5 Albums For An Epic Night of Paper-Grading

Just in time for Fall: my response to Rhetsy editor Collin Gifford Brooke’s call for 5ives. Here are five albums to transform an evening of paper-grading into a meta journey:

Powaqqatsi Soundtrack

1. Phillip Glass: Powaqqatsi

Miles Davis Kind of Blue

2. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

Shirim Klezmer Nutcracker

3. Shirim Klezmer Orchestra: Klezmer Nutcracker

Gotan Project

4. Gotan Project: La Revancha Del Tango

The Essential Ravi Shankar

5. Ravi Shankar: The Essential Ravi Shankar

Making Material Rhetoric Matter More

I’d been studying the material rhetoric of shadowboxes for nearly decade (mostly through my work at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Center Museum) when I encountered them in a new space: the corridors of a residence for people with Alzheimer’s. My stepfather was in the early stages of the disease and my mother and I had begun to look into options for senior daycare. Outside each resident’s door was a plexiglass box containing objects from their past, “to help them find their way home,” a nurse explained. The boxes so closely resembled the shadowboxes in the OKC Memorial’s Gallery of Honor that it took my breath away. “Material eulogies” I call them in that other context, suddenly being something very different (though in some ways not) in this place where memory was a living and dying thing every day.

I knew then that this was the connection I’d been praying for, between “memory work” and memory work. For many years I searched for ways to make the work I do–community-engaged rhetoric and writing–matter more. When I began graduate school in 1995 I knew that rhetoric was the field that best suited my abilities and questions and yet I couldn’t escape the fact that I wasn’t going to cure cancer with it. Despite all the ways I know that words matter, despite all the ways teaching deeply matters, I couldn’t live with myself if I felt my research was merely interesting or descriptive or even instructive. I was fascinated by rhetorical theory. I’d eat it for breakfast if I could. But it seemed to me that too many of our lauded public intellectuals were people talking about things (smugly, wistfully, often to one another), instead of doing much to help. I didn’t want to be another one of those. So I kept my head down, kept working in the community and teaching my classes and taking notes and looking for connections between what I was doing and how I might make a contribution beyond words.

I’m not kidding myself. I’m still not curing cancer. But I’m seriously engaged in this matter of what artifacts can do for us, how they preserve our stories, and what all this can teach us about the relationship between thought and expression, material and memory. This is what I’m thinking about when I stumble across postings like this one:


Peer Review: Practicing the Craft of Trust

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A few moments ago I deleted a word my colleague had typed into a document we’re co-authoring–an introduction to our forthcoming book, A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. I always pause a breath before deleting or changing a co-author’s words. Sometimes I’ll insert a comment into the document, but I’ve been working with these colleagues long enough to know my change was okay. I took a second pause this time because it occurred to me that this is the kind of collaboration I’m asking my students to do right now in their wiki projects and Google Drive activities. Yet to do it really confidently requires a level of trust that builds over time.

ART and I, for example, have been co-authoring scholarship for well over a decade. We know each other deeply as writers and thinkers. Logging on to a shared Google doc is sometimes like entering a Borgian hive mind. Our co-author/co-editor is also someone with whom we’ve collaborated for many years–as researchers, as writing program administrators, as lifelong learners yearning to make our work as meaningful as possible for more than just ourselves.

What we’re doing right now is what we teach as “peer review” in our writing classrooms. Our book is really just an elaborate extension of that process, in multiple dimensions and directions: it’s a collection of 18 chapters by 29 scholars, with 3 editors and numerous external reviewers (who range from our own graduate students to distant scholars we may never meet or know).

We enter into this complex process of reading and responding because we value the breadth and depth of expertise each person will contribute. We trust one another to care deeply about our work and we believe our work will be better as a result of these interactions, even if we sometimes disagree. As an editor I share suggestions that my authors may or may not use. I trust their judgment. As a reader I delight in their insights and appreciate their skill. As a writer–particularly as a collaborating writer–I get energized knowing that savvy colleagues are connecting with my words and thoughts, moment by moment.

The longer I do this work, the better it gets. Even when it’s really tough, it’s fascinatingly so. It teaches me so much about my own mind and self and craft–in addition to teaching me so much about the project itself.

So how do I bring all this back into the classroom tomorrow morning? How do I distill this experience into something my students can get in a few weeks of digital collaboration? How do I teach the craft of trust?

If All You Have is a Hammer . . .

OCU Campus Legends


The first day of our Liberal Arts Seminar I said Cardinal Newman’s philosophy of liberal learning boiled down to one thing: his concern that if all we have is a hammer everything will look like a nail.

To make this lesson memorably multimodal I passed around one of my own hammers from home. OK, it wasn’t really a hammer; it was a heavy rubber mallet. (Seemed less freaky for a first day of class.)

As a hardcore do-it-myselfer I get a lot of use from that mallet so I confess I had mixed feelings presenting it as a symbol of limited imagination. In truth, I have done some fairly creative problem-solving with that mallet.

Here’s the thing: if all you have is a hammer, you can potentially become extremely skilled with the hammer. You might hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening, building up your 10,000 hours with…

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Finding another Voice

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Two years ago today my friend Elaine died of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

For years she was my closest friend in the department. As time passes I find myself missing her more, finding more things we ought to be talking about. Teaching is one of those things.

The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed her in 2010 for this article and video about her technology-mediated teaching:

Elaine’s experience strengthened my conviction about two things (pertaining to teaching, anyway):

First, that my job as a liberal arts educator is not merely about fostering genteel well-roundedness; rather, it’s about the urgent, essential work of teaching and learning interdisciplinary ingenuity. We don’t have time to wait for other people to be geniuses. We don’t have the luxury of patiently applauding other people seeking creative solutions to complex problems like ALS.

Second, that my best work is done as a catalyst, even though I’m still figuring out how to do it right. Elaine’s teaching method described in the video is in many ways what I hope to achieve through approaches like quadblogging–devoting more of the course to the students’ own processing of knowledge. On one level I’m having them experiment with digital tools because it’s practical and important to their digital literacy; on another level the digital communication projects are far more deeply about tapping into more parts of their brain through multimodal inquiry and reflection and composition. I want them to think and write in 4D, not just 2D or even 3D. I want them to master the art of extracting useful and inspiring knowledge from dense verbal sources (Emerson called this “creative reading,” yes?) as well as from other media, and I want them to generate new, actionable insights for themselves and for the rest of us.

Elaine’s interviewer asks her to share some advice to faculty. She says we should look at ourselves and our practices really honestly, because so much of traditional pedagogy tends to be about performance and even to some extent about ego-gratification. Perhaps what she means is that we’re distracted by our own desire for students to like and admire us–or perhaps we just love hearing ourselves talk about our favorite subjects.

In my teaching I tend to always want students making something or experiencing something. I want them to dig into raw materials and discover things that will delight or intrigue or inspire them. I try to use my speaking time to make sure they know everything we’re doing is on purpose, that a scaffold is in place to increase our odds of finding cool stuff, even though I can’t predict what it will be. It’s a different motivation than the infamous “sage on the stage” mindset but might my approach still be about ego? Yes, in some ways I think so. Because at the end of the day I want them to share my giddy enthusiasm for our work and my inflated sense of personal agency. I want us to cure ALS in Honors Comp 2.