Monthly Archives: November 2012

Irony, Sincerity, and Critique

Rainy wedding

Not actually ironic, no matter what Alanis told you . . .

A recent New York Times “Opinionator” blog post by Christy Walpole, “How to Live Without Irony”, made the social media rounds on Facebook for me last Sunday—first with earnest posters (myself included) and then with a wave of wry criticism once we’d all calmed down a bit.

It was, for me, the return of a frustration that had previously come to a head several years back. As my classmates and I were sitting in a graduate seminar classroom waiting for the professor to arrive, someone made a joking remark about us all going out and getting stoned afterwards. An equally facetious conversation ensued about when and where and how much. Then one student broke in with this meta observation: “Or we could just talk about it and then never do it. After all, we’re grad students, that’s what we do.”

I suddenly realized that my classmate had vocalized something that had been half-consciously nagging at me for awhile: Talking was all we did. There was no doing, there was no follow through, there was no risk and no commitment. And it wasn’t only true for our faux weed smoking plans—it was hard to take any claim, no matter how weighty, too seriously. Because it was just talk, just play, just a self-aware and detached performance of our own knowingness. Real arguments during seminar discussions were few and far between—and even in the extremely rare cases that they did break out they tended to blow away quickly with no hurt feelings. After all, there’d barely been stakes to begin with.

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Zombies: Real and Imagined

I’ve hooked back up with some old #moocmooc friends for a Twitter version of Humans v. Zombies, appropriately titled Twitter v. Zombies, for a weekend of fun and procrastination. And I’ve got good reason to procrastinate, as any beleaguered grad student will understand, since a fat stack of (electronic) student papers have just landed on my desk(top) and threaten to consume the weekend. I am thoroughly in agreement with Chuck Klosterman’s assessment in the New York Times last year that the zombie is our modern monster because the constant zombie onslaught (and zombie slaughter) mirror our own Sisyphean task of waging war against the daily onslaught of data, tasks, and (of course) tweets:

IF THERE’S ONE THING we all understand about zombie killing, it’s that the act is uncomplicated: you blast one in the brain from point-blank range (preferably with a shotgun). That’s Step 1. Step 2 is doing the same thing to the next zombie that takes its place. Step 3 is identical to Step 2, and Step 4 isn’t any different from Step 3. Repeat this process until (a) you perish, or (b) you run out of zombies. That’s really the only viable strategy.

Every zombie war is a war of attrition. It’s always a numbers game. And it’s more repetitive than complex. In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will be never be finished with whatever it is you do.

The Internet reminds of us this every day.

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Wikis in the Classroom

I recently wrote a brief article for the newletter of Cornell’s Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines. Figured it was relevant to the concerns of this blog, so I’ve attached it below along with the link to the Wiki that’s still under construction—once the site’s been properly finalized, I’ll post some final thoughts on the exercise:

Using a Course Wiki to Teach Digital Literacy

In a digital age, the nature of “literacy” is rapidly changing; however, the way we teach writing skills has remained largely static. Most writing seminars still ask students to produce standard academic essays not terribly dissimilar to what they would have been asked to produce twenty or even fifty years ago: three to ten page expositions on a single topic, perhaps with research. The process can be livened up a bit by asking our students to imagine a particular audience: write a letter to a senator arguing against a decrease in farm subsidies, imagine that you’re trying to convince the Secretary of State to increase food aid to sub-Saharan Africa, etc. However, there’s an artificial nature to these exercises, and our students are well aware of that fact. In a field like my own—English literature—it is difficult to even invent contrived “real world” situations that would also lead students to engage closely and analytically with a work of literature. Even when these exercises do help students develop a greater sense of audience and purpose, they usually reproduce familiar genres that often don’t reflect how thoroughly the information age has radically altered how we create, disseminate, and consume the written word

In my current Freshman Writing Seminar, “Metamorphosis: Identity and Change,” I have been experimenting with a collaborative writing activity meant to replace one of the six standard “formal” essays typically required for writing seminars at Cornell. This assignment aims to create an actual rhetorical situation that differs from that of the typical academic essay and it attempts to provide students with instruction and practice in working with new media. For this project, the class is working collaboratively to build a course website utilizing a wiki format. I used Google Sites to create a basic wiki that allows any authorized user to add text, images, and links through a simple editing interface similar to Microsoft Word. The site, when completed, will consist of four separate pages, one for each section of the course. At the moment of this article’s composition, two of the four pages have been completed.

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