e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


in time and out of time

When should a good piece of writing be timely and when should a text be timeless? I used to buy into a dichotomy between "rhetorical" writing versus "belletristic" or "aesthetic" writing, a dichotomy informed by faith in genre boundaries. Political speeches and op-ed pieces rely on showing awareness of the current context and siezing the kairotic moment. Literary texts concern themselves with broader themes and abstractions that transcend a particular time.

Of course the dichotomy's bunk.

We appreciate political speeches from two-thousand years ago and study their broad themes and ideas. In fact, we apply methods of literary analysis to "great" speeches. We understand literary texts in their social contexts, sometimes to the chagrin of great books proponents. What of a novel like The Jungle that can only be understood as a piece of rhetoric, a timely and purposeful critique of meatpacking at the turn of the twentieth century.

A great moment from The West Wing, itself a series of its time (comfort food for liberals during the George W. Bush years) and timeless (the capital-t Themes like civic obligation). Communications director Toby Ziegler is resisting hiring Will Bailey to help him write the president's second inaugural address. Toby critiques Will's past work on the grounds that he uses pop culture references, thereby lessening the "shelf lives" of his speeches. I like what this scene suggests about the ambitions of rhetoricians, or the possible ambitions anyway. Work can transcend.


random stuff

  • This Saturday is honey-extraction day down at Anna's. Looking forward to helping out, avoiding any stings, and leaving with some delicious honey.
  • Any Detroiters out there want to go hear some good live music on October 15? The Gossip bring their fusion of r&b and punk rock to the Majestic. If you like Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, and the Buzzcocks, you'll love the Gossip. Send me a message if you're interested.
  • Should I watch "Flash Forward"? Do I really need to get hooked on another tv show, especially one that looks so similar to "Lost"?
  • Like many others, I am hoping against hope for real health care reform. Coverage for the millions who are un- or under-insured. A public option for those who can't access private plans. Don't get belligerent about the cost of Obama's plan unless you've been out there marching against the billions we've spent waging war on Iraq.

a pilot project of sorts

For some time, I've held to the belief that I do not have the right disposition to do administrative work. The prospect of administering a writing program does little to excite me. I like interacting with students in a traditional, classroom setting. I like writing. With tenure I feel I am in a place where I can decline tasks that don't give me joy.

I agreed to run the Civic Engagement Project (our service learning program) here at UM-Dearborn this year and already the work has allowed me to give administrative work a trial run on a slightly smaller scale. Slightly smaller in that the job is 1/3 reassignment time. Directing CEP involves less tedium. I love having the chance to develop new relationships with community partners and trying to enhance those we already have. Supporting our new faculty fellows is genuinely exciting. And I have a great yearlong Vista who is creative and energetic. Props to CEP. In all honesty, I dig the course release too, which gives me a lovely 2-2 teaching load for the academic year.

What have I learned about administration? You spend a lot of time on e-mail. I had really cut down on hours spent reading and writing the e-mails by switching to facebook for informal communication and unsubscribing from various listservs. Guess what? I'm back. It had been a long time since I spent more than ten minutes crafting the language in an e-mail message. Now that's a regular occurence.

I also have learned that you need to talk up your office. At the American Democracy Project meeting over the summer, one presenter called this your "elevator soundbite." You need to have an accessible, clear, catchy description of the work your office does. P.R. Easy enough. One of the challenges is being ready to pitch to your provost or dean or the new faculty member you just met or the dude at the rec center whose name you never remember.

Here's another thing new to me. Budgets. More specifically, making decisions about budgets. I'm not talking about household budgets, I'm talking about a program budget (albeit a meager one) where you have the prerogative to provide teachers with resources and offer professional development opportunities yet you also need to demonstrate frugality.

Closely connected to the use of monetary resources, another lesson has been that administration gives you chances to travel. Next month, to Boston to observe a very well-established service learning program. Each summer, the American Democracy Project meeeting. In February, the Campus Compact Institute at a resort in Traverse City, where I've never been.

I'm a big proponent of sucking the marrow and so forth and, at the risk of sounding idealistic, I never want to regret missing a chance to learn more and do more as a teacher at UMD. That's true if I retire from here in thirty years or if I find a new job next Spring. I have to admit that the challenges and opportunities of administration mean more chances to learn more and do more. I might even get the chance to work on those aspects of my disposition (on-again-off-again shyness, overly developed sensitivity) I thought might make this kind of work too tough.