Monday, September 14, 2015

(Not) Back to School Time

Though graduate rhetoric programs are expanding (slightly), there's no where near the number of jobs in academia to meet the supply. Rhetoric, though often lumped into "composition and rhetoric," is a distinct field with subspecialties beyond academic writing. My degree was within a "Rhetoric, Scientific and Technical Communication" program. I'm interested in how the rhetoric of creative writing affects public policy, which is loosely lumped with "technical" writing… because I couldn't locate a "rhetoric of creative writing" or "rhetoric of fiction" program.

Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction is the seminal work on how works of written fiction are rhetorical, with authors making strategic choices to engage readers. However, narrative is narrative, and lines between "fiction" and "non-fiction" are blurry — with fiction aiming for its own "truth" and effective "non-fiction" embracing creative storytelling.

I love discussing rhetoric and writing. I tell my students stories sell ideas. But, there are no students this school year.

Maybe a seminar or two might happen, but I'm not in a university classroom. For the first time since the 2010-11 academic year, I'm not heading back to school this August. Before that, I had been in graduate school and teaching from 2004-05 until 2009-10 (six years, inclusive). That means I've spent at least part of ten of the last 11 years preparing for school as a student, an instructor, and a professor.

Maybe I'll head back part-time somewhere, teaching something, in the next year or two. I would jump at some teaching opportunities, but I'm not rushing to head back to the basic college composition ("academic writing") classes — and that's where most openings are for a "rhetoric" professors, even though I'm not an academic writing specialist. (I am interested in the rhetoric of cinema and theater, as they fall within both visual rhetoric and the rhetoric of creative writing.)

Not teaching means my routine has been disrupted a bit. It bothers me to not have that mid-August through mid-June plan in place, especially the paycheck. Moving forward was the right choice, but not an easy choice. The offer to adjunct part-time wasn't appealing this year, although it might have been wise to maintain a steady job history in higher education.

I loved teaching two sections a business writing class this last spring semester, after a difficult fall semester. I didn't enjoy the other class I was teaching, and still struggle to determine what went wrong. Teaching is like live theater: the audience can change the performance and you end up in a cycle… up or down.

For now, this blog and other platforms will be where I explore the rhetoric of creative writing, film, and stage.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Fascist! The Left-Right Spectrum Is Bogus


It's the insult that's separated enough from "Nazi!" that it remains popular on blogs, in columns, and even within books claiming to be scholarly. Books claim to identify liberal fascism, conservative fascism, and I am fairly certain there must be a book about moderate fascism.

The problem is that left-right political dichotomies fail to appreciate that political theories and governmental systems overlap and intertwine. American liberals and progressives point to the nationalistic and "traditional values" of Italian Fascism to claim all fascists are of the right. American conservatives and libertarians emphasize the origins of the Italian fascist movement from within unions and socialist organizations to claim all fascists are of the left.

As professor Crispin Sartwell writes:
The left-right spectrum is often characterized in terms of two extreme poles. One way to see that this is incoherent is that these poles can be defined in mutually incompatible ways.
Reducing this down to the (relatively) minor differences between the two major parties in the United States, they are both statist parties interested telling citizens how to live via federal laws, regulations, and the tax code. For the progressives, it's okay to regulate my food, my car, my healthcare, and other aspects of life that I can't be trusted to choose wisely. For the conservatives, it's equally okay to dictate what I can watch (and when) and what secrets I can keep from prying eyes. Statism is simply a matter of kind.

Both parties talk about life, liberty, equality, and freedom. (I'm not sure either mentions the pursuit of happiness anymore). The talking heads and pundits, especially the loudest voices, quickly point to the "fascism" of one side or the other. And we wonder why so many people reject the parties and don't vote.

The United States political parties are both corporatists. But wait, that's a trait of fascism, right? Yes, and no. It's a trait of any political system in the era of corporations. (Public companies didn't exist in current form before the Industrial Revolution, but mercantile companies did exist, and national leaders pandered to those.) For the Democrats, tax breaks to "green" companies and "socially responsible" companies is good, and tax breaks for carbon energy companies is bad. For Republicans, military research funding is good, while tax breaks to green companies is "picking winners and losers" via centralized social engineering.

My point should be clear by now: our parties both pick winner and losers, with close ties to corporations that align with their political and philosophical visions of what is "good" for the nation. And both parties appeal to patriotism, "equality" (at least of opportunity), and other sources of nationalist pride. Both parties talk about small business, working people, and so on, and so on.

Are they both fascists? No. Neither major party is anything close to Italian Fascism. (Colleagues on left and right will argue with my assertion by finding outliers on the fringes.)

In practice, fascism was both anti-liberal and anti-conservative, seeking to transcend class while opposing communism and neoliberalism. It is, at best, a complex rejection of pretty much everything except what the fascists decided was good. Read the books by Roger Griffin on the topic of fascism and the problems with left-right divisions become even more clear (or less clear). Complicating the left-right model, every government claiming to be fascist has also claimed to be socialist in some way. Yet, fascists oppose communism and models of egalitarian equality.

Historians have built careers on claiming Fascists and National Socialists are of the right, including Roderick Stackelberg. Because Stackelberg offers a simple, comfortable, and (at least for progressives) morally clear definition of "left" as supporting equality among people, thereby suggesting the "right" not only accepts but celebrates inequality, his version of left-right is popular on left-leaning websites and in politically progressive books. Apparently, we can ignore the "Fascist Left" that gave rise to Benito Mussolini and the German socialists who initially supported Adolf Hitler. Yes, there was a left-right within Fascism, too.

(I've noticed that people feel superior after telling us that nobody is superior. Maybe that's the hallmark of political rhetoric: accidental superiority through seeing the "obvious" that other, less enlightened citizens cannot see. )

Things are simply not so simple.

There are radicals from the left and right who consider themselves libertarian, something few people seem to know or appreciate. There are conservative communitarians (the Amish certainly fit this model, as do some Orthodox Jews). Theoretical and implemented political structures get blurry.

A year ago, Sartwell addressed the problems of the left-right divide for The Atlantic. You should read the entire article, with which I'm certain most of my colleagues will disagree — since many have told me so. ("I have nothing in common with the right! Nothing!" Yes, because that's how we should start academic queries into serious questions of dichotomy.)
The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is Bogus
by Crispin Sartwell
June 20, 2014

Note: Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College. He is the author of the collection How to Escape.

Americans are more divided than ever by political ideology, as a recent Pew Research Center study makes clear. About a third of people on each side say of the other that its proponents "are so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being." They're both right about that.

My prescription isn't civility or dialogue, which though admirable are boring and in this case evidently impossible. Rather, my approach is "philosophical": to try to confront both sides with the fact that their positions are incoherent. The left-right divide might be a division between social identities based on class or region or race or gender, but it is certainly not a clash between different political ideas.

The arrangement of positions along the left-right axis—progressive to reactionary, or conservative to liberal, communist to fascist, socialist to capitalist, or Democrat to Republican—is conceptually confused, ideologically tendentious, and historically contingent. And any position anywhere along it is infested by contradictions.
Only someone with no knowledge of United States history could deny that the Democrats and Republicans, and earlier parties, swapped positions and geographic power-centers every three to four generations. Today's parties are "flipped" versions of their nineteenth-century ancestors.

Conservative Richard Nixon might be among the most progressive, centralized presidents in U.S. history. Certainly Abraham Lincoln was a unionist, a federalist of the most dedicated variety. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were vehement individualists, opposed to large organizations and central powers.

What about religion? Aren't the Evangelicals in the Republican Party trying to control everyone? That's a bit more complex than this moment in time suggests. As Sartwell writes:
…To take one example, the radical and egalitarian reform movements of the early and mid-19th century in the U.S.—such as abolitionism, feminism, and pacifism—were by and large evangelical Christian, and were radically individualist and anti-statist. I have in mind such figures as Lucretia Mott, Henry David Thoreau, and William Lloyd Garrison, who articulated perfectly coherent positions that cannot possibly be characterized as on the left or the right.
The idea that the individual is sovereign is the key to libertarian, classical liberalism as developed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. To implement and protect these personal freedoms, Republicans turned to federal powers. Negative rights, protections from encroachment on liberty, still had to be codified.

It was the Republican "Federalists" who used federal law, and Constitutional Amendments, to expand the right to vote and other protections to women and minorities. The GOP used federal power to tell states what was and was not acceptable. Curiously, the GOP also argued in favor of states' rights to decide issues of slavery, because the North wanted to ignore federal rulings that support the notion slaves were property. See how messy even "states' rights" can get? For them until you're against them. Marijuana legalization is an example of this "states' rights" argument flipping from right to left.

If we return to fiscal capital, instead of human capital and freedom, surely there is a clear difference between left and right? Isn't the real battle among political and economic ideologies about the state versus private capital? Sort of…

As Sartwell writes, that's the easy left-right discussion, and one both sides in the United States (and elsewhere) seem to accept. As I wrote in the opening, the United States' political parties are both corporatists.
The most common way that the left-right spectrum is conceived—and the basic way it is characterized in the Pew survey—is as state against capital. Democrats insist that government makes many positive contributions to our lives, while Republicans argue that it is a barrier to the prosperity created by free markets. On the outer ends we might pit Chairman Mao against Ayn Rand in a cage match of state communism against laissez-faire capitalism.

The basic set of distinctions on both sides rests on the idea that state and corporation, or political and economic power, can be pulled apart and set against each other. This is, I propose, obviously false, because hierarchies tend to coincide.
We do love our cage matches. And, from the left, all one has to do is scream "Ayn Rand! The right loves Ayn Rand!" and the cheers of support will ring out through the blogosphere. (Che was much worse, someone who ordered and watched executions — despite some glossy and romanticized biographies — but Rand… she's a louse and a louse associated with libertarians and the right. Every side as its flawed champions.)

People fight, literally killing each other, over which side is "better" than the other. Capitalists versus communists. Fascists versus everyone. And in the end, everyone is really fighting versions of themselves. Why is that? Because the communists are now capitalists. The capitalists are now socialists. The genuine fascists… are still confused.
State and economy are merged in different permutations in Iran and Egypt, in China and Russia, in the U.S. and the E.U. We might say that the current Chinese state combines the most salient features of Maoism and corporate capitalism: It's all devoted to generating maximum cash and putting it on a barge—destination: the very top of the hierarchy. And yet it also attempts to bestride the earth with the iron boot of collectivist totalitarianism. Now, that appears incoherent if you are trapped in the spectrum. A conventional political scientist associates capitalism with John Locke and Adam Smith and democracy ("liberalism," I suppose). On the other hand, since socialists reject free enterprise and propose grand redistributionist schemes, they require a big, powerful state. For a long time, people thought of the Chinese system as combining opposed or contradictory elements.

I'd say no one is so sure anymore. We should think instead of the Chinese state as a provisional culmination of both state socialism and corporate capitalism. In ideology, they are opposites. But we don't live in the textbook on political ideologies. We live in a world where corporate capitalism has always completely depended on state power, and the basic practical thrust of left statism has always been annexation of the economy. The Soviet Union was a variety of monopoly capitalism, and the modern American state is a variety of state socialism.
Yes, Sartwell is correct, we are all everything and entirely confused. But that won't stop us from fighting over the details of the balance (or imbalance) among all the various positions. We have our tribes and are going to stick with them.

How did the tribes get so much power? Because they told creation myths that fed into their versions of right versus wrong. Ideology is rarely logical, but we convince ourselves that ours happens to be logical and natural. Or, as Marx claimed, scientific!
Our mistake was that we believed the account these ideologies gave of themselves. But that scrim was always thin. There are capitalist theoreticians who have fantasized and recommended stateless free markets, and there are communist theorists who have fantasized no markets at all, always glossing over the fact that what they actually meant was the permeation of every aspect of life, including markets, by the state. These were fantasies. What these people wanted appeared to be entirely opposed, but they were each devoted to their own sort of hierarchy, and hierarchies tend to coincide.
We're all heading in the same direction, but our stories claim otherwise. Stateless markets? Marketless states? Doubt anyone could tell the difference. Maybe I'm just as guilty of cultural and ideological blindness as everyone else Sartwell describes. My faith in markets is based on a distrust of government, but in the end power exists somewhere.
The idea that free markets are historically distinguished from large, powerful states is an ahistorical ideology shared by the capitalist right and the communist left. We might think of the left-right spectrum as a single ideology rather than a taxonomy of opposites. Thus, the left/right or Democrat/Republican split—which turns American politics into a hyper-repetitive, mechanical set of partisan bromides about free markets versus government programs with egalitarian results—depends on a historical mistake.
Another indication that the divisions of left-right are artificial and confusing is that most of us agree with some people and positions from across the supposed political spectrum. Until the last decade, I've never understood how the two political parties were defined, with moderates from the two parties more alike than members of their respective parties. (That's no longer the case, since it is hard to locate moderates.)

As an agnostic libertarian dedicated to equal rights and opposed to corporatism, I don't "fit" with either party — but I agree with many voters I've met on many issues. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, "libertarians" are grouped with social conservatives, corporatists, and supply-side monetarists. Seriously? Where do my ideals fit within the Republican Party? They don't. Not even close.

I'm not part of any political party, and politicians in the two major parties might want to reconsider their own associations. The parties are incoherent and internally divided by conflicting interests.

Business leaders don't want Republicans talking about social issues. Manufacturing union leaders don't appreciate Democrats talking about environmental policies. The interests of constituents in the parties don't align. Should police (law and order supported by Republicans) follow their union leaders (labor supported by Democrats)? Parties offer confusing delineations. Agreeing with "enough" of a party's platform, or having a historical bond to the party seems sufficient for many people.
It's awfully strange that Rand Paul and John McCain belong to the same political party and are generally held to be on the same end of the political spectrum. I'd say they each disagree more profoundly and substantially with the other than either disagrees with Barack Obama, for example. Some of the most historically salient "right-wing" movements are monarchism, fascism, fundamentalism, and libertarianism, which have nothing in common except that they all have reasons to oppose Marxist communism, and vice versa. Yet they also all have similar reasons to oppose one another. Toss in David Brooks Burkeans, security-state neocons, and so on, and you have a miscellany of unrelated positions.

The left pole, meanwhile, could be a stateless society of barter and localism; or a world of equality in which people are not subordinated by race, gender, and sexuality; or a pervasive welfare state; or a Khmer Rouge re-education regime. The Nazi Party, Catholic Church, hereditary aristocracy, Ayn Rand capitalists, and redneck gun enthusiasts are all on the same side of the left-right spectrum. So are hacktivists, food-stamp officials, anti-globalization activists, anarcho-primitivists, and advocates of a world government. It would be hard to come up with a less coherent or less useful way of thinking about politics.
Our fear of the "fascists" of the other side, the party we know will increase concentrated power… leads us to concentrate power, simply in the other direction. We become the thing we feared, but of course our centralized power won't be problem. With our side (whichever that is) now in power, equality and justice can prevail! Until they don't.

Sartwell uses the progressive, scientific and bureaucratic left as an example of the best plans not meeting expectations.
Examining another familiar opposition, between "equality" and "liberty," produces another cluster of contradictions. The left holds up "equality" as a fundamental value. The means leftists propose to increase economic equality almost always increase political inequality, because these means consist of larger state programs: more resources and rules, coercion and surveillance in the hands of officials or state contractors, including in welfare-type programs. The welfare state is more pervasive now than it was a century ago, and we now have institutions like compulsory public education. These are achievements of the left, programs they are still trying enhance, but have they actually resulted in more equal societies? Quite the contrary, I believe: They have led to ever-more-frozen hierarchies. The mainstream left is a technocratic elite, with a cult of science and expertise and an ear for the unanimous catchphrase. This is anything but a meritocracy; it an entrenched intergenerational class hierarchy.
What seems to astonish Sartwell is that the "sides" at battle agree on the nature of the conflict. Why do we agree on this capital versus the state definition of political disputes? And isn't this something of a modern invention? Until the Italian banking system emerged thanks to the House of Medici, economics and politics were pretty simple: monarchs ruled, everyone else did as told — or plotted to kill the monarch to install a new monarch.

History aside, we've decided this capitalism-state balance debate is the stuff of real and intellectual wars. That conflict is the outline of modern history since the nineteenth century.
Milton Friedman and Vlad Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Barry Goldwater, Barack Obama and Rand Paul, Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro, Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman and Augusto Pinochet: They may well have disagreed about this and that. But they have agreed, or said they did, that the state was a force that was historically pitted against private capital. To reduce one was to increase the other and vice versa. They vary inversely and the balance between them that you recommend constitutes the fundamental way of characterizing your political position.

This spectrum stretches from **authoritarianism on the one end to authoritarianism** on the other, with authoritarianism in between. It makes anything that is not that incomprehensible. It narrows all alternatives to variations on hierarchy, structures of inequality, or profoundly unjust distributions of power and wealth. There are alternatives, and the one I would suggest is this: We should arrange political positions according to whether they propose to increase hierarchy or to dismantle it. Instead of left and right, we should be thinking about vertical versus horizontal arrangements of power and wealth.
I doubt Sartwell would agree, since he suggests authoritarianism also dominates in the middle, but it seems that a "balanced" private-public, individual-group dynamic gets closer to some sort of less centralized power. Or maybe not.

I was hoping we wouldn't find those moderate fascists.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Same Party, Different Reasons

I'm reading a economic philosophy text that has this Captain Obvious moment: Political power seeks out economic power; economic power seeks out political power. In China, the state leaders became capitalists. In the U.S., business leaders became statists. Well, gosh, golly, people with one form of power like to hang with other people with power and they all see the world through the same elitist prisms.

Curiously, this power-like-power issue affects the Democratic electorate more than the Republican electorate. But is it money setting the agenda, or that people in power reflect the values of their party activists? I believe politicians are simply counting votes.

An analysis of voting trends found the super wealthy and the low-income voters occupy the same political party, but for very different reasons when they rank concerns. (Tangent: The GOP does not attract most millionaires – a little shy of half — but does receive the support of a majority in the top quintile, which starts at $187,000.)

Rich progressives: Green energy, climate change lead the concerns.

Low-income liberals: Minimum wage, unionization, and child care.

Is there overlap? Certainly, but the group with the money sets the agenda. As a result, "feel good" green policies receive priority among elected leaders. This isn't a result of the leaders not caring about workers, though green policies raise prices and have more consequence on the working lower- and middle-income than wealthy households. (Also, when you're poor, green issues aren't your top priority. Surviving is.)

It might be that because leaders are wealthy, they socialize with other wealthy people and hear the concerns of those voter-donors more often.

For the Republican party, something stranger happens. The activists who are loudest are not the wealthy and, in fact, the policies of the candidates conflict with the wealthiest donors. Most of the top-tier donors to the GOP support gay rights, legal reform, and relaxed immigration rules. Charles Koch loudly opposes most GOP orthodoxy on these social issues, particularly legal reform.

What explains the balance of power dynamics between the parties and their donors?

It is curious, that Republic politicians ignore donors and large business organizations, like the Chamber of Commerce, on hot-button issues. It could be cynical, but I know some conservative politicians and they really do believe what they say on social issues. Maybe it is that these are not the key issues to the top donors, so these donors tolerate appeals to the socially conservative base.

Monday, August 24, 2015

You're ideology is wrong! (And so is mine)

Simplistic arguments backed by faulty logic abound on the Internet. Among the most common of these are claims that specific political and economic ideologies have a) proved to be failures or b) never been tried in practice. On the left, writers claim that Somalia is an example of libertarianism or Ayn Rand's objectivism. On the right, writers and commenters point to the former Soviet Union, China, and North Korea as examples of socialism or Marxism failing.

Developed Western nations are, in Europe and North America, democratic republics operating as social welfare states with generally "free" markets.

Pragmatically, whether you believe in Karl Marx's theories of social economic evolution or Adam Smith or Hayek or von Mises or anyone else doesn't matter. Our nations, as their citizens have voted and their politicians have legislated, evolved into hybrid systems of "democratic socialism" with wealth redistribution, social safety nets, and the creative destruction of capitalist markets. Our nations adjust, sometimes suddenly after a cycle of leaders or two, but we are unlikely to reject this mix of markets and welfare.

What we argue about is the extent to which we can trust markets, government, and the general nature of human beings. Sometimes, though less commonly, we pause to ask if our political and economic views are cultural or "natural" — but we generally assume we are the models of how people think. (I do believe humans have some common traits: protecting family or tribe over the stranger, for example.)

Why must we argue the extremes, when we should admit that most people in the West are somewhere in the muddled middle, not ideologues? Because we have to argue vehemently, we assume, to change the opinions of the middle. Plus, arguing loudly earns cheers of support from those agreeing with us.

Now, a return to the absurdity of arguing against the "radicals" — who all tend to claim to care more about the "individual" and the "human" than the system, curiously enough. It's not by accident that Marx and true communists saw perfection as no longer needing centralized government and libertarians in the anarcho-capitalist range also dream of this perfect world without government. These are radical optimists, both with too much faith in human nature… and unable to see their similar end points (see upcoming post on why "Left-Right" is a flawed, circular model).

Somalia is not an example of libertarian policies. In fact, warlords enforce dozens if not hundreds of small fiefdoms with strict regulations. Private property, a key tenant of classical liberalism, is not respected and nor is the rule of law… Unless you count strict religious laws.

and a great write-up on the absurdity of using Somalia as an example of anything Western:

North Korea is not an example of socialism. Claiming a dynastic totalitarian regime represents socialism or any of the ideals of Marx is either intentionally misleading or appallingly ignorant. North Korea is a cult, not a model of communism or socialism or anything Marx theorized. It's a nutcase with a nation.

Even communists reject North Korea as communist.


The only "more socialists" nations (comparatively) we might study are in Latin America, and the complicated post-colonial histories reflect lots and lots of interference in the "natural" development of those nations. Central and South America, like much of Africa, is the consequence of history. Nations didn't view their conquests though the prism of modern values. Today, the best we can do it not mess up other nations even more and justify this by claiming one political or economic ideology is unquestionably the "right" and "natural" way for all cultures to function.

Again, a reminder that an upcoming post explores the complications and problems with the left/right divide in political rhetoric. Of course, it's so much easier to call each other fascists and thugs…

Monday, August 17, 2015

Teaching While Writing

Teaching writing can improve your craft, but steal your time.

I love teaching. It is one of the two things I enjoy most, almost even with writing. Teaching about writing? That's as close to an ideal job as I can imagine.

Unfortunately, the reality of teaching writing at a college or university isn't always the ideal.

Helping others write well, helps you write better. That is why teaching writing can be an important second or primary career for writers. However, the teaching assignments and class sizes can quickly offset any benefits to mentoring emerging writers.

Many of us with advanced degrees in writing dream of teaching our creative passions. Those with advanced degrees in literature and similar fields also wish to teach and share their personal areas of interest. A third set of scholars, focused on composition and rhetoric, are dedicated to teaching what can best be described as the norms of academia.

If you are passionate about literature, discussing the great works seldom feels like drudgery. My own experiences teaching literature-based courses were wonderful. To be a good writer, you need to be an active reader. An active reader analyzes the rhetorical choices of other authors. Therefore, teaching literature can remind a creative writer of the limitless choices all writers have.

Teaching creative writing, which should include some reading assignments, allows a writer to explore the craft with passionate emerging writers. Even students not considering careers in writing seem to enjoy discovering their own authorial voices.

If you get the rare chance to teach a small creative writing class, nothing is more rewarding or more conducive to your own creative writing. As students develop their own works, I would find myself working in parallel and discussing my own struggles with the students. I learned as much from my writing students as I hope I might have taught them. Our shared passions converted the writing class into a writers' group; this was precisely my dream when I pursued teaching.

I have only had the opportunity to teach a handful of creative writing classes and seminars.

The reality is… most of us end up teaching composition. Also known as first-year writing, college writing, and academic argumentation, this is that course in which students prepare three or four "academic" formulaic papers adhering to Modern Language Association (MLA) formatting and style guidelines. Occasionally, APA formatting and style are also taught. Although most of us appreciate the need to master these templates for success in other courses, academic writing is rarely the passion of those teaching it.

My doctorate degree is in rhetoric, and though the program emphasized scientific and technical communication, I was able to explore my interest in creative writing. Likewise, my Masters degree is in English composition theory and rhetoric. The immediate assumption is that I am interested in and passionate about academic writing. As stated above, I appreciate academic writing, though I also routinely mock its pretentious and inflated style.

Do not assume that completing a Master of fine arts degree in writing leads to different teaching assignments. In fact, every MFA I know personally predominately teaches college composition. One reason I obtained the PhD is that some universities prefer the PhD for teaching upper division and graduate courses in writing.

Allow me to explain why teaching FYC, college composition, can be an obstacle to pursuing creative writing.

Composition courses are often non-tenure-track, lecturer, and adjunct teaching posts. While our colleagues in literature might teach two or three courses a semester, many composition instructors teach three, four, or even five sections per semester. Because composition is a general education requirement, sections often include 25 to 35 students. Pause to consider the time required to provide feedback to 100 or more students. I found myself spending from 15 to 25 minutes per paper, attempting to provide guidance in place of mere corrections. That time grading and mentoring exceeds 40 to 50 hours per assignment.

Exactly when can a writing instructor write? During the summers? During winter breaks? During those hours at night when most humans sleep? My colleagues and I at various universities often commiserate that there is no time for our creative pursuits. The writing we must do, especially if we want to obtain tenure, is generally academic. Poetry, novels, and screenplays are set aside because they must be.

There is the adjunct path, which requires accepting part-time work, without benefits, to leave time for writing. That’s the path I have opted to follow twice, and might be a choice I make in the future. Full-time writing professorships provided income and security at the cost of time for… creative writing. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Call for Papers: Rhetoric of Typography and Letterforms

Call for proposals for an edited collection:
Type Matters: the Rhetoricity of Letterforms
Edited by C.S. Wyatt and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss

Stephen Bernhardt warned us almost 30 years ago that our "preoccupation with conventional essay format" excludes the rhetorical rigor of typographic elements. Later, John Trimbur extended this argument, noting that "one of the main obstacles to seeing the materiality of writing has been the essayist tradition and its notion of a transparent text." Many visual rhetoric scholars have interrogated the ways in which meaning-making happens iconographically, photographically, and via other visual means. Few, however (save for Anne Frances Wysocki), have paid much attention to the rhetorical work that typography does.

Although always part of any text's argument, the choice of typeface is an under-articulated and under-studied aspect of textual production within composition and rhetoric. Today, even as there are thousands of font face options available to us, composers and rhetoricians often take the power of letterforms for granted or—worse yet, we would argue—situate typography as ideally invisible, meant only to convey thought and ideas and not as itself contributing to rhetorical meaning. Typographic choices convey meaning.

Design scholars—including Robert Bringhurst, Steven Heller, Ellen Lupton, Alex White, and Edward Tufte—have emphasized that the layout of a page affects the reading and interpretation of the text. Type Matters seeks to bridge the scholarship of typography and design with the field of rhetoric.

We thus invite authors to situate "texts" broadly; to think rhetorically, technologically, and culturally; to draw from scholarship ranging from rhetoric and writing studies to graphic design theory and beyond; and to explore the ways in which the visual and tactile shapes of letters convey persuasive information to audiences.

We seek chapters in which authors articulate the ways in which and places where typography rubs up against rhetorical principles. Specific questions we ask proposal authors to consider include but are not limited to:
  • How does text design function rhetorically? In what ways are letterforms persuasive?
  • What have been some perhaps common trends and intersection points in the history of rhetoric and typography?
  • In what ways can we—rhetoric and composition studies scholars—better attend to the work of typography in our teaching and our scholarship?
  • Where and in what ways do typefaces and culture intersect? To what end?
  • What are the interconnections and/or implications of typefaces and dis/different abilities?
  • How have decorative fonts and even emoji fonts changed the concept of "writing?"
The deadline for 500-word proposals is September 30, 2015 (with notification to authors by October 30, 2015, and draft chapters due by January 15, 2016).

Queries are welcome and encouraged. Direct proposals and queries to C. S. Wyatt (wyatt050 -at- umn -dot- edu) and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss (devossda -at- msu -dot- edu).

Monday, August 03, 2015

Evolving the Rogue Rhet Blog

The first rogue rhetorician blog posts appeared in June 2005, a little over 10 years ago. I was about to begin my second year as a graduate student in English composition and rhetorical theory. My primary interest was, and remains, the rhetoric of creative writing especially for the stage and screen.

In that decade, the word "screen" has expanded from television and film to websites and streaming video services. Though certainly less noticeable to the general public, the theatrical stage has also evolved to include new media. The rhetoric of stage and screen now includes social media, with readers and viewers responding to texts, performances, and video in real time.

I still believe that fiction and creative nonfiction remain more persuasive than academic or journalistic writings. Entertainment remains the best way to reach a mass audience and change public opinion, especially entertainment that unifies audiences through laughter.

During my graduate studies, I found myself shifting from the rhetoric of creative writing to studies of how technology affects composing of texts, video, and other forms of self-expression. Studying the interfaces of software and online communities, I do consider the software tools we use significant factors in how we write. Writing software, from brainstorming applications to full-featured word processors, guides authors through a process the software development team has selected as the "best" approach to composition.

Digital technologies, though increasingly affordable, feature many barriers beyond price. As writers, our cultures and experiences shape our relationships with any tools we use to record words or express ourselves in other ways. To relate to software and websites, the user must understand the concepts embodied by icons, text menus, and other interface elements. The user must also accept and embrace the theoretical approach to writing inherent within the application.

When people ask how I can be interested in the rhetoric of fiction, visual rhetoric, marginalized communities, software development, and the history of the printed word, it is because some people fail to see the connections I take for granted.

As this blog continues, I hope to include more about the rhetoric of fiction and visual rhetoric. Although discussions of public policy, community divisions, and overall pedagogy of rhetoric will continue on this blog, I seek to expand the rogue rhetorician and increase its value to every visitor, including creative writers, artists, students, teachers, and, yes, writing application developers.

I began my graduate studies seeking a Masters degree in creative writing, with a specialization in poetry. I opted to pursue a doctorate instead of a Master of Fine Arts in writing. Looking back, the MFA would have been valuable as a playwright and screenwriter interested in all creative writing. However, the doctorate allowed me to explore rhetorical theory and tradition beyond what an MFA typically covers. Thankfully, I have been able to explore the histories of cinema and stage in classes, seminars, and professionally. That professional experience as a writer complements my doctorate.

Five years have passed since completing my graduate studies. I have a deeper understanding of rhetoric as a discipline, and my conviction that creative writing is among the most effective rhetorical forms has been reinforced. Likewise, I often consider how the tools I use influence my writing process.

Appreciate this blog for the variety of topics it will cover under the title Rogue Rhetorician. If I can expand the concept of rhetoric for some readers, and support the comprehensive understanding of rhetoric of other readers, then this blog should be interesting. If nothing else, writing helps clarify my thinking process; writing is thinking.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rhetorical Games Writing Professors Play

My original title for this posting was a bit presumptuous:

Rhetoric of the Liberal Professor Afraid to Debate

After reflection, I realize the professor isn't "afraid" to debate an economic issue, but simply doesn't realize there is a debate because his worldview and selection biases screen out other information. At least, that's my theory.

Recently, as part of a trend of articles on the dangers of too much political correctness and identity politics on campus, an anonymous "liberal professor" mentioned that a (racist) student wrongly associated Fannie and Freddie with the housing bubble. This example was to show that the professor handled "debates" well in the past. Actually, the example shows quite the opposite: that conservative and libertarian ideas are depicted as racist, mean-spirited, ill-informed, and furthered by ignorant people.

Quite simply, the example is a stereotype. Accurate of events or not, this shining example of how great the professor handled debate really shows how his biases led him away from a real, informed, discussion on an important topic.

Every economist, regulator, and financial professional I personally know (and I spend the last two years at a school famous for Nobel Laureates) casts at least some blame on the GSEs. But, by linking argument to a racist, the professor tailored his past defense of debates in class to his likely readers. Rhetoric, layers deep.
I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me
by Edward Schlosser on June 3, 2015

What it was like before
In early 2009, I was an adjunct, teaching a freshman-level writing course at a community college. Discussing infographics and data visualization, we watched a flash animation describing how Wall Street's recklessness had destroyed the economy.

The video stopped, and I asked whether the students thought it was effective. An older student raised his hand.

"What about Fannie and Freddie?" he asked. "Government kept giving homes to black people, to help out black people, white people didn't get anything, and then they couldn't pay for them. What about that?"

I gave a quick response about how most experts would disagree with that assumption, that it was actually an oversimplification, and pretty dishonest, and isn't it good that someone made the video we just watched to try to clear things up? And, hey, let's talk about whether that was effective, okay? If you don't think it was, how could it have been?

The rest of the discussion went on as usual.
I am sorry, but only "most experts" this professor happens to read disagree with the idea Fannie and Freddie weren't a serious problem. And the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which was targeted at urban minorities, had serious problems with sub-prime and risky loans.

As framed, the "black people" phrase is horrible and inciting, but the professor (if he understood the economics) could have explained the good intentions that led to a bad policy (and are leading to the same policies again).

Using a racist to show how well you handle debate is a rhetoric stunt, not proof of your actual ability to engage in meaningful debate on serious economic and social topics.
The next week, I got called into my director's office. I was shown an email, sender name redacted, alleging that I "possessed communistical [sic] sympathies and refused to tell more than one side of the story." The story in question wasn't described, but I suspect it had do to with whether or not the economic collapse was caused by poor black people.

My director rolled her eyes. She knew the complaint was silly bullshit. I wrote up a short description of the past week's class work, noting that we had looked at several examples of effective writing in various media and that I always made a good faith effort to include conservative narratives along with the liberal ones.
Read the above simplification of what the student had probably said versus how the professor frames it. The student asked about Freddie and Fannie, along with minority lending (in a crude way, possibly). The professor, however, tells his director only that the student in question suggested "the economic collapse was caused by poor black people." No, the student, without the skills of a college-educated professor, was asking about a much larger public policy.

A great professor would have reframed the question, with the student, and suggested doing some additional research and presenting that later in a paper, with citations from both pro- and con- arguments about the role of GSEs in the economic collapse of the housing market and corresponding recession. There's even debate about if the collapse in housing was caused by labor issues or led to those labor market issues. Lots of great questions for study… all ignored.

And, because we are afraid to debate questions or we don't know any better, here we go again… according to The Economist, USA Today, Bloomberg, and other financial news outlets.
America restores the weak lending standards that led to the housing crash
Oct 25th 2014 | NEW YORK | From the print edition
WHEN politicians bashed Wall Street for its reckless mortgage lending in the wake of the subprime crisis, bankers retorted that it was the politicians' enthusiasm for expanding home ownership, even if it meant small deposits and low credit standards, that had really fomented the disaster. Yet that enthusiasm is undimmed: in a speech on October 20th Mel Watt, head of the Federal Housing Finance Authority (FHFA), announced plans to reintroduce mortgages with deposits as low as 3% through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-backed housing giants it regulates.

Both Fannie and Freddie were bailed out during the financial crisis. There was much talk in Congress of winding them down; in the meantime, they tightened loan requirements to limit the risk to taxpayers. But that changed when Barack Obama appointed Mr Watt, a congressman from North Carolina and long-term evangelist for home ownership.

Fannie and Freddie do not issue mortgages. Instead, they buy them from banks and guarantee the securities into which they are bundled for resale. Over the past two years many big mortgage lenders have paid billions of dollars in fines and been forced to buy back piles of dud loans on the grounds that they did not conform to Fannie's and Freddie's rules. These settlements were controversial, in that the pair had actively sought out risky mortgages to satisfy their mission to promote "affordable housing".
Clearly, there is another deep side to this debate. But, not as this professor views it. His biases limit his perspective and his reaction to an ill-informed (aren't most of them) student is not helpful or educational for that student.

I'm convinced this professor is constructing "conservative" questioners in an artificially bad light, but let's assume his recollections are entirely accurate. He still misrepresents the student to the writing program director. This "open-minded" liberal professor heard only the racist subtext of a question, and missed the serious policy question. That's sad. And that's what many conservatives and libertarians dislike about higher education.

Of course, would the writing professor be aware of the concerns about Fannie and Freddie voiced in financial media? Probably not. And certainly, this professor is not a reader of "conservative" or "libertarian" journals.
THERE ARE TWO KEY EXAMPLES of this misguided government policy. One is the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). The other is the affordable housing "mission" that the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were charged with fulfilling.
— American Spectator
Yes, the American Spectator is "conservative" but that doesn't mean its facts are incorrect or somehow not worthy of discussion. Our liberal professor, however, doesn't seem to be aware of alternative viewpoints that might have merit.

Things are actually returning to the pre-crash state. That should concern us, but this professor's students likely don't know we're inflating the markets again. Everything from quantitative easing (QE) by central banks to lowering of lending standards, all meant to kickstart weak economies, could create the same bubbles we saw with the dot-com and housing bubbles.

Today (June 2015) Bloomberg data show the MEDIAN down payment is back to 4%, a dangerously low level that means buyers have no equity in their homes. That limits mobility and results in negative liquidity if they must try to relocate.

Yes, I'm picking apart one aspect of what this professor wrote about how great and wonderful he was before becoming afraid of his liberal students. Yet, his example is a cherry-picked "conservative" readers of this professor's column will find a believable representative of conservatives on campus.

For me, even if I agree with the points the professor later makes about liberals and progressives wanting to avoid any and all disturbing debates, the way the economic debate is depicted calls into question the author's teaching and actual ability to engage in deep discussions.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Angry Words Don't Persuade

As a colleague observed, there has been no shortage of topics for rhetorical analysis since returning to school in late August. The second half of 2014 has offered a long list of potential topics, internationally, nationally, and locally. The two challenges for me have been the time to blog and the passion to delve into topics that offer little hope for persuasion or meaningful discussion.

I am convinced that we select our facts, as there are often just enough accurate facts to support some thin version of most events or general theories. You can select your facts, cherry picking a reality. We all do this, to some extent.

Our deep dislike and distrust of other viewpoints makes solving problems difficult. We resort to name calling, reveling in our distaste for views we oppose. We exist in not just two Americas, but in four or five or a dozen American realities, all slightly (or seriously) out of alignment.

Here's an interesting contrast. The Washington Post published an article on finding common ground to solve problems. If you focus on shared ideals and agreement, before debating an issue, the parties involved are more likely to compromise. In theory, this could help end some, not all, partisan gridlock in national politics. Core values would hold, but more overlap would be admitted in debate:
On the other hand, we have a Salon column examining neurology and partisan psychology that starts by calling some Republican lawmakers "clowns" — because the ad hominem is a great persuasive device. Starting a discussion with name calling, even if you have valid points to make, isn't going to win converts.
At least the Salon column ends with…
Once you're aware that the Dunning-Kruger effect is involved, it's anybody's guess, really, who is more incompetent than whom.
Yes, that's a good reason to call the opposition "clowns" in the headline, then.

I remember when Ronald Reagan was elected. There was more than a little vitriol from his opponents. When Bill Clinton was elected, the Republicans respond to what they viewed as mistreatment of Reagan (and some of his nominees) by going all-out after a Democratic president. The escalation of hateful rhetoric has continued, with each side describing the other in increasingly contemptuous terms. And each side is better at spotting the slights against them than admitting their own role in this spiral of hateful language.

"The other side is worse" doesn't excuse what's happening in our political discourse. But, it isn't going to change any time soon. It is depressing, and it is the historical norm.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Am I in Technical Rhetoric?

The calls for papers and conference invitations on technical communication I receive seem to construe "tech comm" narrowly… broadly, yet narrowly. My passions are outside virtual worlds or instruction manuals. I want to push in a new direct.

First, there's the tendency to group any and all "new media" or "digital" studies within the rhetoric and tech comm. That leads to an obsession with all things virtual, even though a lot of what has been studied under this umbrella faded away before the scholarly papers were published. Our rhetoricians spent a lot of energy studying what was, to be blunt, pointless: MySpace, Second Life, MOOs/MUDs, USENET newsgroups, instant messaging, and more.

They will argue that even what proved ephemeral was important because something was revealed about communication, at least in that moment, in that medium that was studied. Personally, the only value I see in a study of SecondLife is that it might reveal something about the little group of people who could tolerate the lousy interface and mediocre experience.

I read the discussions of these scholars and am frustrated by how disconnected they seem to be from the online, digital lives of "average" geeks — and even most people. They might be the only people I know using Twitter. None of my students use Twitter. Young people don't even "surf the web" anymore. They use apps to get information. The idea of buying music or films on a plastic disc? Not my students. They stream the world, renting content. The entire "Napster" and "copyright" debate strikes young people as weird.

After the online rhetoricians, you get the "instruction manual" crowd of tech comm. These scholars view user manuals, online help, and technical documentation as their domain. Sometimes, they stray into cookbooks, crafting, and other fun topics. (I love cultural anthropology.)

A few brave rhetoric and tech comm people dive into medical texts, public policy, and legal issues. I appreciate those boundary pushers, working in the fringes. We can debate how this brings rhetoric back to more classical roots, away from the "technical" component, but I'm all for classical studies when they shed light on existing conditions.

The STEM rhetoricians focus on engineering and technology as understood by scientists. These are the "rhetoric of science" scholars. The philosophy and rhetoric of science fascinates me because the people with expertise are often not included in policy debates. The STEM experts struggle with public rhetoric.

My passion is the rhetoric of economics. It's technical, but ignored. We need a rhetoric of economics, especially at this moment in history. Economics unifies philosophy, psychology, history, and mathematics. Economics is not quite a science, yet it relies on scientific analyses.

I worry I'd be alone at a rhetoric or tech comm conference. I'd be the one author of a paper on the rhetoric of economists, the one person wanting to analyze Federal Reserve reports for hints on policy trends.

Then again, maybe the Fed is as mythical as SecondLife and reading the Beige Book is as practical as MySpace.