e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


insane jackasses

Jon Stewart the other night did a piece on the absurdity of congress debating yet again the influence of violent video games, concluding that the House of Representatives is comprised largely of "insane jackasses."

I found on You Tube a clip Stewart showed of Pennsylvania Republican Joseph Pitts pontificating on which kids are most likely to be influenced by video games. Check it out here.

Pitts says, "A wealthy kid from the suburbs can play Grand Theft Auto or similar games without turning to a life of crime but a poor kid who lives in an area where people really do steal cars or deal drugs or shoot cops might not be so fortunate." (!)

I dug around on the web a bit and couldn't find record of anybody calling Pitts out for his racism and classism. Found very little reportage, in fact, of folks calling Pitts and company out for wasting tax dollars talking about video games. The party of small government...ha! And only a few days after deciding to raise their own salaries while NOT raising the minimum wage.

When I was a boy (do ya like my grumpy old man voice?) it was hours and hours of inane talk on the congress floor about Ozzy Osborne records. Luckily John Denver (rip), Dee Snider, and Zappa (rip) set them straight. Who will step up? South Park will skewer on the telly but we need disparate (Denver and Zappa side by side...what a sight) voices to hit the capital.

the book of qualities

Here is a delightful, sometimes sobering book. J. Ruth Gendler's The Book of Qualities walks readers through short prose-poems that personify various abstractions, states of mind, and emotions. Today at Writing Project, we hosted a presentation from Tom Romano, a sharp advocate for revisiting the notion of voice. Tom walked us through a teaching exercise--one I'll certainly use this fall in my creative writing class--using Gendler's work. Here's Gendler on Despair:
Despair papered her bathroom walls with newspaper articles on acid rain. For years she worked with abused children. She has documented how we all suffer from malnourishment basedon insuficient amounts of love. She has investigated how the pain of concentration camp survivors has been transmitted from one generation to the next "through disturbances in the parent-child relationship." Not only the children but the grandchildren and their children.

Despair is overworked and overwhelmed. She has a heart condition. In her dreams the war is everywhere. She is not lying or exaggerating. Still, it is difficult to be around her. There is no arguing with her. She is persuasive, eloquent, and undeniably well-informed. If you attempt to change her mind, you will come away agreeing with her. She has stopped listening to music.

It's that last line that gets me.

Of course, Tom walked us through pedagogical uses of Gendler and had us write our own versions. Here's my attempt at Curiosity:
Curiosity likes to take long walks in the woods. He never stays on the trails, though and prudence has to club him and drag his limp body to the right path. Curiosity takes risks intellectually, too, and invented the concept of hypertext, an invention made possible by curiosity's obsession with free association. Curiosity and focus had a fierce rivalry back in high school. Focus ended up being valedictorian. Curiosity didn't mind so much but spent hours and hours questioning the principal and the faculty about their decision; the principal recommended ritalin. Procrastination once kidnapped curiosity and brainwashed him into working overtime. Luckily, balance brought curiosity the antidote to his brainwashing.


Miami U, day one

Today was my first day teaching this summer's Writing Project workshop and my head is buzzing with ideas and possibilities. My co-teacher and I have 21 participants in our section (I'm the only guy in the room!), representing teachers of kindergarden all the way up through the twelfth grade. Mostly introductions today, but energy levels seemed high. Tomorrow we start discussing Tom Romano's work on 'voice,' workshopping each other's nightly writings, and planning teaching presentations

In the meantime, life in dorm continues. I'd like to write a book on dorm cooking. Mostly, it would be a collection of recipes, but also commentary and advice. Dorm cooking is all about doing a lot with few ingredients (budget's tight, and you can't cram much into those mini-fridges, after all). Last night I did a tofu scramble, for example. One pot on the top of the stove. Healthy, too. Just six ingredients: couple cloves of garlic, half a 14-oz. package of firm tofu, handful of snow peas, half a head of broccoli, soy sauce, dash of black pepper. Ready in about ten minutes.


back to ohio: a ramble

Yesterday, the drive from Detroit to Oxford. I move my stuff into the residence hall where I'm staying for the month. Like most college towns, Oxford is quiet during the summertime but still the markers of upper-middle-class youth. The frisbee golf course that sprawls across campus. For the guys, backward baseball caps and polo shirts in pinks and greens with the collars up, Kanye style. Maybe an Abercrombie&Fitch shirt...don't skin-tight t-shirts sort of negate the comfort that's supposed to go along with wearing a t-shirt? When I was a new faculty member here, admin. told us at orientation that more A&F catalogues are delivered to this area code than to any other in the nation. For the young women, layered tank tops and the perpetual arm cross of the extremely thin, as if they're chilly, even in the humidity and 90-plus heat.

Nicole and I cruise Hamilton, where we lived for three years, ten miles east of Oxford, en route to Saigon Dragon along Route 4. We eat bowls of pho, served with heaping plates of mint and basil that the family grows behind the place, and summer rolls, Vietnamese style, with the boss dipping sauce (equal parts hoisin and peanut butter with a dab of HOT chili sauce and a sprinkle of peanuts). As usual we're the only two in the restauarant. All the times we ate there during our three years in these parts, we saw maybe two other parties there. We drive down Route 4 to Jungle Jim's, the gynormous, 300,000 square foot grocery store in Fairfield where I stock up on supplies: tofu, fresh vegetables, and soy sauce for making scrambles; lots of yogurt; dark chocolate; bread; lots of garlic; some blueberries and bananas; onions, stock, and stew meat for making beef stew; cereal and milk; couple different cheeses (JJ's carries over 1,600 kinds of cheese!); case of water. Back to Oxford, finish getting settled in Havighurst. I haven't been in a dorm since I graduated from U of D ten years ago and moved out of 4th West Quad (the Peace & Justice community service floor)...the digs down here are more spacious and don't have that stale beer smell I remember from UD (maybe cuz it's summer).

This a.m., Nicole heads back to Michigan--she'll be back next weekend. I read for most of the afternoon (more Joyce Carol Oates: the beginning of Rape: A Love Story, and much of an anthology of her early stories) then hike Western College Woods, which surround my dorm. I cross the foot bridges watching the squirrels--brown, black and all points in between--camoflauged on the trunks and branches of downed trees. I make it down to the 4-Mile Creek. More squirrels, birds too, and when I'm almost to Route 73, two white-tailed deer. It's cooler than yesterday, but still pushing 90, yet the shade of the woods blocks out most of the sun and none of the clean Ohio air.



Hyatt's not welcome at Havinghurst Hall, which, effective tomorrow, is my home for the next four weeks. I don't know how I'm going to write without this guy sleeping on the futon behind me. Here's Hyatt in a rare outdoor moment, trampling the flowers to protest the absence of air conditioning. Note the displeasure on his face: How could you take me away from my soft bed? Why is it so hot out here? Jeesh, are we back in Arizona?



Today I visited the Detroit Tigers' new digs for the first time. Okay, I guess the digs aren't so new anymore, but they're still new to me. Comerica Park is a veritable orgy of corporate logos. Cool off under the General Motors misters. Have a beverage on the Pepsi Porch. Little Caesars everywhere you look, of course, thanks to the synergy of the various Mike Ilitch (owner of the ubiquitous pizza chain, as well as the Tigers and Red Wings) holdings. No independent vendors out in the parking lot. No tailgating allowed. The latter, of course, perhaps having to do with Ilitch's hope that all will sate their pre-game appetites across Woodward at Hockeytown, his glossy sports and memorabilia bar.

Comerica Park is the antithesis of the old Tigers Stadium. No fancy suites. Park for a few bucks down Michigan Avenue. Get a cheap bag of peanuts outside of the stadium's gate. Afterword drink at the Gaelic League down the road. Opening days 1994 and 1995 I skipped out of classes to attend the games. Opening days attracted a notoriously rowdy crowd and I remember a guy tossing a toaster onto the outfield from the bleachers. Tiger Stadium, unused since 1999. Just tonight, Detroit's mayor announced he'll roll out a plan for the old stadium. Maybe the 'Little Caesars Pizza Pizza' Museum of Ancient Rome?

Enjoy the holiday snaps from this afternoon
at Comerica.


writing as innovation

Met with my junior faculty writing group this afternoon for a leisurely lunch and set up our schedule for the rest of the summer. Like blogging, meeting with a writing group builds a structure (and a generative one at that) in which to write. A strategy for overcoming the temptation to delay writing. Being part of a writing group, like blogging, affirms what we know about writing: that innovation happens when we engage the process.

After writing group, I read with interest (my old friend from Arizona) Bill Endres' "Communicative Strategies for Administrative Practices: Evaluating Weblogs, their Benefits, and Uses" in the new WPA journal. Bill spends much energy in the piece foregrounding this idea of innovation--an idea bouncing around my head after today's meeting. Writing about administrative sites, Bill touts blogs' potential for innovation, a potential that grows from the technology's "media richness" (drawing on O'Kane et al). "Media richness" facilitates feedback, the affective components of language use, articulating multiple cues at once, and, really, language use writ large. Bill next turns to work in the diffusion of innovation and what I found interesting here was the idea that so-called "innovators" are those that can "cope" with "uncertainty."

Again, all ideas that jive well with what we tell students about writing. It's all about discovery and that which we find to be generative. Writing innovates. Writing copes with the uncertain. Writing contends with and grows out of media richess.

Less than a week until I leave for the Writing Project. For the past three summers, teaching teachers in this writing-intensive environment has provided me a media-rich environment, a safe place to innovate. I put these four weeks into a category with blogs and writing groups because of their generative possibilities. I anticipate what I might learn, discover, develop...write.



I'm arriving extremely late on this one, but wanted to rave about Lars von Trier's Dogville, which I finally saw last night. Above all, von Trier shows his wide, all-encompassing ambition, thematically taking on gossip, violence, labor, exploitation, religion, small-town Americana, on and on. An amazing piece of work.

von Trier dismisses ethos, seeming almost giddy about opening himself up to critique. The American press likes to point out that von Trier's never set foot on American soil yet fancies himself qualified to comment on Americana. Little wonder he uses the 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach in Dogville. If you're going to offer an audacious look at our psyche, then you may as well spel audacious with a capital A.

Similarly, von Trier enters into a bombastic relationship with his audience. He provokes, prods, and challenges. Ok. Lots of directors do. But von Trier doesn't seem to like his audience. He has no desire to make us like him. He actively tries to alienate. I'm reminded of the twenty-minute cover of "Sister Ray" that Joy Division used to perform at their shows.

Indulgent? Yeah, that's kind of the point.


getting ready for Ohio

One week from today I'm off to Oxford, OH. for a month of Writing Project. Five-days-a-week, six-hours-a-day in class doesn't leave much time for other writing, but I'm hoping to take a break from archival research and keep working on the Oates article as well as a few creative things I've been thinking about. Aside from that, looking forward to shifting into Writing Project gear if for no other reason than how rejuvenating the program always feels. Working with K-12 teachers who care about writing. Enjoying the radically different classroom feel of OWP-ers, who in every way are colleagues moreso than they are students. Should be a good month.


writing habits

Not down at the archives today. Instead, writing at home in the basement office. A nice space for writing:
  • Old futon lugged from Tucson. Right now my dog, Hyatt, is sleeping right in the middle of the futon.
  • Big oak library table for a desk. From an auction in Oxford, OH.
  • Arizona Wildcats popcorn tin. Nicole brought this home during, I believe, the 2001 NCAAs.
  • Laptop. Back and forth between futon and desk.
  • Framed print of Youngstown Vindicator from August 14, 1945. “Japanese Surrender; World War II Ends.” My grandpa had this in his ‘basement office’ (the corner by the sump pump where he had his own artifacts: stuff found walking around northside of Youngstown, tools, bottles for homemade wine) for nearly 45 years.
  • Ohio Writing Project mug.
  • Various legal pads with notes from meetings, notes from reading, notes from sitting around at Caribou Coffee (the preferred spot when *both* the archives and home office have grown stale.
  • Miscelaneous books, including autographed Billy Collins, Jim Daniels, Elmore Leonard, and Naomi Shihab Nye; some rhet/comp stuff I never took down to school; a stack of Joyce Carol Oates novels from the library.
  • Record player and vinyl collection.

The latter may be the most important component of the writing room. I like to listen to records while writing. Getting up every twenty-five minutes or so to flip sides or change discs is just about perfect. I need to stand frequently, look away from the screen, stretch, move around. The music gives as much rhythm to my breaks as to the writing itself. This a.m., while writing: Mahalia Jackson-You’ll Never Walk Alone, Mahalia Jackson-Songs of Faith and Devotion, Split Enz-Mental Notes (their weird, Eno-esque, early stuff before Neil Finn joined the band, produced by Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, GREAT art rock), The Fabulous Wailers-At the Castle.

As a break from the archival research, on days when I don’t feel like driving down to the Reuther, I’ve been working on a piece about Joyce Carol Oates’ time in Detroit, re-reading some of her early novels and thinking about Oates-as-pedagogue. The piece by Kynard in TETYC has got me thinking about the ways teachers tell stories about students. Kynard is polemical. In her great Detroit novel them, Oates is distant and cold and po-mo (“this is a work of history in fictional form…”), as she narrates the supposedly true tales of Maureen Wendall, her U of D student. She uses her title to position “herself,” as writer, apart from the working poor, and “herself,” as teacher, apart from her students. This piece may grow into an essay for TETYC. Pumped out about three pages very, very quickly, so we’ll see…

Must stop writing about Oates now and head down to campus. Page proofs arrived from Pittsburgh Press and I must send chapters to individual authors for their review, so this late afternoon’s going to be copying, filling out priority mail envelopes, etc. Book should be out in late fall or early winter. Happy happy.


Sirc on hip hop

The other TETYC piece on which I'm vibing (forgive me if this is scattered)...

It's rather difficult to nail down just what Geoffrey Sirc's "Proust, Hip-Hop, and Death in First-Year Composition" is about. Sirc, whose work interesting, hard-to-classify work prompted a previous post, reflects on how his students' (and his own) interest in local hip hop reveals something about when writing is art. Sirc works to legitimate hip hop by underlining its emphasis on the local, its emphasis on death, its emphasis on something real, and even its emphasis on that which is fleeting/"also-ran."

Regarding the valuing of the local, here's a snippet: "Local hip-hop seems to keep it the realest, I think, because it's us in time. When I hear Slug chornicling his everyday life, I think, 'Hey, I've been to that drugstore,' ' Hey, I've bought records there,' 'Hey, I'm dying too.'"

How true. I think of Youngstown moments in literature and pop culture: Kerouac's reference to the pie and coffee at the diners of Ashtabula and Youngstown, Richard Pryor's routine about getting started at mafia-run taverns there, the rise and fall of Y'town's favorite son/the great punk icon Stiv Bators, Trafficant-as-icon, Henry Hill picking up a copy of the Youngstown Vindicator at the end of Goodfellas (Scorsese's homage to mobtown USA) during the voice-over about lousy sauce, and the Springsteen song. Detroit's moments are countless, but I think of the ones that have prompted identification/affinity in me: the poems of Jim Daniels, Joyce Carol Oates' Them (with its pomo framing device as a story of Oates' years teaching at U of D), Gridlockd with Tim Roth and Tupac, White Stripes mythology, and a thousand others.

Connections: place, pop culture, passion, and what Sirc calls "perfect moments." These converge and lead to, well, art.

I'm not sure what to make of the ending of the article where he gets all "cultural crisis" on us. I read Sirc as being sarcastic when he writes: "You have no idea how different I wish things were. Art? Give me a break...[few read poetry, go to museums, listen to opera]...[T]hat's my world, and I must respect the life and the fashions of the children." There's a strange positioning of hip hop as second best at the article's end. If they ain't got high culture, at least they got the poignancy of hip hop. Sarcasm, I think. The poignancy of the local is more than second best, more than a stand-in for art.

Kynard on response theory

Several interesting pieces of work in the latest TETYC, which is becoming one of my favorite journals in the field (thanks to the publication's increasing receptivity to theory and history).

First, Carmen Kynard's personally and ideologically engaged take on responding to student writing. In "'Y'all Are Killin' Me up in Here': Response Theory from a Newjack Composition Instructor/SistahGurl Meeting Her Students on the Page," Kynard offers a useful discussion of the relationship she develops with students via written feedback on drafts. A well-worn topic, to be sure, but Kynard's got some new things to say.

Kynard writes, "I am all up in students' debates, not vocally but polemically." She procedes to advocate more explicit, more argumentative, intervention in the ideological discovery that students go through during the writing process. She quotes from her students extensively, citing their drafts as they write about Bill Cosby's commentary on African-American community values, and also cites herself responding to the students. I'm fascinated by the tone of her feedback, unapologetically partisan and polemical. She writes to one bright student who critiques gangsta rap:
I feel what you're saying about rap music, really I do, but, for me, it is often used as a scapegoat because that is much easier than engaging a materialist critique of racism. We will chat more about that later in the semester so bring this up again and now you KNOW that I will call you out if you try to hide your opinions. Right now, I'll just limit myself to your comments on Bill Cosby and family values and tell you how I feel about all of that. Truth be told: I'd rather be with a brother like 50 Cent (assuming his media image is him anyway). At least he lets you know he's a womanizer. Bill Cosby really ain't doin' that much different with the ladies than 50 Cent if you ask me. He just knows how to cover it up in a kind of bourgeois Bill-and-Hillary-Clinton kind of way because the brother, married and all, done chased down more women than Jello puddin' pops.
Kynard admits she wouldn't be quite so blunt with all of her students. This particular student, she writes, is especially bright and also open to verbal sparring with her. Again, the tone fascinates me, the emphasis on creating an (agonistic) agora-like space on the margins of student work. Kynard justifies this practice by talking about what a "dummy run exercise" it is to have students *imagine* opposing views.

Later on in the piece, Kynard admits to occasionally castigating a student, including one young woman who appeared in a sexually explicit music video. "I damn for sure put my best foot forward, threatened her, put the fear of God in her, and cussed her out something lovely for having her booty all up on a BET video. I guess some things you just can't nice up."

One problem (among many potential problematics) is that Kynard's approach seems to neglect the meta. I understand her justification for getting up in students' debates, but wonder if this practice leaves room for developing a meta-awareness, of process and working on a meta-cognitive vocabulary of the technologies/processes/genres/contexts of writing. I *also* intervene in the ways Kynard describes, but with less of an eye on polemics (although I certainly do challenge students' positions) and more of an eye on what I see happening with them as writers. Again, you can't neatly separate the "writing" from the "thinking" from the "existing as a politically situated member of the human family," but I feel like my contribution as the teacher of writing and rhetoric transcends a kind of "have you considered this?" mode.

Another problem, for me, is Kynard's foregrounding of argument. Why the allegiance to the thesis, to the linear polemics of the position paper, to the mythic world of argument? I'd be interested to see Kynard's article grafted onto a pedagogy of *generative analysis*, instead of a pedagogy of argument.

Again, extremely interesting article. Well worth checking out and reading alongside some of the foundational comp studies work in responding to student writing--a body of literature that Kynard herself nicely reviews.