Present Tense Essay is Up …

It’s clear that I haven’t been posting here quite enough lately because my last post, from well over a year ago, was about a CCCC paper — a new version of which, I’m glad to say, is now up on Present Tense, here.

I’m particularly glad to have this piece up because I really admire what Present Tense does and how they do it: such a forum for publicly relevant and up-do-date rhetorical criticism in such a crisp, open-access venue represents, to me, a huge and necessary contribution to the field of rhetoric. The editor, Megan Schoen, and the anonymous reviewers were all great to work with.

CCCC paper is up …

Because I actually wrote something coherent this time around, I thought I’d toss my Cs paper (“Picking Up the Fragments of the 2012 Election: What Do Memes Mean for Rhetoric?”) up on — here.

I had a particularly fun Cs, abridged as it was. (Having blown all my conference funding on FemRhet, I just opted to drive up to Indianapolis for the day.) But my panel was well-attended, and I saw some old friends. Can’t ask for much more.

Also, somewhere in downtown Indy, Stephanie snapped this picture of me consoling a grumpy lion.

A few thoughts on the rhetoric of pageantry

So, I really, really hate beauty pageants, and I had every intention last week of utterly ignoring Miss America and pretending that the nation doesn’t still come together once a year to fawn over bikini bodies that we roll out like sports cars.

But then Nina Davuluri, a New Yorker of Indian descent, won. Whatever, fine. I was still busy not paying attention at this point. But wait! Then some ugly corner of the Twitterverse started spitting out some seriously racist stuff making heavy use of phrases like “Arab,” “terrorist,” “real American,” “remember 9/11,” and so forth. Hmmm.

So, I was annoyed because (a) people were being racist, and (b) I suddenly felt obligated as a good rhetorician to pay some attention to Miss America.

So here are my thoughts. I’ll begin with the question, what is a pageant — rhetorically speaking? A beauty pageant like Miss America looks a lot like what Aristotle terms epideictic rhetoric. Ceremonial oratory, the rhetoric of praise and blame — that which firms up a sense of community, common conviction, and shared values among rhetor and audience. Beauty pageants are engineered to reassert (praise) dominant conceptions of female beauty (obviously), but also to reassert our loosely defined but powerfully emoted dedication to ideas like education, charity, personal initiative, and competitive spirit; in other words, the topoi of the beauty pageant are the topoi of American ideology defined in the broadest strokes possible. Hence, we want an intelligent Miss America, but one who doesn’t threaten our commonplace assumptions of what a “Miss America” should look like, sound like, and do. For a lot of people, apparently, that means, among other things, a white Miss America.

My hypothesis is that a lot of viewers tuned in for a reaffirmation of the “America” they know and love (a very different “America” from the one I know and love) and found their expectations cruelly shattered by a woman who didn’t look the part. Within a certain narrative, the one where America’s traditional values are under attack and the nation wages a (holy) war against Islam, Nina Davuluri looked enough that part of the “bad guy,” the ambiguously dark Middle-Easterner, that her ascendance to a title synonymous with quintessential American values was a slap in the face.

A host of enthymemes erupted across the Twittersphere, illustrating this narrative logic:

How the fuck does a foreigner win miss America? She is a Arab! #idiots

I swear I’m not racist but this is America.

9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets miss America?

Miss America is a terrorist. Whatever. It’s fine.

And so on. The warrant collectively underscoring this set of claims sums to something like “dark-skinned people of Asian descent are ‘Arabs’ and therefore terrorists, complicit in the 9/11 attacks, and enemies of America.” Comment #2’s author is “not racist” (she swears!) but she must believe at least part of the warrant above.

For a lot of these tweeters, Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, was the cruelly jilted protagonist of the story. Check it out:

In other words (and whether she likes it or not — I don’t blame Miss Kansas an iota for her more vitriolic fans), she’s the “real” hero of a certain narrative founded on a certain vision of America. If nothing else Miss America has dramatized the instability of what our country “really” means.

Article in New Issue of Excursions

Another quick celebratory/boastful post (boast-post?): Over at Excursions — a nifty interdisciplinary web journal out of the University of Sussex — Stephanie Weaver and I have an article in the new issue on “science/fiction.” Our piece is called “‘You Know the Business and I Know the Chemistry’: The Scientific Ethos of Breaking Bad,” and it addresses how AMC’s hit show employs scientific imagery for rhetorical ends, but evades the “genre fiction” baggage of the tag “science fiction.” The new issue looks interesting all around.

MST3K Book Coming in June

Just a quick boast: The nerdy book pictured at left is coming this June from Scarecrow Press, and will feature my essay “The Audio-Visual Palimpsest: Rhetoric, Poetics, and Heteroglossia in Mystery Science Theater 3000.” For more on the history of all that, see this post. For more about the book, head over here.

I had the pleasure of meeting Shelley Rees and a few of the other contributors at PCA/ACA 2010 in San Antonio — all fun, bright people. This book’ll be a good one. This project has also been a long time coming, so I do look forward to holding my gratis copy.

On Voting: Or, on Topoi and Convictions

I voted absentee a few weeks ago. I stay registered in Michigan because 1) it’s more of a swing state than Kentucky (though it hasn’t gone to a Republican since George H.W. Bush) and 2) because I have investments in the local politics of my hometown, Northport, that outweigh those I have in Louisville. I felt good when I dropped my ballot in the mail.

Voting is one of those small annual rites we can undertake and feel a deep sense of ritual meaning. The pride I feel in voting resembles the pride I feel in dismissing class on the last day of the semester and telling my students what a pleasure it’s been to meet twice a week for  three-and-a-half months. I’m always sincere when I say that, and I’m sincere in my belief that voting matters. These things are signposts in the narratives of our lives. Without them we’d feel lost. Or I would, at least.

I soliloquized about the election a little on Facebook the other day. Here’s what I said:

I try not to be annoyingly political on Facebook, so this is all I’ll say about the election. No democracies are perfect, and the two-party system teams up with the electoral college to make ours especially imperfect. But let’s not take it for granted that our country affords us voting rights, no matter how inconsequential they seem in the states that glow especially red or blue. I hope everyone I know votes.

I’m also a public educator from a family of public educators, and I have a lot of gay friends who don’t have the same rights I do — so it should be little surprise that I also hope the nation reelects President Obama. But I am, above all, a pluralist, and I hope you vote even if you disagree with me and support Governor Romney or a third party. I’m happy to talk or argue or explain myself with anyone who cares to ask; I think disagreement is good, productive, and even vital.

Anyway, vote. That’s mainly what I wanted to say.

I was glad to see lots of “likes” in response to my post, including many from friends who I know do not share my politics. I was sincere in my remarks: I believe in dissent, in disagreement, in hashing out differences. At the recent meeting of Louisville’s Rhetoric Reading Group, we talked about Wayne Booth’s different classifications of rhetoric that he outlines in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric. Booth encourages a greater emphasis on “listening-rhetoric,” which seeks to “pursue the truth behind … differences” rather than just pushing one perspective or argument at all costs. It’d hard to disagree. Too often, campaign rhetoric resorts to the vilest sort of what Booth calls “win-rhetoric,” a sort of rhetorical slugging-it-out in an effort to more effectively impeach your opponent’s ethos than he can yours. I think we saw a lot of that in the debates this year. Anyway, I think we’d all be better off if we’d all seriously revisit the possibilities that we’re wrong in our convictions. But that’s hard to do. The power of ideology is it invisibility.

I was also sincere, though, that I hope President Obama wins. I have grave worries about the future of public education under a Romney administration, as well as the future of LGBT civil rights, the wellfare of the working class, and a lot of other things. I think Obama’s presidency invites some serious criticisms, but also serious praise. The choice was clear to me as I filled out my ballot.

So let me say, unironically: Yay, democracy! Yay, President Obama — a man who I do think, despite his many flaws, will go down as one of the good presidents, perhaps one of the greats. But I subtitle this post “on topoi and convictions” because I feel some serious conflict as a skeptical rhetorician on election day. On one hand, I do believe in voting, and I find myself angered by the apathy of many American citizens. On the other, we need to think critically about the power of the “I voted!” topos. Ralph Cintron has written recently about the “fetishization” of democracy, how it’s topoi (things like the taxpayer, the citizen, the grassroots movement, the term “democracy” itself) carry unbridled power and exist on a plane above critique. We can criticize politicians using the topoi of democracy, but we can’t criticize those topoi themselves. The importance of voting is one such topos; it is a powerful and uncontroversial statement to say, as I did, you should vote. But let’s remember this: to make voting into an unassailable topos is to overlook all the flaws in our voting system that mandates two parties and a first-to-270-electoral-votes-wins strategy. A priority voting system, for instance, instead of our one-person-one-vote system, would work to validate third parties. The way we vote could be better, even if voting itself is something to value.

But I hesitate to even make these points right now. The longer, more reflective genre of a blog post allows me to pontificate a bit, but I probably wouldn’t post to Facebook on election day: “Critically reexamine the topos of voting! Reevaluate our voting system!” No — because I’m concerned about people just voting in the first place. I’m concerned about the immediate material consequences of the election.

There’s no happy way to resolve this tension. At the end of the day, I’ll be watching the precincts report and counting the numbers from swing states like they’re the score of the Michigan-Ohio State game. I still viscerally believe in voting even when, on a certain level, I question it intellectually.

A Story about Academic Publishing

The first post I ever published on this blog was a happy announcement. I boasted that a rhetorical-Bakhtinian analysis I’d written of the cult TV comedy Mystery Science Theater 3000 would soon be published on a new online journal run in part by TV studies guru David Lavery. Bad news: that never happened. Good news: something else did. So here’s a story about academic publishing.

Let me backtrack to the first year of my master’s program at Miami of Ohio. My friend and then-colleague Kasey Butcher, knowing what kind of nerd I am, one day handed me a CFP flyer for scholarly essays on MST3K, a show where a man and two robots mock bad movies in real-time. Dr. Shelley Rees, an English professor at of the University of Arts and Sciences of Oklahoma, had sent out the CFP hoping to compile a scholarly book project on the show: in essence, a book of nerds writing nerdily about the nerdiest show ever. It sounded awesome.

So I sent in a proposal. I was new to postgrad academic writing. Like a lot of grad school neophytes I had a poorly defined list of enthusiastic interests. I knew I liked Mikhail Bakhtin’s discourse theory (and I still do!), so I wrote in vague terms about how I’d read MST3K’s interesting form through the lens of Bakhtinian heteroglossia. I don’t think I knew too well what I was talking about, but I guess it sounded like I did because Dr. Rees accepted the proposal. Cool! Then I waited.

And I waited. Months passed. Dr. Rees finally sent out an email explaining that she still had no publisher, but she did have an invitation for us contributors to present our research at the national Pop Culture Association / American Culture Association conference in San Antonio. A number of my friends from Miami were headed to that same conference, so I happily accepted. So, over a year after I’d written the original proposal, I realized I’d have to actually write something. I looked back at my old proposal, and I made some changes.

By this time, I was deep into my MA thesis research on the rhetoric of film, so all that had stirred up ideas and theoretical frames to work with. I began by changing the title. Originally it was “Competing Voices: Bakhtin, Rhetoric and Audience Sympathy in Mystery Science Theatre 3000.” That’s right — somehow I’d used the British spelling of “theatre,” and neglected the Oxford comma between “rhetoric” and “and.” For shame. I’d also unwisely seemed to imply that a dead Russian literary critic was actually in a show about sarcastic robots watching bad movies. Hmm. I changed the title to “The Audio-Visual Palimpsest: Rhetoric, Poetics, and Heteroglossia in Mystery Science Theater 3000” — much better, if equally verbose — and put together ideas for a conference talk. At PCA/ACA I spoke about the humorous effects of the show’s lopsided rhetorical struggle between the different voices. It was a well-attended session in a massive, intimidating ballroom, and there was good conversation. Dr. Rees chaired. She was a pleasure to meet — smart, generous, and funny. Later at the conference, she spoke about gender performance in Lord of the Rings. It was swell.

After that, I actually wrote the damn thing. My essay just poured onto the page, really. I wrote a draft of it — 6,250 words — in a day. I’ve only had to tweak it since.

Still no publisher, though. More time passed. Things happened. I moved to Louisville to start my PhD. Finally Dr. Rees contacted us with the information that Series/Season/Show, Lavery’s new online journal, has agreed to publish all our work as its inaugural issue. Yahoo! So, optimistically, we waited some more.

And waited. Then, just recently, came the news that one of S/S/S‘s editors (not Lavery) had fallen ill, and the journal’s progress had, for now, ground to a halt. Boo. But! Dr. Rees had been in touch with Scarecrow Press, who had — thank bejesus! — agreed to publish us all in a hardcover-only collection. Contracts are signed and the book, as I understand it, should roll off the press in April of 2013. Hooray!

It’s absurd how enthusiastically I look forward to holding my one gratis copy — thumbing through it, showing to my friends, and so on. Hooray, a book! And I’ll be in it!

Morals of this story? A few:

  • Academic publishing, as I put it earlier on Facebook, trundles along at the pace of an inebriated sloth. I submitted the first proposal in March of 2010. Three years later, it should — cross your fingers tight! — be published. And I’ve heard of worse. I’ve heard five- and six-year stories. The lesson, I guess, is to get things in the system in such a way that they have a good chance to be published down the road.
  • The essay I would have written in 2010 is a lot different than the one I did write a year later. That’s a good thing. Expect to evolve as a scholar and evolve willingly — that’s my point.
  • The web vs. print question — both have their advantages. Had the S/S/S deal worked out, my essay would have been a lot easier to access, and more people would have read it. (Is that actually a good thing?) But, damnit, there’s still something really cool about the prospect of seeing your name in print. Or maybe I’m a completely anachronistic twenty-something. I don’t know. I do suspect that the word “print” at the end of an MLA citation still carries some weight on a CV, though.
  • Finally, this needs to be said: People like Shelly Rees are rockstars. I’m amazed by how she stuck with this project, earned us a spot at PCA/ACA, dealt with one stumbling block after another, read and reread our work, and finally, FINALLY, found a place to publish. Admittedly, I saw very little of this process, but I saw enough to realize what a nasty, time-consuming slog it is. Props. I hope the book sells a bazillion copies, mainly so Shelley can make a few dollars in royalties — because she deserves more than she’ll get.

That’s all for now. I’ve been busy, but more soon, I hope! Here’s some good footage from MST3K: Space Mutiny:

Should we learn Latin for the sake of learning English grammar?

A smart fellow named Matthew Case has authored a interesting piece for my friend Pamela Grath’s blog, Books in Northport. (Pamela is a bookseller, philosophy scholar, and all-around smart, lovely person, who keeps a great blog.) Matthew’s argument, in essence, is that we should take up Latin in schools again because it helps students comprehend English grammar. I encourage people to head over and read the whole conversation here. It was a nice reminder, for me, that people other than rhet-comp folks have things to say about writing.

Pamela asked me of Facebook to weigh in, so I did. I’ll re-post my response below, but I hope people will hop over to Pamela’s blog, as well.

That’ll do it for now, though a lot’s happened since my last post: PCA/ACA in Boston, the frantic end of the semester, quarter-sized hail Louisville. Before I sign off, I’ll just add that I saw George Takei speak at PCA/ACA. Your envy is justified.


Pamela asked me to weigh in on this conversation, which I’m glad to do. This is all very interesting, both the original polemic and the responses it’s generated. It’s nice to see such intelligent conversation happening online.

For what it’s worth, here are my credentials: I’m a graduate fellow the University of Louisville now, where I’m working on PhD in Rhetoric and Composition – a field for which writing studies is one primary front. I have an MA in Rhet-Comp, too, from Miami University (OH) and a BA in English from the University of Michigan. Most of the research I’ve read and conducted about writing has focused college-level pedagogy, so I’m admittedly less knowledgeable about high-school education. I can at least speak about that as a former student, though.

I agree with many of the points above. Certainly, I’m with Matthew that standardized testing harms and compartmentalizes writing instruction by confining student writing to a rigid set of genres that exist nowhere in the real world. Typically, students are tested on fabricated genres – five-paragraph themes, for instance, or the “identify the main point” essays Matthew identifies, which are rhetorical analyses stripped to their weakest and more puerile form. Such writing assignments will help students to pass tests, but not to fulfill any other writerly tasks once they finish their academic hoop-jumping.

I agree with Matthew’s main warrant, too: Learning foreign languages which share some lineage with English do help students (or adults, or anyone) rethink the construction of English grammar. I’d put it like this: learning a different language forces you to think abstractly about grammatical rules, and verbalize titles for those rules, in a way that speaking your native tongue does not.

I have a concern about the Latin proposition, though. Personally I’d love to know Latin, mainly for etymological reasons. I also agree, wholeheartedly, as I said, that learning Latin would help me think about English grammar in the abstract. I think, too, though, that any number of other languages can have a similar effect. For me, it was Spanish. My four years of Spanish (two in high school, two in college) did exactly what Matthew describes, spurring me to return to English grammar with a new vocabulary and linguistic awareness. A good thing, for sure. But learning a language is a serious undertaking, and I think it makes a lot more sense, now, to pursue a Romance language like French or Italian – or especially Spanish, given the influx of Spanish-speakers in the country. Maybe our educational push, then, should go in that direction – toward real, socially relevant bilingualism.

But my larger concern is about the importance of grammar in teaching writing. Ironically, I guess, the farther I’ve advanced in my postgraduate study of writing, the less of a stickler I’ve become. There is, in fact, a substantial body of scholarship concluding that teaching primarily grammar is detrimental to good writing at the college level. (Looking back, I think I’d argue something similar about middle- and high-school. No need to digress now, though.) Here’s the most useful way I can think of it put it: What you don’t want, as a teacher, is students who write every sentence in fear, whose anxiety over grammatical correctness impinges on their thinking about the substance, style, and audience of their arguments. Being able to talk about grammar is helpful, certainly, but a thorough understanding of grammatical terms and concepts doesn’t necessarily precede good writing. Much more valuable, I think, is the intellectual dexterity to adapt to one’s rhetorical context; thus I advocate a writing curriculum rooted in classical and modern theories of rhetoric (that is, theories of how discourse achieves persuasive effect). In such a setting, grammar still matters, but its value stems from rhetorical effect, not correctness alone. It is a tool, not an end itself.

So: Grammar is important, yes. But it’s ridiculously easy to write awful, directionless, useless prose that is 100% grammatically “correct.” Writing teachers see bunches of it. Also, I’ll say that students’ grammatical hang-ups tend to vary between individuals; thus, for a given group of students, a decision to allot 40 minutes of a class period to matters of subject-verb agreement might simply waste that time for two thirds of the class. This is why writing classes need to be small, and teachers need to talk with students individually and often. Usually, I’ll add, these talks can helps students with their grammatical woes without invoking words like “gerund” and “antecedent.”

My summative point, I guess, would be that writers don’t become good just by memorizing terms and rules, but by taking guidance from good teachers and then reading and writing—a lot, in manifold contexts, and working continuously to better understand these larger situations and conversations they’re writing themselves into. (Preposition at the end of that sentence, I know. Not a valid rule in all contexts. Neither is “Don’t use sentence fragments.”) To the extent, though, that some terminology is needed, I would rather my students know “ethos” and “enthymeme” than “subjunctive” and “participle.”