Thursday, March 02, 2006


My incipient fatherhood is always in the back of my mind. My wife, increasingly ungainly and subjected to attacks from within by our very active daughter, is concerned primarily with the Littlest Berg's physical wellbeing; constant reminders of the growing presence inside her must keep her focus here. I also suspect that this is an evolutionary development: keeping the offspring alive is almost solely the mother's role in the earliest stages of infancy. I'm not being sexist, just biological: a newborn human being - in the first six weeks of life - must nurse, on average, at least once an hour, for a period of about twenty minutes. I'm not equipped in that department (moobs don't have mammary glands (moobs=man boobs, seen on fat guys like me)).

Fatherhood is a culturally created set of responsibilities, one of those cultural memes that we absorb through our upbringing without realizing it. With fatherhood rapidly approaching - about 10-12 weeks away - my mind continually returns to the subject. I've joked often that since about the age of 21, my father grew increasingly less stupid. Now, I'm realizing that he was much less a prick than I thought. I've never met my daughter, but the role that my own father played in my life, the responsibility that he taught by example, the sacrifices he made for the sake of my sister and myself, these all contribute to an overwhelming sense that I need to think about some things - and right now - that I have never considered.

I thought, once upon a time, that marriage, independence, and success in the field of my choice made me a man. I'm realizing now that I never understood what the term "responsibility" meant. It's growing (along with my wife's belly, coincidentally) daily, and I realize that I won't understand until I'm much older. This is a hard truth for me to face: I've never had a problem understanding anything I set out to apprehend.

I am obligated to someone other than myself, and not just by marriage. Sarah's a strong, independent woman - she'd do fine without me if she had to. I am obligated to my child by the very virtue of her conception: she is, quite literally, half of me, with all attendant implications. Sarah will be a fine mother - of that there is no doubt - but she has the vaguest understanding of my ancestral quirks, just as I do of hers.

I know, for instance, that her child may well be artistic: her family has a long and brilliant history of art. One of her direct ancestors is Frederic Remington, the American sculptor and painter who is best known for his paintings of the American West. Her aunt is a successful artist. Sarah herself is a hell of an amateur. My family is academic - we seek terminal degrees - it is a curse: I did my best to avoid graduate school, but the yearn to research and write and study and discuss overcame my obstinate refusals. On the other hand, I could never fully understand a dyslexic child, which she could be. My family is prone to heart disease, bipolar disorder, severe ADHD (I once turned a cartwheel in class. No amount of spanking or punishment could really help: in the moment, I forgot everything and just acted, a very dangerous way to be.), and I know that Lou Gherig's Disease and Diabetes have made appearances as well.

Beyond this: she is, truly, helpless. I've never looked into as many insurance policies as I am now. "How much will it cost if I do or do not ________?" is a constant refrain: How much will it cost to add her to my insurance? If I add her to my health plan, which options should I choose? What will she need? How much life insurance do I need? What will cover her through college? What daycare should we use? Can I afford any of this? I must. There is no way around it. If I have to work an extra job, I will - I already work 60 hour weeks, but another 20 won't kill me.

Worries... they collide with anticipation: I cannot wait to meet her. I know that in the beginning, this small, squalling, pink-faced, blue-eyed (that's the only definite - blue or green eyes are an overwhelming majority on both sides) little girl will be a stranger. I can't wait to watch her be. I've never held a child. I've never changed one. Neither had my father, but we Bergs are quick studies (all those goddam degrees have to exhibit at least that). I have to protect her, but I also have to let her learn by experience. I have never experienced such a chaotic mingling of anticipation and abject terror as I do now.
currently playing on miPod - "Maple Leaf Rag," by Scott Joplin

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Graduate School Blues

I've been increasingly bored lately - indeed, never as bored with so much to do as I am now. I will, therefore, write the following "humorous" bit for my fellow grad students:

You Know you're in Grad School When:

You look forward to Spring Break so that you can work on school things without classes or students interfering.

You walk into an examination session and understand the laughter (even if you, yourself, do not laugh at) at the following exchange:
NERD 1: How much did you study for this?
NERD 2: Not much. I was swamped and only had about five hours to look at the material.
NERD 1: I studied six! HA!
NERD 2: So?
NERD 1: (in a singsong, childlike voice) I'm in possession of determinate meaning. Nah nah nah nah naaaaaah!

"Coffee Filters" are ahead of meat, fruits, vegetables, and dairy on your shopping list.

You grow to dread moments in which non-academics ask the question: "What is your dissertation/article/field of study about?"

"The Company of Other People" means "there are other people in the library/lab right now."

You find things interesting that nobody else on earth even thinks about.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Distributed Cognition - Musings

Distributed Cognition is probably one of the most important concepts related to network culture and information architecture. I've been doing a good bit of reading & note-taking on the subject for class & research, so I think it's past time for me to type out some musings on DC. Maybe this will even receive some feedback... nah. Nobody reads these things, at least not mine.

1. D. C. is an old concept that has been revamped in recent discussions, especially those concerned with the effects of networked activity and collaborative space upon cognitive achievements. According to Cole and Engestrom, it was Goethe who supposedly first remarked that everything has been thought of before, and nothing is new under the sun. I know that Roland Barthes made a similar assessment in "The Death of the Author," when he labeled all authors scriptors, or cultural scribblers who write down collective ideas into texts.

Barbara Winsor gives an activity-based definition of distributed cognition in her article "Learning to Do Knowledge Work in Systems of Distributed Cognition" (Journal of Business & Technical Communication 15.1, 2001): "Distributed cognition treats thinking not as an action that takes place wholly inside an individual's head but rather as an activity that is distributed among the individual, other people, the physical environment, and the tools the person uses, including language and such language structures as genres" (p. 6). Language and language structures being socially constructed, this makes sense. Simply put, new knowledge depends upon old. Thinking does not occur in a vaccuum (unless you're vacuous, in which case we don't want to know).

2. Applying this to networks is a simple and necessary step in developing our information structures, which are slowly filling all knowledge spaces. People constantly communicate. Teams are broken up over the information network, and collaboration is an increasingly instantaneous mode of development. Human-computer interaction is becoming more and more network mediated human-human-human (ad infinitum) communication. Computer networks allow for instant feedback and cumulative development: the open-source software movement is a glaring example of this. At my university, D.C. and open-source are important facts of life: Red Hat's headquarters is on our campus, and our colleges of engineering and design are among the best in the world.

3. Taking all of this into account, it follows that future information design and evaluation must evaluate the effects of distributed cognition. How are users interacting with the tools presented by technological factors? This is something that designers have not considered as much in the past - engineers are usually poor evaluators of usability and human factors.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Screaming Into a Box - Revisited (II)

II. Free Speech "Screaming into a Box" -

Pope Foundation. Two words that I've grown to loathe. Stanley Fish was right when he claimed in There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing, Too (Duke UP, 1994): "In our legal culture as it is now constituted, if one yells 'free speech' in a crowded courtroom and makes it stick, the case is over" (105). The Pope Foundation loves to attack campus hate-speech codes, campus instructors who display an ideological bent, and campuses in general. Why? Campuses squash the "free speech" of students who display any values other than "politically correct" ones.

This imparts a dangerous assumption, to wit, they try to instill in the public consciousness a view that all speech is actionless, that speech occurs in a vacuum. To wit, that screaming bigot who campus police drag away from students trying to enjoy lunch has no effect upon his listeners. He's just exercising his right to free speech. Well, don't I have the right to enjoy my lunch in peace? Don't African-American students have the right to eat and study without hearing some asshole shriek about "jungle music and whores, creating a welfare state and feeding off the public?"

In one respect, this is correct. Speech, by itself, has no inherent actionable value. Speech is harmless. I can walk around all day, chanting "bunnies are nice. I like puppies and eat fish for dinner." This speech has no active value other than the informative sense. It is not speech that is politicized by these people, but rhetoricized speech, and therein lies the true difference.

Rhetoricized speech constitutes action. It is created in response to a situation (real or nonexistent) that a communicator (rhetor) believes must change. The audience of rhetoricized speech is intended to respond to the speech with action. The strategy of First Amendment jurisprudence is to manipulate the distinction between free speech, expression, and action. No body of laws can be constructed to state that "freedom of action" is guaranteed: this would subvert the legal body before the laws are put into place. Here, we gain our conflict.

Pope Foundation rhetors love to point out the "leftist" leanings of college professors. They actively recruit students to enroll in classes and goad the professor into making some censorial remark. These students are told to say whatever they can to get the professor to stop them: offend everyone in class, use racist and bigoted epithets, and wait for Dr. So-And-So to say, "You need to be quiet or leave the class." This, the Pope Foundation says, proves a bias. You're interrupting the free flow of ideas. Dirty liberals.

Not true. Interestingly, the courses targeted are in the Humanities, and nowhere else, courses in which difficult social topics are discussed. Professors work hard - most of them sixty hours a week - and study their fields extensively. The Philosophae Doctor degree is not lightly granted, nor tenure lightly conferred. Tenured professors within the academic environment are entitled to the same level of respect as judges within a courtroom or surgeons within an operating theater. But, since these professors discuss social issues, literature, history that has not been whitewashed by textbook companies, etc., they are verbally assaulted.

The free exchange of ideas is, indeed, one aspect of the university that is necessary. This is precisely what tenure was created to protect. However, it is not the only aspect of the university: if it were, to paraphrase Dr. Fish again, we could all stand on podiums and shout ideas at one another for four years and receive a degree. Some people come to universities to learn from respected scholars. Some come to play athletics. Some come because their parents make them.

The free exchange of ideas is valuable. I firmly believe that our culture has evolved through discussion and debate. Free-speech debates serve to develop a cultural moral character. We are fortunate that, to a degree, most speech in the United States is protected: these debates can take place. A professor, serving the triple role of scholar, educator, and classroom moderator, must occasionally redirect discussion to areas he or she feels must yet be addressed. This is his (or her - from here out, I'll have to use the standard English "his" to refer to an anonymous individual) perogative. He is the expert: he has some one hundred graduate level hours of study in the subject, has written on average two books and dozens of articles on the subject. It is presumptuous and rude to attack him for redirecting unproductive classroom speech. One could also argue that deliberately inserting a student whose sole purpose is to offend the class at large interrupts the free exchange of ideas.

I'm tired of this topic, but I'll probably return later to discuss some other outrage.
currently playing on miPod - Symphony #60, 2nd movement. Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn.

Screaming Into a Box - Revisited (I)

Screaming into a box... The title, I'm sure, was unclear. It referred to the feeling I receive when I argue a point or state a claim. It also refers to the "Free Speech" folks who seem to feel that speech has no consequences. I'll discuss both below.

I. ME screaming into a box. I seem to receive this feeling far more often after moving to the Bible Belt. It's not a religion thing, although I'm often disturbed by the religious climate in the deep south. It's more a feeling engendered by the feeling of closemindedness that accompanies religious fervor into the public arena, a feeling ever-present in my new home of North Carolina. I've lived most of my life in the south - I was born in Tennessee and went to high school in West Virginia; however, both areas in which I lived were home more to mountain folk than fire-breathers.

Mountain folks seem to have a "live and let live" attitude that goes hand in hand with the environment: the land is green, food is plentiful and cheap (the cost of a 30-06, ammunition, and a homemade fishing rod, or "fish pole" can feed a family for a lifetime), and nobody bothers you much when you live far from cities, rails, and don't make enough money to tax. You're more apt to be sociable when your nearest neighbor is two miles away on the next mountain; when you've got to be self-reliant in the extreme. This attitude has carried into the twenty-first century, and is threatened by the global media conglomerates who now shape worldwide public opinions.

In my opinion, this is a horrifying thought - look down on the Mountain State all you want, but realize that these are a highly independent, warm, and wise people who are ridiculed simply because they don't give a damn about material wealth when they're surrounded by the most pristine land south of Maine. When JFK visited West Virginia on the campaign trail and commented, "I have never seen such appalling poverty," the citizens of the state were shocked: they did not realize that they were poor. They had a different set of values, among which was independence, and made the things they wanted. Interesting factoid: mountaineers (not miners or city folks) live extremely long and healthy lives, most are active until their deaths around 87 or 88.

Moving from this environment into the southern land of neighborly judgment was a shocking experience. I came from a realm valuing independence and self-reliance to a land in which the neighborhood busybody committee had the ultimate say. If one chooses to not go to church, they feel something is wrong and immediately set out to "save" his soul. Upon learning that I'm Catholic, the BBB (busybody Bitch) immediately asks if I "worship Mary and saint statues." I'm sorry, but where I come from, we follow the old rule that polite people avoid discussing politics and religion with strangers (a rule set down by Henry Fielding, of all people, in the 18th century tract "On Conversation").

Old South ideology frowns upon difference. There was a long standing social heirarchy that became ingrained into the southern conscience: anyone different was automatically excluded and branded "rude" by the local populace. This tradition continues today. I'm not one of those "damyankee carpetbaggers" who comes south to criticize, demanding that things here conform to things in midtown Manhattan. I just want to enter a discussion without the suspicion of "outsider," without the brand of "ideologically-driven," without the assumption of "damyankee-hood" attached to me and therefore automatically predisposing participants to disregard my comments.

What to do?

I am increasingly distraught over what to choose as the topic for a rhetorical criticism for my COM/ENG 516 course, "Rhetorical Criticism, Theory and Practice." There is no dearth of subject matter; however, I would like to choose a web-based artifact, straight politics or political parody website, for my analysis. Textual artifacts are fine - I enjoy text analysis and I've had a good deal of experience with such; however, there is a lack of qualified rhetorical criticism concerning the blend of visual and textual communicative methods in the world wide web.

Any topic I choose will involve an obvious dissection (read: deconstruction) of the biases presented by the sites. Before anyone jumps my ass, screeching about bias in politics, liberal or conservative, I encourage you to read one of my earlier posts "Screaming into a box". POLITICS IS BIAS. Any group or individual commenting upon or presenting political information will demonstrate an observable bias. The observability of the bias depends entirely upon the rhetorical skills of the presenter/commentator. Anyone who claims otherwise is full of shit.

I welcome suggestions. Leave a comment.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Screaming into a Box

At times, when I speak about certain topics, certain issues that have a contemporary political currency, I feel as though listeners or readers in our current climate have developed the tendency to hear one or two statements and turn off, dismissing my commentary as ideologically driven from an opposing point of view. The oddity, it seems, is that my views are "ideological" and "opposite" to folks on both sides of the aisle. We've developed such an adversarial mode of discourse in this nation that whenever a commentator delivers a statement that does not immediately attack one side or the other, individuals on the receiving end automatically assume that the commentary opposes their points of view.

First of all, I want to know why in the hell an "ideologically-driven" politics is necessarily bad. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "we ought to remember [when dealing with the state] that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man's expedient to meet a particular case... the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the centre of the movement" (from "Politics"). In other words, Politics is all ideologically and contextually driven. Politics is inherently oppositional: nobody can agree on all points with anyone else.

I'll offer a viewpoint on higher education. The Pope Center - a conservative think-tank that has more heart than brains - loves to attack the fact that higher education has added a more diverse curriculum in recent years. Colleges don't teach Shakespeare or Chaucer, paragons of Western Civilization and virtue! This is their cry, which they cram down throats with glee, citing courses in "Queer Theory" and "Trickster Characters in Literature" - special topics courses - as supplanting these paragons of virtue.

I won't address the "virtue" comment with anything but this: Chaucer was a dirty-minded man, and some of his stories would be printed in "Hustler" in modern America. Take for instance, the tale of Handy Nicholas, who, when sticking his ass out the window to fart upon the husband of the young lady he was screwing, received a hot poker up said ass for his trouble. Take the drunken murders and sexual innuendo in the best of Shakespeare ("Thy daughter and the moor are making the beast with two backs" - Othello). They just say it in prettier prose. Chaucer, if one looks closely enough at direct and accurate translation of his contemporary vernacular, told some classic dick-and-fart jokes in Middle English.

Special topics courses - those which "supplant" Shakepeare and Chaucer - appear once in a while as a result of student demand. For good reason: with an increasing number of "groups" writing literature, there is a broadened base of knowledge. For a long while, the study of American Literature - Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, and company - was considered classless and base. Shakespeare and Chaucer have their place, and the many sections of both that are taught each semester are full; but with an increasing base of knowledge that goes along with an increasing base of literature goes a responsibility on the part of universities to study and discuss that base.

Why the outcry? One side doesn't understand it, the other embraces it to the point of folly. There is no balanced center - those in the center are considered members of the opposition by the vocal and obnoxious minorities on either side of the spectrum. I agree - to a point - that Shakespeare and Chaucer belong in the English curriculum; however, I don't think that a single-minded obsession with retaining cultural references that are five and eight hundred years out of date is a wise course of action. Shakespeare and Chaucer form the base of Modern English - Shakespeare's plays are among the earliest written records of early modern English, and direct correlations with linguistic development can be traced between the two. They are not the only contributors anymore, though. The latino, the vocal homosexual, and the descendant of the slave have all contributed their voices to our current culture, and to understand it, we must understand its origins and its expressive means.

On the other hand, studies that have been part of Western culture since its inception in Greece, and here I speak specifically of Rhetoric, are denigrated as meaningless. By extrapolation from the phrase "just campaign rhetoric," most citizens feel that rhetoric is the study of how to say something without saying anything. Nothing could be further from the truth. The rhetorical critic tries to find the meaning that the rhetor has hidden within his message. We need more critics of rhetoric: more people who can dissect and share the true meanings of speeches and statements.

More on this later.