Reconstructing Rhetoric

My M.A. in Writing and Ph.D. in Comp/Rhet required six rhetoric classes (classical rhetoric, history of rhetoric, medieval rhetoric, 19th century rhetoric, modern rhetoric, contemporary rhetoric). Because I assumed I would always teach at an institution that was primarily undergraduate as more of a composition scholar than a rhetorician, the study of rhetoric for me was less about preparing to teach it as it was having six semesters to play with theories I could pull on at leisure for other academic pursuits (and to bore people at parties with my esoteric ability to parse etymology with a shallow knowledge of Greek root words). Dr. Linda Hanson at Ball State University taught us that the 19th century basically began in the mid 1700s and extended into the early 1900s. Her seventeen-page syllabus, replete with about 5 pages of “recommended” (read: also essential) readings was the first syllabus I received in grad school…and almost the last. Dr. Paul Ranieri so vehemently and eloquently disagreed with my ideas about critical pedagogy that I immediately wanted him for the second reader on my dissertation. A single sentence he mentioned in an office chat about the nature of Platonic reality still haunts my dreams.

This fall, my first graduate class in Rhetorical Theory goes online. All graduate students in our professional and technical writing program (with tracks in technical writing, nonfiction, and editing) are required to take this class…and it is the only rhetoric class required. I am facing the mind-numbing task of condensing approximately 2500 years of rhetorical theory and history into sixteen weeks. In doing so, I’ve been rethinking what makes rhetoric a fascinating study for me and how best to communicate that passion to students who will primarily be technical communicators, nonfiction writers, editors, and composition teachers. In other words, students who are very much who I was as a graduate student…not necessarily seeking to be rhetorical scholars but who very much need to understand the foundations and theory of rhetoric in order to navigate 21st century communicative possibilities.

In keeping with the list-happy nature of popular online media in early- to mid-2014, here are five reasons that I was happy I had those six courses in rhetoric (and why nearly everyone would benefit from a little bit of rhetoric in their lives).

1. Most of what holds true about rhetorical theory today was laid out 2500 years ago by a man named Aristotle and some guys called the Sophists.

If you were to study nothing but the first 500 years or so of rhetorical history, you’d have a pretty good grasp on most of the key terms, concepts, and structure of rhetorical theory. In fact, Aristotle’s Rhetoric alone (written B.C.E. 350) will provide about 80% of what you need to know in order to be either a practicing rhetorician (provided you are a good man speaking well–sorry about the sexism) or pull off a solid rhetorical analysis. For grins, you can also dabble in the Sophists, a much maligned but fascinating group of teachers who, again, practiced before the Common Era. A good chunk of the last 2014 years of rhetorical writing from the Middle East to the Midwest involves destroying, upholding, apologizing for, condemning, modifying, sanctifying, or reclaiming these basic rhetorical principles. In other words, we have a few basic precepts, then 2000 years of variations on a theme.

2. Rhetoric is more art (techne) than it is a science or philosophy.

Much of rhetoric’s history has been spent in a shoving match with science and philosophy, or rhetoric has been relegated to the handmaiden of the above. However, to me, the discussion around the epistemological nature of rhetoric (i.e. does rhetoric create or convey truth) begs the question, what’s so great about the search for “truth” (other than most academic fields are fairly obsessed with it)? Rhetoric’s true nature as an art form, as the infinite realm of potential not the finite realm of the real or “true,” makes rhetoric more a dance than a dissection, more cantata than cadaver. Although there is some dissection involved…just not the bloody kind.

3. Studying rhetoric is like buying a blue car. Once you buy a blue car, you start seeing blue cars everywhere. The same is true with rhetoric.

That commercial for bath soap? Rhetoric. Stump speech for your favorite (or least favorite) candidate for Congress? Rhetoric. Infuriating Facebook post? Argument about socks with your significant other? Yep and yep. Study rhetoric and you will soon find otherwise innocuous daily activities imbued with a special hidden meaning. Dabble in stasis theory, and you might look at CSI Miami in a whole new light. Delve into visual rhetoric, and you’ll begin questioning why your children’s teacher feels it so necessary to use comic sans as a default font. (Ok, to be fair, you might question that choice without the formal study of rhetoric).

4. You have been operating under the Platonic view of reality and you probably didn’t even know it. And that is a terrible, terrible shame.

No, the Platonic view of reality does not mean you can be really great friends with the opposite sex. What Plato did was set up a view of reality that…he posed the ephemeral against the…damn it, Dr. Ranieri! I can’t even start talking about it without getting angry. Read this excellent blog that explains the problem with Plato as it relates to the sciences while I gather myself.

5. No matter what you do or choose not to do, rhetoric will enrich your understanding of language and human nature (and might help you win a few more word battles with the important people in your life).

Aristotle defines rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” The study of rhetoric will make you a more observant human, better able to navigate the core of most human endeavors, the rock-riddled waters of speaking with, writing to, and/or gesturing at other humans. The ability to open our mouths and stick our feet directly in them separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (except for cats, who can literally open their mouths and…well…you know). And no field…not even literature or creative writing, rhetoric’s closest cohorts (in academe, at least)…will help better equip an individual for a life lived among others in the polis. Or in the country, for that matter.

One of my favorite quotes is from a comp/rhetorist named James Berlin: “To teach writing is to argue for a version of reality and the best way of knowing and communicating it.” If this is true, then to teach rhetoric is to challenge students to argue for their version of reality with all the means available (which they are pretty much forced to do because Plato…no…I won’t get started on this again…).

In short (she says after nine paragraphs of rattle), I can sit in front of my computer every day and open my online rhetoric course with a smile because the study of rhetoric makes us ontologically more human.

That and coffee. But mostly rhetoric.

MOOCs: Menace or Magic? Both?

This morning, I read the NY Times article The Year of the MOOC. The title is interesting. One year. “I like to call this the year of disruption,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX, “and the year is not over yet.” The discussion about MOOCs, of course, has gone on for much longer than a year (the first MOOC, ostensibly, was taught in 2007).

But MOOC news has gone mainstream. Because it is a part of the larger discourse, and as part of a project for my day job, I am in the process of gathering all of the news about MOOCs. How I went about doing so says something about why MOOCs exist, why so many people are worried, and why they are the natural product of a number of factors that pull higher education and technology together and apart.

I’ve followed the MOOC debate mostly through news digests from Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Campus Technology (or as I call them Nerd Breakfast Reading). I receive links about MOOCs from people also interested in online learning and digital technology through email and Facebook, and occasionally, articles will pop up on the WPA-listserv that feeds into my private email account. Because I am working on this project, my supervisor sent me a list of MOOC sources she had compiled, links pasted into a Word Document. So up to this point, news about MOOCs has come to me. I haven’t gone to it.

But this morning, after getting all jazzed up about the NYT article (more on that later), I decided I would go and search for sources on the either disastrous or miraculous (and certainly game-changing, no matter what your stance) Massive Open Online Course (which, as I composed this post, I realized I had been calling the Massively Open Online Course).

If only there was an aggregator that would search for content (like Google) but not have Wikipedia be the inevitable first result (unlike Google). And if only that aggregator would allow me to arrange the sources so that I can then share them and allow comments (like Facebook) and allow access to those sources that wouldn’t require people to also endure endless pictures of my amazingly cute daughter (unlike Facebook).

Ah…yes…there is. Scoop.it. I can now gather, curate, and disseminate information (with commentary) quickly and easily, and reach a much wider audience (potentially) who can then use that information to curate, create, disseminate…etc. etc. For nearly free.

My point? My search for information, and the places that I went to get that information, is the first step in understanding how online learning (and particularly MOOCs) change the game in education. Part of that starts in the tools to which almost everyone has access, and the nature of how those tools work in the complex reality of human lives. As I see it, MOOCs are going to revolutionize higher education, for good or bad, because:

1) MOOCs have the potential to use the affordances of technology that already exist for the forces of good…education. 

The NY Times article states that “In September, Google unleashed a MOOC-building online tool, and Stanford unveiled Class2Go with two courses.” Right. But MOOC-building online tools have always existed in bits and pieces on the internet: Google Search, Facebook, blogs, YouTube. Google is just packaging existing concepts into a concept for a specific purpose…open source education. What higher education as a bureaucratic (and revenue-requiring) entity has resisted, for the most part, is the systematic integration of technology into learning and support for that integration.

The most recent Department of Commerce report emphasizes the connections between education, technology, innovation, and a strong economy. The strong economies of the past have fueled higher education, and conversely, our current stagnant education hinders higher education from supporting innovative teaching using technology by overloading and overworking faculty (popular opinion to the contrary). Because of fundings, tradition, or what have you, traditional higher education minimizes the use of the same tools MOOCs embrace, or uses these tools in very limited ways while charging increasingly steep tuition. Add to this print textbooks and other materials that are outrageously expensive (an advisee just told me she was hesitant about changing to a course that would better suit her learning needs because she had already purchased the $200 textbook for a different course), the high cost of living in a dormitory and eating on a meal plan, or the changing nature of the student body, and you have the perfect storm that is allowing MOOCs to come mainstream. MOOCs explore the boundaries of what technology, particularly well-designed and delivered courses based on learning theory and leveraging elements like adaptive release and adaptive learning, can provide for learners at a greatly reduced cost to students (albeit at the price of venture capitalism).

2) College students seek and education to enhance their lives, which often means first and foremost supporting themselves and their families. 

Coming from a background in the liberal arts as a first generation student from a rural area, I can understand the desire for education to be the halcyon days of Alcyone, the beautiful period where the indecencies of life do not interfere with the pursuit of cerebral bliss. Alas, few students coming to the gates of higher education are doing so to find seven days in winter without a storm. Or in some cases, they are. More and more undergrads (and grads) are seeking a path through the grounds of higher education that will lead them to a brighter future. Higher education is a road to travel quickly, not a garden to explore at leisure.

This metaphor is particularly true for students taking online courses. The average age of students in online courses, according to a study in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, is 24.4 for women and 24.5 for men. Surveys by Noel-Levitz show that 80% of respondents in their online priorities surveys were over 25. To make a sweeping generalization, students in that age range might be looking for a way to begin or support families, move out of their parents’ basements, and otherwise become self-sufficient (and or sufficient for a group of dependents). Because the affective is a powerful motivator (and the root of all long-lasting learning), those students are most likely going to be looking for institutions  programs, courses, and educations that will benefit them and their families and keep them active in those families. As much as those of us who came from a leisurely, government-subsidized and loan-supported liberal education wish, our students are immersed in a stark reality where education = job = better life. MOOCs offer, at least on the surface, a means to an education where students are, in their homes, at the 6-year-old’s soccer match, in Afghanistan.

MOOCs come to students in the places life happens, on a road that might not travel through a traditional brick-and-mortar university. MOOCs can be rewound, fast-forwarded. Concepts can be mastered or reviewed. For free (or for the price of a laptop and Starbucks wireless). And while at this point, only Colorado State University offers to translate MOOCs into college credits, the deal between Coursera and Antioch University indicates that MOOCs might be a path for students to bypass traditional brick-and-mortar. Which might be because…

3) The traditional brick-and-mortar university is not designed for these students. 

Not to say that all universities aren’t. But I would venture to say that most universities are designed for the 18-22 demographic. Welcome Weeks involve trust-building activities, a tour of campus clubs and organizations, information on campus life. But the students above are focused more on their off-campus lives. A majority of traditional courses (again, wildly generalizing here) are also based toward the 18-22 demographic, a population comfortable with (if not satisfied by) the lecture-and-test mentality they are trained to master by the misfortunes of teach-to-the test regulations in K-12. In the STEM fields (where American desperately needs innovation per the Department of Commerce report), the primary method of instruction is still lecture and test (sorry to those who cannot access that article without a subscription). Adult learning theory demonstrates that adult learners are motivated and challenged by a different set of conditions (cognitively and affectively) than the target audience/consumer at the traditional university. Which, not ironically, are the skills that are necessary and lead to the next point, that

4) In the 21st century world, where high-paying jobs are increasingly linked to technology, students will need to effectively use digital tools and technologies to critically consume and rhetorically create and distribute information. 

Clay Shirky brilliantly elaborates on this point in his TED Talks on social media, institutions, and government. His concept of cognitive surplus, the “shared online work we do with our spare brain cycles,” pairs with increased access to technological tools that allow that cognitive surplus to be channeled into causes (both good and LOLCat) and the idea of many to many distribution. Thus, in the digital, crowdsourced, multi-verse reality of the internet, people have the opportunity to both critically consume and rhetorically create (as James Gee and Elizabeth Hayes confirm).

What makes these elements possible are the affordances of technology, some of the same tools that I used to research and create this blog–all for free (or the price of a laptop and the taxes to pay for the public library where I am using free wi-fi access). Higher education (again, speaking in broad generalizations to which there are always exceptions) fights the two primary elements of Shirky’s theory: many-to-many distribution and the use of technological tools by students.

The traditional higher education classroom, in spite of great leaps to transform the “sage from the stage” to “the guide on the side,” still operates primarily on the principle of “the sage” or “the guide” as bearer and creator of the knowledge (measured by his or her production of scholarly text in the form of text-based, print publications that are “peer-reviewed” and studiously guarded). Meanwhile, outside the classroom, students are operating in a completely different reality. Online students, primarily non-traditional students, are mixing, mashing, and maintaining complex lives, all while getting educations mediated (though not always well) in the digital realm.

My online students look more like I do now that what I looked like at 18. As I type this, I am at the public library parenting a four-year-old who needs attention every, oh, 15 to 20 seconds (I will not say where I am standing while I type this sentence). My online adult learners live in this reality. And many of my traditional (and non-traditional students) also live in this technological reality. I have the luxury of creating this MOOC manifesto using the internet, TED, online journals and other open-source and freely-provided resources, and I get to hit “Publish” and have it read. It is published in the same medium as the NY Times piece that spawned my blog.

In the academic world, I would write this article, submit it to a publisher, and wait…oh, sometimes years…to have a few people possibly read my work. Few of our students will ever exist in that reality.

Is the blog more exciting? You bet! Am I being any less “academic” or “scholarly” standing here in the library and blogging? Maybe. Would my sources be taken more seriously had I photocopied them from print books at a library? Perhaps.

But I digress. Shirky’s points relate to the MOOCs because the nature of how humans access, organize, process, manipulate, and communicate knowledge in the digital realm. Reality isn’t changing. It HAS already changed. Not for all, but for many.

Faculty and administrators in higher education have tough choices to make in deciding whether they are going to adjust to and position themselves within this reality, which can be uncomfortable for those of us who grew up and experienced the “sage on the stage” 19th century Germanic model of education and thrived (read: most college professors). MOOCs have the resources and the vision to suggest something different, albeit on an unsustainable scale (most of the eager MOOC registrants do not actually complete the courses and earn the “certificates” for their labors). They are, at least in their public statements, putting teaching ahead of research, a distinctly anti-19th century Germanic model of education. From the NYT article: “In a poke at its university-based competition, Dr. Stavens [Udacity] says they pick instructors not because of their academic research, as universities do, but because of how they teach. “We reject about 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us,” he says. “Just because a person is the world’s most famous economist doesn’t mean they are the best person to teach the subject.”

Not to say that research is not an important part of innovation. But for years, universities have been putting researchers in the classroom with little to no pedagogical training or desire to teach. Or, in order to reserve upper-division or graduate courses for experienced educators who have clawed and scratched their way through the tenure process and want their just desserts, graduate assistants (who also, conveniently, provide enrollments for those graduate classes) cut their teaching teeth on in those undergrad classrooms with students who most need the experience and skills of those faculty teaching higher-level courses. Once those graduates graduate, many will find themselves in contingent lines, teaching the same courses year after year, as the tenure-track lines they dreamed of dry up (why this is happening is a separate argument).  MOOCs might offer a different vision and model of undergraduate education.

Some of my on-campus students came to my class a few days ago carrying the Norton Guides to Literature (which they were assigned for a different course) that I so painfully remember from my undergraduate English degree. These 10,000 page volumes (and there are always multiple volumes) with translucent pages and 10-point font were the bane of my undergraduate existence in the early ’90s. My traditionally aged, very diligent students discussed the material in these volumes before my class began. They were engaged, challenged. In my class, we watched the Presidential Debates on YouTube and analyzed a cartoon from the Daily Kos and an article from the Atlantic online about political responses to Hurricane Sandy. Students were engaged, challenged.

My point is that there is room for traditional, liberal arts education (even the sentence diagramming I so loved in 6th grade), the leisurely garden of knowledge and technological advancement and change. Because human affairs exist solely in the realm of the probable and not the certain, and because my crystal ball is on the fritz (poor wireless connection), I am not sure what that combination will look like in ten months or ten years. And because, for the most part, higher education has not believed this combination can be so, MOOCs are moving in and testing the margins, the only place Clay Shirky claims revolution in education, government, institutions, is possible.

With economic, political, and social uncertainty, we now, more than ever, need students who have access to a challenging, motivating, and quality education. If higher education wants to provide this education, then faculty and administrators need to seriously consider what that education looks like and how we can provide a quality, engaging education to a broad spectrum of students, where those students are, in spite of how WE learned or what the academy has “always done.” Just as I leverage technology to make MOOC news reach me, so can education leverage technology so that teaching and learning can effectively reach 21st century students.

Bottom line: this educational revolution will not be televised. It will be tweeted, Facebook, streamed, remixed, and mashed up. The research I did for this blog, the ways I gathered, processed, re-combined, and distributed information gives us insight to the possibilities for our students, for the educational future of post-empire America. Where we as faculty stand in the revolution will depend on our doing exactly what we ask from our students: making informed, educated decisions that might challenge our values and beliefs about education and why we embrace (or dismiss) technological change.

Some Thoughts on Opinion and Individuality

“Ideologies exist in language, but they are worked out in practices.” — Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students

In our Writing 222: Introduction to Rhetoric class this fall, we started out by playing with the terms “ideology,” “commonplace,” and “truth/Truth” (through the lenses of the Platonists and Sophists). For those not familiar with these terms, Plato and his gang believed that we could (and should) use rhetoric and philosophy to reach the Ideal (Truth). The Sophists (including Isocrates) said, “Eh.” They were more concerned with the role of language in the everyday sphere, in how humans used language to negotiate the complex reality of everyday life.

For those who do know these terms, forgive my reductionist interpretation for the sake of time and space.

The textbook chapter that my students have to read for Tuesday next adamantly disconnects “opinion” from the individual and locates it in the community. The authors claim that the ancients (listed above) would “find fault with the equation of opinion and personality on three grounds…there is no such thing as “just your opinion,” … they would object to the assumption that opinions aren’t important, [and] they would argue that opinions can be changed.” (15)

Hold on…I’m going somewhere with this…so if your eyes are glazing, snap to!

So after reading these passages, I see this morning on my Facebook news feed an interesting image.

Hmmm…I thought. My immediate reaction was a lump somewhere in my gut (as most sensate humans — particularly those with offspring — will react given the emotional appeal of the visual). But removing the visual, you are left with this sentence.

“Women’s rights do not trump human rights.”

Of course, taken on its own, this sentence is a logical fallacy. Women’s rights and human rights are not two opposite ends of a spectrum. Last time I checked, I am both woman and human (even though I feel like a robot some days).

But one might say this is an argument of degree…one of the two sides (still a false dichotomy) is not more than the other. But it also isn’t less than the other, which is the opposite or tacit side of that argument.

What the image is is a demonstration of how an ideology is worked out in practice that becomes fallacy. The ideology is that human life (at a particular stage of existence) is precious and valuable. Once that child grows up to be a woman, that is another story…

And the practice of that ideology often plays out in emotional posts to Facebook, or shouting rants on circus shows or television. The points our WR 222 textbook make quite eloquently are that opinion, when tied to personal identity, cannot afford the playful nature of considering opposite sides, and that rhetoric comes into play at exactly this point: the point at which we disagree about ideology and the commonplaces that underly it.

The Tomato Jungle

Summer is the only time that I really get to do two things that I year to do muchly all year: grow food and turn that food into more elaborate other foods. Sure, I cook in the winter, but my school schedule leaves much to be desired in the “leisurely home cooking department.”

A unique summer delicacy that I have been missing after growing up near the south is okra. Those who know okra fall into two categories, generally: the okraphiles and the haters (see definition here just to be sure you understand fully those in category number two). Yes, there are those who love the veggie, and those who just can’t be happy for it, no matter what, or criticize it unjustly. “Oh, it’s too slimy!” or “I had it this one time, and it sucked.” Well, maybe the cook sucked. Good okra, cooked well, is delicious. Period. If you don’t like it, chances are you haven’t had it cooked properly. Or you are just jealous of its green goodness.

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Last Saturday at the Farmer’s Market, I was humbled and gleeful to find okra! Two years ago, a woman in a stand had okra. When I acted like she was actually selling golden goose eggs, she said, “I’m glad somebody knows what to do with it.” Somebody indeed! Last summer, no okra. Then again this summer, there it was! I bought a cup Saturday and two cups on Tuesday.

Over the last few days, I have had not one, but two batches of fried okra, and tonight, I am experimenting with a curried okra dish. The Indians call okra “bhindi.” You have not quite lived until you have had bhindi Indian style. Apparently, Indians love okra so much, they name jewelry stores after it. That’s right. Okra Jewellers.

But I digress.

My little garden patch is teeming with two things: tomatoes and green beans. The green beans are volunteer, coming up at the edge of the garden. They are mediocre as far as green beans go. But tonight, I will be jazzing them up with some…you guessed it…curry, which should make them fabulous!

The tomatoes have become the tomato jungle. I have never successfully grown a tomato plant.

No. That isn’t true. I successfully grew some cherry tomatoes one year that a bird planted in my garden. The last year we were in Springfield, I grew one plant that produced two hard, nearly inedible, fruit.

I planted four cherry tomatoes because of my ultimate goal to dehydrate roughly one million of them for snacks all winter. My mother-in-law dehydrated cherry tomatoes this last winter, and they were AMAZING snacks right up through this spring. So…I planted four plants without nary a bird’s help. Normally, cherry tomatoes are like zucchini. One plant is not enough, two is too many. But dehydrated? I am hoping for as many as I can get.

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In the foreground of the above picture are the volunteer beans. In the background is what I now fondly refer to as “The Tomato Jungle.” Other plants are either lettuce going to seed, volunteer potatoes that don’t seem to be doing anything, or weeds I have been too lazy to pull. Also, the kinder souls among you will suspend judgement on my bean trellis, which was very last minute once I realized that the volunteer beans were actually going to produce something. I am positive that better bean trellis technology exists, and next year, I will investigate and implement said technology.

In addition to the cherry Tomato Jungle, I have a single plant called “Oregon Spring” whose info card assured me that she would be an “early producer.” So far, no ripe tomatoes off her. She has some tomatoes, still green. So much for “early.”

In addition to those five, I have three mystery tomatoes given to us by a friend…in the back yard plot. Two look like they might possibly be Romas. But really, who knows? Actually, my friend who gave them to me probably knows, and when she is done galavanting across Germany, maybe I will ask her.

So, the total number of tomato plants in my backyard is 8.

THEN…the same friend who gave me the three mystery tomato plants gave me an additional 10 or so other mystery plants, which I promptly ignored while I traveled to the AP reading. They started to look pretty puny. So…I shoved them in around an azalea plant that seemed to be doing pretty well in this big bare patch in our front yard. I used the logic that azaleas love acid, and tomatoes love acid, and the azalea loved that patch of earth, so “What the hell?” I thought. I could have 10 dead tomato plants in pots in my carport, or 10 dead tomato plants in a patch in my front yard.

Here are those ten plants today…

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Yep. Every one survived. Most of them have blooms. One of them has an actual almost ripe tomato.

So, to recap, I now have four cherry tomatoes, one Oregon Spring, and 13 mystery tomato plants for a total of 18 tomato plants, alive, in my yard right now.

Next year, Universe-willing, I will have as many okra plants. And I will not have to depend on a few good vendors at the farmer’s market to determine my okra universe.

In addition to the tomato/okrathon, I have decided to venture into the world of the refrigerator pickle. A woman who teaches here makes delicious ones, so I thought I would give it a shot. I bought some pickling cucumbers at the same market, gathered spices, and found a recipe online. I rounded up my two quart jars, trounced all over La Grande to find regular jar lids, then…

I was immediately foiled by having no fresh dill. I take for granted, having lived in places with more than a few grocery stores, that fresh dill would be available in July. In a grocery store. HAHAHAHAHA!

So I substituted freeze-dried dill, and now my pickles look like they are swimming in a very think dill-laden lake of brine. We will see what happens. If they turn out even close to amazing, I will grow pickling cucumbers and dill in next year’s garden. And okra.

When we asked our friend Jason, who tilled the garden this year having just received his master gardner certification, what we should plant, he answered, “Plant what you like to eat.” Now, I am remembering, too late, that some of the things that I like to eat are things that I need to plant to make other things (like dill), and things that I forget that I like (like green beans), and things that I have no confidence in growing (like tomatoes and okra). Maybe the garden this year will actually yield enough to build my confidence in growing not just things that I like, but the foods that sustain me.

Also, here are our newbie asparagus.

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Sinuosity

Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to work in a collaborative partnership with NOAA, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to do some filming for a grant project sponsored by NOAA. One of my students, whose blog is here, did the actual filming, and I did a lot of the holding-of-lens and positioning-of-reflectors.

We shot over three days from the Upper Umatilla down to the lower on tribal lands and those controlled and regulated by ODFW. The one concept that kept sticking in my head, after all that shooting, was the idea of sinuosity. For a river to be healthy, for it to maintain fishes and bugs and such, it must be allowed to be as sinuous as possible. In other words, it must be allowed to drift and find its own path across a flood plain instead of being pinned to the side of a valley in order for more land to be used for agriculture.

When a river is pinned, its velocity is too high to sustain the natural life within it. The river heats up, and things in the river, like fishes and bugs, start dying, or get replaced by bottom-feeders and other elements that are not native to the stream. Not to mention the effects of pollution, run-off, etc. on the stream itself.

I connected with that idea of sinuosity and the unhealthiness of being pinned up against one bank and running too hot to sustain life. I work best in a state of sinuosity. Like today. I have been playing around with uploading photos to Picasa, checking out blogs about MOOCs, enjoying a recipe for Instagrahams, spying on my friends lives and keeping up with news stories through Facebook, working on this blog, and enjoying the sinuosity of drifting across the flood plain of my summer.

The trouble is, most of the real world thinks that sinuosity is multi-tasking, is unhealthy at best and at worst EVIL! Most of what I have encountered is an adult and particularly as an academic are efforts to pin me to the edges of the floodplain. Then I end up tearing loose in a flood and destroying a crop. Ok, maybe not destroying. But certainly not benefiting.

So my new goal is to learn to be sinuous more often. Basically, I need an SI > 1.

Also, here is a photo I took using the panoramic view of my phone camera looking out from Cabbage Hill with dawn to the east and a thunderstorm and double-rainbow to the west. Enjoy!

Summer Reading Program

Daria is enrolled in the Summer Reading Program at our local public library. This year is her first year of hard-core summer reading. The program requires that she read 50 books by the end of the summer in exchange for a prize. We are about two weeks in and have nearly met the requisite book reading requirement. Most of the books we’ve read to her have been beginning Spanish readers (like the one about the baby whose name I can never remember) and Dora the Explorer books. Last night, my mother-in-law read her a book based on the movie Monster’s Inc. Daria fell asleep during the reading.  Having only listened halfway to the book while watching Michael Phelps win his 700th Olympic trial event, I have to say that I agree with Daria’s review of the text.

My summer reading program is getting off to a slower start. Given that my “summer” only officially began at 5:00 p.m. last Friday, I can’t really be blamed for being 47 books behind Daria. Also, some of her books are seriously SOOOO easy to read. I don’t want to brag, but my books are WAYYY longer and harder to read than hers. Also, also, I have been distracted by our new magazine subscriptions to Real Simple, O Magazine (don’t judge me), and The Atlantic Monthly (permission to judge reinstated).

And I just got an iPad. More on that to come.

So I thought I would wax eloquent on a few of the books I have already read, a few I hope to read this summer, one book I will not be finishing, and what navel-gazing about my summer reading choices means for my nascent blog.

The summer reading program book list falls into two main categories:

Summer Reading Books That I Read Last Spring

I purchased three books for the express purpose of putting them on the summer reading pile, then couldn’t wait and finished them off about a month ago. The first is:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver (her daughter) , and Steven Hopp (her husband)

This book details the Kingsolvers’ one-year foray into locavorism in the Appalachian Mountains. They grew most of their own food, and what they couldn’t grow, they gathered from a 100-mile radius. The book was masterfully written, as are all of Kingsolvers’ books (see Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer, just to mention her titles that start with the letter P). The Kingsolvers’ effort made me want to be a better person, locavore-wise. I am working on eating more locally, but I do love the coffee (not natively grown near Eastern Oregon) and Kettle chips (which can be found in Salem, about 300 miles away) are, unfortunately, a diet staple. In spite of my failings as both a locavore and a human, the book is lovely, and I would recommend it to anyone who still has space left on their summer reading pile and yearns for fresh sweet corn, even in January.

Mink River by Brian Doyle

Mr. Doyle came to our campus and did a not-so-much-book-reading-as-super-charged-free-flow-storytelling session. I liked the very small bits he did read, and liked his story telling for the first hour, so I bought the book.  Aside from the long listing technique employed a bit too freely, the story of three generations of Native American and Irish families in Western Oregon was captivating and the prose lovely. It was the perfect cheating-before-the-summer-book-reading read, excessive lists aside.

 

 

Drawing to an Inside Straight by Jodi Varon

Jodi is my colleague, and we had a coffee/photoshoot one afternoon to catch up and get a new website photo for her, and during our chat, we started talking memoir. She has one published, and I don’t, and this is hers. After devouring hers on the plane to Louisville, I have decided to rescind my offer to let her read mine until I do a complete overhaul (see more below about my unpublished and woefully incomplete memoir). She grew up in Denver’s Jewish community in the 1960′s and spins a tale of two Jewish communities, her father’s Ladino-speaking Sephardi community from New York and her mother’s Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi community from Denver. If you are looking for a book about fathers that will help you figure out the one that you had, this is a good summer reading selection.

 

Books I Hope to Read This Summer

These are some books I have not yet read but am hoping to soon.

Language and Learning in the Digital Age  by James Paul Gee and Elisabeth Hayes

I need to write a book review of this for a journal by this fall, so this is a summer-reading priority. I can already hear the “boos” from the peanut gallery that I am listing “work” reading on my “summer” reading list, but I am eager to see what Gee has to say. I have only read portions of Gee’s other work, but at a glance, this doesn’t at all appear to be his typical writing style or depth. This book seems to be written on a very elementary level, at least the first chapter has been, so I am hoping to fly through this one and perhaps use it for my spring Digital Rhetoric class.

I will stop talking shop now. Back to the “real” list.

 

Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs

As evidenced by my Kingsolver selection above, I am a sucker for the “I tried something for a year and this is what happened” genre. I have also toyed with adding his Year of Living Biblically, to the summer reading list, but I would rather follow up with the Kingsolver “being a healthier human,” so I opted for this selection instead. I am hoping to be both entertained and jolted into actually hitting the gym and getting my Insanity body of early spring back again (further blog posts about the Insanity body and body issues to follow).

 

 

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My single work of fiction I am choosing for my summer reading program is Gone Girl, both because it garnered rave reviews in two magazines I subscribe to that review books  (and will remain nameless because I have reinstated your license to judge based on my magazine subscriptions). I love reviews that talk about “dark surprises” and promise that the book will  “pull the rug out from under you” (much like chapter 9 of The Bell Jar where you realize not all is quite as it seems in Manhattan). So I am holding out hope that this book will deliver some escapist fantasy of the dark, rug-yanking kind.

 

 

And One Book I Will Not be Finishing

I won’t go through the trouble of posting a thumbnail for the cautionary tale of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. The book had so much promise when I yanked it off the public library shelf last Thursday: snappy title, good reviews, great cover photo of author as child carrying a beach ball. And so many people I like are named “Jeanette.” And she is British. I couldn’t lose.

However, one chapter in, I could see that this was clearly a follow-up memoir to try to explain the stories from the author’s successful previous work of fiction, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (which I haven’t read). Basically, the first few chapters, which are all I will be reading, are a mixture of 1) frequent references to Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (which was also a BBC mini-series) and what happens therein, 2) very short character sketches of her adoptive mother with the same repetitive themes (see “religious fanaticism,” “hypocrisy,” and “cruelty”), and LOTS and LOTS of telling about what love is and what life is and other phrases that go well with being verbs because they’re just those phrases that can only be distilled from a long life well-lived that we, unfortunately, won’t get to see any of.

So, in a nut-shell, this book breaks the “show, don’t tell” mantra of what makes compelling memoir. In short, I want to draw my own conclusions about the author’s life based on well-crafted stories that draw me into the action (see another Jeanette’s glorious book The Glass Castle, which is our university’s common reader selection for next year). I do not want to suffer through lines like “Happy times are great–yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass — they have to– because time passes” (24) delivered in one-and-two sentence paragraphs, like a slightly longer version of Chicken Soup for the Soul. What? Time passes? Why didn’t anyone tell me?

But, still, Jeanette has a book published, and I do not, so I guess I should give her some kudos for being one step ahead of me on the ultimate prize ladder of all academic careers: getting their  long-form paper-bound brain-wanderings recognized by a publisher.

Which brings me to the last topic of this LONG post (sorry about that…been thinking about this for awhile)…

What Jeanette Winterson Has Made Me Realize About Blogging

As some of you know, part of my “big girl” job consists of teaching writing and digital rhetoric. In my writing classes, particularly in my creative non-fiction courses, I encourage students to “pull back the curtains” in their writing and let the audience look through the window into their lives. Don’t just hold the curtains close and tell us what you’re seeing through that window using cliched aphorisms like “she meant the world to me” or “he was the love of my life.”  Sling those drapes open and let the reader see for ourselves that moment when you were three and you realized the universe is unfair at best and more than likely just cruel (read: use description to draw us into stories that we can interpret without your help, thank you).

This advice is great, I think, in print-based writing. But when I blog, I am suddenly very conscious of my “showing” and “telling”  in this new and instant media. Basically…

My Fascinating Life Stories + long-form, print text + years of fear = Very small possibility of real, wide-spread audience. Sure, I might some day draw together the courage to actually send out more than pieces of that memoir that sits as bytes and bits on my flash drive. And some crazy publisher might actually publish ANOTHER memoir about family struggles, loss, grief, and quirky tales of “growing up in _______.” But if so, who will read it outside of friends, family, and those people who might pick it up off the Dollar rack at the Big Lots? And the students to whom I assign it? Probably no one.

But…

My Fascinating Life Stories + digital media + New iPad and ubiquitous internet access = Very good possibility of real, instant, and possibly wide-spread audience. Hmmm….I am probably going overboard here with the “wide-spread” part, but I looked at my “stats” today, and 38 people have read my previous posts. Which means that about 30 more people have read my late-afternoon online musings than have read the 15-year labor of my 150 page memoir manuscript. So…yeah.

What does this mean? Well, if I were a good author, following my own rules, I would leave it for you to interpret. But I am a hypocrite, so I will tell you. These two mathematical equations mean that I am struggling with the very boundaries that Clay Shirky mentions between content and media, the boundaries that the literate and semi-literate world once took for granted. We knew that letters were generally personal communications; books were  one-way communication from a single (or sometimes multiple) author(s) to a wide audience.

But what is the blog? Part journal, part broadcast medium? I can “publish” bits of my life instantly, and you can all write back just as instantly…tell me I am Nutty Bo-bo or what-have-you. And you can repost and Tweet and Facebook share with your friends, and they can tell me I am Nutty Bo-bo, or, even worse, they can tell me to stop being one of
“those mothers” who thinks her kid riding a balance bike is some kind of friggin’ miracle. And WordPress can instantly tell me how many people at least accessed, if not read, my posts.

If I published a book, I could put it on my vita, get a promotion, imagine that someone read it, and be done. Now, post-digital-media-revolution, bets are off.

What does digital media, and this blog,  do to the stories that I tell, and the “fascinating” parts of my life that are just hanging out there for-evers? What about my family, who compose the bulk of my funny stories? Do they want instant fame as a result of my ability to push-button “publish” for the masses that will, not doubt, start frequenting this blog? And what about selecting a banner for that page? HUH? What about THAT??? The pressure…of…a photo banner…

But I digress. In all actuality, the same people who would read my memoir, if it were ever out there to read, are probably the same ones reading this blog right now.

All this to say that I best get reading. My summer is really only one month long, and that month has already lost a day plus.

Last Tuesday in June

Daria has been learning to ride her bike by riding around the block, up to the park, and back.

Daria biking on sidewalk near our house.

She’s gone from limping along, pushing with one foot and hobbling, stopping every few minutes to expound on the cracked pavement or the state of the shade to gliding like a pro in a matter of days. Her development is astounding. Every few days is a new miracle.

This afternoon, while eating lunch and perusing the next-to-latest Rolling Stone, I read an article about the Beach Boys getting back together and suddenly had a flashback to riding my bike as a little girl with my nephew in the basement of our house on Wooded Hills Road, where my sister and her family still live. The summers were scorchy-humid-blistering, but the basement garage was sweet cool and spidery. We rode our bikes in figure 8s while listening to “Barbara Ann” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Surfin’ Safari” and “Little Deuce Coupe.” A bit of California in sultry, land-locked, rock-infested and sun-bleached Northwest Arkansas.

Daria’s riding path is strikingly different from our basement. She rides on sidewalks past Norman Rockwellesque yards to a neighborhood park where she can look up and see the Blue Mountains. June is preternaturally cool, highs only kissing the low 80s.

The view from the edge of our neighborhood park.

Before we moved to Oregon, I lived in the midwest, or the “upper-South” most all my life–Minnesota, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri. Hot and humid summers with dazzling but short spring and fall surrounding icy, unholy winters. Moving to the Blue Mountains shocked our systems. Dry. High. Surrounded by mountains not of the Ozark variety, which Wikipedia informs me are actually dissected plateau. But real mountains. We live at 2800 feet above sea-level, roughly and are in a valley surrounded by close mountains with peaks of 4800-8000 ft.

Our valley lacks fireflies and thunderstorms (sorry, natives…we have had one in the three years I have lived there…the rest are slightly noisy showers). But it has rich, dark soil (again, sorry natives, but the soil is not “full of clay”…for that, I would take you to Southwest Missouri/Northwest Arkansas where potters could literally make coffee mugs straight from the soil on my in-law’s land).

Moving across country from your home territory (securely in Zone 6 and 7, CST) into a completely foreign soil (in chilly Zone 5, PST) throws off your internal clock. My body still seems to function in Central Standard. By mid-May, I was itching to put a tomato plant in the ground, feeling like something was wrong with them still squatting in my windowsill (“Brave move!” said a Zone 5 lifer when he saw my mid-May garden, rife with spindly Oregon Spring and Cherry Tomato Plants).

When I was four, my family transplanted from Minnesota to Arizona to live near my aunt. In Arizona, I developed a strange allergy to the climate, and my family re-transplanted when I was six to Arkansas. I remember that my parents were really headed to Kentucky horse country, but Arkansas got in the way. A good chunk of my family still lives in the dissected Ozark Plateau, having planted roots for the last 31 years.

I wonder, when I look out over mountain peaks ringed with June snow if Daria’s roots will break this soil. I don’t know.

But for now, she is enjoying the climate.

In the Beginning

Welcome to the summer of the blog. If I can keep this up all summer, my reward it getting to go Pro in the fall.

This summer’s themes are Gardening, Living, Mothering. I added Teaching to the categories because I might find things I want to incorporate in that section, but I am hoping to stay at least a little clear of the teaching world…at least in July.

So to begin.

In February, my husband, 3-yr-old daughter, and I moved to a new house close to the campus where we teach. I had been jonesing for living in a house again after living in a tri-plex for nearly three years. I wanted a yard with space to garden. And this house has just that. So this summer is my first foray into gardening since, well…the last time we moved into a new house with space for a garden (2000).

I wasn’t going to jump head-long into veggie gardening again, but in mid-April a friend had a tiller that he volunteered to use on composty-patch in the back corner of our lot. I said “Ok…might as well do that and I will put in some plants that I won’t care about.” After all, I had no intention of actually “gardening” in the formal sense. but I could put in some plants and see what happened.

So Jason tilled a patch.

Not a bad start. We soon found out that the blue spigot to the right of the frame was hooked directly to our hot-water heater, so that was out as a source of water for the garden. But it did clean Jason’s tiller nicely.

After procuring romaine and butter crunch lettuce, spinach, radish and asparagus seeds, chard, and tomatoes, we planted.

After planting, late April 2012.

I am not a stellar gardener. I have tortured and killed many a plant, potted and otherwise. One friend of the family said that my indoor plants seemed to live just to spite me.

So far, the garden has flourished, or at least survived. Mid-May, Daria and I began harvesting spinach, lettuce, radishes and chard.

Our garden as of May 18.

Mid-June, I left town for 9 days. Jacob and Daria picked spinach and lettuce but didn’t weed.

I came back to…

Weeds everywhere.

Daria and I wrestled with weeds and replaced the radish patch with some new tomatoes given to us by friends.

Back to normal.

In addition to the fact that I still have a garden where things are still growing after two months is the fact that I moved into a house that has all of this…

The rosebush in our front yard.

The rosebush in our back yard.

How do you make opium from poppies?

And finally…two plants I have always, always wanted but never had…

Clematis

Columbine

So why blog now? Well, I want to start writing again, and journals worked well when I was trapped at home with Daria on maternity leave. I could journal while holding her and rocking. But now, I don’t journal, and I don’t want to lose this summer like so many others to the lazy hazy days that bleed one into another. I want her to have something that captures the rare moments and miracles that are everyday in our existence. We live in a beautiful place, here in the valley of the Blue Mountains. This summer, I want to work on making that beautiful place really our home.