Sunday, May 27, 2007

Memorial Day, Confederate Ancestors, and Shot Doors

It’s Memorial Day tomorrow, and I want to stop for a moment and remember. We are all the children of survivors of some sort… and we often remember them. But the ones who died? The ones who never returned to have children or the lives they must have longed for? They are the ones Memorial Day is for. My great-grandfather, who destroyed his bowels in 1864 in the Shenandoah Valley; my grandfather, who lost a leg a week before the Armistice in 1918; my other grandfather, who cringed at high sounds the rest of his life after serving as an artilleryman in France in 1918; my ex-father-in-law, who lost an arm to a Japanese shell on the beach at Iwo Jima in 1945—while he was going to fetch water; my father, whose experiences on Leyte Island in 1944 turned him into a life-long pacifist… these were among the lucky. They came home.

Late last week, I found new information about another ancestor, my great-great-grandfather Joel Dimmette. I have long had copies of a release for Joel Dimett from the prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Md. What I don’t know is how he got there.

What I discovered is that he had served in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry regiment, Company F. I am pretty sure that the man who served in that unit was, in fact, my Joel Dimmette, for the name is unusual, the regiment was raised (in part) from his home county (Wilkes), and two other members of his company (at least) bore names common to the county—leading me to think that the company was raised there.

The 52nd served under General Pettigrew at Gettysburg. It participated in what is now generally called “Pickett’s Charge.” Quite likely, Dimett was captured at that time and served the next two years of the war as a POW. Actually, I have since discovered (I am writing this in August, 2009 as an update), my great-great-grandfather wasn't yet serving at the time of Gettysburg. He joined the 52nd in the fall of 1864 and was captured the next spring, on April 2, 1865, during the Union breakout at Petersburg, one of a vast number of Confederate soldiers taken during a day that, it could be argued, sealed the fate of the Confederacy.

What’s that got to do with Memorial Day? After all, Dimett was fighting against the United States, not for it. And he, too, came home.

It’s got just this to do with Memorial Day: the losers, too, deserve our respect. Joel Dimmette came from the mountains. He was not a rich man, and served as a private. He owned no slaves. He fought for North Carolina, and fought (I am sure) because it was expected of him, like soldiers before and since. I have a picture of him, a photocopy, a severe looking bearded man next to his pleasant-looking wife. Nothing special, just a man who had made it home. One of the lucky ones.

Only some sixty men and a handful of officers remained with the 52nd at the end of the war. The rest? Some were dead, others wounded, and still more (like Dimett) prisoners-of-war. A Civil War regiment could contain as many as 1500 men, generally at least a thousand. Perhaps a thousand men of the 52nd were casualties of war or taken as prisoners, spending two years living in tents in Maryland (as Dimett likely did).

Those men deserve memorial, too. Especially the ones who died, the ones who never made it home.

War, all war, any war, is failure. War starts from failure. The people who fight, however, are not generally those who failed—those mostly sit safely behind. The ones who die aren’t those who created loathsome ideologies or couldn’t control their lusts for power. Nor are they particularly those who opposed the “bastards” most vociferously. No, they are simply people willing to defend their land, however that may be defined. All of them, even from the losing sides, deserve memorial.

And then there’s that door.

When I returned to Brooklyn today from my house in Pennsylvania, I found that someone had shot my Brooklyn door. Not only that, but a nice bicycle had been demolished and strung up on the fence beside the door. Now, George Bush has done his best to hide the effects of this current occupation and the war that led to it from the American people. Telling us to go shopping, to continue with our lives, sneaking flag-draped coffins into Delaware at night so that we won’t even have to honor the fallen. But the effects will show, and maybe they are beginning to.

One of the fallouts of a protracted, unwinnable was is unrest at home. Money that could have been spent on social programs, that could have been used to help the domestic economy, that could have been making all of our lives better, goes down the drain.

It used to be that there were gunshots daily in my Brooklyn neighborhood. And no one dared ride around on a fine bicycle. But things got better. Our society started to get richer and more Americans saw places for themselves within the system.

Now, as a result of this occupation (and other policies of the present administration), we may be losing our confidence, returning to days of sullenness, of anger.

I hope not.

Tomorrow, on Memorial Day, let’s remember all of the fallen, not just those on “our” side or the “winning” side. And let’s remember the destructive nature of war (and of occupation of a foreign land), even on a homeland far away.

Let’s memorialize the fallen by making the death stop, by refusing to support the occupation of Iraq. Let’s memorialize them by getting back to the business of making the United States the best possible place to live, a place where bullet holes don’t show up in doors and prized bicycles don’t become the focus of someone’s undirected anger.

Let’s memorialize the fallen by creating a society they could be proud to have died for—even if, in fact, they died for another.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

For the Troops

‘Bush would veto anything with limits. What else could we do?’

Wrong question, Democrats. What could Bush do, if you refused to fund this occupation?

Why not look at it this way:

By funding continuation of the occupation, what are you doing to the American military?

You are condemning more of our soldiers to death (not to mention all of the Iraqis who will die, too).

And for what?

Are we bringing peace to the region?

Has anything we’ve done in Iraq reduced the killing?

Oh, you can put forth arguments about how things would be worse without us… but what makes you think that? What have we done that gives any indication that we are part of the solution in Iraq and not part of the problem? What is the basis of your arrogant assumption that we are on the side of good there?

Bush says he’s going to keep the troops in Iraq, come hell (it’s already there) or high water. So not funding them would be hurting them.

That’s the argument, at least.

But does it make any sense? No.

Without money, the US troops will have to pull back. Without money, this chimeric “surge” would be abandoned. Without money, fewer Americans would die.

You can say I’m naïve, that it just doesn’t work like that.

I respond, on what basis can you say that? We know that the status quo in Iraq is a continued slide into chaos. We know that there’s no longer substance to the words “victory” and “success” as applied to Iraq. We know that the end of the “course” we are “staying” is simply a further course. There’s no positive outcome here, only more death.

We know this war has to end, and that the administration knows that, too… and is now only playing out the string, keeping things going until another administration takes over and has to deal with the consequences of defeat. We know that their cynicism will have only one outcome: more death.

Yet you, Congress, are willing to play along, lacking the stomach for the claims that you are ‘abandoning the troops.’

Yet you, Congress, will now let those same troops die.

We elected you for something else.

Your cowardice disgusts me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Jumping Into Process from a Dead Stop

Below is a talk I presented as part of a panel at the 2007 annual Computers and Writing conference help at Wayne State University from the 17th to the 20th of May. I posted another talk last Sunday on this very blog. The third? You’ll have to wait for publication of my book Blogging America: The New Public Sphere by Praeger in December (and read The Rise of the Blogosphere in the meantime):

It’s hard to find a place to start these days: What can I assume about you, my audience? That you are completely tech saavy—or that you (like me) just want to be?

And what does that mean?

Last year at Computers and Writing in Lubbock, keynote speaker Mark Follman, a reporter and editor for Salon, tried to make a joke about how he was in the perfect place if his laptop crashed. He, at least, actually believed we are techies.

We’re not, of course—and Follman’s joke fell flat—and neither are our students, though the myth of youthful comfort with technology weighs heavy upon them. If we, and they, are anything at all, we are not techies, but simply “neterate,” able to negotiate the virtual world.

But what does that mean?

Certainly not that we can physically construct—or deconstruct—hardware, and not that we are comfortable writing code. Right now, it really means little more than that we are comfortable with the idea that, one way or another, we can handle most anything we find on our screens. Whether we can or not—that’s another matter.

Which brings me right back to “Where do we start?” What do we do? We need to start somewhere close to our students—should we ask them and work from there? Should we believe they know what they say they know?

Yeah, right.

The problem with using the Web for the teaching of composition is that Web conversation—no, Web conversations—is/are already in progress. Sure, we can start our own little conversations through technology, using a proprietary system such as Blackboard or even with private, restricted blogs. But, if we do so, we aren’t taking advantage of either the dynamic or the wealth that the Web offers.

At their best, Web pages are never static. Each one carries the past in its present manifestation—through links and older entries. And even that past is ever-changing. “Permalink” is something of a fiction, though they do say that nothing ever disappears completely on the Web—though the White House doesn’t seem quite so sure (about its email messages, at least).

Along with carrying the past, most Web pages today invite the future—through comments and the page’s inherent plasticity (in terms of inner workings), a plasticity that builds (and has built—and will build) the expectation of change into its very design.

As anyone who has started a blog knows, it’s hard to gain traction. What do you do, shout, “Hey, look at me! I’m here and I’ve got something to say”? No, you ease your way into the conversation—by listening to what other bloggers are saying, by reading, and even by researching.

That is, you do so unless your goal is simply development of a social netword on MySpace or Facebook. But that’s a somewhat different topic, perhaps the Web equivalent of the personal essay. What I want to discuss today grows out of the research paper.

Anyway… there is a dynamic on the Web, and we can use it in our writing classes if we can break into it. And, if we do manage to break in, there’s treasure to be found there, more than any of us—including me—can imagine.

Which brings me back to Blackboard, to why I don’t really care for Blackboard.

Blackboard builds for our students what is at best a little playpen. It’s like teaching astronomy through a tiny, simplified planetarium—when there’s a huge night sky right outside. And we teachers don’t even get to choose how the sky’s been reduced! What’s worse is that our students have already been outside and seen the real sky. And they’ve figured out that’s where the real fun begins.

Did you notice? I can’t even keep this one talk on track!

There’s just too much out there to consider, to talk about, and to listen to others on. It’s almost as though, inundated by information, I can no longer focus. There’s an unfolding going on, and I want to be part of it all!

Not only is it a bright sky out there, full of stars, but it is growing as we watch. And not only do we get to watch—we get to be part of it!

We get to participate!

The Web’s not a special place, nor is it a new world divorced from our quotidian reality. But it does expand our reality—something Blackboard, with this artificial limits, does not do.

But there I go again, bringing up Blackboard again.

Forget I mentioned it.

Back to my point:

What I am trying to do right now is both step into your conversations and invite you into mine. I’m flying blind, however, for I don’t really know your conversations. I have yet to have any way to link into them—though I hope I will, through small talk and through the panels I will be attending over the next three days. But, for now, I’m simply jumping in—completely at sea in terms of what most of you may know, may have said, may have done. I know as little about you as I do about my students, the first day of the term.

Today, more than every before, that needn’t be the case—in writing, that is. In a few years (it could actually be done now), it will be possible to indicate on conference registration which panels we just might attend. Those presenting could then see who their audiences might be, seeing who has published what and where, who is teaching what and where, and who is studying what and where. We’ll soon be able to know as much about our students beforehand, too.

Nice. Then I’d know where to start.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is getting our students to start.

Though maybe it’s the same thing.

There are ways of using technology as an aid to student writing that I can just touch on here—leaving the exploration to others. Taking text messaging and using it as a basis for moving students to other forms of written expression is one.

No, What I want to talk about is not these, but is the finding of ways for students to join the conversations that are already going on—and to do so without feeling like pigeons caught in a jet engine’s air intake. Without being that pigeon. Doing so safely, that is—as Blackboard professes to do (dang! There’s that Blackboard rearing its ugly head again!), but without Blackboard’s limitations.

A lot of what the student needs, in approaching writing through the Web, is a sense of confidence, of being a part of the conversation—for that’s what it is that’s going on in cyberspace—and that’s what I have been describing, of course.

Writing for the Web can’t simply be concentration on the screen as a replacement for the page. We don’t dare judge the screen in the ways we’ve judged the static object that is the page. The screen exists as “Text,” in the sense presented by Roland Barthes in ”From Work to Text,” and less “work.” In fact, the work itself become subsumed in the text.

That’s where the dynamic of the Web comes from, a give-and-take surrounding each work and drifting into the next, a continuing example of stimulus, response, and reinforcement in much the way B.F. Skinner describes language in Verbal Behavior.

If we can get our students involved in the greater and more energetic conversations going on right now on the Web, we’ll be a long way towards making them strong writers.

Fortunately, we’ve a wealth of assistance in doing so, for the conversations on the Web are myriad, and they dip into even older conversations through the active links they provide, through the growing body of linkable material just waiting for the alert researcher to bring it into the conversation. Or another conversation. Or another.

But there is so much information out there!

Which brings us back once again to the question: “Where do we start?”
One place, I suggest, might be Citizen Journalism.

When our students conduct research, they tend to take what they find as static. They may be enthusiasts for technology, but few of them have crossed to a place of understanding where Wikipedia, for example, is a discussion in progress and not a provider of answers. Unfortunately, our students still too often take what they find on the Web as truth, not as the simple invitation to conversation that really it is.

More than most Web movements (though much of the Web does strive for openness), Citizen Journalism is deliberately open to examination of its own processes. Watching, one sees knowledge in development. On Citizen Journalism sites focusing on specific communities, one finds exploration and growth and not just things—especially now, when most such sites are still relatively young. In those Citizen Journalism sites not based on a locality, one sees calls for information, public dissection of “information” provided by government and scholars, and a scrambling to discover something at least approximating “truth.” One finds, in other words, research in progress.

And it’s going on in a number of ways and places, all open to the student in the writing classroom.

By focusing on Citizen Journalism in the teaching of research as an aspect of writing, we can show process, bringing writing and research to life for our students.

Let me give an example: In terms of developing the methodology of tomorrow’s journalism, I see great weakness in Assignment Zero and its parent, New Assignment—though I think they are worthy and important experiments. In terms of finding tools for the writing classroom, however, I see little downside. Through Assignment Zero, our students can get involved in a project that even contains a safety net, one resulting from creator Jay Rosen’s “pro-am” model, where the herd is guided by a group of hyper-active border collies—young journalists with professional skills and background but lacking investment in older styles of journalism.

The value, as I see it, of Citizen Journalism for the writing classroom is that it provides a place where students can lurk a bit, exploring, looking for the opening that will allow them to jump in—to start. Because these are group projects, the outsider is always welcome. Because the enthusiasm is generated by the topic or the place, people rarely arrive by chance, but by desire, setting an attitude of “let’s do this!” behind everything.

As one of our greatest challenges is developing enthusiasm on the part of our students, we can take advantage of enthusiasm already there, when we ask our students to find Citizen Journalism sites working on topics that already interest them. We can show our students how to enter the ongoing discussions by first listening and reading, then by commenting, and finally by posting their own full pieces and learning even more from the responses posted to their work.

Because of the openness of their processes, Citizen Journalism projects offer an entry into the conversation of research and discovery that can make our students feel a part of it, not simply as outsiders looking in and reporting back on what’s been found—as most of the research done by undergraduates actually is.

Ultimately, and most usefully, the student can finally learn something of the dynamic of research—that it, too, is a conversation.

Now, as I said, where shall we start?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Place Where We Dwell

For the last few days, I’ve been attending the 2007 Computers and Writing conference, held this year at Wayne State University in Detroit. The theme was “virtual urbanism,” a phrase taken from a Geoffrey Sirc article in Computers and Composition in 2001. For a panel called The Place Where We Dwell, I presented the following:

Virtual urbanism? Let’s bust down that wall.

No, not Geoffrey Sirc’s walls. His “actual humans” are already doing that through a “virtual urbanism” different from the one I’m imagining. No. For I am talking about the wall between the “urban” and the “virtual” that exists in a completely different place.

Last night, after returning to the dorm, filled with the enthusiasm of Richard Doyle’s talk “The Wiki Is the Message,” I browsed a bit in the book that inspired this morning’s panel, my colleagues’ Juanita But and Mark Noonan’s anthology The Place Where We Dwell: Reading and Writing About New York City. I landed almost immediately on the poet we in Brooklyn insist is our own—though he would have insisted he belongs to everyone—Walt Whitman. As I do, I skimmed the poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” that had attracted me—I know it well—and then looked next door, at the poem on the previous page. It was another Whitman, but one that we in Brooklyn see as something of a betrayal, for it is called “Mannahatta.” Its first lines struck me as perfect for this talk:

I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city.
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient.

Now that’s what we’re all about, isn’t it, when we teach composition? Getting our students “to see what there is in a name, a word”?

Thing is, we often try to do this by emasculating the word, taking away from it all that is “liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,” creating a virtual world where every word stays put on command (its liquidity frozen), obeys all our commands (surely a sign of insanity—only in imagination is the world so obedient), marches only to our martial beat (‘thump, thump, thump… viva l’emperor’), and has become dependent upon us.

Sometimes, when I look out from the window of a classroom, from our artificial, virtual world, I think of e.e. cummings and his “there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go” and realize that such a universe is only a few feet away.

Which brings me back to Whitman.

And to links.

I adore links.

When I first started using the Web for research, I was scared to death that the serendipity I had depended on for so long in library stacks—like Doyle, who harped on this in his talk, I have long cherished the connectivity of everything, and I spend way too much time ferreting it out. Until the blogs and personal Web pages, indeed, I felt I was working in blinders, for the searches were so narrow (perforce) and the links so pedestrian, so expected. Now, however, personality has added that wonderful element of surprise.

Anyhow, I said I was getting back to Whitman, not following my own random links, here. So let me do that.

Before I unaccountably spiraled out of its orbit, I was a moon of the planet Literature, circling around, trying to pull random comets and asteroids—also known as ‘students’—into that orbit. As I wanted them to see that this planet I circled was real and not simply the artificial, virtual world of my words, I would turn to Whitman’s words, letting him build the vision for me:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Now, I’ve done this myself: I wandered away from academia in 1988—until I did, to my surprise, find I’d accidentally stumbled back inside, something more than thirteen years later—the barrier I had seen or imagined or invented (or had stolen from Whitman)—magically having disappeared.

Town and gown: it’s a myth we need to work to break down, for it does none of his any good. All it does is help keep up the image of the university virtual and not real.

But that’s not the only mythological barrier real enough to need tearing down.

In the May, 2007 Harper’s is an article by Gideon Lewis-Kraus entitled “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the Post-Digital Library” on a couple of rogue librarians, Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger. They believe that “the conflict between a so-called digital culture and a so-called print culture is fake; they think we should stop celebrating or lamenting the discontinuous story of how the circuits will displace the shelves, and start telling a continuous story about how the two might fit together” (47).

“A continuous story about how the two might fit together.” And not just that pair—almost any two. Doyle challenges his students to show there is no fit between two random links they have chosen. They can’t.

Why, then, do we continue to work through divides, even accepting one by the very fact of our classrooms that are divorced from the life of our cities and towns? Why do we merely look out upon them, stare, and then put our misconceptions into words that we then call “scholarship”? Why don’t we get out there and grapple?

We are in danger of creating a new window, a new barrier between us and our subject matter. Assuming we are in the real world—hah!—we peek into the virtual world, wondering about all that sound and fury and deciding (not you and me, of course—those others) that it all signifies nothing.

Aren’t bloggers, for example and after all, little but pajama’d isolates?

The river of the world runs through the actual, by the academy, and even into the virtual. All are on the same bank. They are, in this sense, all one and the same.

We need to treat them this way, not isolating them either through interest or disdain. Our cities, our towns, our farms, and our forests are part and parcel of our Web pages—or the other way around. They are distinct, but not divided.

Only when we keep this in mind, only when we remember that “the place where we dwell” has many actual, many virtual aspects—and that none precludes the other but augments the other—do we really begin to provide the education we can.

Only when we realize that the walls we see are walls put up out of our own fears will we really start to educate ourselves, let alone our students.

So let’s tear ‘em down!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Let Them Eat Their Laptops

More than 25 years ago, when I was editing an environmental monthly called Chinook Winds, I ran a small piece on the astonishing percentage of Americans who believed that technology would one day fix all the problems we faced. With it, I placed a cartoon of a person with machines growing out of his skull.

Even then, I thought it nuts to believe that technology can fix things. But it ain’t the technology, it’s the way it’s used that can help make things better.

In yesterday’s New York Times is an article called “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops” by Winnie Hu. Apparently quite a number of schools decided that laptop computers were going to solve all their problems, so bought them and threw them into the classrooms. Now (surprise!) they are disappointed with the results.

So, officials in Liverpool, NY have pulled the laptops from the classroom. They said that:

laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards. Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs.

Where does one start? Of course they don’t fit into lesson plans, unless the teachers have been trained in making a laptop a tool. Of course they don’t affect grades and test scores, when the grading systems and tests were created before the laptops ever came to school. Of course there is resistance… what teacher likes being told what technology they must use. And what do you expect? Give fragile computers to kids and not have problems with them?

One of the suppositions about computers in education is that it means that the students will be sitting at a screen in class. As a teacher, I like to have them available in class, but like even more the idea of closing them so that the primary function of class time—teacher/student interaction—can take place.

Some people, though, seem to think it is an either/or: computers all the time or none of the time. The article makes such a contrast:

In a 10th grade English class the other day, every student except one was tapping away on a laptop to look up food facts about Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Burger King for a journal entry on where to eat. The one student without a computer, Taylor Baxter, 16, stared at a classmate’s screen because she had forgotten to bring her own laptop that day.

But in many other classrooms, there was nary a laptop in sight as teachers read from textbooks and scribbled on chalkboards. Some teachers said they had felt compelled to teach with laptops in the beginning, but stopped because they found they were spending so much time coping with technical glitches that they were unable to finish their lessons.


Isn’t that the way it should be? Laptops used when appropriate, and not otherwise?

As a teacher of writing, I want my students to have laptops (or computers of some sort) available for rewriting and editing. Only sometimes do I want them open in front of them in the classroom.

One of the things we need to be teaching in all of our classes, from my college classes on down, is “neteracy,” the ability to comfortably and effectively negotiate the Web. Without computers in school, our students will not be so efficiently or quickly “neterate,” for they will not be guided through the Web, but will have to discover its pitfalls and possibilities completely on their own. Sure, this isn’t something that shows up—yet—on standardized tests or in grading, but it is as important to our students’ future as almost anything else they are getting in school today.