On Voting: Or, on Topoi and Convictions   Leave a comment

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.


Posted November 6, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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A Story about Academic Publishing   6 comments

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:

Posted October 26, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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Should we learn Latin for the sake of learning English grammar?   5 comments

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.”

Posted April 29, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

CCCC in St. Louis   Leave a comment

A lot just happened. I went to St. Louis for the first time; I presented at Cs for the first time; I ate and drank and saw Richard Lanham speak and went to the zoo to escape the conference for an afternoon and experience some bestial rhetorics. (Anyone get the Debra Hawhee reference? No? Okay.) Like I said, a lot happened.

There’s a lot to say and I’m too busy to say it all, so I’ll limit myself to a few points. First off, I was pretty delighted by the turnout at my panel, and by the quality of the presentations. One fellow on my panel, a Mr. Brian Fotinakes out of Indiana U of Pennsylvania, revealed what writing evaluation software actually looks for when it assesses style — and it’s terrifying. I thought my own paper went well, too, and people seemed receptive. I’ve sold myself on the read-aloud-but-write-a-paper-designed-to-be-read-aloud method when I have a lot to say and I need to make it fit the time slot. Worked well here, and last week at the MEGAA Symposium.

I also have this insight about Cs in general: I think the theme matters more than we realize. This isn’t to say I like themes in conferences. I dislike them. At least I dislike them for Cs. I think they limit people in weird ways, and generate forced, awkward arguments that strain to place emphasis on some halfcooked buzzword instead of following an organic line of inquiry. But the “writing gateways” theme allowed a lot more room, for instance, than the “remix” theme two years ago, just because it was more abstract a term, and thus, I think, allowed a wider range of topics and a more diverse and interesting program than 2010’s. Though spawning numerous and somewhat annoying “Gateways to ____” panel titles, the gateway metaphor translates to pretty much whatever you want, which is better than 50 panels about remixing remixes and digital media studies owning the conference.

Last thing: Richard Lanham’s talk was completely charming when you could hear him (microphones? not his specialty). My friend Kate Ronald delivered an impromptu encomium for him during the Q&A at the end, reading aloud from a student reflection on how Lanham’s “paramedic method” of be-verb removal drastically helped her prose. It was completely heartwarming(Or, it warmed my heart completely? Hmm.) Also, Lanham made me want to go back and read his Handlist of Rhetorical Terms cover to cover. What an indispensable little book.

At least one conference attendee wanted a copy of my Cs paper. I’m going to add it here, and make a section for conference papers on the Writing page.

That’s all for now. Signing out!

Posted March 26, 2012 by Ben in CCCC

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A rhetorician’s thoughts on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy   6 comments

I used to write movie reviews for a community college newspaper. I still think the popular movie review is an interesting genre, and I still enjoy reading people like J. Hoberman and Ebert, but, honestly, an overdose of thinking about rhetoric has sort of ruined the thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down, three-out-four-stars way of assessing movies for me. That is, while I still really like some movies and loathe others, I find myself thinking not in terms of how innately good or bad they are, but how effective or ineffective, in what ways, why, and for whom.

I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last weekend with some friends, also rhet-comp PhDs. I’ll say plainly that I loved it. I thought it was beautifully acted, shot, scored, etc., etc., and that it was completely refreshing to see a spy movie without a single explosion, car chase, or cringe-worthy one-liner. The casting of Gary Oldman as George Smily, John Le Carré’s sober and wizened British intel man and demure star of many smart, understated novels, was an especially well-conceived stroke. I can’t help but compare Oldman to Alec Guinness, who played the role in the BBC miniseries (also great) of Tinker Tailer. And Oldman compares favorably.

A friend of mine who went along found the movie as beautiful and well-crafted as I did, but also baffling. Little wonder: It’s a dense 350-page novel (which comprises little action and a lot of walking around, meeting in discreet locations, and talking) packed into two hours and change. While understated, the movie moves fast, very fast. (Even the miniseries, at nearly 300 minutes, hardly drags.) Given running time the filmmakers were apparently shooting for, they did a good job of packing the whole story in there without oversimplifying, but I, had I not already watched the miniseries and read one of Le Carré’s other George Smiley novels (Smiley’s People – another tense, plotty, and totally enjoyable thing without many gunfights or motorcycle chases), would also have been baffled. I had a hard time following some scenes anyway.

So, now I’m thinking about audience. Few American audiences, it seems, will stand for really long movies – say, three-hours-plus – which is what TTSS probably should have been. It would have been nice to see some of the details teased out through longer scenes, especially since the few longish scenes director Tomas Alfredson and company did include were so completely and mesmerizingly beautiful. It’s a movie that should have been slowed down, but one facing a market that disparages lengthiness, bloatedness, inflatedness – it’s nearly impossible to think of a synonym without harsh connotations. The exceptions, oddly enough, are usually the King Kongs and Lords of the Rings, movies that drag on but pack in the spectacle to stave off boredom. Movies that really need to be long to address their content – those are harder to justify as three-hour entities.

A pity for TTSS. But again, I stand by it – thumbs up, four stars, and all that – because I find its narrative (hastened as it is), characters, and style so refreshing and smart. Another point I want to raise here is that of intertexuality. Byron Hawk, in an interesting essay on “hyperrhetoric” (a term I only sort of get, though I gather it has to do with rhetoric about rhetoric and texts about texts) and The Fifth Element talks about his own ironic reading of that movie based on references to other sci-fi films he saw embedded in the narrative (see Blakesly, ed., The Terministic Screen, a pretty cool collection on rhetoric and film, with a solid contribution from rhet-comp people). Similarly, for me at least, it seems that TTSS makes sense most coherently as a dialogic riposte to the James Bond and Jack Ryan movies that make the Cold War exciting, glorious, and sexy. There’s nothing cold about that Cold War, but in TTSS, the war’s coldness really comes through – and it sucks. TTSS drains the glory from its espionage and reveals a much more sobering picture of how deeply, cruelly shitty the Cold War was, with its practitioners’ lives – both professional and personal – gutted by betrayal, mistrust, and boredom. George Smiley, one of my favorite characters in all of fiction, is Bond’s opposite: both are smart, but Smiley is a meek, glasses-wearing cuckold who never drives fast, only rarely carries a gun, and sees much of his sad self in his counterparts beyond the Berlin Wall. Form suits content, too: the delicate camerawork and quiet score are the antithesis of the Bond franchise’s quick cuts and sultry theme songs set to writhing silhouettes.

All these factors amount the idea of an “emergent ethos” in film that I write about in my MA thesis: a powerful movie develops a character – not simply the director’s, nor the star’s – that you can almost put a face to. Though, in this case, it’s hard not to conjure the face of Oldman’s Smily as a stand-in for all that the movie comes to be, to represent, and to oppose. Those sad, blues eyes, magnified by those think lenses, and all the quiet but vicious doublecrossing and death they wish they hadn’t seen – the anti-Bond.

Posted January 21, 2012 by Ben in Movies

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The Ninth Annual MEGAA Symposium: Miami Vice   Leave a comment

My friends at the Miami English Graduate and Adjunct Association are putting on a great conference with a great (and catchy) theme. It’s a fun, low-stress conference with great people on a really nice-looking campus. The call for papers is posted below.


The 9th Annual Miami University English Graduate Student and Adjunct Association (MEGAA) Symposium

Miami Vice:The Role of Immorality and Depravity in Constructions of the Self and Community

March 16, 2012, 9:00-4:00 Oxford, Ohio


What’s vice today may be virtue, tomorrow. — Henry Fielding

In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.–Marquis de Sade


Greed, avarice, and lust; bribery, prostitution, and blackmail; sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—vice is a sign and cause of social ills as well as an outlet of rebellion against structure and stagnation. How we (dis)associate ourselves with vice helps constitute our individual and group identities and affiliations.

Vice can be conceptualized as a cause of literal and figurative decay but also as a catalyst for a re-imagining of the body politic and the individual body. As de Sade notes, virtue and vice are both counterpoints and dependents–one cannot exist without the other. As we revise our interpretations of what these categories signify, we re-position ourselves and therefore develop our personalities and the cultures we exist in.

We encourage submissions from all academic disciplines and perspectives.


Questions of Inquiry and Threads of Discussion

Possible topics for presentations include, but are not limited to:

• Attempts of eradication of vice and the institution

• Defining and regulating vice

• How do vices shape/define individuals and societies?

• Relationships between government and vice

• Vice as trope. What roles does vice play in literature? In political rhetoric?

• How does vice figure into binaries of self and Other? Into notions of public and private?

• How does vice influence boundaries of scientific inquiry? Of medical inquiry?

• Vice and Power

• Exploitations of vice/virtue

• Technology, mass media and/as vice/virtue

• Media depictions of vice; media depictions of vice as vice

• Epistemological or ontological explorations of vice

• Explorations of virtue ethics

• Economics, vice taxes, and other monetary implications

• Depictions of vice and virtue in film, television, advertising, and performance

We are also looking to host several readings of fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction, throughout the conference and welcome submissions of original work. If submitting creative work, please indicate you are doing so on the proposal submission form.

Both single paper and full panel submissions are encouraged. Along with proposals for traditional academic paper presentations, we encourage proposals for non-traditional presentations including performances, multimedia displays, discussion formats, interactive sessions, poster presentations, artwork, and video or photography installations.


Featured Speakers

A list of featured speakers will be announced on the conference website at a later date.


Submitting Proposals

Download the proposal form here. Please provide all speaker information and presentation titles on the proposal form. Remove all personal identifiers from the proposal itself. Please limit both individual and panel proposals to 500 words.

Proposal deadline: January 31, 2012: 11:59 p.m. EST

Email completed forms: Symposium Committee, MEGAAblog@gmail.com

Hard copy submissions are also accepted and can be mailed to:


English Department

356 Bachelor Hall

Miami University

Oxford, OH 45056

Official acceptances will be emailed to participants by February 14, 2012.

Posted November 18, 2011 by Ben in Uncategorized

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