With the winter break and the holidays it has taken me nearly a two months to get to this post! But, since the THATCamp movement seems to be carrying a full head of steam , it seems worth posting a somewhat belated reflection upon my own first THATCamp experience. In December I attended THATCampVA, hosted by the University of Virginia‘s Scholars’ Lab, which itself lives inside Alderman Library.
One thing the THATCamp experience made me realize even more acutely is the value of academic units like the Scholars’ Lab, which link technologists with academics. I’m lucky to have worked in a similar lab at UT Austin, the Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL), which is similar, though focused more exclusively upon the concerns of a single discipline, rather than a host of disciplines, which is what UVA’s Scholars’ Lab serves.
My first THATCamp experience was invigorating, but also exhausting. I attended the Friday BootCamp, and attended a session on using Geographic Information Systems. I have a distant background in GIS from my undergrad days and previous, albeit short lived, career, and the BootCamp session was a great refresher, and a great introduction to the more sophisticated elements of what current GIS software is capable of. It was nice to attend a session on a technology for its own sake, without being entirely clear in my own mind on how I might use that technology down the road. This allowed me to play during the session, which is how I tend to learn new interfaces best–when I’m not too focused on immediate goals, which tend to suck the fun out of things.
Saturday and Sunday the sessions began, and without getting too far into the nitty gritty, it was a tumult, in a good–no, great–way. For me the greatest value of the experience was simply conversing with intelligent people OUTSIDE OF MY OWN DISCIPLINE about a host of topics of general interest. We get so locked into our disciplinary identities, and yet, when we meet people completely outside of our own disciplines, it can be hard to break the intellectual ice and connect in a meaningful way. In my limited experience, this is the greatest value of the THATCamp experience, semi-structured conversation with very smart people who I otherwise never would have had the opportunity to meet. It really was that simple, and that valuable, for me. I especially liked the absence of formal goals or presentations, which allowed the unconference to take the form of almost pure brainstorming and intellectual cross-pollination. This is where things became exhausting–it takes a lot of energy to talk to new people about new ideas for 8-12 hours a day. I left exhausted, but in that most pleasing way.
In March I’ll attend my second THATCamp event, THATCampSE, at Emory University. It will be my first time on the Emory campus and I look forward to meeting a mostly new crowd (new to me, that is) of digital humanists, and catching up with a few of my new friends from THATCampVA. I’ll be working especially hard to recruit people into getting their classes to contribute to the very newly launched Rural Image Cooperative, which my grad class in Visual and Digital Rhetorics has begun to build.
My one regret about the THATCampVA experience is that I was too tired Saturday evening to stick around for the “vintage pan-Asian surf and garage rock” of Dzian. Next time.
Plenty of academic bloggers have fretted over whether they should be blogging or not, or whether other academics should blog or not. Over when it is safe to blog in one’s career, and when it isn’t. Over whether or not to blog under one’s own name or a pseudonym. Clearly, my own choices on this site indicate my own opinions.
Obviously, I’m willing to blog under my own name. However, I don’t, for example, blog my in-process writing or research. I would rather not be held to ideas that I’m thinking through seriously but incompletely. This is merely a personal preference–plenty of academics who I know and respect use their blogs to think through their most serious research, and derive tangible benefits (like feedback) working through their ideas in a public forum. That said, blog posts that I thought of as “throw-aways” have led me to pursue new ideas seriously. There is a lot of generative and inventional power in forcing yourself to come up with something to say.
I began blogging when three other UT Austin graduate students and I founded Viz., a visual rhetoric site that lives on today and attracts approximately 16,000 visits per month. In my capacity as a founding blogger at Viz., I tended to post quick things, without much analysis. This is in contrast to the current blogging style of Viz., which dictates much more developed posts than what we started out with. (I have mixed feelings about that development, which has occurred across many different blogs. The newer style of blogging on Viz. is much more intellectually robust than how we started out, but now I think the posts are simply too long. Blogs are supposed to be quick. There must be a happy medium somewhere. Of course, I’m guilty of the same thing here . . . Nevermind.)
Recently I received a little more confirmation of why blogging is worthwhile, and why it is important to blog on current topics relevant to your own expertise. Shortly after Obama’s election to the presidency I shot off a quick blog post basically wondering how political cartoonists would draw President Obama without invoking the history of racist cartooning. At the time the post was picked up and promoted by a number of other blogs and news sources, most notably a National Public Radio affiliate in Minnesota. It’s important for me to admit that my post was neither very polished nor very thoroughly thought out. But by being timely, accessible in its language, and provocative in its questions, the post has garnered a lot of positive attention, which I have to assume is a good thing for me as well. At least, it can’t be a bad thing. (For those in the humanities who lament our irrelevance in the broader public, blogging on topics germane to both your expertise and current events seems like the beginning of a remedy, to my eyes.) Now, years after that post, another NPR reporter has been contacting the DWRL (host of Viz.) to inquire about that post. If nothing else, blogging can give you the occasional confirmation that your work in the academy matters.
I consider my blogging activities to be a service to the profession and discipline, and that’s how I list them on my CV. Even though I am a big advocate of blogging, I think that portraying most blogging activities as scholarship is a pretty tough sell. Finally, I’ll say that I follow Jaron Lanier‘s ethic when it comes to blogging–if you’re going to blog it, own it, and don’t hide behind anonymity like this guy:
*This is the first in a series of brief posts in which I undertake to perform a rhetorical analysis of the university advertisements that appeared in the 2010 Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) conference program. I will undertake to comment upon all of the university ads in the program, in the order that they appeared in the program. Because rhetoric programs are advertising themselves in the program of the field’s premier conference, the ads seem especially ripe for analysis.*
This series begins with an analysis of the ad on the inside cover of the 2010 RSA program, an ad for my own PhD granting institution, the University of Texas at Austin. In many ways this is fitting, not only because it is the rhetoric program from which I hail, but also because it is the advertisement for which I have the toughest criticisms.
By way of disclaimer, let me say that I don’t know who at UT Austin created the ad. That said, I probably do know the person, either as a colleague or friend or, more likely, both. So, let me be clear–my criticisms of this ad are tough, but not directed at the creator. My criticisms are tough also though because this is the rhetoric graduate program that I know the most about, and so am in the best position to analyze.
I’m not a fan of this ad at all, which appears on the inside cover of the RSA program, a position of some visibility and prominence. It strikes me as an ad that was–and I can only speculate here–designed in color, but that translates very poorly to the grayscale format used in the actual printing of the RSA program. More than that though, the ad is simultaneously weak and too busy. By too busy I mean that the faded text collage in the background is distracting, and not a particularly engaging effect. Similarly, the bulk of the text in the fore of the image is shadowed. Unfortunately though, the shadowing only muddies the text. This ad is indecisive and schizophrenic. I know it isn’t the case, but if I had to judge this program purely from its ad, I would say that it is a program that doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be. This negative effect is magnified by the overly thin script used, which also lends an appearance of indecisiveness, weakness, and amateurishness. This ad simply lacks graphic confidence. The department’s website address also appears in a disappointingly low resolution, which doesn’t instill confidence either. The ad’s primary problems all go back to font. Additionally, the white on gray used to list the program’s faculty simply obscured the wonderful names. They should pop, but instead simply fade into the simultaneously distracting and incoherent background.
I am also disappointed that none of UT Austin’s signature logos, which are graphically wonderful, were employed in the ad. The longhorn logo, most often associated with the sports programs, would have been great, as would the more academically oriented “tower” logo.
Another point of contention for me is that this ad only lists the English Department rhetoric faculty, and not the Communication Studies rhetoric faculty. These two departments are two of the best at what they do, and two of the strongest associated departments in the nation, and from what I can tell, they get along fabulously with one another. It’s disappointing then that they did not reach out to one another for this advertisement, which mistakenly conveys the notion that there is no cooperation between the two departments. For shame. These are two top tier departments with quite collegial faculties, and they should be represented together in an ad that appears in the program for a conference that both departments send a phenomenal number of graduate students and faculty to attend.
In short, this ad is indescisive, graphically muddy, and fails to convey the strength or breadth of the department(s) it might be intended to represent. I am saddened that my own program’s ad does not convey they confidence of a wonderful program that is arguably one of the top two, if not THE top, in the rhetoric concentration. Bolder fonts, more symmetrical presentation, less busy-ness, and better branding would dramatically improve future incarnations of this ad, which simply isn’t convincing in the form in which it appeared in the RSA program. Sorry UT Austin, but we can do much, much better.
I haven’t posted as much as I had hoped lately. Something about finishing my dissertation and utterly complete energy drain. It’s done. Since defending I’ve attended two weddings and traveled to my refuge (picture below). I’ve now re-emerged to hastily pull together two papers for the biennial Rhetoric Society of America Conference, which will take place in Minneapolis this year.
My re-emergence from the cabin and my paper title, “Style: An Anti-Curriculum Based Upon Richard Lanham’s Anti-Textbook,” bring to mind Catherine Prendergast‘s recent and enviably smart article on Style, Strunk and White, and the Unabomber, titled “Fighting Style: Reading the Unabomber’s Strunk and White.” My second paper, also in a state of incompletion as I write this, is titled “Realism, Plain Style, and Arguments from Authority in the US Intelligence Community” and draws more directly on my dissertation work.
Clearly this site is still in a stage of some as-yet-determined development. I’ve been trying to figure out how to document the experience of transitioning from the life of a graduate student at a huge R-1 institution (UT Austin) to a rookie faculty member at a regional university (WCU). I figured that one important thing for a new faculty member to do would be to read some of the work of my new colleagues. One, Ron Rash, is a novelist, and novels seemed like a nice place to start. In one of Ron’s novels, The World Made Straight, a character reads a Civil War era doctor’s log. A typical entry from the log, which I excerpt from the third page of Ron’s book, reads:
Lansford Hawkins, age 48.
Complaint: Fevered, headache.
Diagnosis: Corizia. Consulted Wood’s Theory and Practice of Medicine.
Treatment: Dover’s Powder. At patient’s insistence cupped sixteen ounces of blood from left arm to remove morfibic matter. Rest in bed two days.
Fee: Fifty cents, paid in cash.
After reading the fictional doc’s entry, I thought maybe such spartan entries might occasionally be useful on this blog. One of the difficulties of this transition will be balancing all the new roles — teacher, researcher, community member, citizen of new home, aficionado of the hops, etc, etc. So, I’ll make some posts along those lines, bare-bones tabulations of how I’m spending my time, and hopefully getting done everything that needs to get done.
24 May 2010
Tasks: Unpack from New Mexican misanthropic jaunt (not completed); write RSA paper (not completed); pack personal possessions for transport to North Carolina (not completed); ride bike (not even attempted).
Personal Reward: Two beers and a movie.
And that, folks, is how not to get things done. See folks in Minneapolis, at which point my papers will definitely be complete.
Also, anyone reading this should check out my colleague Dale Smith‘s blog, Rhetoric and Publics. Add it to your RSS reader. Dale is good people, doing very cool work, and I look forward to his posts.