Tagged: Jim Brown

About a month ago I had the chance to visit two (one and two) very good friends in Detroit.  They, along with another a friend of mine here at WCU who is originally from Detroit, have frequently bemoaned the genre of Detroit blight porn that has been spearheaded by The New York Times.  Surely enough, Detroit faces more than its fair share of economic and related real estate woes.  But those woes go back much further than the current economic crisis.

More to the point though, my first ever visit to Detroit left me entirely wowed.  I had amazing BBQ at Slow’s, and wonderful red flannel hash for “blunch” at The Fly Trap, to name just two of many phenomenal and gluttonous dining experiences that were crammed into the four day trip.  I was stunned by the collection at the Detroit Institute of Art Museum, even though I only had time to take in a sliver of the museum.  And everywhere my Detroit hosts and I went it was obvious that artists of all varieties are using the deflated real estate prices in Detroit to undertake great projects and risks that wouldn’t be possible in other environments.

One of the oldest of these art projects is the Heidelberg Project (do yourself a favor and surf around the project’s website).  The project spans several city lots, and is named after the street where the project resides.  “Project” becomes a loaded word, for the economic crisis journalist-pornographers would certainly call the neighborhood a “project” in the pejorative sense, even though it has never really been a federal housing project.  But “project” of course really refers to the art project that the space has become, a site of re-used and recycled objects juxtaposed in ways simultaneously macabre, profound, and whimsical.  See my photo of a crucified stuffed rabbit below.  Stuffed animals like these are nailed up everywhere, to trees and abandoned houses, slowly mildewing and melting in the midwestern winters and rains.  Shopping carts sit in and atop trees.  A painted boat is filled to overflowing with more stuffed animals.  A lawn mower sits atop a massive pile of discarded shoes.  Inorganic garbage is repurposed everywhere.

I was pretty much completely smitten by the project, and almost had to be dragged away by my camera strap.  But in addition to my love for the ridiculousness and randomness and audacity of the project, I have to appreciate it also for how it reinvigorated in my own mind some longstanding quandaries of mine.  As a once avid photographer (whose interest in creating, and not just critiquing, photography has been reinvigorated by a photographer friend recently), I’ve always been troubled by how difficult it is to capture the scale and detail of an event such as the Heidelberg Project.  Details are easy, but capturing the “whole picture” is a bitch.  In anticipation of THATCampVA (THATCamp_SouthEast is now accepting applications too), I’ve been wondering what digital interface-gizmos I might down the line develop in order to try to represent such a massive project in photos.  I have no concrete ideas, let alone solutions, yet.  But something is definitely in the digital fermenting vat.

All in all, a great trip to Detroit, and one that, due to the sheer volume and visibility and audacity of its art projects, I will be mulling over for a long time.  It was great to see friends and to get the opportunity to meet some of their colleagues working in rhetoric and composition in the Wayne State Department of English.  Unfortunately, one of the rhet/comp folks I didn’t have a chance to meet was Richard Grusin, whose book Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 I have since read, and which I found to be completely-and-completely badass.  I highly recommend it to any rhetoricians interested in the digital humanities, and am already finding some applications for his theory of premediation in my own work.

Heidelberg Project

ProfHacker recently posted: Open Thread: Advice for Personal Versus Professional Websites? I didn’t have time to post a reply at the time, but I have strong feelings on this one.  Folks should read through the original ProfHacker post and replies if they’re looking for more diverse perspectives on this issue.

Foremost, I think the important thing, especially for emerging scholars, is to have a web presence that you define.  No matter where it’s hosted.  It’s an opportunity to present your work, from the perspective you want to.  Anecdotally, I know that it helped me a lot on the job market to have a site that re-presented virtually all of my job materials except for a few items.  And I think that the competency to build and maintain basic sites like this one will become less and less of a “bonus” in job candidates, and more and more of an expectation in job candidates.

I set up this off- .edu website for a variety of reasons.  One was that, in the summer in between my dissertation defense and the start of my tenure-track gig, I was essentially without an institutional home.  This made me consider the ramifications of being beholden to any institution for the hosting of my professional website.  In short, I didn’t like the idea of it, and the prospect of building an autonomous site was exciting.  I also like the idea of having a really complete set of materials housed on one site, even if some of those materials are also duplicated on other, on- .edu sites.  It was also cheap, and easy.  (For technical info, check out the About 3 x 3 section.)

I also think it might be more to the advantage for younger, less established academics to set up off- .edu sites, in addition to maintaining necessary web presences on their home institutions’ servers.  The simple facts are that young academics always–I think–hope to stay at their jobs for a long time.  But careers are more volatile than they used to be–largely because of market forces–and very few people seem to stay at the same institution for an entire career.  An off- .edu website is much easier to carry around with you if you find yourself moving from one institution to a new one.  Your own site also can help to “brand” you within the field, and provides a space for professional communication that’s less formal than traditional publishing venues.  If your home institution will allow you to run Drupal, you might have a little more autonomy than otherwise.  Here at Western, a kind soul in the Coulter Faculty Commons even designed a WCU-specific WordPress theme for our faculty to use on the WCU servers, which is badass.  I love my instutition, but I know that a lot of my peers who are also junior faculty look at the current economic/budget situations around the various states and worry that they could be looking for a new job sooner than expected.  So, portability might be something for some folks to consider.

I’m a big fan of autonomy.  My idea was that by going off- .edu I could simply control more of the site.  The look, the traffic monitoring, the nature of the content.  I could make the site as quirky or straight-laced as a chose, without worrying about aligning with institutional aesthetic themes, or other institutional bounds of design.  I can run the Google Analytics myself, and I have control of the design of the site, which was very important to me.  So, for me the big reason to have an off- .edu site was, as much as anything, that I enjoy having a visually rich site, and having the freedom to indulge some of my extra-academic interests on the same site.  Some people like to keep those lives separate, but I don’t see much point, because they aren’t very separate in practice for me.  The office comes home with me, and sometimes the office is home.  It’s all muddy.  We don’t have the luxury of punching in and out, and this site somewhat captures that dilemma, I think.

I don’t think it’s really an either/or situation.  A lot of my mentors, peers, colleagues run off- .edu websites, but in almost every case I know that they maintain on- .edu websites at their home institutions, primarily for teaching purposes, as well.  Here are some examples of both:

Clay Spinuzzi, University of Texas at Austin

Jim Brown, Wayne State University

Will Burdette, University of Texas at Austin

Patricia Roberts-Miller, University of Texas at Austin

One thing to remember–and remember very damn well–if you’re using an off .edu site to run your classes, is that absolutely no FERPA protected data should go up, ever.  And if you’re unsure if something is FERPA protected, you should probably just assume that it is.  Keep in mind also that every educational institution will have its own legal counsel, and its own interpretations and procedures for the finer points of dealing with FERPA data.  Even if you operate an off .edu site, I would recommend abiding by your home institution’s best-practices, to the letter.  Though, you should realize that by running an off .edu site, you are accepting greater personal liabilities if there is ever an occasion for you to be held liable for something.  In my own case, this is a non-issue for the sorts of courses I teach.  I keep FERPA data as far away from myself as I can, so I don’t have to safeguard it, and because there is very little that I need to collect.  If I keep student names, grades, and identifying information off the site, I figure I’m on pretty solid ground.

In the spring my graduate students enrolled in Visual and Digital Rhetorics and I will launch the Rural Image Cooperative [URL works, but site is not yet built], which will fill a new niche in visual rhetoric scholarship.  While I haven’t crafted the mission the statement of the RIC entirely yet (primarily because I want the grad students to have a role and stake in that crafting), I did choose to purchase an off .edu URL because the site will hopefully be “pan-institutional.”  My hope is that other instructors at other institutions will periodically take over the site and, along with their students, make their own contributions.  In this sense of cooperation, I didn’t want the site to appear in any way proprietary by falling under the purview of my home institution’s, or any other institution’s, URL.  My institution is great, but in the sense of, say, performative rhetoric, I feel its important that the site perform what I hope it will be, which is to say, not owned by any one academic institution, but cooperatively owned by all of the contributors that I hope the site will attract in the coming years.  I’ll have lots more on the RIC once the spring semester rolls around, and mention all of this only to say that there are lots of legitimate reasons to go off- .edu, both for individuals’ websites, and the sites of larger academic endeavors.

Bumble Bee, by Nate Kreuter

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked, as it periodically does,”Should Colleges Do More To Teach Students About Plagiarism?”  The Chronicle is a great resource, but they’re pretty good at hyping some fear too.  (Note: The Chronicle’s blog, Profhacker, is awesome by the bucketful, and if you aren’t reading it daily, you should check it out. Plug it into your RSS feed.)

But I (and a lot of other rhetoric/composition folks I know) am not thrilled to witness more plagiarism hand-wringing.  Like most universities, my institution requires instructors to paste a verbatim academic integrity statement into their policy statements and/or syllabi.  That’s fine.  Students should know about academic integrity, and practice it.  And of course we should teach them the various conventions of citation–which are far broader than MLA and APA, which, honestly, are useless to many first-year rhet/comp students, even over the course of their collegiate careers.  We should teach the broader conventions, and spirit, of citation.

Beyond that, I think plagiarism might be more the instructor’s responsibility than the student’s.  I’m certainly not the first person to suggest this.  Here’s what I mean though:

There are always students who will cheat and seek an alternate route, for whatever reason.  But I think these students are extremely rare, more rare than we think.  And even if they are more common than I think they are, those negative impulses that might compel some students to plagiarize are very easily short-circuited.

Write creative assignments.  A well written assignment, that monkeys with the conventions of typical rhet/comp essay requirements, is virtually impossible to plagiarize, at least in part because good assignments would make plagiarism attempts so ridiculously obvious that even the boldest plagiarists would be unlikely to make an attempt at plagiarism in the first place.  I have in mind the types of assignments, for example, that my graduate school colleague Jim Brown (now of Wayne State) assigned in his Anthologics rhetoric class.

Creative assignment design and re-design not only reduces the opportunity and likelihood of plagiarism, but it’s likely to keep students and instructors more engaged.  In terms of self-interest, I feel that creative assignment design, which I attempt to practice, not only hijacks students’ opportunities to plagiarize, but makes grading a hell of a lot more fun for me.  And creative assignments can and should be every bit as rigorous as more conventional assignments.  Ideally, they can be even more rigorous, as it’s often harder to complete an assignment that doesn’t rest upon tired, well-known academic conventions.

When plagiarism cases come up, I wonder if it is at least partially my responsibility, perhaps an indication that my assignment may have invited plagiarism.  Of course, there will always be students who try to take a short cut.  But perhaps we should be asking, Should Colleges Do More to Teach Professors About Lousy Assignment Design?  And I ask that question as an untenured assistant professor.  Just something to let your brain-teeth gnaw on.

Inspiration for the title of the post from the Cracker song, Guarded by Monkeys (click for YouTube video – I didn’t want to embed it).

Reflection