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Recovering Rhetorics of African American Political Agency

It may not seem like it, but I don't only go to techie sessions at CCCC. I make it a point to go to at least a couple of the best-sounding panels on the history of rhetoric. This was one, and it turned out to be one of the best sessions I attended. There were three presentations:

1. "Recovering the Voices of Florida Turpentine 'Slaves': A Lost Rhetoric of Resistance" by Linda Bannister and James E. Hurd, Jr., who have been writing partners for a long time now. Bannister and Hurd told us about the rich, detailed interviews they'd done with Hurd's grandfather, Jake Hurd, who, if I understand correctly, either himself participated or knew someone who participated in the Folk Life Project. Bannister and Hurd pointed out that the Folk Life Project, which was carried out in order to get a collection of folklore and stories from Florida fishing boats, workers, etc., actually contains a lot of misleading data. African Americans who were interviewed for the study often gave white interviewers diversions and didn't give them access to the real stories. They began by offering an historical overview of African Americans in the New South. Many black Floridians were workers in a system of peonage, with debt to turpentine management companies. The workers never made enough money to cover their room, board, and food, all of which were provided by the company. The workers who dared to flee were hunted down by quarter bosses. They were only technically "free." They identified three rhetorical tactics used by workers in the turpentine factories: ironic, stubborn literalness, ingenious lying, and insolent foot-dragging. They also mentioned the storytelling, saying there was always a message if the hearer was quick, sensitive, and subtle enough to catch it (but they often were not, as whites have grossly oversimplified the complex rhetorical tactics used by African Americans in various contexts). To illustrate these tactics, Bannister and Hurd did a dramatic reading of three excerpts from their play, Turpentine Jake (scroll down to 22 February). It was superb, and I'd never be able to represent it adequately here, so I encourage you to get in touch with them (lbannistATlmu.edu, hurdman6ATexcite.com) if you'd like to arrange a performance of the play.

The Aftermath of Access

Collin Brooke and Jennifer Bay kicked off their panel, "The Aftermath of Access: From Critical to Creative Computer Literacies" by showing theses from the Creative Computing Manifesto. I thought their approach -- two presentations that were sort of networked together -- was excellent; composing my notes now, I'm struck by how nonlinear the presentation was (in a good way!). I'll do my best to summarize the panel here, and hopefully contribute something to the conversation. Maybe the fact that I'm linking to the sources they mentioned will be helpful for some of you.

Bay (someone I don't know, so I'll use the last name) started off by problematizing a concept one encounters in writing courses. She said, "'The writing public' is already out there. People are already in it; they don't have to 'enter' it." She then described three kinds of computer literacies: functional literacy (the ability to use), critical literacy (awareness of values and ideologies embedded in computer culture), and network literacy, to which the panel was devoted.

To historicize and situate network literacy, Bay then reviewed Carolyn Miller's 2004 article Expertise and Agency: Transformations of Ethos in Human-Computer Interaction (PDF). In it, Miller identifies two major kinds of ethos associated with computers: rational reliability and sympathy. An "expert system" is rationally reliable, as opposed to an "intelligent agent," which gets its ethos through its common sense. Its agency emerges through social interaction. The 1990s saw a good deal of analysis of intelligent agents -- AI programs -- bots.

Photographs from CCCC 2005

No time to type up notes just now; company's coming in a little while! But I did have time to crop and size some photos from the conference:

First, from the city. These were both taken within a block of my hotel:

CCCC: Day 1, Session 2

Well, I guess technically the day I presented was Day 1, but Thursday was the day I started hitting the sessions, so we'll go with that. The second session I attended was, "The New Collegiality: Circulating Ideas about Writing and Teaching on Weblogs." For this one, I only have notes from John and Joanna's presentations.

CCCC, Day 1, Session 1

Finally getting around to blogging some notes about sessions I've attended. I don't know if the overall quality of the conference has improved or if I just really know how to pick 'em, but all the sessions I've attended so far have been great. The first session I attended was "Evaluating Academic Weblogs: Using Empirical Data to Assess Pedagogy and Student Achievement."

Couplea Links

Check out rhet.net, a portal of resources for rhetoricians.

Also, I notice that there's now a new CC Wiki License. According to Lawrence Lessig, wiki contributors are "looking for a license that was (1) share alike, but (2) required attribution back to the wiki, rather than to the individual contributors to the wiki." He notes that this "could be achieved with a very slight change to our existing Attribution-ShareAlike license: rather than requiring attribution back to the copyright holder, require attribution back to either the copyright holder or a designated entity." That's fine, but I'm wondering why we need a separate license for this distinction. Couldn't the distinction just be added to the Attribution-ShareAlike v. 3.0 license with an "as the case may be" stipulation? One of the objections to copyright law is that it is too needlessly complicated, and we need a simpler solution. I guess it's just a choice between having more simple licenses or fewer (more complex) licenses.

CCCC Presentation

Ah, I'm happy to be done with my presentation. My session last night was from 7:00 to 8:15, which seems to be not so great a time slot. It was the first night of the conference, for one thing, so some people hadn't arrived yet, plus it was scheduled at the same time as some really interesting-sounding sessions including the Coalition of Women Scholars meeting, which is usually packed out. But we had, by my count, nineteen people in the audience, including some of my online friends: Nels, Mike, Mike, Dennis, Collin, Derek, and Joanna. I went last, so of course during Daisy's talk and Lanette's talk my attention was divided between listening to them and trying to calm my own nerves.

Well, off to today's sessions, which I'll blog about tonight. I've been trying. And. Trying. to upload my PowerPoint slides to this post, and I even downloaded WS_FTP to see if I could transfer it over that way. The file's too big, and the network here is lousy. It might have to wait until I get home...sorry.

UPDATE! I'm home now, and here's the presentation in .ppt format (also in OpenOffice format).

CCCC Presentation: Comments Appreciated

For several days now, I've been working on and practicing my CCCC presentation. I've done presentations of new research -- meaning I wrote the paper just for the conference -- but more often, I've presented on research I'd been doing for months or years. Both situations bring their own challenges. There's a lot I could say about my topic (gender in blogging), but I only have 15 minutes.

There's been some discussion at Collin's about the quality of presentations at CCCC, much, if not all, of which I agree with. I have specific ideas of what I like in a conference presentation, and I'm thinking of these as my personal goals. They include:

  • Speaking extemporaneously. I prefer speaking over reading a paper, but reading a paper is okay if the speaker makes plenty of eye contact and consciously varies his or her pitch so the presentation doesn't have that monotonous reading cadence. During most read-a-paper presentations, the only way I'm able to understand the content presented is if I write down as much of what the person says as I can and then read my notes later.
  • Telling a story. This is what makes presentations by people like Peter Elbow, Laura Gurak, Wayne Booth, Michael Keene, and Cynthia Selfe great. When I go to a presentation by one of those folks, I always leave knowing something I didn't know before. They make arguments and introduce new theories with classroom implications, but they do it by telling an engaging story, often from an historical perspective, drawing upon the trajectory of composition theory, history of the internet, or classroom practice. Point is, they make it interesting and memorable.
  • Going light on the theory. I realize this won't be a popular opinion, but unless the speaker has visual aids showing definitions of theoretical terms or key quotations, I think it's best to rein in the amount of theory presented. You can't always assume that your audience is already familiar with your body of theory, and if they're not, you're not going to be able to teach them much about it in a 15-minute presentation. I think presentations should pique the audience's curiosity and inspire them to go out and read the theory themselves.
  • Showing enthusiasm! It's good to do this even though you know old so'n'so is going to go for the jugular as soon as they open the floor for questions.

Then there are my personal pet peeves, especially apologizing ("I'm sorry this is so disorganized," "I'm sorry I'm reading to you like this," and so on), which makes me want to roll my eyes and boo loudly, and griping about time ("If I had time, I'd tell you about..." "I wish I had more time..." "Looks like I'm over time, but..."). Eeeyaarrrgh.

Well, enough about that. As for my own presentation, I'm going to review some of the previous scholarship in gender and computer-mediated communication by scholars like Susan Herring, Kira Hall, Sherry Turkle, Sandy Stone, and a few others. One of my professors rightly pointed out that a lot of the scholarship on weblogs doesn't appropriately situate blogging in the context of earlier research on computer-mediated communication (see also these notes). I want to show not only what is new about blogging, but what's not new -- the continuity in how gender norms are constituted in blogging practices. Some of the observations one can make in the where are the women case(s) are in keeping with what feminist researchers of CMC have been saying for close to twenty years.

Then I'm going to describe the "where are the women" case and point out some of the recurring themes and arguments. I also intend to use quotations from a couple of posts to show differing approaches to political discourse, both in terms of writing style and choice of issues (authoritative, pundit style versus an expository style drawing upon anecdotes and personal experience, foreign policy and war versus domestic laws and public policy affecting women and children).

I think what we've got here -- and this is part of what makes blogging different from the research on gender and CMC on MOOs, listservs, discussion boards, etc. -- is a self-perpetuating system involving mass media and citizen media (weblogs, podcasts, what have you). A weblog is a personal publishing platform in a way that discussion boards, MOOs, and the like are not, and bloggers gain readership and recognition in a way participants on discussion boards, listservs, and MOOs do not. Bloggers usually link to what's in the news, and the bloggers who don't as often respond to news stories don't get as much attention from the mass media. It's not that mass media attention and traffic are the proper goals for keeping a blog, but these factors can provide powerful encouragement to do better and more frequent writing. The blogger who gets these things knows that he or she has an audience who wants to know what he or she thinks.

But back to this self-perpetuating system thing. That "women's issues" don't get equal coverage in the news is a big reason why people wonder where these supposedly scarce women political bloggers are. Maureen Dowd's latest column corroborates what I've been saying (emphasis mine):

There's an intense debate going on now about why newspapers have so few female columnists. Out of what will soon be eight Times Op-Ed columnists - nine, counting the public editor - I'm the only woman. [Dowd also says that of the op-ed writers for the Washington Post, only one is a woman.]

[. . .]

Gail Collins, the first woman to run The Times's editorial page and the author of a history of American women, told The Post's Howard Kurtz: "There are probably fewer women, in the great cosmic scheme of things, who feel comfortable writing very straight opinion stuff, and they're less comfortable hearing something on the news and batting something out."

There's a lot of evidence of that. Male bloggers predominate, as do male TV shouters. Men I know and men who read The Times write me constantly, asking me to read the opinion pieces they've written. Sometimes they'll e-mail or fax me their thoughts to read right before I have lunch with them. Women hardly ever send their own rants.

There's been a dearth of women writing serious opinion pieces for top news organizations, even as there's been growth in female sex columnists for college newspapers. Going from Tess Harding to Carrie Bradshaw, Dorothy Thompson to Candace Bushnell, is not progress.

I think blogging, more so than other online communication, brings to the fore the underrepresentation of women in mass media and citizen media.

My problem is, there's also a lot of interesting rhetorical theory I bring to this topic in my dissertation. In my dissertation, I use public sphere theory -- not just Habermas, but feminist criticism of public sphere: theorists like Seyla Benhabib and Nancy Fraser.* Especially relevant is the distinction between questions of justice and questions of value (or the good life). The former, in Habermas' view, is associated with generalizable norms, and the latter is associated with values, which are more subjective and tied to particular cultures. Questions of justice should be discussed in the public sphere. Then feminist theorists point out that questions of value can also be considered questions of justice. For example, whereas domestic violence was previously considered a question of value (a woman’s life is better if she does not experience violence in the home), it is now a question of justice (society has a responsibility to protect women and children from violence in the home; failure to do so is unjust). Many women with political weblogs write more often about issues traditionally associated with questions of value, such as child safety regulations, parental leave policies, and reproductive rights, using reflection on personal experience as an inroad to discussing such issues. Am I going to be able to show the connections between this theory and blogging in any meaningful way, or is that another presentation? Must...cut...

* About the use of the term "public sphere theory": I consider Fraser and Benhabib public sphere theorists in their own right, not just secondary sources to Habermas' theory.

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