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Losing the Luddite

Or How a Humanities Student is Navigating through Cyberspace

It’s no news that decision-making in academia is slow. Journals, conferences, edited collections, new haircuts – all of these things seem to take a while to happen in academic settings. So far, I’ve had the most experiences with waiting for conference acceptances (oh, and haircuts); I was shocked the first time I had to submit a proposal for a conference application nearly a year before the conference would actually happen.

The problem (problem?) is that I’m a bit of an opportunist when it comes to applying for things. So, I applied for a major conference in the rhetoric/composition community last year (read: CCCC) and got accepted! Hooray happy day!

But when that acceptance came in, it felt like – you know – it wouldn’t happen for a very long time. So, of course, that feeling that this very important thing is actually very far away was simply the beginning of a typical procrastination narrative: “Surely, I’ll have a much better idea of what exactly to do for this presentation if I wait, right?”


I mean, really, what was I thinking? Image courtesy of:


Now, to be fair, I had done a little bit of work on this project for the UC Writing Conference, and Katie Arosteguy, a member from the panel I was on, put together a pretty sweet-looking Wix site for us to put up our contributions (i.e. I posted a PowerPoint with my presentation on it).

So, I had something to get me started, but the PowerPoint struck me as a bit anemic, even as I was presenting it.

A little bit of context: the presentation is trying to answer the question of whether students see the value in acquiring digital literacy skills, and whether these skills seem useful for them (from their perspective). I’m defining digital literacy skills as the ability to create a website (e.g. a WordPress page or a blog, not anything requiring coding knowledge), to read texts closely in virtual spaces (e.g. online, in PDF readers), and to navigate web-based research through library databases. I realize others have more nuanced definitions of what digital literacy means, but I developed mine based on the NCTE’s definition. Their definition is (rightfully, purposefully) broad, and I know that the skills I associate with “digital literacy” now will likely change over time.

OK, that said: after doing some interviews, organizing a focus group, and close reading some digital literacy narrative I ask them to write (more on that in a moment…), I’m finding that a lot of students are not really seeing the same importance of learning digital literacy as – well – many of their instructors are. In fact, the digital literacy narratives (yes, more on this in a moment, really) seem to reveal that a lot of students have (or are at least performing for the sake of assignment) a certain kind of shame about their use of digital devices to read, write, and communicate, calling their use of computers “addictive” and “unproductive.” Sure, activity like going on Facebook 24/7 is probably not the most productive use of time, but the kind of work they do on Facebook is often rhetorical and (seriously), many of them will probably need to navigate more social networks in the future to find jobs and network with people. 21st century stuff.

Now, I don’t want to assert that it’s a problem that students think/feel this way; I want to make some bigger claims about why they might be feeling this way. I’m not going to talk about those “why” claims here (perhaps they’ll appear in a post to come and/or I’ll post my presentation materials from CCCC here), but what I do want to write about here (and what has taken me a really long time to get to; sorry!) is how I want to represent these ideas.

Students from five different sections of freshman writing have to write a digital literacy narrative, and I wanted to see if the repeated tropes in the narratives I read in my section were similar to the ones in other sections. I really wanted to see whether there were any trends in the things those students were writing about.

So, I did something I had never done before: I entered the big bad world of data. I took an afternoon to mine a bunch of past UWP portfolios and put together a huge corpus of digital literacy narratives. How did I do that?

Why, through Voyant Tools!

voyant tools

Now, this tool is awesome. After entering in the URLs of a bunch of student portfolios, I was able to create an insta-corpus where I could look at lists of the most-often-repeating words and create visualizations of the data, like Word Clouds and Collocations. Once you enter in all of your data, your page looks something like this:

voyant tools2
I was looking at the patterns of a frequently used word, “obsession,” at the moment when I took this screen shot.

The most important thing I learned how to do while creating a textual visualization of my data was to use a “stop list.” This is a list of words that the corpus will ignore in its analysis, so that the analysis is not just spitting out data like, “Hey, look, the most frequently-used word in these narratives is ‘I’!” Isn’t that neat??”

Voyant Tools has its own stop list (in English and other languages), but I found myself adapting the stop list a lot, making sure that words appearing in WordPress templates (like the word, “WordPress”) were not analyzed. It was fun going through and pruning, making sure I could make as much sense of a large body of texts as possible (hey, is this what they all mean when they’re talking about Digital Humanities work? Side note for another time as well).

I’m really new to any kind of textual and linguistic analysis, so I’m sure there’s still a lot for me to learn, but I was surprised at how easy it was to find this tool and how simple it was to use. Check out how cool this word cloud is!


The collocation is actually even more interesting than this, but again, I think the analysis (and my impressions of how different doing analysis based on large bodies of text and visualizations) will have to wait for a Part 2 to this post…

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Our instructor faced the class, arms crossed over his chest, stern face piercing us all into extraordinary guilt. Most of us had bombed the latest French quiz – a pop quiz, mind you –  and he adopted that distinct teacherly Not Pleased tone.

“I’m going to talk in English,” he says slowly. “Because this is serious.”

We get a stern talking-to on how we must study, on how this is French 21, guys, not French 1 or 2 or 3. This should be review. We have to study, don’t we get it?

I know what he’s doing because I’ve done this move before with my own students. It’s the Bad Cop move, one I only employ after a particularly dour night of grading, where every single student response seems to be utterly off, and ugly feelings start to sink in: “These students are so lazy!” “They don’t care about writing at all!” “Haven’t they done the reading?” “Why did they submit this at 3:00 A.M.?”

I can see these same ugly feelings on his face; for him, it seems ludicrous that we wouldn’t get these concepts. I get it. Hence, the Bad Copy comes out.

Now that I’m taking on the role of an undergraduate in his class, I’m quickly realizing that Bad Cop never ever works; it just turns all of us students into puddles of shame. My classmate-friend, a slight freshman who – bless her – wants an “A” so darn badly in this class, turns to me and whispers, “I’m so scared.” Me too, my dear freshman friend, me too. I’m not scared about the quiz outcome though (frankly, another part of this trick is to pull out the Bad Cop on low-stakes assignments, like quizzes, so that the high stakes ones don’t result in similar failure). What I’m scared of is knowing I might fall into the temptation to do the same thing. And I don’t like that.

First, a little bit of context: I’m taking an undergraduate French class right now because I’m required to do so. All English department graduate students need to demonstrate “proficiency” in two different foreign languages. Don’t get me started on the journey that got me to my little desk in a little dark classroom with the grimiest of chalk boards and weathered carpeted floors in all of UC Davis. All that you need to know is that I’ve got to take this French class in order to take my qualifying exams and write that, like, dissertation or whatever.

So, here I am: the only graduate student among a group of undergraduates being taught by other graduate students. I’ll occasionally get some knowing nods from the graduate student instructors; we’ve got a kind of solidarity going on where they recognize that I recognize all of the “student engagement” moves they’re trying. Work in small groups! Think pair share! Yep, got it. I went to the TA Training Orientation too.

I realize I sound a little embittered, but all of these rehashed undergraduate experiences – the shame of the failed pop quiz, the lost dignity after performing an impromptu skit, the swelling of pride when the instructor tells you you’ve done something right – have given me some new perspective on my own teaching and have helped me to appreciate what my own students go through all the more.

Simply, I forgot how stressful it is to be a college student in a college class environment. I forgot how many little assignments that are to keep track of every day. As a graduate student, one has to be a time management expert, but an undergraduate education is its own kind of time management training grounds. So, there’s a lot more I can say about what I’ve learned about teaching again, but here’s how I’ve survived being an undergraduate. Again:

  • Do homework every day right after class. As soon as class is over, I go straight to work on the homework while the ideas are fresh. OK, so, maybe I check my e-mail first, but then it’s homework time. It’s condensed and I get it done to have the rest of my day free for other work.
  • Chat with my classmates about the assignments. So, at first, I wanted to adopt this stand-offish “I’m older than all of you an I know what I’m doing” persona, but as soon as I got my ego in check and realized that I need to actually practice the collaborative learning I preach, I realized my classmates were awesome resources. Not to mention that they’re all fresh off the heels of AP French, so they all know a whole lot more than I do.
  • Flashcards, flashcards, flashcards. Language classes require a lot of memorization, so I’ve been whipping through flashcards, cutting them into fours, and carrying them with me everywhere I go. When I have a minute, I flip through them, keeping the knowledge as fresh as I can. I don’t know how any undergraduate in a language course could survive without these.
  • Participate like no one’s business. Again, I wanted to be too cool for school for a while, especially since I was such an eager beaver in my actual undergraduate years. But then I realized that it’s not that much fun not to participate; I get way more out of my experience by speaking up, even though I say something wrong 90% of the time. Being wrong and failing is learning.

I’m still collecting tips on how to do this better, though somehow, I realize that by the time I’ve got all of this figured out, I’ll be on to the next quarter, on to the next project, learning instead how to be – well – a graduate student. That’s still one I don’t have a checklist for.

When I take notes on books I’m reading, I’ve got comments and sub-comments.

The comments are of the most mundane variety: I flag down quotes, make note of important moments, and process through key concepts. The typical stuff.

The sub-comments, however, are where things get juicy. This is where I throw my font into italics and write whatever I want: curse words, exclamations, lines of punctuation (think: “!!!!!”), and emoticons abound. It’s my own inner commentary, the liberating part of note-taking. If you don’t have your own running commentary on your own book notes, it’s a practice I highly recommend taking up. Since authors don’t, you know, typically pop out of the ether and explain things to you, the most you can do is talk back.

In any case, my most recent read was James J. O’Donnell’s Avatars of the Wordwhich is a pretty slim volume on the history and evolution of writing technologies. O’Donnell is a classicist by training and, perhaps most famously, taught the “first MOOC” on Augustine.

His book is remarkable for me because it offers a strange balance of nostalgia for large libraries filled with dusty stacks and an impulse to adapt the “digital world” and deem those same dusty libraries “dead” and obsolete. Authors like O’Donnell – especially in the mid-90s moment of, “hey, look, computers are not all HAL!” – tend to express this ambivalence. The weirdest moment, however, is this one:

“The image I like is that of the university as a suite of software, a front end, or what you see onscreen and interact with, to the world as a whole, chosen for its power, speed, functionality, ease of use, even for its user-friendliness. The professor turns into a kind of software icon – click on the professor and let him take you to the world that he knows” (157). 

So, a professor becomes the Clippy of the university? Click on the professor and he’ll guide you through your learning experience? This kind of metaphor turns the professor into a sort of bizarre escort into the university world, a packaged “guide.” Now I recognize that part of O’Donnell’s vision is a kind of historical artifact; he was speaking from a moment when online, hybrid, and MOOCs were a complete unknown. Yet I find it fun to chew on the metaphor a decade later and consider: would it be useful for the university to create a more “user-friendly interface?” What happens when learning becomes something treated at “interface value,” a glossy entree to the “professor’s world?” What does “the professor’s world” even look like in this vision of “the university as a suite of software?”

One might argue there’s a certain neoliberal, TED talk vision in this kind of statement too, a desire to make the university more like a WYSWYIG where the purposes of courses are transparent; there’s no self-assembly required to make sense of the work you’re doing. But I wonder how much we owe this transparency to our students. How much do we need to teach at interface value and what do we lose when we don’t have them assemble the parts on their own?

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I’m a little self-conscious about the title of this post, mostly because I don’t intend to talk Ezra Pound or Modernism here and in fact, I find both the poet and the movement a little tiresome. This is for a number of reasons, primary of which is the whiplash from reading dozens of Modernist texts for my preliminary exams.

That said, Ezra Pound’s famous expression “Make it New” is perfect in my mind. To me, “Making it New” is essential to surviving in graduate school.

Let me take a step back for a moment: like so many others, I’ve found my graduate school experience simultaneously gratifying, exhilarating, and disheartening. I’ve had moments of great confidence and empowerment and perhaps even more moments of self-doubt. I just recently erased the subtitle on my to-do list “Happenings of a Continued Adolescence.” Though it was initially written in jest, I realized I was re-enforcing my own self-loathing and insecurities and I just couldn’t have that.

Though I recognize that graduate school is necessary career training and apprenticing for a life in the academy (or, increasingly, in other kinds of professional institutions and research settings), I can’t help but shake the feeling much of the time that I’m doing college all over again, but with higher stakes and more responsibilities. It’s a lot like treading water, endlessly egg beating with only the potential outcome for the rescue ship to come in.

Yet I have to remind myself (frequently) that I’m very happy here, reading and writing, and though it may feel like I’m staying in one place much of the time, I am (very slowly and often imperceptibly) moving forward, building skills, and becoming a sharper thinker and communicator.

One way I remind myself of this is by reminding myself of what, indeed, makes me happy. In college, I kept a gratitude journal for a little while, trying to map what made me feel happy during a time where I felt very sad. So, even today, I look at what I’m grateful for: my flexible schedule, my time to read as many books (and whatever books) I want and reflect on those books, my ability to exercise on a regular basis, my proximity to a beautiful campus, and the opportunity to work with dynamic and motivated students. These reminders keep me pushing through.

That said, to really dig into and find joy in reading and writing, I’ve found that I truly also need novelty. Let me start by saying that, as a general rule, graduate students are rarely doing anything truly novel on their own. Rather, graduate students often (nervously) emulate advisers, hero theorists, and trendy trailblazers in the field.

Yet we need to feel like our work is new and discover what makes it new: that’s what builds scholarship.

For me, post-preliminary exam (and for those following at home: I passed), I’m revisiting a lot of old work and trying to make it new again. I’m not necessarily revising work or outputting much for others. Rather, I’m trying to make it new for myself. I’m trying to remind myself of why I’m in graduate school in the first place and why the topics I’m purportedly interested in (life writing, writing about technology, writing with technology) are even interesting to me at all. Then, I want to make my work new to others. But I’ve got to convince myself first.

Let me make one thing clear: I’ve never been unconvinced that my ideas are uninteresting. However, I’ve had many days recently when I’ve been reading books and have taken a pause to wonder: why am I interested in this? What is actually of interest here? What am I noticing that’s new? What am I noticing that’s exciting? I can usually think of something, come up with a million questions, and then never manage to reach one conclusion about them. Days often go from exhilaration about a new book or question to complete despair about whether there’s anything of value to say about anything. Do questions even matter anymore? Do books matter? AM I AN INTERESTING PERSON??

This spiral is not impossible to recover from, but it’s one that also leads to the larger, looming purpose of making work new again: writing a dissertation.

I mean, here’s the thing. I don’t know how to write a dissertation. If a dissertation walked up to me, looked me in the eyes, and said “Cheerio!”, I don’t think I’d recognize it.

This shouldn’t be news to me. But it is.

I hadn’t put it together until recently that I’m at the scary-exciting moment of figuring out how to interpret a new genre of writing. This is something I haven’t had to do in a long time and I’m now facing the questions I have to tell my own writing students to face all of the time: what’s the purpose of this writing? Who’s the audience? What are the constraints? What’s your exigence for writing?

So, what have I been doing to a.) make my ideas feel new again and b.) tackle an unfamiliar genre?

Well, in addition to reading, I’ve been revisiting writing I know how to do. I started penning a short story for the first time in forever, I’ve been drafting up some short articles that I can (hopefully) submit to GradHacker. In other words, I’ve been trying to rediscover what I like not just about reading, but also about writing in the first place. Why do I care so much about writing? Why is knowing how to write – and knowing how to write well – something that endlessly fascinates me? Perhaps more importantly, why do I still think I’m a “good” writer and how can I continue to validate and enjoy my own practice?

These are questions that scare me because they require deep introspection, an opportunity to consider my values and my everyday practices. At the same time, this is a rare opportunity, one that I know will be important to all of the choices I make in the future. I hope that making it new is a practice that will soon feel very practiced and very – well – old.

I write this post for a couple of reasons:

a. To test and see whether this will post live to my page and

b. To inform whoever checks this page that I’ll likely be updating posts more regularly over at my website, It’s a more static and professional-looking page, which will ultimately be a better archive of my writing, teaching, and whatnot.

So, yes, go over there and take a look around! I’m hoping to beautify it over the course of the next few weeks/years/decades.

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When I went to college, I remember purchasing a digital camera for the first time. Its functionality was pretty basic, but all I really wanted to do with it was create brag-worthy content for my brand new Facebook account. Of course, I also had some serious archival reasons for wanting to photograph my first year; I was acutely aware of the fact that my college experience would be a precious moment in my life that I would want to remember in detail. Nostalgia tends to dictate a lot of my choices, and I could somehow foresee that I would want the visual data to trigger those memories.

So, for the first few weeks, I used the camera all the time. I took pictures of my dorm room, my lecture halls, the views from different parts of campus. I still have a picture of one of my friends posed in my dorm room with hands on his hips and my bright pink laptop case planted atop his head.

As the weeks wore on, I stopped carrying the camera with me. I abandoned it in part because I befriended fellow photographically inclined types; I could count on them to take the pictures and do the archival work. However, I think a part of the camera abandonment had to do with my own insecurity and frustration with taking the photos. I never took particularly GOOD photos (in spite of my attempts to angle the camera towards the sky and get some shots of some angles and skylines). In fact, I often took bad photos – many, many bad photos – and I didn’t have the patience or motivation to become a better photographer on my “Coolpix” camera. So that was the end of that.

Do I regret not taking more photos? This question is the stuff of greeting cards and teenage Tumblr pages, I recognize, but it is one that confronts my regrets about agency. I often regret not DOING more, saying more, or being involved more. And as I’ve been feeling a bit of that familiar surge of nostalgia, that longing for a time past, I do – yes – I do sometimes regret that I didn’t take more photos.

Part of what makes a good photographer is the ability to find one interesting thing to focus on and to take dozens of pictures of that one wonderful thing. With this in mind – and my own mild pangs of regret for not dedicating myself to archival efforts more fully – it is my goal to become more like a good photographer and not be afraid to take many metaphorical “shots” of that which interests me. I am learning to be patient with the tedium involved in looking at the same thing many times over. But I think that patience is part of what makes a researcher skilled at her craft.

I may no longer have my digital camera, but I’m feeling increasingly prepared to equip myself with the right equipment – and philosophy – to keep myself moving, zooming in and out and finding the focus I need to accomplish this writing thing I keep talking about doing. At least until then, I can keep taking snapshots and collecting stories.

I’m having trouble turning off noise today. It’s all kinds of noise: cell phone noise, social media noise, inside brain noise. There’s something poetic about being consumed in this “white noise” considering I am in the postmodern phase of my prelim reading. I think my seeming inability to block out all of these dopamine-inducing noises is partially because I started today with finishing a good (well, yes, for my prelim exams, but come on now, what else am I reading?) novel and when that happens, I sometimes don’t quite know what to do with myself. When a novel has an ending that is just so perfect and final, so inevitable, it seems as though there’s nothing else to say either within or outside the world of the novel. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing now: to work out of this funk of, “How do I possibly write about or think about something that already seems so complete?”
To react this way is obviously to react to “good” writing; it is to react to writing that has communicated something surprising, thought-provoking, and insightful. And it is exactly this kind of writing to which scholarship is devoted. But it is also exactly this kind of writing that reminds me why I am sometimes intimidated by putting my voice into scholarly conversation. Sometimes, when I have a very emotional reaction to a piece of writing, I don’t know how to be critical of it anymore. Putting on a scholarly cap is easy to do when it’s a work that evokes nothing in me at all. Obviously, it is pleasurable to write about pleasurable things, but I have yet to determine how to apply an analytic lens to portrayals of love and loss and memory and all of those things that hit me straight in the emotional bits of my being.
I am perhaps feeling a bit emotionally wrought and a bit concerned with “inevitable endings” after today’s appointment of Janet Napolitano for UC President. Now I typically reserve political discussion for places offline (you know, places where my words won’t be stored forever and ever), but I just want to muse upon a few lingering thoughts I’ve had with the news: what does it mean for the head of Homeland Security to become a president of a public university? What message does this send to the larger academic community? In what ways are militarization, intelligence, and national security relevant to the role of the academy in the larger national fabric? There have been university leaders who have not been academics in the past, but never before has there been a university leader implicated primarily in national security. I’ve read a lot of angry editorials (and a lot of optimistic ones too), but I can’t sift through enough of the noise to really make sense of the long-term impacts of this kind of appointment. Perhaps we can’t know what these long-term impacts will be, but I see big changes to public perception of public education that I feel I can’t change, that I’m powerless to affect.
It’s normal to feel small and afraid and voiceless both in the face of large decisions and in front of awe-inspiring works. I’ve expressed this here before and I’ll express it again: I’m paralyzed by the not knowing of where my voice could actually affect change. But (and also again), what can I do but keep beating the oars through the water, hoping that wherever I steer this boat of mine, I’ll make it to some pretty sweet island.

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