Wednesday, March 20, 2013

VR Post #3

Keisner, J. (2008). Do you want to watch? A study of the visual rhetoric of the postmodern horror film. Women’s Studies, 37, 411-427.

Keisner examines feardotcom, a 2003 horror movie, through the lens of visual rhetoric. She categorizes feardotcom as a postmodern horror film, for which she presents four principles (borrowed from Isabel Cristina Pinedo):
1.      The presence of a man/monster that disrupts an already violent social order.
2.      An unclear distinction between good and evil.
3.      The understanding that survival depends on adapting to the disrupted surroundings.
4.      A disinclination toward closure (412).
Keisner focuses on the appeal of horror films despite (or due to) their tendency to be masculine texts.

Keisner begins by stressing the importance of the visual in horror films. She writes that horror films tend to have weak character development and dialogue, and that these traits shift the emphasis to the visual even more strongly than in most movies. In keeping with the genre, the film feardotcom relies more on visuals than plot, character, or dialogue to affect the viewer. In brief, the film’s premise is that a sociopathic doctor tortures young women while posting videos of the torture on the Internet; visitors to the in-movie site are asked if they “want to watch.” If they click yes, they see more of the torture, but 48 hours after they enter the site they are literally scared to death themselves by a supernatural force.

Keisner points out that it is primarily through the movie’s use of visual rhetoric that its goal of scaring the audience is realized. She quotes the director as saying that he “use[d] special effects to layer subtle, small elements that are hardly noticeable, but which play upon the audience’s psyche and strengthen the suspense and uneasiness of the experience” (414). Keisner notes some of these elements—dark backdrops, darkness, constant rain—create the feel of a nightmare (414). Citing Anne Marie Seward Barry, Keisner writes that image can inspire emotions before it is understood by the thinking parts of the brain, making it a particularly important device for inspiring horror (415).

As Keisner notes, the visual nature of the movie is paired with its premise. In the fictitious site, viewers choose to see the graphically violent images by responding to the prompt. They are then complicit in the torture and eventual murder of the subject. Keisner alleges that viewers of the movie are similarly complicit (although hopefully not in a real murder): even though our society decries the increasing violence in our media, by watching the movie, we indicate our approval of such violence and our desire for more.

Keisner also examines the misogyny present in feardotcom. She points out that most horror movies objectify and terrorize primarily women, and asserts that “a close study of postmodern slasher films […] implicates the postmodern slasher film as a projection of masculine desire. Audience members who are female identify with the objectified image of a woman while the male viewers identify with the movie’s main protagonist, who, more often than not, is male” (420). Relying on Mulvey, Keisner suggests that the castration anxiety of male viewers is assuaged by the punishment of female characters. She cites studies of horror movies that reveal that torture and death scenes of women tend to be much longer and more graphic than those of men, and points out that male viewers report that “enjoyment is heightened when in the company of a distressed woman” (422), while female viewers report more enjoyment when in the company of men who seem in control of the situation.

Keisner’s piece is valuable in its examination of both explicit and implicit arguments in feardotcom. Explicitly, the argument is that we should be scared, and that through our participation we are complicit in the increasingly graphic violence we see in popular culture. To me, the implicit arguments are more interesting. Keisner asserts that we learn how men and women should act, think, and feel by viewing horror movies; we learn what is valued in each sex. Keisner writes that “while some critics argue that the postmodern horror movie can provide a safe, pleasurable outlet for experiencing terror, an analysis of the social context and gender discrepancies in emotional responses proves that the horror movie creates a man’s world, ultimately empowering men while females, on and off the screen, are encouraged to see themselves as victims” (426).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

VR Post #2: Postmodern Visual Rhetoric

Rice, J. (2004, January/April). A critical review of visual rhetoric in a postmodern age: Complementing, extending, and presenting new ideas. Review of Communication, 4(1/2), 63-74.

Rice's essay summarizes and critiques two principle theorists--Sonja Foss and Valerie Peterson--and attempts to extend their theories of visual rhetoric to provide a heuristic for the analysis of visual artifacts. Rice limits his essay to a postmodern context, which he characterizes as one ring of "the large and hard-to-hit bull's eye of visual rhetorical theory" (73). Extending this analogy, he states that "Foss shot wide, Peterson used a smaller gauge, and the approach taken here is more of a rifle approach" (73).

Rice begins the essay by critiquing Foss's schema as too deductive. Foss suggests a critic first "determine the function of a text," secondly "scrutinize the composition of the visual artifact," and third "scrutinize the function of the art, measuring its legitimacy or soundness" (65). Rice briefly summarizes Peterson's critique of Foss and then presents Peterson's schema, which "basically reverses the first two steps, making the sequence more inductive" (65). Rice thinks that both schema are too linear and methodical for postmodern analysis, and suggests that he intends to "fuse a variety of ideas and schemas into a complex, multidimensional perspective" (66).

At this point, Rice introduces "the omniphistic visual schema," which contains "two planes of perception, content and form" (66). Rice states that "omniphistic" means "all in balance" and combines rational and intuitive aspects (73). Rice suggests that an omniphistic approach can integrate rationality, sensation, interpretation, and intuition in a way consistent with postmodern thought. Rice also explores what he calls "abductive thinking" (67), which he compares to connotation and argues "precedes both induction and deduction and exists as an 'origin of knowing,' which begins with visual observation before anything else" (67). A fair summary of this section of the article is that Rice is attempting to elevate subjective and intuitive aspects of visual analysis to counter what he sees as overly rational and methodical approaches.

Rice then discusses "four indicators of a postmodern visual text" (69). These are oppositional elements (internal conflicts); co-constructed elements (interactions between the text and audience); contextual elements (interactions between the text and context); and ideological elements, which "focus on text and all its surrounding elements, which results in a revelation of rhetorical power" (72), the analysis of which must be saved for last.

Despite his claims of being as specific as a rifle shot, Rice's essay is extremely hard to grasp. Part of the reason is probably that he is operating from a postmodern viewpoint that is inherently slippery. In other words, some of the difficulty in this essay is probably by design. Rice borrows an analogy from Foucault--a toolbox--and suggests that rather than attempt to use the methods of visual analysis he lays out wholesale, that it might be better for the reader to pick and choose the tools that are useful in a given situation. Rice writes that "if some small part of the ideas [in the essay] aids in the analysis and understanding of text, so much the better" (73). It is an interesting essay, and it is possible that some of his methodology (which he explicitly resists describing as a methodology) might be useful for visual analysis. I particularly liked his efforts to raise the intuitive as worthy of analysis. However, the essay is also vulnerable to one of the big critiques of postmodern thought: Rice's commitment to avoid proscribing a methodology or schema and his essential throwing-up-of-hands, take-what-you-want ending leave the reader confused of what to make of it. His critiques of other methodologies are good, but he is reluctant to put anything firm in their place.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Sehmel, H. (2002, June). Websites and advocacy campaigns: Decision making, implementation, and audience in an environmental advocacy group's use of websites as part of its communication campaigns. Business Communication Quarterly, 65(2), 100-107.

This article summarizes case-study research she performed in which she examined how a small environmental advocacy group used its website. Sehmel states that she hopes the article will “provide people working in small organizations with information about how they might improve the decision-making processes they use regarding their Websites” (100), especially those groups that “sell ideas, rather than products” (100).

Sehmel critiques existing research as being primarily focused on larger organizations with substantial publication departments. Additionally, Sehmel alleges that existing research inadequately explores how organizations integrate web publications with other communication tactics. For her case study, she conducted interviews of four out of five members of the advocacy group as well as the webmaster, who worked on an hourly rate and was not part of the company. She observed several planning meetings, analyzed planning e-mails, and analyzed the organization’s website. Finally, she surveyed visitors to the organization’s website and participants in the organization’s e-mail list.

Sehmel found that although the group had clear goals for its websites (which the websites seemed to support), the group experienced other challenges. For example, the employees did not have a clear grasp of the alternatives available to them, nor feedback on the choices they made that would “enable them to become more expert rhetoricians on the Web” (104). Several factors Sehmel states are likely to be experienced by other small organizations, such as the following (105):
  • ·         Employees have no training in web design.
  • ·         The webmaster is perceived as a technical expert rather than a rhetorician.
  • ·         The organization has limited knowledge of its web audience and little feedback about their web communications.
  • ·         The organization has limited time and money.

In Sehmel’s estimation, these limitations did not result in a failed website, but rather one that did not live up to its potential. Sehmel suggests that “researchers encourage groups to conduct some of their own research and to support them in conducting it, thereby helping them learn more about their audiences and about whether the choices they have made worked for them” (106). While this is an interesting suggestion, it is difficult to see how very many groups could take advantage of the opportunity to partner with a researcher, especially those organizations that are based in areas far from a research university. Indeed, Sehmel’s implication section is the weakest part of an otherwise intriguing essay.

Ironically, what Sehmel recommends is very close to what I propose to do for my class project. As a “researcher,” I propose to work with my college to address many of the same areas Sehmel does by examining my college’s new websites, flyers, and informational mailers targeting veterans. The group in my college that has been tasked with developing the materials shares many characteristics with Sehmel’s environmental advocacy group—limited resources, limited experience in web design, and imperfect feedback processes to gauge the effect of their communications. I will be looking more at the documents themselves rather than the people and design process. Still, I expect Sehmel’s article will give me an idea of things to look for as I perform my own research.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Phelps, "Administration as a Design Art," keynote speech from WPA 2003 Summer Conference

Summary: Phelps tackles the concept of design in this piece, examining the breakdowns of some of our traditional understandings--such as that design occurs before construction and is realized with construction--and discussing how design functions in writing program administration. Phelps explores "the performative question of designability," or how we actively and continually design and re-design, how we are constrained by the structure of the institution (drawing analogies to architecture), and who is empowered to do such design. When we step into writing programs, Phelps writes, they are more often than not already extant, and we need to decide how and why to redesign them. Part of this task is rhetorical, part intellectual, part spacial and financial, etc. Phelps "locate[s] administration at the juncture of the practical and productive arts"--it's an art that is situated in a particular space with practical considerations, and it is one that produces something. Phelps explores the themes of complexity, contradiction, and improvisation and time. Writing programs are complex--they have a large number of factors to consider, such as people, curricula, physical spaces. They are contradictory--they "serve" several purposes, are located in several spaces (English, independent, cross-disciplinary, etc.). They require improvisation--rather than planning everything, they sometimes need WPAs to act and respond without fully knowing the results. Closely tied to this last point is Phelps's contention that we look at design as ongoing, as a process of continual redesigning.

Response: I remember that one of my interview questions was to lay out how I would design a "writing lab" (computer-equipped writing classroom), which didn't exist yet at my college, and support that design with theory. After I was hired (but before my contract officially started), I had to meet with an architect and work with the financial and maintenance arms of the college to actually design the room, order furniture, decide on software, etc. It was a tall order and a pretty stressful first task. I thought of this as Phelps described being asked to (quickly) design some physical spaces at Syracuse. What has saved me over the years is the concept of redesign. My lab has changed in a number of ways since its initial design (although we still have the desks and general classroom set-up I came up with), and when it was time to design another classroom, I and other writing faculty could talk about what we liked and didn't like about the first room and use it to design the second, which has also had several redesigns. I find this idea--that we work in a given context to continually revise and redesign and communicate to others the goals of the program and how these designs will further them--really helpful and productive.

Uses: Theory of design and a writing program.

Linda Adler-Kassner and Heidi Estrem, "The Journey Is the Destination," in _Organic Writing Assessment_, 2009

Summary: The authors describe the development of a writing assessment program at Eastern Michigan University. A key point to the piece is that assessment programs should be grounded in a particular context (they use the term "place"). Additionally, they used the assessment program to "make visible the work of first-year writing students in various ways across campus," and to have the results be useful--to instructors, students, and other constituencies on campus, including administration. One of the most compelling elements of the article is how the authors engaged the university community in a cross-disciplinary discussion about writing and what makes it good; then, they used several different mapping methods to produce an assessment process and rubric that reflected the values of that particular university. The resultant process yielded qualitative and quantitative data on students' portfolio writing that enabled them to revise (and explain) the writing program and its courses.

Response: I was taken with the authors' process of developing the assessment program and its emphasis on place. It seems like an elegant idea--find out what people in a specific context value and use that to guide the assessment. I also really liked how they drew together a diverse group: I felt like that would encourage the college as a whole to increase investment (both emotional and, one would hope, financial) in the writing program and to understand better what was happening in it. And I liked their emphasis on continual revision and the generation of meaningful assessment data, rather than just jumping through assessment hoops for compliance's sake. As someone who has co-developed and been involved in a writing assessment program for over a decade, though, I think their form may take too long to fill out and analyze. I have been caught myself in the bind between wanting lots of information and trying to make the process easy and quick enough so that faculty do not get burned out. (The longest form I designed, complete with Likert scales and fill-in-the-reason sections similar to the authors', was unmanageable. Instructors were spending as much as eight to ten hours assessing departmental portfolios on top of their other work. They took it with excellent grace, but in retrospect, I can't believe I wasn't burned in effigy.) Assessment is always a balancing act--do you statistically sample and use a more comprehensive form, thereby generating good data for the department but very little of use to individual students or teachers, or do you assess each student, which provides better data for instructors and student but necessitates a less time-consuming process for each portfolio, thereby generating less useful data for the department? I have not solved this problem yet.

Again, though, the process the authors described for developing their instrument was really excellent.

Uses: The design of an assessment program.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rebecca Taylor Fremo, "Redefining Our Rhetorical Situations," in Dew and Horning, _Untenured Faculty as WPAs_, 2007

Summary: Based on her experiences as a WPA at a smaller, private college, Fremo identifies several ways graduates of larger schools may have to readjust to being a WPA at a small school. Much of the article is specific to her situation, yet has resonances with other works. She discusses, for example, how she must shift her identity rhetorically between contexts and audiences, and appropriates some rhetorical practices from marginalized groups to help her understand what she is doing and how to do it effectively. She draws from African American theory and feminist theory to develop a praxis of soft power--she writes that "WPAs at small schools must learn to develop authority and use that authority to wield influence in a far more collegial way" than their counterparts at larger schools (200). She conceives of herself as a "witness" to the writing program, a "knowledgeable and politically savvy storyteller" who models ways of thinking about writing to senior colleagues and those outside her discipline" (202). She also "pull[s] back from certain acts of truth telling on campus [...] to remake [herself] in the image of [her] colleagues" (203), highlighting commonalities between them and making gentle arguments based on these commonalities. She talks about the pressure to be more of a generalist at a small school and the absence of colleagues such as one might have at a larger school.

Response: As a former WPA at a small school (albeit not a private college such as the one Fremo teaches at), I found many of Fremo's observations to be right on the mark. I remember the WPA at my MA school--a very talented women whom I greatly respected--advising me to use my first year on the job to gather information, and not to change ANYTHING. Soon after being hired, I sat down with the Dean of Instruction to talk about what my goals were. I repeated my advice; he looked baffled, and said, "But Mark, you were *hired* to change things!" This was my first clue that the situation might be different here from what I was used to (both my undergrad and my MA were at Research I schools). And, like Fremo, I found that I was one of the key people colleagues outside of the discipline came to for advice on how to handle writing, and that I was expected to be on committees and make changes I found pretty scary as a brand-new, untenured faculty member. Fremo suggests that schools should prepare graduate students a bit better on the realities of working at smaller schools, and I agree.

Uses: WPA-ing at a small school; rhetoric and the WPA.

Alexander, "The Character of a Leader," ?

Summary: I'm not sure where this came from or when it was published, but it cites sources in the late aughts. Alexander draws from his experience in the intelligence community (as well as using quotes from a variety of classical and modern sources to bolster his argument) to identify and justify several key qualities of a leader. Alexander identifies his two main themes as "in leadership, character counts," and "effective leadership is necessarily predicated on the consent of the governed." He makes the point that you earn that consent not only by your performance, but by your character. Alexander takes issue with (his characterization of) post-modern situated morality, arguing that there are universal values and morals that a leader must tap into. His sources, examples, and argumentative structure are strongly masculine; however, there are interesting crossovers to some of the feminine leadership articles. For example, he argues that a leader's key functions include setting goals and a vision for the group, creating conditions that help the group work, providing resources, and getting her hands dirty and working alongside the group. He does not advocate micromanagement, but rather the empowerment of everyone in the group to decide how best to realize the vision. Alexander writes that "leadership comprises three basic elements [...]: character--purity of motive; vision--the ability to set a course of action against a difficult task; and effectiveness--the ability to successfully implement this vision and accomplish the mission." Among other qualities, he addresses command of rhetoric in detail as "one of the most essential skills you must develop to succeed as a leader." And his definition of rhetoric is, I think, quite fair and focused on how to articulate a plan or problem to different audiences within the organization. Alexander also explores respect for others (a necessary quality for a leader) and tribalism (a regrettable condition in all organizations and one that must be navigated by leaders), both of what are applicable to colleges.

Response: The tone in this piece was an abrupt shift from our other sources. However, I greatly appreciate the readings from non-English sources in this course; they provide some interesting perspective on how the wider world perceives leadership and organizations. I saw many resonances to the Ancient Greeks and Romans in Alexander's piece; they were also invested in the morality of leaders.  As I said above, I was also interested in the cross-overs between this piece and the leadership pieces I've read coming from a feminist perspective; I do not find them mutually exclusive.

Uses: Leadership, contrast between masculine and feminine styles.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Phelps, "Becoming a Warrior," in Phelps and Emig, _Feminine Principles_, 1995

Summary: Through a mix of narrative, theory, and reflection, Phelps explores the interrelationships between feminism, power, composition, and writing program administration. She complicates the sometimes oversimplified views of the feminization of composition and feminist utopias in which all power is equally shared, all views are valued, all people work together, etc. Instead, she asks what happens when we operate from a feminist moral and theoretical position within the academy is it really is--what happens when we take up power? How do we redistribute it, and what does that really look like? Phelps argues that changing the academy necessitates taking up power positions and "ethically hav[ing] visions, lead[ing], and wield[ing] power despite the imperfectibility of institutions and the tragic limitations of human action" (293). Phelps grounds her essay in her own experience as a WPA, but her argument is not limited to that context. She intersperses the text with quotations and reflections from her WPA years (and immediately before), which serves to incorporate a multitude of voices which surround and complement the central text. Phelps writes that in order to improve the academy, women need to seek out and accept positions of institutional power, despite the personal and professional challenges they bring; of her own experience, she writes that "it was vaguely but genuinely a moral decision responding to the summons to take up responsibility toward others, to act on my convictions" (306). In other words, one cannot theorize or "resist" forever without coupling that intellectual work with action. Phelps also confronts the challenges her attempts to empower the disempowered in the writing program resulted in for the actual workers, who were often ambivalent themselves about assuming a greater role in the program. An expanded role resulted in "a pressure on them to learn, change, take risks, be more creative, face the unknown" (311). Phelps writes that "an increase in authority, voice, and autonomy is not an unqualified good in and of itself. It does not automatically bring wealth, leisure, increased status, or pleasure" (312). Yet Phelps advocates for the application of feminist principles to the workplace all the same. Though not without its chaos and complications, the moves she describes (often in detail) are positive ones, not just for the program or its members, but also for women who decide to become leaders.

Response: I would like to talk much more about this when I get on campus. I thought this was a powerful article, and I wonder what things look like now. The vast majority of my mentors in my educational journey have been women, often in positions of leadership. They took up the mantle, as Phelps urges. What was that like? What is it like now for women (like Cheri!) who are leaders? Do they operate from an explicitly feminist perspective? Do they feel resistance from the institution, from senior faculty, from males?

Uses: A look at feminist perspectives, the feminization of composition, leadership, writing program structure.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Phelps, "Telling a Writing Program Its Own Story," in Rose and Weiser, _The WPA as Researcher_, 1999

Summary: Phelps has two components in this piece: a tenth-anniversary speech to the Syracuse writing program, which she excerpts here, and a reflection/contextualization in which she "examines the role of such rhetoric in writing program administration" (168). The speech has several key points--it tells some of the history of the program, but also asks how the program can continue to be inventive and vibrant, how it can continue to remake itself now that the initial flush of creation is over and it has become successful. Phelps draws parallels between the program's genesis and the functioning of "Great Groups" such as the ones responsible for Apple, the Manhattan Project, and Disney. She points to a key challenge for the program, which "quixotically attempted to inspire the whole teaching community to form itself into a Great Group" (171), in contrast to the (much) more selective formation of other Great Groups. Challenges were how to be inclusive, to operate on the edge of chaos, to keep the general trend forward. It worked; now, though, "we now risk the possibility of too much order" (175)--as a successful program, it is daunting to continue to experiment, to risk making wrong choices. However, Phelps argues that the changing landscape of the university and the environment outside it (demographics, technology, economics, etc.) requires constant change and reinvention.

In the reflection, Phelps changes tack, not only reflecting on the speech itself, but on crafting and giving speeches, especially as a woman. She discusses how "women WPAs are often ambivalent about the power of their office and conflicted about their own ethos as strong central leaders" (178), sometimes softening their position and silencing their voices. Phelps discusses her own struggles with claiming and exercising her voice, her determination to write and speak in public despite how risky it often felt. She also examines the rhetorical situation of the speech and her roll as a former WPA who also wanted to touch on the future. Finally, she writes that "in publicly playing the storytelling role to the hilt [in this article...] and interpreting it here in the context of leadership as intellectual and rhetorical work, I am arguing, especially to women inclined to deny or renounce authority in or for themselves, that it can be ethical to aspire to and wield such powers" (181-82).

Response: I commented in a previous post something along the lines that we may be post-feminist, that feminist management practices have integrated themselves in mainstream management enough so that we may not need an explicitly "feminist" lens anymore (at least in regards to management). I think I was incorrect. Phelps's piece has helped me understand more of the challenges still faced by women who choose to be in positions of institutional power. She describes a colleague who stated that she "always talked too much and wrote too much" (178). Wow. I am a particularly talkative male, granted, but I have not felt the challenges to exerting power or speaking my mind in public forums that she describes and I doubt many other males have, either. (I remember one of my mentors in my undergraduate career, a brilliant scholar and writing center director, telling me she would have probably majored in math except that she had to endure such humiliations as "girls' day" in her math classes, in which she and other female students would have to get up and do problems on the board in front of the male professor and male students.) I think things are changing--at my school, for instance, the president, two out of three deans, and two out of three associate deans are women, as is much of the other administration. But I bet others grapple with the same issues Phelps describes.

Uses: Inventiveness, continual renovation, women's experiences as administrators.

Phelps, "(Re)Weaving the Tapestry of Reflection," in Rhetoric Review, 1998

Summary: Phelps reflects on her history as a writer and teacher and interweaves responses and narratives (as a musician, I'd term them "riffs") from other teachers in the Syracuse writing program. In addition to telling Phelps's and her colleagues' stories, the essay also addresses the role and power of reflection in composition, teaching, and community. Phelps identifies reflection as "polysemous" (143), or a concept that contains many interpretations and definitions that are contextually defined. Phelps posits that her colleagues regard the multiple meanings of reflection as "a cluster of skills and attitudes related by the fact that they develop in relationship to one another over time" (145). Teachers set up situations for students to engage in and develop reflection as they learn to write--indeed, reflection is central to Phelps's view of learning to write. She also argues that it is central to the development of a professional community like a writing program--the teachers reflect on their own practice, on the program, etc., and they talk with each other about these reflections (and reflect communally).

Response: This piece connects not exactly with the structure of a writing program, but with its heart. It emphasizes the importance of community and dialogue and synergistic learning. It reminds me of how our part-time faculty at my school have said again and again that the most valuable thing they get from our departmental meetings is the time to share with each other--not just teaching ideas, but experiences. This strengthens our community and provides, I think, a sense of identity and shared work.

Uses: What to encourage/support in a program.

Phelps, "The WPA's Dual Identity," in Enos and Borrowman, _The Promise and Perils of WPA_, 2008

Summary: In this short piece, Phelps discusses the difficulties and affordances offered by WPAs' positions as (tenure-track) faculty and administrators. She notes that "the embodied person becomes identified with the 'office,' with the writing program itself," not only by others, but often by oneself (263), perhaps in part due to the emotional intensity inspired by the role's contradictions. Phelps writes that the two roles are volatile and "basically incompatible [...producing] an unpredictable mix of positive and negative synergies" (264). Navigating the roles requires flexibility and a view of the WPA as "transitory and unsustainable, not a permanent identity" (265). But the WPA role affords unique access and power in both roles--faculty and administrator--and can let a WPA promote positive change in both domains.

Response: This is a hopeful piece that provides an overview of a central conflict in the WPA and suggests ways to view that conflict as an opportunity.

Uses: The concerns and conflicts in the role.

Weick, "Sources of Order" and "Organizational Redesign as Improvisation," in _Making Sense of the Organization_, 2001

Summary: Wow! These chapters are chock-a-block with ideas--extremely productive ones. I can only gloss over them here, but the chapters are absolutely worth (probably several) careful reading(s). Weick writes that "order occurs in unexpected places and spans fewer people for shorter periods than we thought. [...Organizations] are organized anarchies [and] loosely coupled systems" (34). Weick's argument fits well with the "organized/directed chaos" theme I've been picking up on. Some key ideas in his piece are that an overemphasis on pre-planning and order can stifle the most productive processes in an organization: "When we design our next action, we don't build in enough chances to learn, experiment, improvise, and be surprised" (38). We should conceive of organizations as federations rather than monoliths and empower smaller groups to make decisions and generate ideas. Managers should "reduce ambiguity to tolerable levels" while still leaving room for improvisation (48). One should not over-privilege rationality, nor replicate past actions (we often have an imperfect understanding of what actions actually caused specific outcomes). We should be patient and "be willing to leap before you look. If you look before you leap, you may not see anything. Action generates outcomes that ultimately provide the raw material for seeing something" (53).

Weick also discusses organizational improvisation at length. Actors who improvise "have equivalent views of what is happening and what it means" (58), but they do not plan everything, instead leaving space for individual expression and the development of something new and, to a large extent, unanticipated by any individual. A section I found especially helpful was his discussion of bricolage (using "whatever resources and repertoire one has to perform whatever task one faces"), in which he writes that "what makes for skilled bricolage is intimate knowledge of resources, careful observation, trust in one's intuitions, listening, and confidence that any enacted structure can be self-correcting if one's ego is not invested too heavily in it" (63, my italics). Weick writes that, by necessity, we do not fully understand nor control organization's environments, outcomes, etc., and that by holding too tightly to intentional design, we "overlook the improvisational character of organizational design. [We] overlook the emergent designs that bubble up when capability changes. [We] overlook the ways in which interdependent actors become self-organizing in the face of underspecified designs" (88).

Response: These are pieces that absolutely must remain in the course. I found them exciting, empowering, and liberating. In terms of WPA-ing, I see Weick's ideas suggesting to administrate with a light hand, focusing on setting up an environment in which we agree on our goals and tasks, but then empowering smaller groups to investigate their own interests and generate their own solutions. I love the idea that these solutions are deeply contextual and unanticipated. I also think Weick's ideas suggest continual evolution of a writing program--we don't, for instance, develop a curriculum and then brush our hands off, problem solved. And I also like the lack of ego he advocates. These articles made me extremely excited to WPA.

Uses: They provide a broad understanding of a program. I played with the idea of advocating that these chapters come earlier in the course, but I don't think I would have understood them. They served to coalesce a lot of the ideas in earlier readings.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Kinney, "Fellowship for the Ring," in WPA, 2009

Summary: Kinney explores full-time non-tenure-track positions with a mix of personal narrative and theory. When she was ABD, she landed a full-time three-year position at Grand Valley State University in Michigan that provide most of the pay and many of the benefits of a tenure-track position, including office space, professional-development support, and the same teaching load as a tenure-track faculty member. (The college also had many full-time Affiliate Faculty--adjunct--positions that offered renewable contracts, good pay, and good benefits.) She argues that these positions offered a good alternative to the standard tenure-track, and that they greatly improved the lot of non-tenure-track faculty at GVSU. She credits much of her good experience to the independent nature of the GVSU writing program, which had recently separated from the English department. The good non-tenure positions allowed the writing program to hire composition specialists and people who wanted to teach writing and to retain them and help them develop professionally.

Response: I am glad to read this article. This is a hot issue, and one that has been discussed at my college. Kinney makes compelling arguments about how such positions greatly improve the lot of (currently) adjunct faculty. And she does address concerns about how such positions might serve as a disincentive for administration to hire more tenure-track faculty. This article didn't settle the issue for me, but Kinney is a strong, articulate advocate. Plus, she focuses on GVSU, which is in my state and which my son and father just visited for an excellent summer program.

Uses: How do we improve things for non-tenure-track faculty?

Hanson, "Herding Cats," in Ratcliffe and Rickly, _Performing Feminism and Administration_, 2010

Summary: This piece follows the pattern of narrative and reflection/theorizing. The narrative centers on Hanson's experience coordinating the Basic Writing program at Ball State. She identifies three main goals she focused on during her tenure--strengthening the community of the writing program, revising the undergraduate curriculum, and revising (and expanding) the faculty reward system. She discusses how her gender and her commitment to feminist goals influenced her administration. The most developed section is that in which she discusses community, and appropriately so, since a strong community is at the heart of the rest of her goals. It was also this section I found to be the most interesting, and I saw strong ties between Hanson's descriptions and the theme of "directed chaos" (I'm sure I'll come up with a better term than that) that is emerging from these recent readings. Hanson discusses how she strove to open lines of communication among her colleagues, how she chose to be titled "coordinator" to emphasize the community rather than a top-down leadership model, and how the faculty shared research, inquiry, and problem-solving. There is also a strong thread of locality and the contextual nature of solutions present in the work. Hanson writes that "contextual knowledge is ultimately what we must learn from, and the context is not a single administrator's, but that shared by every member of the community" (185).

Response: This was an interesting narrative. Hanson labels many of her leadership choices as feminist--seeking input from many sources, trusting her intuition over authority, privileging human relationships. These are certainly consistent with what I know of feminist theory; however, I think they are also consistent with other management suggestions/styles in many of the other readings that were not operating from a feminist viewpoint. This is interesting to me. Is it because feminist ideas/theorists/practitioners have successfully changed the way we manage from the more "male," autocratic practices of the past? I'm sure different people would answer that in different ways. Personally, I think there's a lot of merit to that interpretation. I know some would say that means we're post-feminist, but I think there's still a need for explicitly feminist praxis.

Uses: How to "manage" as a WPA.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Phelps, "Institutional Invention," from Atwill and Lauer, _Perspectives on Rhetorical Invention_, 2002

Summary: This is a densely written piece with many ideas that lead to many more, and it will be difficult to summarize in a small space such as this. First of all, Phelps uses "invention" in its rhetorical sense as well as its more commonly understood sense. She applies the idea to an institution reforming itself, and also to that institution serving as a productive space for its constituents. She critiques some recent theoretical and political moves in universities as being narrowly focused on resisting power and advocates a need for a more productive theory--a "so what" that enables institutions to move forward as spaces where they not only reinvent themselves, but also provide that needed space for faculty, students, community members touched by the university, etc. to grow. A centerpiece of Phelps's discussion is that we want to operate on the edge of chaos--we want to be complex enough to encourage creativity and change, but not anarchy. (She draws from biology to help contextualize this argument.) Phelps argues that this is the type of environment that affords invention: "to be innovative [...] a system must achieve an ordered state poised as close to chaos as possible [...] highly diverse and optimally interconnected. In human terms, an organization in this state would value risk taking, encourage open communication, and tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty, frequent failure, and mess" (81). Also, and (I think) quite challengingly, "the creativity of its members would collectively serve not only their personal intellectual goals but also its common purposes as an organization" (82). Phelps suggests some ways for this to be done, but the function of the piece is not to provide a roadmap, but to operate on a bit higher level. Phelps also explores the conflict between the autonomy of faculty members and the institution's needs, and suggests that this conflict is not insurmountable. She ends with a series of productive questions on institutional invention.

Response: The intellectual density of this piece required me to slow down and examine each point and its implications before moving on (probably a good idea anyway). Phelps's argument struck me as both familiar and new; I realized that I had encountered many of the parts before, but had not seen them put together in this way. I found this piece compelling and a good fit with the readings on how to view a writing program and how to use some of its principles and structure as a model in an institution. I was especially interested at the tensions between chaos and order and between the individual and the collective. I have seen those tensions at work at my college--a push from administration to have a common mandated textbook, an urge from both within and without the writing program for a set order of essays for each course, a resistance from some faculty to attend meetings and hallway comments that no matter what is said, he/she will continue to "do my own thing." And we are a really small program without the pressures to research/publish and without the diversity in faculty positions at a university. This piece speaks directly to these tensions, and while it does not, as I said above, provide a detailed roadmap, it does offer a theoretical goal.

Uses: The structure and concept of a writing program; the structure/revision of a college.