck me as akin to a fortress. The orientation of the neighborhood, its rhetoric, was rendered visible through the activity of geocaching. As a public rhetoric and writing class, it was crucial that students moved beyond the walls of the classroom and out into the world around it. Furthermore, the collaborative nature of the project would compel students to have this experience with others: an individual rarely moves through a public place alone, but rather always with others. This recognition of the social experiences of place was vital to a course devoted to public rhetorics. I saw my students developing the same situational awareness of public space while cultivating the rhetorical skills to navigate and negotiate that space with others. I expected to see mundane features such as road accessibility unpacked and articulated by my students. I would ask my students to reflect on how the activity of geocaching as a class informed their individual projects. For instance, how did working with others influence their thinking about audience? Likewise, how did the experience of geocaching in St Louis shape their arguments about the value of the things they were writing about?  


Talking on Paper

Readers will need the free smartphone/mobile device app PhonoPaper to access this very short blog post. The post is in three parts. The images must be scanned using PhonoPaper. Using the app you can adjust the playback speed and direction. 

Part 1

Part 1

Part 2

Part 2

Part 3

Part 3

In Defense of Red Tape

Red tape is an object that is rather hard to defend. It is, however, a thing worth defending, worth honoring. It has done us a great service. To recognize this worth, we must defend it as a thing, as its own thing, because it is when red tape becomes something other than red tape (when it becomes a cultural signifier, for instance) that it becomes difficult to defend. Beyond indefensible, red tape itself becomes invisible. It becomes a kind of fetish, which tend to have everything to do with humans and nothing to do with the thing itself. Defending red tape requires first and foremost that we restore to it its own unique thing-ness. Red tape is more than a symbol, a metaphor, or an analogy: it is a thing that did work in the world. 

  Red tape is almost always portrayed in the above way: as an analogue for restrictive regulation and bureaucracy. Interestingly enough, a quick Google Image search reveals that most images of this type show white men constrained by red tape, which may, on the whole, not be such a bad thing.

 Red tape is almost always portrayed in the above way: as an analogue for restrictive regulation and bureaucracy. Interestingly enough, a quick Google Image search reveals that most images of this type show white men constrained by red tape, which may, on the whole, not be such a bad thing.

Red tape is generally seen as inhuman, as the institutional, and is as such equated with all things that constrain human flourishing. It is an nonhuman scapegoat for anything that challenges human autonomy. It has become, as Herbert Kaufman writes, as "object of loathing."

But it wasn't always this way. Red tape, which wasn't always red but was sometimes pink and white, was woven tape "used to secure legal documents and official papers" (OED). It bound documents together; it related them as belonging to a case, a brief.  "Legal documents have been among the heaps of junk lying around a building site behind the Law Courts" (OED). Junk eventually, but first agents of the law. 

Red tape is a missing mass that has dutifully carried out its work. It is not simply a representation of petty human desire or a focal point for rage against constraints; it has been a vital participant in the work of government and in the maintenance of civic life. Our ability to maintain order and to make sense of complex procedures is predicated upon the ability to literally hold together laws and court cases. Red tape emerged from a real need to hold such things together. The very patterns of modern life, with its rule of law, and the possibility of social life, with its networks of relationships, is made possible, in part, by red tape (and its ancestors: the staple, the paper clip, the file folder). Our ability to wrap our heads around the law is function its ability to wrap itself around laws. Red tape is less a thread that holds us down and more a ribbon around a gift.

  Red tape is gift.

 Red tape is gift.

Now, my defense of the labors of red tape may be more or less objectionable (anarchy certainly has its adherents), but either way the historical work of red tape is rendered invisible when red tape is taken first and foremost as a front for, as a representation of, some deeper, realer human motivation. Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that red tape is not just a scapegoat for bureaucracy but for all such nonhuman actors in society. By making nonhumans mere vessels of our fears, anxieties, hates, joys, or beliefs, we push them away as actors in their own rights. 

  Red tape is more than a vessel for human motives; it is an actor that makes particular articulations possible. 

 Red tape is more than a vessel for human motives; it is an actor that makes particular articulations possible. 

What if we were to recognize red tape as a rhetorical actor that played a vital role in the production of bureaucracy and the institutions we daily take for granted? It's unique ability to bind together documents into coherent wholes was vital to the cultivation of a certain kind of order. It was, to borrow a turn of phrase from Katie Zabrowski, a "rhetorical powerhouse." Recognizing its rhetoricity could, for instance, short circuit our instinct to see particular institutional constructs or bureaucratic structures as the manifestation of discernible human intentions. If that is all institutions are taken to be, the scope of rhetorical activity is limited to addressing only the human actors, which, I'd argue, is far from sufficient. Institutions are complex assemblages that emerge through time and as an effect of relations, relations that include humans and nonhumans alike. A full rhetorical intervention needs to take everyone and everything seriously. 


[Authors note: I wrote this whole thing listening to the punk sounds of Sleater-Kinney.]