Monday, July 28, 2008

Learning from Joseph and other refugees

I wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education that just appeared online today and will only be available at this URL for non-subscribers until August 1 or 2, I think. Send me an email if you see this post after Aug. 2 and want to read about how much I learned from one of my students, Joseph, and the refugee community I met in Africa.

The article is permanently available for subscribers.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

NYT Literacy Series

I am sure the rhet-comp-literacy blogosphere is going to be buzzing in response to the literacy-technology-society series of articles that the NYTs kicked off today. As a once avid reader now frequently distracted by the Internet and its various acoutrements, and as the parent of a 9 year old who would really rather not read, just happily consume information in various forms, yet is still able to score in the 99th percentile on standardized reading tests, I really don't know what to make of the various literacy trends being documented.

If I put on the McLuhan goggles, I have to believe that commentators of various kinds are focusing on the figure, and not paying much attention to the ground. What is the real goal of literacy / education / information absorption? It certainly isn't high test scores.

On a global scale, I'd like to think that the goal is world peace, but as McLuhan (or perhaps somebody else) has noted, as literacy rates have risen, so has global violence. Lots of complicating factors here, but a few generations really plugged into the global village might have a chance to bring about more world peace than the series of generations absorbed by their isolating nationalistic texts.

Literacy and education are often invoked in the name of economic prosperity, personal, regional, and national. The countries of the world that have been able to stabilize their educational systems have generally increased personal and national wealth. I guess the nagging question here, however, is still "how much education, and what kind of education"? But maybe the grounded answer is that it doesn't matter much. Simply establishing and stabilizing an education system is likely a key to personal and national wealth, in part because a stable education system also means a stable society. There has likely been very little continuity in the history of literacy levels globally, and yet we muddle forward.

At an atomistic, personal level, literacy levels as a source of anxiety seem really problematic. What I'm trying to think about here is all the people in my life who are happy, productive, and successful despite "low" literacy levels (as measured by standardized tests and length of book read), and all the people who are unhappy, no more productive, and no more successful despite "high" literacy levels.

If the ground, rather than the figure, of literacy were the focus of the article(s), the issues would not be length of book read, or time spent reading for enjoyment, but the stability on a nation, region's, or family's life, the opportunities for education, the opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment. And unfortunately, or problematically, I almost always find myself coming to the realization that the content of education doesn't seem to matter very much. It must matter somewhat, but the medium / ground (understood in a very expansive, systemic way) matters just as much, perhaps more. No wonder educators hate McLuhan.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Lee Friedlander: American Monuments

I just got back from the Lee Friedlander photo exhibit at the Minnesota Art Institute. I knew nothing about Friedlander's work, but was drawn to the description of his interest in popular culture and photography as a medium. I was most pleasantly surprised by Friedlander's interest in American Monuments; his work seems potentially instructive for the Visual Culture and Language class and my work with Electronic Monuments. I should try a series of photos on Fargo's monuments.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Thinking Globally, Teaching Locally

Just read an interesting article in College English by Lisa Eck, "Thinking Globally, Teaching Locally: The "Nervous Conditions" of Cross-Cultural Literacy" 70.6 (2008):578-98. Eck provides a classroom report of taking her students through three stages of response to Tsitis Dangarembga's 1988 novel Nervous Condition. The stages are:

1. This is about you: (auto)biographical connections to this African novels coming-of-age narrative.
2. This was never about you: resisting the easy identification; respecting and understanding difference.
3. This is also about you: bridging difference, honestly recognizing "mixed realities" (a phrase from Fanon. "The legacy of colonialism is everybody's business, just as selfhood ought to be every young girl's nervous prerogative" (597).

Nice addition to the pedagogy of world literature I am trying to learn: the Levinas/Derrida "host-guest" relationship that some teachers advocate, and the indebtedness-exchange model argued for in Pedagogy in a few years back.

What is the What could be approached using this method: a coming of age novel (familiar), but coming of age under conditions almost unimaginable, a story and a future that could very much be about all of us.

Medium is the Massage X3

John Walter pointed to an art show running this summer in New Paltz, NY.

Chris Lingren is thinking about McLuhan, too, always. Great example from his daughter.

The blogosphere was buzzing a while back about "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" but of course Google used metonymically for "the web" and, perhaps not surprisingly, the article argues that the medium (the web) is changing our thinking, reading, etc.

This speculative instrument never gets old!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

CCC Carnival: Sp(l)itting Images

I was searching for "Richards and Speculative Instruments" last night, and as is the case with many of my searches, I ended up on Derek Mueller's blog. After reading the Richards entry, I visited the blog's home page and saw a call for a CCC carnival about Karen Kopelson's "Sp(l)itting Image; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition" 59.4 (2008): 750-80. Here's my contribution.

I'm going to start with the conclusion: it is time for rhetoric and composition to get past its identity crisis and get on with doing its work (inelegant paraphrase--sorry) (775). Agreed. As a graduate student and early in my career, I was more interested in theory talk and history, which undoubtedly had something to do with me trying to find my place in the field, and I did try to contribute to these identity debates, but I am now trying to move on. But let me tell you, its hard ; ) I am trying to finish up a project that I now recognize is still caught up in identity crisis issues to a certain extent, but once I finish that, I think I will be able to move on and focus on literacy research for the global village.

But even that project, I suspect, will be caught up in identity issues. My department chair might ask me, "were you hired to do research on literacy acquisition in Sudan?" and I'd have to say "no," or redefine my identity in such a way that I can say "yes." My dean might say, "what does this documentary you have contributed to have to do with English?" I might find myself at a conference trying to convince colleagues that they ought to reconsider their identity, that they might want to begin to see themselves as global literacy researchers. And when I send an article to CCC, the readers might ask, "what does this have to do with teaching writing?" Maybe Kopelson's article will convinced reviewers to not ask that question so often. Hhmm, I think I am digressing.

Let me get back on track: Am I going to get into a scholarly battle about theory and practice again? I hope not, because I do agree with Kopelson that there are "more innovative and far-reaching [I would add "pressing"] forms of knowledge [I would add issues]" that I can address. But why is it hard to get out of those debates? Here is a possible McLuhanesque answer: More than other fields, WE are the content of our discipline. When we write about theory, practice, and the classroom, we are writing about ourselves (our processes). In the electric age, post-objectivist age, we have become more comfortable with "re-search" as "I-search" or "Mystory." Maybe my point the last two paragraphs is that even as we get on with new / different / innovative / pressing research, we aren't likely to escape identity debates and crises. And maybe we will be a "better" discipline for it--I'm always struck by the lack of self-reflexivity in other disciplines.

I had some other ideas, but I seem to have spun myself around this one issue. I think I will sit back and see where the carnival goes.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Age of Nonpolarity by Richard N. Haass

My friend Martin, who is studying International Relations at the United States International University in Nairobi, sent me a link to The Age of Nonpolarity, which he is reading in his PoliSci class. The articles does a nice job of explaining the decline of American influence globally, the rise of multiple sites of power (countries, regions, cities, NGOs, corporations, etc.), and all of this description mirrors, in many ways, the kind of distributed telecommunications network we now find ourselves living in. Makes me wonder--is this an accurate description, or just a pleasing, familiar description? Probably a bit of both. ; )

I've being trying to think through the logistics of being a small organization working among giants, using the networking tools we now have available to us, but also just psychologically accepting / realizing that such action is possible. This article helps me see that indeed, the world political terrain is open to a number of players / actors, and that small players / actors can partner with larger player actors (Gates Foundation) in order to make headway; the large player-actors do not need to be government agencies.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Here Comes Everybody, part II--Open Source Africa?

Finished HCE. I was looking for some ideas, some insights, into how to leverage the power of social networking in support of the African Soul, American Heart film and aid project that I am working on, but my "take away" is that we are close to doing about as much as we can do. One of the ideas / concepts that Shirky comes back to over and over again is that a few people contribute most of the content to social network groups or activities (like wikipedia, a specific flickr event), but many people make a single contribution. The ASAH producer and I do most of the work, and we have a few people who contribute a little. Our film editor will contribute a lot to that specific project, others will contribute a little.

Oh, and that's another thing. These HCE projects need to be sufficiently open to mass collaboration. Editing a film shot by 3 people is not going to open itself up to mass collaboration. In terms of fundraising, we should be able to open things up a little more--invite people to host house parties--but most people can't easily contribute content to our project. If you are reading this, however, and you know how you can contribute, please leave a comment!

So, I started thinking--what kind of project might be a good HCE project? How about "Open Source Africa (OSA)?" I'm thinking of Douglas Rushkoff's "Open Source Democracy" as an illusion and guide. I know there are hundreds and hundreds of people working on various projects in Africa; would they benefit from a connected community? What would such a community accomplish? Shirky suggests, in his discussion of Linux, that if the explicit goal of an OSA was to "reform African governments," the project would fail. The goal is too big, seems to unattainable, seems like too much effort. Shirky suggests there are three rules for HCE projects:
1. they have to show promise, they need to bring people together, the concept needs to encourage participation.
2. the tools have to help bring and keep the people together, while moving towards fulfilling the promise.
3. the project has to make a bargin with people (or they make it with the project); they have to agree to the rules, participate in accordance with the group.

OSA, in light of this, seems like a project that is too big, too nebulous, lacks real promise.

So let me call out for help, again. Can anyone reading formulate a project with promise, a project that you think others would want to participate in? Does not have to be African-themed.

Epilogue: I realized after World Refugee Day that I had turned my blog into a blog-cast. My title, Ten Minutes a Day, implies personal reflection, thinking through papers, projects, life, and for the most part, that is what my blog has been the past few years. Then came the blog-cast. Now I'm really interested in trying to turn my blog into a conversation. My blogging has never been particularly conversational (either as reader or responder), but my work on ASAH really is about creating a conversation, creating a community, so that people want to learn more about Sudan, its history, its present, its future. I do need to figure out how to encourage people to contribute to the project, not just financially, but intellectually, emotionally, practically, even though most of the post is about how that isn't likely going to happen. Prove me wrong, people, prove me wrong!