digital rhetoric Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition

building writing programs: 15(ish) years in (and done)

By the end of this month, I will finish my two-year stint as WAC director at UB. As I am now in Media Study, I don’t anticipate running a “writing program” again. Before that, for seven years I was the WPA in the UB English department and spent three years running a graduate certificate professional writing program. (I also had 3 years directing an undergrad professional writing major at Cortland, but who’s counting besides me.)

Basically, since 2006 I’ve been running some kind of writing program somewhere. And now that race is run.

There are plenty of people who have done such jobs longer and better than I, and I say that as someone who is not known for undue modesty. That said, I remain the protagonist of my autobiography, so I have a few things to reflect on. On most topics I wouldn’t imagine I’ve had anything especially insightful to say in terms of the broader rhetoric/composition community, things like:

  • Can we more inclusive and a little less racist, sexist, etc.?
  • Can we unclench our buttocks in relation to proper/correct style, grammar, and so on?
  • Did you know that there’s a whole discipline with 1000s of scholars who have researched the teaching of writing in higher education? Because I’m thinking our decisions should be informed by that stuff.
  • It’s great that we identify improving student writing as mission critical. From a bird’s eye view, the way we do that is not complicated. We hire faculty and staff with disciplinary expertise in teaching writing, and then we create curricula and other institutional structures that put students in contact with them.

In other words, you know, just the standard stuff of WPA life. Good times, good times. To be fair to UB, we’ve developed a larger institutional awareness to these questions. I’ve never been the only one asking them, but there are more now than there once was. At the same time, I’ve grown tired of this Sisyphean task. To cross my literary metaphors, I’m ready, like Frodo and the rest of the Ring Bearers, to take passage on ships to the West.

The last remaining slice of all this is the one that has most interested me as a digital rhetorician, which is, obviously, the role of digital media. When I was on the job market in 2009, I went around giving a job talk about Bruce Sterling’s spimes, which we’d now talk about as IoT devices. Most of that is resigned to the digital dustbin, but here are the basics from that time.

The title of that roaming presentation was (checking my notes) “Learning to live with new media: Composing spimes and the eversion of virtual publics.”

The synopsis I distributed at the time: Media networks alter our experience and understanding of time and space and raise questions about our identities and relations with one another. In short, they present the challenge of learning to live with new media. My presentation examines the way in which social media and locative technologies lead to the eversion of the virtual world onto material culture. I consider the particular implications of this eversion for higher education, and I explore the usefulness of Bruce Sterling’s concept of spime technology (think space + time) in understanding how composition functions with emerging technologies.

As you already know, a dozen years later we’re really no closer to addressing these issues, even though they’ve disrupted our democracy. Equally unsurprising, such matters continue to be the focus of my work. As Wikipedia is happy to suggest, though the term had been around for a while, 2009 was when the Internet of things was born, “with the things/people ratio growing from 0.08 in 2003 to 1.84 in 2010.” For those keeping score at home, depending on who you ask and what you count as IoT, there are 30-40 billion such devices now, which puts that ratio somewhere between 4 and 5. It’s worth noting that no matter how you count IoT devices, you don’t include smartphones (~5B) or desktops/laptops/servers (~2B), so what exactly do you imagine those things are and what what they saying/writing to each other? Today, when I think about these numbers, I am reminded of the kinds of stats that used to preface my conference presentations in the 2000s regarding numbers of Facebook accounts, of videos posted daily to YouTube, etc.

But what does the rapid expansion of digital media have to do with building and delivering a writing program? I’m sure I could offer eloquent 40-60 minute answers to that question. I did 12 years ago, and I’m sure I could update it. It surely has to do with understanding the negotiations among humans and nonhumans as we form communities, gather and interpret information, deliberate, articulate capacities for action, and then try to make our lives better.

I’m sure I can offer more details. The thing is that I’m very tired of hoeing this particular row.

2 replies on “building writing programs: 15(ish) years in (and done)”

Received just a few minutes ago…and I have finished reading it.

This was quite satisfying to read. I have never run a writing program (I am a developmental and molecular biologist), but I spent a couple of decades trying to reform intro science courses (in biology, of course) in the direction of “science in the making”…teaching science with more verbs and adverbs and fewer bold-faced facts/nouns. I made a bit of headway, but frankly too little to be at all satisfied. Latour-influenced approaches were a hard sell to my science colleagues, and especially so for non-majors courses (the larger lecture courses are credit hour cash cows…so let’s not think about small, seminar-like courses for them).

I am now retired (finishing 6 years away from the table)—and thus long “done”.

I still do a small thing or two with Latour (I contributed a chapter to his Critical Zones collection that was published this past fall), but my local PSU science education battle days, my days of row hoeing, are over. Like you, if asked I could probably put together a lecture on science ed needing to be politicoscientific ed. And maybe such a reform would be seen as important given the increasing pace of climate change and the need for a modes of existence approach.

As always, I enjoy your posts and I am still collecting them in my Evernote account (384 with today’s entry).

And (of course) my question: the book…is it nearing its transport out the door?



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