Wednesday, March 28, 2007

“We Don’t Care. We’re the Phone Company. We Don’t Have To”

It was almost forty years ago that Lily Tomlin’s character Ernestine uttered those words on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In. We all laughed; we all knew that AT&T, which controlled almost all local and long distance telephoning in America, could do as it pleased.

Until, that is, it ran afoul of anti-trust suits. It was broken up, in 1984, into what came to be known as the “Baby Bells.” We all thought that, from then on, our phone companies would have to care.

“From then on” ended last December, when BellSouth acquired AT&T and took on its name, creating a new, dominant AT&T. A company that, once more, doesn’t care.

It proved it to me this morning, when a character calling himself “Sam Lewis” called me from the office of the president, responding to a letter of complaint I had sent.

The complaint stems from the blocking of Cingular users’ ability to call a teleconferencing service in Iowa (details of why the number is blocked can be found here with my own experience here). “Lewis” wanted to assure me, somehow, that the new AT&T cares—by saying to me that it doesn’t.

I didn’t record the call, so can’t give his exact words, but the upshot was that what the customers want doesn’t matter. It is settled; we cant call because AT&T is in a dispute with Iowa telephone providers and companies like A dispute that has nothing to do with us, the consumers. It’s over, he told me (though not exactly in those words). Get used to it. Move on.

Why didn’t he just admit that the new AT&T is just too big to care about its customers? Why didn’t he just say, like Ernestine, “We don’t care…. We don’t have to”?

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Rise of the Blogosphere

My latest book, The Rise of the Blogosphere: American Backgrounds is now available.

A couple of years ago, on re-reading parts of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, I was shocked by the similarity between his depiction of the press in America around 1830 and contemporary descriptions of the blogs. A little exploration showed me that, indeed, the American press—up to the time of the “penny press” and the technological changes in the printing industry in the 1840s—had once been very blog-like in nature. I wasn’t the only one to notice this; by now, it has become something of a commonplace in discussion of the blogs. Ultimately, what interested me more was this:

What happened in the meantime? Why had we lost our raucous press and why was something so similar in content appearing now?

The Rise of the Blogosphere is my attempt to answer these questions. It begins with a short examination of the colonial press. Other early chapters take the reader through the press of the early years of our republic—and then through its explosion into commercialization and professionalization. Here’s the Table of Contents:


I wish there were a paperback edition, but there isn’t. If you don’t want to pay the almost $50 price, speak to your local librarian and ask that the book be ordered. My publisher focuses on sales to libraries, so convincing them to get it shouldn’t be too difficult, as they may regularly order from Praeger or its sister press (Greenwood) anyway.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Cingular (AT&T) Blocks: Networks and Their Content

Given the current blocking of certain telephone numbers by Cingular, Qwest, and Sprint—not to mention the concept of Net Neutrality now being challenged by commercial forces that want the ability to pay for precedence (among other things) on the Internet, it is worth taking a look at the roles of networks—as opposed to what we normally think about, the things networks transmit. ePluribus Media will soon be publishing a detailed investigative report on the attempt to stop service to certain numbers, written by Todd Johnston; this piece is meant as preparation for, and as auxiliary to, Johnston’s.

Rarely is there a network completely open to its customers, or where the distinction between the provider and the user is absolute. We cannot use the roads, for example, without certification of competence (a driver’s license) by the controlling authority (the government). And we are penalized for abuse of the established rules. Of all our networks, the Internet may be the most uncontrolled, though regulations implemented through such things as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the much stricter controls placed by other countries (such as China) attempt to bring even it under regulatory control. Many of the controls on networks guaranteeing access are justified, in part, by the essential nature of the services they provide and because of the requirements of unfettered access in emergency situations.

Control of all substantial networks in common use exists at three levels: through the individual user (sepf-censorship), through the managing authority (be it private or public), and through government regulation. The differences in these are significant to any understanding of networks—and have existed for centuries. They can even be illustrated by an article written and published by Benjamin Franklin in his The Pennsylvania Gazette on June 10, 1731. This article, “Apology for Printers,” is often mistaken as dealing with content, but that is secondary. The primary focus is the role of the printer in the network of information dissemination in the American colonies.

Franklin had got himself into a bit of trouble by printing a poster, an announcement calling for passengers and freight for a ship leaving for the Caribbean. It contained the line “no Sea Hens nor Black Gowns will be admitted on any Terms.” People were offended, and not just the prostitutes and Anglican clergy mentioned.

The uproar was enough to lead Franklin to respond with his “Apology for Printers.” In it, he made points, and provided a contradiction, that remain relevant to understanding networks today, though the technologies and extent of networks have changed greatly from the time when the written and printed word were at the base of almost all extensive communication networks.

Franklin, as both a printer and a writer, was keenly aware of the distinction between the network of dissemination and the material disseminated. In the article, his first four points address the dilemma this distinction raises for the network (represented, in this case, by printers): opinions are various; the business of the network has to do with opinions; therefore, simply by providing its service, the network is going to offend someone; and it is unreasonable to expect otherwise. He follows these with a key statement: printers believe all sides should be able to be heard and that it’s not the particular opinion that matters to them, but payment. The next four points build on this: printers, as people of business, are unconcerned with the right or wrong of what they print; printers cannot be expected to approve everything they print; if they only printed what they approved, little would see print; and it is the people (both the writers and their willing audiences), not the printers, who are ultimately responsible for what is printed.

The tenth point is the most problematic, possibly even contradictory. Here, point five notwithstanding, Franklin asserts that printers “do continually discourage the Printing of great Numbers of bad things.” These include, he says, things that “might do real Injury to any Person.” This, of course, is an understanding of the limits of free speech that would be reflected 188 years later in the watershed free speech case of Schenk v. United States where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote “"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."

In Franklin’s eye, it comes down to this: individual users can expect unencumbered use of the network (as long as they can pay) as long as they don’t make use of the network for injury. The role of the network controller over content—and even usage—extends only to questions of injury and ability to pay. Government oversight (not relevant to Franklin in the particular case of his “Apology,” but certainly relevant to us) only involves ensuring that the controller takes that responsibility but does not overstep it, restricting the network. Since the time of Franklin, this has become a basic tenet of all of our regulation of networks by governments—not to mention of the interactions between users and the networks.

But our attitudes towards networks (and their legal reflection) is much more complex than that. Our basic expectations of any network prohit, for example, limiation only a part of the network once full access had been established. Imagine Franklin telling his customer that he would print the handbill, but he would only put it up in one part of town—because, let’s say, he was having a dispute with a printer in another neighborhood, he would not block distribution there. That would not have crossed his mind, of course. Not only would he not tell a customer what to say (within the limit of injury), but he would never limit who they could say it to. Philosophically speaking, he always wanted to see greater access, not limits.

In some cases, network access is a safety issues (blocking roads, for example, can delay emergency vehicles with deadly results), but is mostly a matter of convenience and expectation. Let’s posit for a moment, that EZPass, the system that allows people to drive through toll gates quickly, were to find itself involved in a dispute with the state of New Jersey (this would never happen: the states are the controlling authorities—but we are imagining things here for the purpose of example). EZPass could not, to force the matter to resolution, suddenly block access to New Jersey via EZPass lanes. Just think of the uproar! It would have to find another avenue, one that did not impede access to any part of the network. Once any network is established, it is considered improper to limit use of any of its parts. This is an unstated, but crucial, aspect of our general assumption of just what a network is.

In fact, this, as much as safety, is behind much of our regulation of networks, from handbill distribution to the electric grid. Franklin, once he had established that he served all of Philadelphia, could not easily limit distribution to one part (certainly not on a selective basis)—though his customer, the user of the network, could. This holds even more true to our regulated utility networks. Even insurance carriers find it difficult to pull out of areas where they have established a service network.

Now, just what has this to do with Cingular (AT&T)?

On March 10th, I tried to join an ePluribus Media conference call through, using my Cingular cell phone. I could not connect to the number. A recording told me it had been blocked and that I should contact Cingular if I wanted more information. I did, and was told that a “business decision” had been made, blocking that number. As American carrying the assumptions about networks I’ve described here, I reacted to that “explanation” in a particularly negative fashion. I was further outraged when told that it was Cingular’s “right” to block the number under the service agreement I had signed. It reads like this:
We may block access to certain categories of numbers (e.g. 976, 900 and certain international destinations) or certain web sites if, in our sole discretion, we are experiencing excessive billing, collection, fraud problems or other misuse of our network.
To me, a number in a legitimate place-associated area code (unlike 800 numbers, for example) does not constitute a “category,” even if all of the numbers blocked were associated with a particular type of business (teleconferencing, in this case). To extend “category” in this way, it seemed (and seems) to me, is an abuse of authority over the network. So I have written Cingular (now AT&T) in complaint, sending copies to my state Attorney General and to the Federal Communication Commission.

I’m not the only one who has been bothered by this. Bloggers (including this one) have begun to complain. PennPIRG has also taken this up. itself says this about the situation:
We believe that AT&T/Cingular, Sprint and Qwest are violating the public trust as well as abusing their market power. AT&T and Qwest have recently filed different suits against some rural telephone companies and businesses that bring you a variety of services, including affordable conferencing services. is not a defendant in any of these suits. These suits basically claim that services similar to ours operate within a “loophole” in the fee structure that has been set up by the FCC and Congress to ensure all carriers are compensated for outside use of their networks. This fee structure is not a “loophole”—it is the system by which all carriers compensate each other for sharing their capacity. Without this system, communication would breakdown, since not every carrier would be connected to every person. These major carriers don’t want to change this part of this system—but instead want to change a part of the system that forces them to pay for using someone else’s equipment.
The dispute, then, that is blocking access has nothing to do with users. Our access to the full network is being limited by considerations so far removed from us that it does become something like a situation where EZPass, in my fictional example, blocks quick access to New Jersey to resolve a dispute that had nothing to do with the customers. In both cases, our assumed rights to the network are being abridged.

The underlying assumptions of network usage, from the time of Franklin on, are based on the idea that the network, once established, will not be limited without sufficient reason--and that the reason should concern the user, not simply conflict between networks or parts of networks. Franklin does not even consider that he could limit his “network” because of a dispute with another printer. The only limits are those of pricing and potential injury.

That Cingular (AT&T), Qwest, and Sprint have decided that they can use access to networks as leverage in a business dispute is scary—not because we are helpless and unable to find alternatives, but because their mindset could be applied to other networks, completely undermining the confidence we have developed in the system of networks that underlies not only this nation but the world.

It is going to be up to individual Americans to stop this, even those who have never used The FCC may try, but only people will really be able to enforce the concept that use of a network, once the price of entry has been paid, should never be maleable to the whim of the networks controller. We don’t want Cingular (AT&T) controlling any aspect of our lives—for fear that it will soon want to control more.

If we succeed—and we will—the ghost of Ben Franklin (and of our other Founding Fathers) will smile in approval. Freedom from unreasonable limitation, after all, was what they struggled for.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Anything You Can Do

With the death of Betty Hutton last weekend, we’ve all been hearing, over and over, her rendition (along with Howard Keel) of “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” from the movie version of Annie Get Your Gun. Each time, I am reminded (of all things) of Republican attitudes towards electoral shenanigans and, of course, of the brouhaha over the firings of U.S. Attorneys.

The Republicans, of course, don’t sing the song correctly. They’ve changed the lyrics to “Anything we imagine you can do, we can do better.” They sing it to the Democrats. And, over the past thirty years or so, it has stood them in good stead. After all, knowing your enemy’s capacity is an important part in developing a successful strategy in war—and the Republicans have long seen politics as war (see my article for The Public Eye for more on this and on David Horowitz’s seminal pamphlet “The Art of Political War”).

Karl Rove, a fan of the Horowitz pamphlet and a master of that song, reprised it again Thursday at Troy University when asked about the resignations (read “firings”) of seven U.S. attorneys late last year: “I'd simply ask everybody who's playing politics with this be asked to comment about the removal of 123 U.S. attorneys during the previous administration and see if they had the same super-heated political rhetoric.” The song, of course, is deliberately childish in intent. And Rove certainly sounds like a petulant little miscreant: “Billy did it, so why can’t I?”

This isn’t the only example of such thinking connected to the U.S. Attorneys scandal. As the 2006 elections neared, Republicans were hit hard by allegations of corruption. Ever since the rumors of voter fraud in favor of John Kennedy in Cook County in 1960 (and from even before that), Republicans have imagined (sometimes with reason, I must admit) that elections were being stolen from them. So, they set out to steal a few of their own. And they succeeded spectacularly. Al Gore won the 2000 election in terms of popular vote. And more people thought they cast votes for him than thought they did for Bush in Florida. In 2004, corrupt practices in Ohio may well have tipped that election to Bush.

By 2006, however, American voters showed themselves as increasingly fed up with such practices. Scrambling to protect themselves from voter anger, Republicans began to throw around that “they did it, too” line, and put pressure on prosecutors to find instances of Democratic malfeasance—and to bring about indictments before the election.

Last month, ePluribus Media Journal published the preliminary findings of a study by Donald C. Shields and John F. Cragan, “The Political Profiling of Elected Democratic Officials: When Rhetorical Vision Participation Runs Amok.” They had discovered that “the offices of the U.S. Attorneys across the nation investigate seven (7) times as many Democratic officials as they investigate Republican officials.” Yet actual indictments were almost exclusively of Republicans.

Certain that Democrats were doing it, too, Republican lawmakers had been leaning on prosecutors, trying to get them to find anything that could make it possible for there to appear (at least) a parity of malfeasance. As Reese Schonfeld writes in The Huffington Post, “In September '06, just before the election, Chris Christie, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, brought subpoenas ‘in connection with allegations of corruption on the part of Senator Bob Menendez,’ the Democratic candidate for the Senate. The subpoenas were leaked and became front page news.” However, not all prosecutors were so willing: “Two other prosecutors (Washington and New Mexico) had refused to bring fraud charges in statewide elections decided by less than 5,000 votes.” They lost their jobs; Christie is still in his, though the charges came to nothing.

The full story of the political uses of U.S. Attorneys has not yet been fully exposed. Christie is not the only one who seems to have bowed to pressure from politicians. The investigators at ePluribus Media are beginning to profile exactly what some of them have been doing to retain their jobs.

So just wait: when it comes to skullduggery, we may soon see just how much better the Republicans have been doing it. They weren’t wrong, as they sang that song.

Any fraud you can do,
I can do better.
I can do any fraud
Better than you.

No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can,
Yes, I can!

Any vote you can take
I can take more of.
Sooner or later,
I’ll take more than you.

No, you can’t. Yes, I can.
No, you can’t. Yes, I can.
No, you can’t!. Yes, I can.
Yes, I can!

I can change an election
With a single deflection.
I can lean on attorneys
Or put them on gurneys.
And make them live on bread and cheese.
And only on that?
So can a rat!
Any vote you can reach
I can reach more of.
I can reach anything
Much more than you.
No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I CAN!

Anyone you can bribe
I can bribe better.
I can bribe anyone
Better than you.

Forty cents?
Firty cents! Sixty cents?
Ninety cents! No, you can't!
Yes, I can,
Yes, I can!
Anything you can say
I can say luder.
I can say anything
Louder than you.
No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can.
I can drink my kool-aid
Faster than your aide.
I can drink it quicker
And get even sicker!
I can open any safe.
Without bein' caught?
That's what I thought--
you crook!
Any vote you can hold
I can hold longer.
I can hold any vote
Longer than you.

No, you can't.
Yes, I can No, you can't.
Yes, I can No, you can't.
Yes, I can
Yes, I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I No, you C-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-N'T--
CA-A-A-A-N! (Cough, cough!)
Yes, you ca-a-a-an!

Any pose you can take
I can wear better.
At what you claim
I'd look better than you.
In my coat?
In your vest! In my shoes?
In your hat! No, you can't!
Yes, I can
Yes, I CAN!
Anything you say
I can say faster.
I can say anything
Faster than you.
No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can. Noyoucan't.
I can jump legal hurdles.
I can make you turn turtle.
I can knit a indictment.
I can cause false excitement!
I can do most anything!
Can you bake a pie? No.
Neither can I.
Any mud you can fling
I can fling further.
I can fling anything
Further than you.
No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't, can't, can't.
Yes, I can, can, can

Yes, I can! No, you can't!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

“Fallacies” About Freshman Composition

Nan Miller’s “study” for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy presents six “fallacies” about freshman composition. I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on them:

Fallacy 1: The purpose of English 101 in “to empower writers to membership in various discourse communities.” I’ll admit, the quote Miller chooses here is poorly worded. Empower to membership? Hmmm. Miller interprets this to mean that students are asked to learn new languages rather than to simply write clearly. She quotes Peter Elbow at length on the reasons for concentrating on clear writing and implies that what Ericka Lindemann, in the phrase she quotes, is saying is that we should be teaching jargon, what she calls “academic discourse.” Thing is, she is creating an opposition where one has never existed.

Even when we try to move our students into a position of comfort within academic structures (and most of them need that—few really understand the demands of college before they get there, and freshman composition is the one class all of them take where they can be taught to be students as they master the subject matter), we are (for the most part) also trying to teach them to write clearly and simply. There is no “either/or” here; the two tasks are not at loggerheads, as Miller seems to think.

Fallacy 2: The best way to ensure quality instruction in English 101 is to hire instructors who are trained in composition theory. Here again, Miller presents a simplistic “either/or”: “To train all prospective writing teachers in composition theory and research rather than in great writing would be to suppress talent, invention, and a passion for the written word.” Gee! I guess I have had all joy “trained” out of me! And, because I have a background in composition theory (though not in the classroom), I’ve had to sacrifice any reading I might have done of “great writing.”

Fallacy 3: “The use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.” The quote is from an NCTE resolution. Darn it! Another “either/or”: either we teach exercises or we don’t teach grammar at all! Most teachers of composition integrate grammar into the process of revision and copyediting, but that does not mean we ignore it, simply that we know, as the NCTE resolution asserts, that exercises in grammar to not create writing that is grammatically correct.

Fallacy 4: A “student centered” class provides the best format for “the making of knowledge.” Well, lecturing about writing never did make the listeners better writers. Only writing can do that. The task we face is of getting students to see writing as communication, as something more than marks on a page made to please a teacher. To communicate, one first needs to develop something to say, someone to say it to, and then the means of expressing it well. All of these are part of freshman composition—and all are necessarily student centered.

Fallacy 5: If composition theorists talk about writing in the language they themselves have invented, no one will notice that their mission in English 101 has more to do with promoting theorist ideology than it does with promoting literacy. Here, Miller takes after James Berlin, mistaking his “conversation” with teachers of composition for “conversation” with those outside. Sometimes, a specialized utilization of language is warranted—certainly when the conversation is among specialists. But teachers of writing have never exclusively talked or written in jargon. In fact, most of us try to write clearly and for all audiences, recognizing the importance of what we are doing to many outside of our specialty. Even if that were not the case, however, what Miller presents here is a subjective view of “mission” that has more to do with her own political stance than it does with the actuality of classroom practice.

Fallacy 6: “Freshman composition: No Place for Literature.” Personally, I don’t restrict my choices of texts by category. In fact, I think Miller is creating a straw man here. Her justification for saying we believe this is that we concentrate on discourse—another “either/or.”

The essential problem with Miller’s “study” is that it is not based on observation of actual classroom practice but on a cursory examination of a little of the literature on freshman composition. Most of us who teach composition understand that our debates in writing are distinct from our actions in the classroom, though they do influence them. The classroom is the center, however, and it is there that any discussion of the teaching of composition should start.

Nothing at all in Miller’s “study” helps in the classroom at all. Nothing.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

David Brooks: “Blogger”

Almost a year ago, now, Nicholas Lemann wrote a piece in The New Yorker called “Amateur Hour: Journalism Without Journalists.”

Though he was directing his words at bloggers, Lemann could have been talking about David Brooks.

In his last two columns, Brooks has sounded more like the stereotype of a blogger than even the most narcissistic and pajama’d generation XI-er creating worlds completely out of imagination.

Even though he really is no journalist and doesn’t claim to be one, a person would think that Brooks would feel a certain responsibility to truth—of at least research and fact-checking. After all, his column originates in The New York Times, a venue that prides itself on the care it takes with the information it presents (though, it must be admitted, it has had notable failures these past few years). As a result, most people who read Brooks’ columns do assume journalism has something to do with them.

But, no. What we have, there on the Op-Ed page of the most renowned paper in the country, is amateur babbling—worse… it’s agenda’d babbling, fed by the talking points of the powers-that-be in Washington.

In Wednesday’s column, Brooks even admitted as much—though accidentally. He had once gone off-message, he recounts, and received a chiding phone call from Scooter Libby, basically telling him to get with the program even and present the positive spin though, as Libby admits, “I can do the negative spin just as well.”

Like an unsophisticated blogger, Brooks wasn’t aware of all the information he was letting slip in that column where he was trying to wax nostalgic about the wondrous people who inhabited the White House in the heady days after 9/11. Libby, he says, is a “good man,” who (if anything) is suffering the consequences of the “feverish sense of mission” White House staffers once felt.

Brooks follows that with a laugher:
Staff members in those days went to work wondering whether this would be the day they would die. There was a sense that any day a bomb might wipe out downtown Washington.
As one who was within sight of Ground Zero on 9/11 (though I did not see anything but smoke), I find Brooks’ description of the attitudes in DC unbelievable—nothing more than self-serving nonsense. And insulting to the rest of us in New York or DC (not to mention the rest of the country). If anyone was under threat of another attack, all of us were. Brooks is setting up a nostalgic dream with no relation to the truth, a “those were the days” wish for the heady days before the American population realized it was being hoodwinked into supporting an agenda that had nothing to do with terrorism anyway. (Just wait: you’ll see others promoting this same vision, a new way of excusing the excesses of a venal and dishonest administration—they were heroes, we’ll be told again and again).

Oddly, Brooks ends the column with this:
Wisdom comes from suffering and error, and when the passions die down and observation begins.
As Brooks knows (on some level) there was no real idealistic passion involved in what was going on in the White House in the time between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war. Instead, there was a deliberate attempt to mislead the American public so that the terror attacks would be conflated with a new “threat” from Iraq, creating a “necessity” for war. That aside, what’s peculiar about this statement is that Brooks seems to think that he and the White House he shills for have suffered (I will admit, they certainly have been involved in “error”). Not even Scooter has suffered—and he won’t. As Frank Rich writes, a pardon for Libby is a foregone conclusion.

In today’s column, accompanying the one from Rich, Brooks does what a stereotypical “blogger” does… a couple of quick searches followed by babbling. He includes things like this:
Kevin Drum, who is actually older than most bloggers, says the difference is generational. Klein’s mind-set, he says, was formed in the 1970s and 1980s, but “like most lefty bloggers, I only started following politics in a serious way in the late ’90s.”
”Actually older than most bloggers”? Does Brooks have any idea what he is talking about? Does Drum? Both of the are blowing wind here. “Lefty bloggers” range in age—there’s no generational profile that backs up Drum’s or Brooks’ contentions that bloggers are either young or new to politics. Both of them are assuming the truth of stereotypes, something that the stereotypical “blogger” of Lemann’s article might do, but not something one would expect of a “journalist.”

Brooks is trying to make an odd and nonsensical point. At the end of his article he writes:
The left, which has the momentum, is growing more uniform
Yet he has spent most of the column trying to show just the opposite:
Neoliberals often have an air of perpetual youthfulness about them, but they are now in their 40s, 50s and even their 60s, and a younger generation of bloggers set off a backlash. If you surf the Web these days, for example, you find that a horde of thousands have declared war on the Time magazine columnist Joe Klein.
According to Brooks, “neoliberals” arose in the 1980s, taking power as the Clinton administration. Now, Brooks claims, the “horde” of bloggers is out to get them… yet the left is somehow “growing more uniform”? He tries to justify this by claiming the new, younger ones are returning to a pre-“neoliberal” mindset, but even that is no indication of uniformity.

I guess it’s just that Brooks, like that stereotypical blogger, writes off the top of his head, not bothering to look back, not bothering to rewrite, not bothering to think.

Memo to The New York Times: Take David Brooks off of your Op-Ed page. Get someone to show him how to set up a blog on Blogger, and let him drift down to the level where he belongs. Give your high-profile platform to someone who deserves it, someone (a conservative, if you must) who thinks and writes with care, originality, and precision.

Friday, March 09, 2007

"Correcting" Freshman Composition

As any teacher does, I'm always looking for ways to improve my pedagogy, especially in the areas that interest me most--including freshman composition. So I was interested to read a “study” called “English 101: Prologue to Literacy or Postmodern Moonshine” and produced by Nan Miller for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education--even though I had never heard of this center. The first thing I looked for was suggestion for improvement. Sure enough, ‘corrective’ measures’ are provided (I’ll save the “fallacies” Miller identifies and says need correcting for another time):

Miller writes (my comments in italics):

Only a college administrator can ask a writing program director to put freshman composition back on track by

1. leaving the “discourse methodology” of the sciences and social sciences to experts in the sciences and social sciences, As writing is a means of discourse, this makes no sense. That’s even worse than asking a mechanic to leave automotive theory to the engineers and just stick to fixing cars. Theory and practice are inextricably linked; “methodology” and practice are even more so.
2. granting instructors latitude to select texts that suit their particular gifts, Yes and no. Most places do allow instructors that choice, merely offering a standard. Thing is, with so many adjuncts and other contingent hires teaching (and with little chance of providing close supervision, given the dearth of permanent faculty), anything that can help produce a standard outcome needs to be used. The question isn’t one of allowing instructors latitude but of increasing tenured and tenure-track faculty who can be more carefully embedded into the particular university’s system.
3. insisting that instructors use class time teaching writing strategies and pointing out how professional writers employ them, rather than having students work in groups, I must have missed something: I did not understand it was an either/or. Though I am not a big one for small groups, I understand their value and utilize them towards a number of ends, including development of an understanding of audience (by writing to each other), learning copyediting skills, and building a tool chest of “pre-writing” strategies. Also, writing itself isn’t a matter of “strategies”—they as simply individual tools to help the writer get to the main task of communicating with an audience. When we talk of “writing strategies” alone, we are removing the act of writing from its conversational dynamic. This is appropriate for professional writers and more advanced student writers, but it does little for “freshman composition” students, most of whom need to learn, first, that writing is much more than words on a page.
4. reminding instructors that using technology in class is no substitute for lively instruction, Technology is no bar to lively instruction, either. There’s no either/or here, so what’s the point of the comment?
5. urging instructors to incorporate daily quizzes or online postings that hold students accountable for the assigned reading, When the class is larger than it really should be—perhaps 12 to 14 students—it certainly is often necessary to use some device or another to make sure students keep current with their reading. It would make more sense to try to reduce class sizes, however, than concentrating on stop-gap methods like these.
6. endowing instructors with absolute authority and providing strong backup when students challenge that authority, Sorry, but I want my students to challenge my authority. Writing is a process of struggle to get one’s own point across, not to parrot that of another.
7. requiring instructors to schedule at least two conferences with each student during the course of the semester and encouraging them to meet with students on a regular basis, Here, again, it would be better to lobby for smaller classes. Individual conferences, for the most part, are simply an attempt to find a substitute for the close instruction possible in a small class. As most every writing teacher does meet individually with her or his students, this isn’t even much of a suggestion.
8. assigning instructors no more than two sections of freshman English per semester, so that they can make time to grade papers carefully and meet with students outside of class, Though I know there are a few places that have people teaching heavier loads of freshman English, I have no experience of them. The places where I have taught do keep it to two or fewer. Again, this doesn’t go even one step beyond what is now done in most cases.
9. requiring that essays be graded by instructors whose comments address an identifiable writer—not an anonymous piece of writing—and who routinely hand papers back during the next class period. Here, again, the “college administrator” would better spend his or her time fighting to reduce class size. Like many of the other suggestions here, this addresses a problem that will never be completely resolved until the financial constrictions leading to over-large classes are eased. Until such a time, all such suggestions, however effective they may be, and how needed in the short term, are merely stop-gap.
10. requiring instructors to design a systematic review of grammar—making use of handbook exercises, online tutorials, and writing center workshops in preparation for a departmental test that all students must pass at mid-semester, I have yet to see a grammar test that makes students better writers. It makes much more sense to teach grammar through the revision and copy-editing process, when the communicative aspect of writing is still evident. As we often see with ESL students, grasp of grammar rules (and the ability to complete grammar exercises) has little relationship to the quality of a student’s writing.
11. administering a departmental writing test at semester’s end (departmental tests provide an excellent measure of teacher competence as well), I have no problem with a test general to the department, but using the results of those tests to judge teacher competence scares me. The assumption is that all students start at the same place and with the same skills is unwarranted—and teachers who know they are going to be judged on the success of their students will, consciously or not, weed out their weaker students. Here again, though, smaller class size would be a preferred solution.
12. reinstating essay assignments that pique the imagination, e.g., narrative and descriptive essays, At the basic level of freshman English, concentration needs to be on communication, on developing something to say to someone else, and not so much on imagination. That will come, but the ability to communicate precedes it. We need to start where the students are, find what is already in them that they wish to say, and teach them how to say it through writing. This process can lead to flights of imagination and to narrative and descriptive essays—but communication is the goal.
13. suggesting that faculty who write or talk about composition read what Aristotle said about clarity—in Book III, Chapter 2 of On Rhetoric:
A writer must disguise his art and give the impression of speaking
naturally and not artificially…. Strange words, compound words, and
invented words must be used sparingly and on few occasions…. A good
writer can produce a style that is distinguished without being obtrusive
and is at the same time clear.
Clarity is, of course, what students aim for when they finally realize that what they are doing is attempting to communicate. We don’t need Miller—or even Aristotle—to tell us that.
14. requiring a two-semester sequence in freshman composition and allowing instructors to include some literature in the introductory course if they wish. For example, instructors could choose an all-essay text like the Norton Anthology, which is organized around themes, but also assign fiction and poetry that treat the same themes. Or instructors could choose a freshman text such as Literature and Ourselves, which organizes both fiction and nonfiction around themes. Am I beginning to detect some padding here? Like many of Miller’s suggestions, this is pretty much what most of us do right now. And I don’t know anyone who would argue against expanding freshman composition to two semesters in those places where it hasn’t already happened.
15. designing a second semester course around great works. Ideally, the course would resemble David Denby’s Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, better known as the 1996 New York Times best seller Great Books. But program directors could design a far less ambitious course that would engage students in challenging reading, lively class discussion, and perceptive writing. Shoot, I could (and have) design a second-semester course around books that became movies. Others do it around philosophies. The possibilities, as they say, are endless. The point is to have a topic that enthuses the instructor, so that the instructor can show genuine passion and, perhaps, pass it on to the students.

‘Nuff said. There’s little weight and nothing new in any of this. I was disappointed when I finished the list.

This study, by the way, seems to be another of those “studies,” like the ones conducted by David Horowitz or the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, that relies primarily on syllabi, positing that the syllabus is an accurate encapsulation of the course. A good portion of the sixty pages is given over to reproductions of syllabi, at least.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

On the Border

Is Brokeback Mountain a Western? Nah. It’s set in the west, certainly, and its characters are part of “cowboy” life and culture—but it’s not a Western. That is, it does not reflect the cultural needs and divides that provide the dynamic behind the Western. Instead, it’s an indictment of one culture by another, the country (the periphery) by the "enlightened" city (the metropole)--which made the film, of course. Though not its intent, it is a put-down of the Western by people from a culture other than the one that originally spawned the genre.

One of many such put-downs.

Though most (but not all) of the insults to the Scot-Irish, Appalachian, or “Borderer” culture that gave birth to the Western are unintentional, they point out the great divide between the culture of what Walter Rodney calls “the metropole” in his How the West Underdeveloped Africa (a work on a different topic, but one that makes a similar point about underlying cultural differences and the dynamics of colonialism) and the cultures on the periphery.

The metropole and the periphery. In recent years, these have been broken into two American groups, “Blue States” and “Red States.” The two are drifting further and further apart, neither side trying to understand the other, each retreating to vilification and self-justification (and each accusing the other of what it does, too). Even good liberals who pride themselves on their openness and acceptance of difference now regularly disdain what they are starting to call the “Borderer” culture, finding the definition in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, where he identifies it as one of four cultural strains in the Americas coming directly from England in the seventeenth century. Today, the word “Borderer” itself is becoming something of an insult, a put-down. Recently, too many unthinking "liberals" have been taking the word from Jane Smiley’s “ah, ha!” piece on the Huffington Post, where the affront to “Borderer” culture actually teeters toward the level of racism.

Smiley excuses her attitude through an odd use of “nature versus nurture.” She claims that the “Borderers” today have chosen to be part of their culture, apparently making it OK to "diss" them:
It is important to remember that these cultures are no longer inheritance-based or even regionally-based. They have become affinity groups, and Americans define themselves, increasingly, by their allegiances.
As (in her view) people who make a wrong cultural choice can be insulted, insult them she does:
the Borders/Appalachian culture of hot-blooded and violent populism that is xenophobic, religiously aggressive, fundamentalist, and sectarian, that is supicious of learning, antagonistic towards "elites", and antipathetic to women's autonomy. It defines itself by masculinity and arms-bearing, is belligerent by nature and quick to take offense. Its natural (and historic) enemy is the outgrowth of Quaker culture, liberalism.
At least I, a child of Appalachian culture, am offended—even though I am also a Quaker (a real one, and not the metaphorical “Quaker” often associated with a sort of ‘feel-good’ liberalism). If Smiley had written similarly about almost any other culture, her liberal friends would have pilloried her. But, as she is writing about the “enemy,” she opens the door for others to be as culturally insensitive.

Enough of Smiley for a moment. She has angered me deeply with her ludicrous and mean-spirited caricature, but my intent here is not to argue with her directly. It to try to explain some of the misunderstandings between the cultures of the metropole and the periphery in America.

Err… one more thing on Smiley. She believes that the “Borderer” culture is now in the ascendency in America, with George Bush as its flag-bearer. She places him as “Borderer” through “affinity.” He is not, however, part of “Borderer” or peripheral culture at all—as I will attempt to show through a look at a Western movie, of all things.

Remember Sergio Leone’s A Fistfull of Dollars? It may have been made in Spain by an Italian director with a plot stolen from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but it is very much in the tradition of the American Western—as is Kurosawa’s plot. In it, a man (Clint Eastwood’s character) arrives in town to discover two radically different (culturally) groups battling to dominate. The Baxters certainly represent the metropole. Anglos with a fine house and accoutrements, they speak and dress well. Their opponents, the Rojos, however, do not here stand in as the peripheral culture (this is the mistake Smiley makes)—that role is reserved for the man and child whose wife/mother has been stolen by the Rojos. They are the real “Borderers” in this scenario. The Rojos represent the barbarians, outside of either culture but wanting equal status (or greater) with that of the metropole.

Both the Baxters and the Rojos represent feudal overlordship, each intent on taking the land from the “Borderers,” the people who had built the town. The relationship between these rival feudal chieftan families and the poor “Borderers” is quite complex. In some cases (though not in this movie) the ovelords even manage to gain loyalty from those whose lands they have taken. Rodger Cunningham, in Apples on the Flood:Minority Discourse and Appalachia, sees this as a “classic” model where:
the peasants fled for security to the very figures who had robbed them (or through whom they had been robbed) of whatever security they had once enjoyed. (48)
This is the role George Bush plays. He is not of “Borderer” culture, but is a feudal lord demanding obedience.

Eastwood plays a mythical figure as old as King Arthur, the “Borderer” warrior protector, enemy to those who abuse the border town from either side. Unlike the feudal overlords, he does not ask anything from the peasants—but takes from the chieftans, making them pay for the restoration of “Borderer” rights.

From a “Borderer” perspectives, the Baxters and the Rojos are one and the same. The Baxters may be a little more refined, but the result for the “peasants” will be identical—a loss of land and control. In either case, they have masters.

Yet, from the point-of-view of those of us in the metropole, there’s a huge difference between the Baxters and the Rojos. The Baxters are “like us” to most Americans—white, with a nice home and cultured speech. The Rojos are nasty—rapists, dark, dirty, and speaking with an “accent.” Why can’t the “peasants” see which one to side with? We can, and we’ll tell them, every chance we get. Stop cowering, we cry out, join the Baxters! Then you won’t even need The Man With No Name.

We liberals don’t see ourselves as part of the “Baxter”-type establishment (we think we act disinterestedly), but the “Borderers” see us there. Because they speak the same (and don’t come running to the Baxters), we tend to see the “Borderers” as part of the “Rojos”-type establishment—but they aren’t, and they certainly don’t see themselves there. Each of us is identifying the other with a real enemy. Neither is willing to see that the evils are the same—different masters, but masters, nontheless.

That’s what Smiley does when she lumps George Bush and the current Washington power with “Borderers.” She can’t tell the manor from the town that obeys it. Out of her blindness, she makes a mistake, further distancing the peripheral “Borderer” culture from her metropole (I won’t insult my co-religionists by calling it “Quaker”) culture.

Liberals get frustrated when people on the right talk of the “liberal media.” Progressives see quite clearly that the media isn’t liberal, that it is controlled by a conservative establishment. Why can’t the “Borderers” see that? What are they, stupid? (Yes, in the eyes of most liberals—these very people who preach ‘respect’ can’t find it in their hearts to give any to the peripheral cultures they see as opposing them).

No, what the “Borderers” see when they view the media are agents of the metropole, which they identify as “liberal,” agents who want to help impose another foreign culture upon them. In this sense, what we on the left often see as “conservative” may be nothing more than an attempt to retain a culture that has had others imposed upon it for more than a thousand years. Even the language it speaks today was the imposition of foreign culture. The replacement of Gaelic with English took centuries, but it was effective.

The liberals in the metropole, so keen on their own agenda, do not see the damage they do to a culture they see as peripheral in more ways than one (or no culture at all), anyway. Smiley disdains the “Borderers” as people whose concern is “passionate loyalty to the group, alert self-defense, and domination in every sphere.” Here, again, she conflates the Rojos family with the peripheral culture it would dominate through surface similarities, acting as “tribal” as she accuses the “Borderers” of being. She is creating enemies, quite literally:
I do think that the rise of culture #4 [the “Borderers”] puts our democracy in danger, simply because it is an uncompromising culture that has been reluctant to assimilate itself into the larger society for a thousand years, both in Britain and in America. It is a culture that is passionately intense about weapons, social hierarchy, and religion, three things that are in and of themselves threatening to the broader social compact. Perhaps culture #4 cannot be, or won't be assimilated, but can only be reduced, subdued, or dominated.
To a “Borderer,” that statement is as frightening as it is unfortunate and poorly thought. Smiley may not want to kill the Borderers directly, but she would destroy their (“our”—it is mine, too, though I live in a Blue State area and profess Blue State political affinities) culture, which is tantamont to the same thing.

“Borderer” culture, “there” first in almost every instance, has had assimilation forced upon it, time after time (and not just through language)—by people like Smiley who uncritically accept that their own culture is better than the “Borderer” and, after using the “Borderers” to make their own culture secure, have painted a picture of it as “threatening to the broader social compact,” an excuse for forcing further assimilation upon it. And, again, Smiley is putting the entire “town” in the same picture with the Rojos, refusing to see that the Rojos actually have more in common with her than with the peripheral culture that Eastwood’s character saves. After all, like the Rojos, she wants to dominate.

A better description of “Borderer” culture than Smiley’s might be that Cunningham gives while explaining why it does manage, at a very basic level, to resist assimilation by the metropole:
Appalachia survives, not only in the sense of cultural “survivals,” but in that survival of the spirit which has produced the continuing struggle for justice, respect, and control by people over their own lives. (162)
Oh yes—and isn’t this the basic struggle of the classic Western?

There have been claims, over and over again, that the Western is dead. But it keeps rising from its grave—and it will continue to do so, as long as the “Borderer” culture that gave it birth survives.

The classic situation in a Western (or in the genres that spring from it) is this: The people on the periphery of a society, providing a buffer between the barbarians (read “Indians” in the American Western myth) and the metropole (where one can live in safety even as a “Quaker”), people just starting to get a foothold, are exploited by a new baronetcy of some sort. A hero arises, bringing control back to the people. But, though the battle is won, it’s a losing war, and all know it. The metropole, now that the periphery is safe, will be moving in, one way or another. To the “Borderers,” liberals—me, Smiley, and all the rest of the “Blue Staters”—represent the metropole, the exploiters who move in once all the hard work is done.

And we do exploit. Our lives have been made secure by “Borderers” and continue to be. Our police, National Guard, and military are made up of people from peripheral cultures, for the most part, from groups that do not usually gather the full fruits of our society. Adding insult to injury, we also tell them how to behave—who to hate and who to stop hating—forcing that on them even through laws. Is it any wonder, as Cunningham writes, that:
the perhipheral dweller suffers not only insecure boundaries but an insecure sense of fundamental individuation—at least (an imprtant qualification) insofar as he or she accepts the identity, or lack of it, imposted by the metropole. [italics in original] (43-44)
Is it any wonder that the “Borderers,” consigned to the periphery of society, first English and then American, for a thousand years, don’t see the people of the metropole (people like Smiley and, unfortunately, like me—though I would rather live in “Borderer” company than in any other, given my choice) in the same glorious light Smiley and the others liberals believe is shining down upon them?

If we are ever to cross the divide between Red States and Blue States, we on the left need to first break down the contempt we feel for the “Borderers.” We need to live up to our own ideals and learn to respect them—as much as we respect any other group.

Only once we’ve done that will we be worthy of their respect.