Revolution Lullabye

April 25, 2009

Varnum, Fencing with Words

Varnum, Robin. Fencing with Words: A History of Writing Instruction at Amherst College during the Era of Theodore Baird, 1938-1966. Urbana: NCTE, 1996.

Varnum presents a counternarrative to the mainstream history of 20th century composition instruction through her archival investigation of the Amherst freshman writing program directed by Theodore Baird from 1938 to 1966. Her history, unlike other histories written in the field, has three distinct differences: first, she spends much time looking at how outside social and political forces (institutional, national, and global) affected the pedagogy in Amherst’s writing courses; second, she depends on the archives of the program (assignments, student papers, memos, reports, as well as interviews) instead of textbooks and journals to sketch a picture of what was happening in the classrooms; and third, she brings to light a much-misunderstood era of American composition, one that is usually conflated and simplified to be “current-traditional.” Baird’s first-year writing courses were designed by the entire team of teachers (everyone used the same collaboratively-written assignment sequence), and student writing, not textbooks, were the centerpiece of the course. Baird believed that writing was a process of self-discovery, a process through which unexpressible (and unknown) truths could be expressed. Varnum’s history does not sugarcoat or reify Baird’s administration or pedagogy, pointing out that his high-priest attitude was decidedly masculine and top-down, perceived by some students and fellow faculty to be a bully who ran a “boot camp” course.

Quotable Quotes

“The tendancy among composition historians has been to look at practice in the classroom, or at the materials and ideas presented there, without acknowledging the larger forces that created the classroom itself” (7).

Notable Notes

great model for dissertation

Baird’s constant metaphor of running orders through chaos (taken from The Education of Henry Adams and science, philosophy, Burke, Richards that he read)

the Amherst course was taken by all freshman at the same time with the same assignments so that each assignment was a campus-wide event.

focused on conflict, constant questioning and revision

saw student writer as individual who possessed his own voice, the goal was to free that voice and the imagination; break them of writing what he dubbed “the Perfect Theme” (41) influenced heavily by The Education of Henry Adams

Baird’s ideal was to create a community of teachers

all the work that went into teaching and planning the course (assignments were re-invented each year) took away the time the instructors and professors could do their own research

how do policies and politics outside the classroom affect what is being taught?

impact of WWII, GI Bill, co-education, change in American university system, Civil Rights, move towards general education requirements

Varnum interviews professors who taught with Baird, 7 alumni of the program, looks at student papers, essay contest winners, uses letters she writes to Baird and recieves from him, assignment sequences (in appendix)

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February 22, 2009

Phelps, Telling a Writing Program Its Own Story

Phelps, Louise Wetherbee. “Telling a Writing Program Its Own Story: A Tenth Anniversary  Speech.” In The Writing Program Administrator as Researcher: Inquiry into Action and Reflection. Eds. Shirley K. Rose and Irwin Weiser. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 1998.

 

This version that I am reading and taking notes on is the uncut version. The  speech was significantly cut in the collection.

 

This article combines the tenth anniversary speech Phelps gives to the Syracuse University Writing Program in 1997 with her analysis and reflection on speech as a form  of administrative rhetoric and highlights the intellectual work of both administration and leadership. The speech is divided into three sections – narrative, analysis, and reflection – which are based on the common moves taught in the Syracuse writing studios. Phelps shows how the Writing Program, founded in 1986, can be described as a sort of “Great Group,” who risked chaos in a outpouring of inventiveness and creativity in the early  years of the program. This complex open system became self-organizing, subcritical, and more orderly as the Program reached relatively high “fitness peaks.” However, in order to remain responsive and relevant to changing context, Phelps argues that the Program must be inventive still by bringing in new faculty and new leadership, developing new programs like the graduate program and a major, and by constantly searching out large and small opportunities to connect with other departments, colleges, and outside organizations that will allow the Program to grow, expand, and evolve. Phelps then steps outside her speech and analyzes it as a form of administrative rhetoric, arguing that WPAs, especially women, must not cede their authority as a leader. Rather, they should embrace the public form of administrative rhetoric in the form of speeches for they provide an opportunity to explain to the community that they lead the ideas and principles inherent in their organizing narrative. Strong reflective leadership is not coercive; it is necessary for the survival of a complex, dynamic organization like a writing program.

 

Quotable Quotes

 

“The Writing Program chose the Great Group model, where disparate people are drawn together by mutual commitment to a project and became energized by the power of collaboration, because we believed that it is a social structure more conducive to creativity and more successful in the long run.

In that choice, we risked chaos.”

 

“If the early development of the Writing Program represented the gamble of falling into chaos, after ten years one must imagine that we now risk the possibility of too much order. We are likely to find ourselves trapped on relatively high fitness peaks, where there is a big cost for coming down and trying another one that isn’t likely to prove that much better.” – reminds me of Jefferson/Adams, a  revolution every generation, tension and questioning whether the next wave is going to be as good as what you got already

 

“I came ever more strongly to believe that it is right for writing program administrators to aspire to leadership as an honorable role, to explore and analyze the role of rhetoric in administration, to make creative and ethical use of the rhetorical power their office (and their training) lends them.”

 

 

Notable Notes

 

Great Groups

 

Important sources: Bennis and Biderman (Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration); Gould (Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History); Kaufmann (At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity); Senge (The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization)

 

Reference to working on institutional invention piece

 

Used reflections from people who were in the early years of the program

 

WP wasn’t an  exact Great Group  because the people involved were so heterogeneous; not everyone bought into the idea, so that caused conflict and pain.

 

Ecological/systems  model

 

In a complex open system, there must be smaller, more local groups with autonomy that can grow and evolve, together creating a network to form the entire system

 

Evolution isn’t a linear path – there comes a point where there is an explosion of creativity (supracritical) that then is tamed by a learning or S-curve, when you reach high fitness peaks.

 

That “cascade of novelty in uncoordinated, chaotic interactions” was the fear of those who wanted a common text and curriculum.

 

Coevolving systems

 

Move from romance into a fruitful marriage

 

WPA is a “convenient euphemism” for administrators who don’t want to take on the name of leader – why are we so reluctant to use power wisely?

 

Speech as intellectual work of a writing program administrator

January 3, 2009

Csikszentmihaly, Flow

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Csikszentmihaly explains the principles a person must follow in order to achieve flow, the optimal experience which leads to true happiness. His theory of flow is based on the data collected by his team of researchers through the University of Chicago, who interviewed experts in diverse fields (surgeons, dancers, philosophers, mountain climbers, musicians), and gathered personal testaments from hundreds of other ordinary people around the world through a method called experience sampling, where a person wears a pager for a week and writes down their feelings and thoughts each time the pager goes off (eight randomized times a day.) His concept of flow and optimal experience builds on the theories developed by other scholars in psychology, sociology, and anthropology, and is used by those in fields as varied as occupational therapy, education, design, and criminal justice.

Csikszentmihaly’s theory of optimal experience is grounded in the belief that an individual must control their own consciousness (their perception and reaction to reality) in order to achieve happiness. The universe cannot be controlled or predicted; therefore, instead of only reacting to it as a passive responder, a person who wants to achieve flow must confront the challenges life brings and find a way to make meaning out of them. That way of meaning must be intrinsically developed through a set of personal goals and purposes, for societal goals and the “shields of culture” society develops in response to the chronic frustration humans face in nature can fall apart, leading to further disillusion and anxiety. What people can control is their attention: what bits of information they choose to focus on and pay attention to.

Happiness, Csikszentmihaly argues, is achieved through participation in autotelic activities, defined as “a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward” (67). Autotelic activities have several characteristics: they are challenging activities that require skills, they occur during the merging of action and awareness, they have clear goals and feedback, they require complete concentration on the task at hand, they give the person a sense of non-threatened control, they allow the person to experience a loss of self-consciousness as the person becomes one with the activity, and they often involve a transformation of time (time slows down or speeds up.) The purpose of life, Csikszentmihaly argues, is to create a systematic pattern of optimal experiences, which can be achieved by setting goals, becoming immersed in activities that you care about, paying attention to what happens around you, and enjoying the immediate experiences of life. In the book, Csikszentmihaly shows how people can experience flow in physical activities, symbolic activities, work, relationships, and during times of extreme stress and tragedy.

Quotable Quotes

“Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their life, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy” (2).

Flow: “The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (4).

“We create ourselves by how we invest this energy” – psychic energy, attention (33)

“Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos, designed to reduce the impact of randomness on experience” (81) Cultures create goals and rules about how people should order attention.

“People without an internalized symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers, and exploited by anyone who has something to sell” (128).

“Taking up each new challenge not as something to be repressed or avoided, but as an opportunity for learning and improving skills” (172)

“Learning how to use time alone, instead of escaping from it” (171)

Notable Notes

Csikszentmihaly’s notes are contained in the back of the book, with references to the literature behind his claims for each chapter. The notes are extensive and are a condensed scholarly-referenced version of the book.

Optimal experience, flow, attention are not passive – they call on people to participate in life.

Csikszentmihaly believes that religion is not the answer for finding true happiness because it is a construct of culture, not an individually-determined creation. Old methods of liberation (from societal controls) don’t always work in different historical contexts (example: yoga in modern-day California) because the needs and purposes of people are different.

Consciousness = “intentionally ordered information” (26) because lots of information enters our brain (7 bits at a time, 40 bits a second), but we have to choose what we pay attention to and make part of our consciousness, our version of reality.

Plane of happiness: boredom — flow — anxiety/frustration

Autotelic families instill clarity, centering, choice, commitment, and challenge to their children.

The autotelic personality is created both individually and by a society that allows autotelic individuals to function and work.

History is important and enjoyable because it exercises memory. The ability to memorize allows for self, internal stimulation because the mind “is stoked with patterns of information” – an independent, autonomous mind (124).

Autotelic jobs are independent, skill-driven, challenging, and constructed like games.

People who get through ordeals well have dissipative structures that can recycle waste into order and energy: unselfconscious self-assurance, can focus attention on the world rather than themselves, and are open to discover new solutions and alternatives. (201-202)

Making all of life have meaning involves finding purpose, choosing a path of resolve, and moving in harmony with the world.

January 1, 2009

Samara, Making and Breaking the Grid

Samara, Timothy. Making and Breaking the Grid. Gloucester, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2002.

The typographic grid – “an orthogonal planning system that parcels information into managable chunks,” creating meaningful relationships through the placement and scale of its informational elements – is considered by some graphic designers the foundation of good graphic design, and by others, a “stifling cage” that must be deconstructed or thrown away (9). Samara’s text is divided into two sections, “Making the Grid,” which contains a historical essay about the evolution of the modern design grid in the 19th-century industrial revolution, and “Breaking the Grid,” which begins with another historical essay that documents the movement against grids and rationalist design starting with Dada and other post-WWI reactive movements. Each section also has an exhibit section, where Samara displays examples of the different kinds of grid and non-grid layouts. Samara does not argue one school of thought – making or breaking – over another (though his deconstructed grid design of an MPH admissions flyer is in the “Breaking” exhibit section); rather, his balanced explanation and description of each camp calls upon graphic designers to make a conciencious choice whether to use grids in their design, not to rely on them as a default organizational tool.

 In “Making the Grid,” Samara dissects the fundamental elements of a grid and uses these elements to describe how grids in both the Making exhibit and the Breaking exhibit function. The elements include columns, modules (individual spaces), margins, flowlines (horizontal lines that form rows and guide the eye across the page), markers (consistent placement of running text, like headers or page numbers), and spatial zones (groups of modules serving a distinct purpose as a field.) He highlights four grid-based designs- manuscript (used in book publishing), column, modular, and hierarchal (used in Web design) – and five non-grid-based designs – grid deconstruction, linguistic deconstruction (altering type to echo spoken rhythm), spontaneous optical composition (form-based placement), conceptual/pictorial illusion (a concept forms the governing structure), and chance operation (controlled random placement.)

Quotable Quotes

“All design work involves problem solving on both visula and organizational levels” (22).

The benefits of grids include “clarity, efficiency, economy, and continuity” (22).

“Sometimes that content has its own internal structure that a grid won’t necessarily clarify; sometimes the content needs to ignore structure altogether to create specific kinds of emotional reactions in the intended audience; sometimes a designer simply envisions a more complex intellectual involvement on teh part of the audience as part of their experience of the piece” (120).

Notable Notes

Interesting historical context for Making the Grid – ancient belief of the grid as an organizing structure following the axis of the intersection of sky and earth, Arts and Crafts movement in 19th century Britain favored design that had form follow function (continued by Frank Lloyd Wright in the US), the industrial revolution drove a need to order the world, International Style, 20th century modernism favored simplicity, corporations liked grids because they introduced continuity of design in which many workers could collaborate on the content of a project, redesign of the National Parks Services brochures in the 1970s with consistent bars and grids.

Interesting historical context of Breaking the Grid – Dadaism, Cubism, collage and montage, using Saussure and Pierce semiotics to see text as signs (semiotics), WWI reaction, WWII reaction, opposition to the status quo, rationalism, order, reaction to the horrors of the wars, Civil Rights movement, hippie movement, underground culture, 1984 Apple computer gave amateurs the tools to be designers (without having the formal grid-design training graphic designers had, so these new designers relied on intiution and felt-sense), look-at typography  (not look-through)

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