My day so far has been an unmitigated disaster.  I’m feeling the need to vent about it in more than snarky Facebook status updates, so here we are.

I woke up early this morning to take my car to the shop, so I could get the snow tires put on and have one of my brake lights looked at [I was pulled over (while on a date!) for apparently no other reason than that light being out].  I had also planned to have the car inspected, but failed to get PA plates yesterday (a whole other disaster), which meant I was only having those two things done: tires and brake light.  I’m leaving town the day after tomorrow, for almost two weeks, so I at least wanted to make sure driving in the snow wouldn’t be a problem.

Immediately upon getting to Sears Auto Center, I was informed that they wouldn’t be able to fix the light, since they didn’t carry the right part.  Fine, I said, just do the tires.  I went to have breakfast in the mall, and think about the things I was going to be working on later in the day.  I had planned to just leave the car at Sears and go write at Barnes and Noble, but the Sears guy said the tires would only take about an hour.

Two hours later, I’m back in Sears, still waiting for my car, and they come in to tell me that they can’t start it.  The battery is dead.  I ask if they can give me a jump (and even show the guy where I think you’re supposed to clip on to jump the car) but he’s too freaked out by the fact that it’s a hybrid, won’t try jumping it, and tells me to call a tow truck.  He also says I should just forget about the tires for now and go get my car serviced.  I call the Toyota dealership, but their Service department is busy, and the receptionist asks if she can take a message, which seems a bit futile to me since I don’t even know the problem, really.

The tow truck comes, we get the car started, and I drive around for a while to make sure the battery is charged.  Now I’m back home, no snow tires, brake light still busted, my morning gone, and no idea if the dead battery is symptomatic of larger problems (it has died once before, but that was months ago), or if it’s just something that happens, especially in the cold.

All of which is to say that I’m in a pretty shitty mood.  On the plus side, I’ve written a blog post for the first time since March.  Jesus.  I’m going to try to start blogging again, even if it’s trivial shit like this… maybe this is something I need right now.

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This post is a blatant request for comment and insight; you should still read it even if you’re not going to comment, though.

I’ll be in Louisville, KY for most of next week, for the Conference on College Composition and Communication.   I present on the last day of the conference (N27: Saturday afternoon at 12:30!).  Right now I’m in the process of filling out/polishing the paper I’m presenting, and I figured jotting down some of the ideas I’m working with here might be a good way to both work out my thoughts and get feedback from others.  I’m going to lay out my basic argument, and then ask for help with a specific part of the paper that I think could use work…

I begin by asking a pretty simple question: why do people want to teach writing with weblogs?  What makes a blog a useful or valuable medium for composition, what makes a blog different from other forms of writing?  My answer (which is the part I’m going to ask for help with in a bit) basically lays out four different characteristics of blogs, and suggests that those characteristics can be divided up into two categories: those that change relations of space, and those that change relations of time (I’m aware that dividing space and time is itself a risky move, and have a disclaimer to that effect).  The spatial characteristics (linking to other texts, the potentially global distribution of the blog’s text, etc.) are too often the focus of our discussions about blogs; when we bring up the temporal issues, we don’t deal with them in a very sophisticated way.  That’s what this paper tries to do.

Once I’ve done that set-up work, I talk about how folks in Rhet/Comp tend to talk about time in relation to writing.  We pretty much only use the concept of kairos, an ancient Greek term that means something along the lines of “right time, proper measure” (there are actually something like 30 different meanings associated with kairos, including connotations of “propriety” and proper attendance to social convention.  Recent work has also suggested that kairos itself was originally connected primarily with a sense of place, the opening or opportune target for an arrow to hit…but this is perhaps getting me off track).  I make the argument that especially for blogs (although perhaps more generally as well), kairos just isn’t cutting it as our sole vocabulary for discussing time.  I go on to point out the ways in which blog writing is periodic or episodic, but not necessarily kairotic at all (or, at the least, kairos is not the determining temporal relationship).  What I mean: Blog writing repeats, sometimes at regular intervals (like a newspaper), and is often made up of stuff posted not in response to a given situation, but simply for the sake of posting something.  When we ask students to blog, the reasons we do so often have to do with (or should have to do with) some of the temporal benefits of this type of writing: students are pushed to revisit their writing (when others comment on it), they are pushed to write often, and their writing can become more closely related to their actual lives.

I also argue that, on the consumption side of things, Web texts generally (and blogs specifically) are read in some pretty drastically different ways, all of which have to do with a kind of “temporal orientation.”  Readers can a) follow a blog regularly, and become part of the blog’s community of readers/commenters, b) come across and read a single blog entry (usually found through a search engine or a link from another site, with little in the way of temporal reference), or c) read their way through a blog’s archive, either in order or not.  These fairly distinct orientations lead to different expectations about what the text will do… I actually need some help with this section too, since I’m wondering both 1) if I’ve missed any of the ways in a reader might come across a blog post that would change their temporal orientation to the subject matter, and 2) how to talk about the consequences of these various orientations.  The second of those two is just something I need to finish thinking about; the first is something I’d welcome ideas about.

Anyway, I ultimately don’t really have a new vocabulary to offer in place of kairos (although the terms “periodic” and “episodic” make frequent appearances in my argument), and I’m not sure I want the point of the paper to be “I have new words to call things.”  I’m fairly happy with my somewhat ad hoc conclusion that “we need to think about these things more.”  What I’m not so sure I’m happy with is some stuff from the beginning.

What I most want help with: my initial premise is that there are four things that make blogs unique among other modes of writing (“unique among” might be too strong here… “distinguish them from”?).  Those four things are:

  • Circulation: Web-published texts can potentially have a global audience.  The “democratization of distribution” principle.  Along with this is the fact that the texts being so distributed are collected together in one site.
  • Connection: Blogs link to things.  Other blogs, evidence/sources for arguments, etc.  Along with this goes the connections made between the author and the readers: comments sections give a space for readers to become authors themselves, to offer feedback, etc.
  • Updates: Blogs publish in chronological order, from newest to oldest.  Emphasis is, necessarily, on the newest entry.
  • Timeline/continuity: As with a newspaper column or some other repeating feature, the author(s) of a blog have a chance to establish a certain personality/persona, theme, tone, style, relationship to their audience, etc. OVER TIME.  The author of a blog is always at once confined to the present post and stretched across all the posts that have led to that one.

The first two I see as more spatial, the second two as more temporal.  I’m wondering two things: 1. are there other characteristics I should have included but haven’t?  2. Does my classification (the spatial/temporal thing) make sense?

I’ll post a draft of the paper itself at some point, too…

Disclaimer: Even though the “I haven’t been blogging for a while but now I’m back” post is a rather trite and uninteresting trope, I can’t really help writing it here.  It’s what is on my mind, and I can’t help but feel, however wrongly, that an explanation is in order of what I want this and future posts to do.  In part because I’m aware of how painful this kind of thing can be to read, however, I’m warning you (whoever you are who might read this) that the following post is pretty boring.  If I actually make good on what it promises, though, there should be plenty of posts up here soon that are both more interesting and less self-involved.  </disclaimer>

I posted a status update on Facebook at the end of last August, which said “Matt Weiss is thinking about blogging… as in, might start doing it again.”

One of my professors wrote a one-word comment: “no”

I can see what I think he would say was his point [though given the brevity of his response I a) don’t know that he wasn’t kidding, and b) can’t really claim to know the warrants behind his claim].  Even then I was behind schedule on my dissertation writing, and needed to be spending my time in constructive ways.  I hadn’t really blogged that much before then, and certainly had never been obsessive about it, but I could still see as valid the point of view that I didn’t need anything else taking up my time.  In part because he discouraged it, but in part because I agreed with those implicit arguments, I not only stopped blogging, I abstained from most social media.

I’ve since changed my mind, for two simple reasons:

1. Although I’ve made substantial progress on my dissertation since August, I’m still way behind schedule.  Not blogging hasn’t helped that.  I’m not even sure I buy the idea that there is necessarily a trade-off between the two; I can only spend so many hours of a day doing “work” before my brain shuts off, and my blogging time would, I think, come out of the “non-work” side of things.  In fact, I actually envision it as a way of getting myself more engaged with my work, rather than less, which brings me to the second point:

2. I need to do something to change my life.  Since last November, I’ve been attempting to get into better shape physically.  I’ve been eating better (and less), and going to the gym every weekday (and playing sports on the weekends).  In the past three months I’ve lost 40 pounds.  I feel (and look) a lot better than I did.  I need to do that same kind of thing with my mental habits: I need to get myself a better mental workout regimen, so to speak.  Blogging seems like one way of motivating myself to do so and keeping track of the progress.

Specifically what I want to change is my relationship with my work: I want to stop thinking of it as “work,” as drudgery that needs to be suffered through.  I genuinely enjoy my dissertation topic, and I need to get better at finding a way to experience that enjoyment.  I’m convinced that only a change in my perception/attitude will lead to a change in habit, which will in turn lead to a beneficial change in the actual work itself.

Two things come to mind immediately when I think about how I might go about accomplishing this.  The first is an essay from The New Yorker, called “The Checklist,” which describes how the use of a checklist (much like those used by airline pilots for takeoff procedures) can have a dramatic effect on reducing rates of infection and mortality in hospital ICUs.  The idea is, quite simply, that a number of the tasks routinely necessary in an ICU require a number of steps, and using a checklist to make sure those steps happen can reduce staff/doctor error enormously.  I wonder if I could do the same for myself, as a kind of Behaviorist attempt to make sure that I do a certain set of things each day.

The second thing that comes to mind is, perhaps unfortunately, an example/critique of exactly that idea.  Demetri Martin did a show centered on his auto-biographical account of going from a law-school student to a stand-up comic.  The show is up on YouTube in six parts.  The bit I’m especially interested in is split between clips 4 (starting around 5:45) and 5 (in the links above, that’s “in six”).  In that bit, Demetri describes how, after dropping out of law school, he tries to figure out his life with the help of a home-made “points system” designed to help him achieve the vague goals he has set for himself (they mostly seem to involve some notion of self-improvement without a terribly clear idea of any specific purpose).  Ultimately, his point system is a failure: he doesn’t live up to the standards he sets for himself (his average “score” for each week is 11 out of 35), and he can’t really figure out why.  As he says:

What do I learn from all this?  What can I conclude from all this analysis?

I have no fucking clue.

I spent a half a year of my life doing this every week.  I don’t know.  I honestly don’t know.

You know, I look back on it, and I realize my intentions were good.  I was trying to become a better person, I was trying to methodically record what being a better person would be for someone like me, and what I could do every day, capturing every moment, trying to move toward that.  But I failed, pretty miserably.

I know that one of the methods psychologists recommend for fighting habits of procrastination is an “activity journal,” where you record how you are spending your time throughout a given day/week, and then use that record to help figure out what you need to change.  This kind of thing seems similar, but I also wonder if it is a distraction and means of procrastination in and of itself.

This kind of thing becomes especially relevant when I think about the Graduate Writing Center workshop I’m giving on April 1st entitled “Overcoming Writer’s Block.”  That’s right, not only am I trying to figure out how to make myself more productive in my own life, but I’m expected to help other people figure it out too.  I’m confident, though, in the fact that my own struggles make me that much more qualified to talk to others about this topic: I not only know various strategies one ought to try to combat writer’s block/procrastination/mental malaise, but I know the feeling of knowing what the right thing to do is but still finding it hard to realize (as in “make real,” not “be aware of”… funny connection there, huh?).

I’d welcome other people’s thoughts on the matter in the comments…

I just watched an episode of a British tv show called Kingdom. The plot and context don’t matter too much to my point; the bare bones of things is: Stephen Fry plays a small town lawyer (“solicitor”) in England, helping the local townsfolk with their everyday problems. This particular episode featured a father who was suspected of blowing up his own boat for insurance money (he’d done it before). At the end of the episode, it turns out that his son actually did it. What struck me was that, faced with the prospect of his son going to jail (for a few years, I should think, at least) the father does something quite remarkable (to me at least): he hugs his son to him, looks like he is going to cry, and says
“I just wanted to be on the water, with you”
“Well I’ll be out soon enough!”
“I need you now!”

What struck me was a) vulnerability the father desplays, b) the obvious emotional connectio to his son, and c) his willingness to be physically demonstrative. I imagined this post as something of a discussion of masculinity, and the ways in which our culture (and I think particularly American culture) trains boys and men to avoid affection of a certain sort (that which would be perceived as “effeminate,” or “gay,” or any of a number of things that are meant to be pejorative). I don’t really know if I have more to say on the subject than I have though… I was struck by this moment, and it made me at once thankful that my father never seemed to have trouble displaying his love for me, and sad at the ways in which I see this kind of crippling emotional stuntedness spread throughout the people I know. I certainly don’t want to claim that I’m immune to it, either; it’s hard to put oneself out there, though I find it less hard with people I know well…

Here’s the episode I was talking about; the scene I mentioned is at pretty much the very end.

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Erin, a friend in ETS, posted to her blog a brief comment on a new Google product that is still in development, called Google Wave.  She notes that the Wave is

part Google Doc/wiki-ish, part Instant Message/Chat, and part multi-media host/presenter. A “wave” allows people to create a living, working document and uses real-time collaboration where you can add text, video, photos, maps, etc. All participants can add other participants, edit content, and also playback the wave to see what changes were made, when, and by whom.

If you follow the Wave link above, you will mostly just see this video (there’s a few other links on the page, which lead to a briefer explanation of what Wave is, but as far as I can tell the video demo is the most concentrated information Google is providing).  It’s an HOUR AND TWENTY MINUTES LONG.  But you know what?  I watched the whole thing last night.  And it was amazing.

One of the things that struck me the most about the beginning of the presentation (probably because it relates to stuff I’m working on) was the point that Lars Rasmussen made about the origin of email.  He points out (starting around 5:08 in the video, I believe) that email is modeled after the point-to-point communication of snail mail.  A similar observation is made by Mark Nunes in his book Cyberspaces of Everyday Life (which I think I’ve written about here before).  Rasmussen points out that, while the point-to-point nature of email makes sense, there are a whole lot of other possibilities for communication out there.  In fact, he suggests, if we decided to re-invent email, knowing what we know now about what computers are capable of, email would look radically different than the essentially letter-writing interface we have now.  Which is what Wave is: the future, un-moored from the dead weight of the past.

Ok, maybe Rasmussen isn’t as futuristic as I’m making him sound, but there is a little bit of that “we’re doing something no one has ever done before” vibe to the presentation, and I certainly can’t fault them for it.  Google Wave is incredible.  If you don’t have the patience to sit through the demo, let me hit some highlights for you: imagine an application that had the functionality of an Instant Messenger, an Email client, a file client like Flickr, a wiki, and some other random cool stuff all its own… all in one place.  Sounds awkward, right?  Sounds like one function would get in the way of another, or at least leave you with a complicated mess of buttons and controls?  Well, as always with Google, the beauty is in the simplicity of the product.  The controls look incredibly simple to use, relying in large part on a “playback” function that lets you scroll through the history of a “wave” as if it were a video (that’s the wiki part: people can edit this document all at the same time, and you can not only see who is editing what, but you can use playback to look at older versions).  Thus a wave might start out as an IM conversation between two people who want to go on a hiking trip for Spring Break.  That same wave could then morph into an email-type message that is “sent” to a number of potential members of the expedition (this metaphor doesn’t really work in some ways, since the Wave is seens as central, and it is the users who are “invited” to join the wave.  Still, a copy of it would show up in their wave client, like an email, so maybe the specific spatial metaphor is unimportant at the moment).  Then, once the participants have been decided upon, the same wave could become a planning document for the trip, detailing who will bring what, editable by all (this is the wiki part, again).  Then the wave becomes an album where people share pictures and video of the trip, and then maybe it gets turned into an exportable blog entry.

As you can tell, I’m pretty convinced that I’m seeing the future.  But when I look at wave, I can’t help but also see all of the older technologies that have gone into it, protocols and logics of organization and orientation that are clearly the successors of the various communication technologies developed in the past 40 years.  There’s more to be said about this aspect of remediation (I feel like the cycle of remediation is speeding up, as if we don’t even really have a technology around for very long before it is morphing into a new and different version of itself).  Something having to do, perhaps, with me remembering when I first signed up for AOL instant messenger in, say, seventh grade (I still use the screenname I chose then, lightscene, for way too many things).  But my thoughts on the subject are scrambled at the moment.

One last thing I did want to comment on, though, was the emphasis throughout the video, and on the wave.google.com page, on synchronicity or “real-time.”  One of the ways the wave makes use of synchronicity is to show you the text other users are writing almost character by character.  One of the emphasis points for the Google team was “how often do you, while IMing with someone, sit and watch the ‘so-and-so is typing’ text, waiting for them to finish what they are saying?  If you were talking in real life, you wouldn’t have to do that!”  In other words, IM used to be like passing notes in study hall, and Google is trying to make it more like sitting with your friend in a coffee shop.  What I loved about the Wave, though, was the way it seemed to jump back and forth so deftly from synchronous real-time conversation to asynchronous delayed conversation.  There’s something more to be said here, too, about the ways in which programs like Wave, and other web apps, are changing out relationship to time and writing…. but I have a whole dissertation to figure that out, don’t I?

Anyway, I guess my end comment is: I can’t wait for the future to get here.

A year or two ago, when I noticed that I friend of mine was posting her thoughts to Xanga (kind of like Livejournal, but… different) I thought to myself “hey, that seems like a cool idea, I should try that out!”  My brief experiment with quasi-blogging didn’t really pan out (maybe in part because I didn’t feel like I had anything to say, or anyone to say it to).  The pseudonym/screenname I chose was, in retrospect, a little creepy: I’d named the page “Going to the movies alone,” or something like that, and had consequently named myself something like “lonemoviewatcher.”

I know, creepy, right?

The fact is, though, that I do enjoy going to the movies alone.  People have told me such behavior is “weird,” but since I don’t really see watching a movie as a social action (unless you’re at home where you can chat and not really watch the movie at all, which is actually something I’m not very good at doing) I don’t see a problem with it.

I mention it here because I went to the movies tonight, by myself, and it was a rather liberatory experience… but I don’t really know why.  Certainly the movie I saw was excellent: Adventureland, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.  Martin Starr, of Freaks and Geeks fame, played a supporting role (which was awesome by the way, I’m actually a big fan of Starr’s, and if you haven’t seen Freaks and Geeks you should; it captures high school in a rather uncomfortably vivid way), as did Ryan Reynolds.   The movie wasn’t profound or anything, just a quasi-coming-of-age story set in the late-80s at a crappy amusement park… still, the characters were pretty vibrantly written, and the story was an engaging one.  I don’t know why I got so caught up in it, but it definitely made my night.  I left feeling like I could accomplish things, or at least that trying to accomplish them wouldn’t be as painful as it sometimes seems.

I bring up the movie as a way of getting into another issue: what I can post about here on this blog.  There is a fairly cliche concern about academic blogging, which says that you have to be especially careful what you blog about because people who are going to either hire you or evaluate you can very easily see blogging as a waste of time.  I’ve been going back and forth in my head about how much to reveal on this blog, especially given the fact that I am planning on being on the job market this coming year… but anyone who might hire me is going to know that I have a life outside of academia, and presumably that will actually come across as a good thing…

I am always conscious, of course, of the vastly public nature of this medium as well.  Even if there are only maybe 10 people who will read this post, it has the potential to be read by as many people as have a computer.  That’s a rather daunting standard for what’s worth writing about, if you think about it too much (as I tend to do).  All of this contributes to me not posting to this blog very often… something I’d like very much to change.

I was reading Michael’s fine blog in my Google Reader, and his post intrigued me so much that I left the Reader, went to his site, and started to compose a reply.  Then my reply began to get so long that I decided to leave his blog, come to mine, and write a post about it.  This is why RSS hasn’t killed blog commenting.

Michael’s post, the one I’m responding to, is about the news that

Outrage, a film about politicians who actively work against the interests of queers yet allegedly have gay sex, premiered on Friday in a few cities.

In other words, the conservative Republicans who say and do horribly homophobic things, but who are actually engaging in the behavior they are claiming to revile.  Michael’s main concern is a simple question:

What does charging a supposedly closeted gay man with being a closeted gay man actually do? Perhaps my imagination is failing me, but it only seems to reinscribe the various tactics of discourse/power used against queers onto other potential queers.

I think I agree with Michael that such “outing” is deeply problematic, if for no other reason than that one can imagine these senators and congressmen being reviled by both queer activists and homophobes alike, perhaps in surprisingly similar ways… a disturbing thought.  More importantly, I like Michael’s focus on the pragmatic elements of this situation: what is it that we are actually doing by “outing” these men?  Is it really accomplishing anything besides feeding our need for justice, which maybe begins to look more like our need for revenge?

I think my answer is different than Michael’s, though I’m going to explain it in a pretty roundabout manner.

This whole thing reminds me of an episode of West Wing (I forget which one… I’m a bad fanboy).  I hope the comparison isn’t objectionable, but it was my immediate reaction, and I think it’s useful as part of the explanation.  In this episode, the president is about start pushing to repeal mandatory minimums in drug sentencing that disproportionately harm racial minorities (this is the crack versus powder cocaine deal.  Manditory minimums are higher for crack, more crack users are black, more powder users are white, the minimums are racist).  In preparation for the issue, Leo McGarry (the chief of staff, who himself has just admitted to having had a serious substance abuse problem in the past) calls in the aides of a number of Republican congressmen.  He points out that each of the congressmen that those aides report to has a relative of some sort (daughter, brother, spouse, etc.) who has been arrested on drug charges and has gotten off lightly, no doubt due in part to the influential men these aides work for.  He tells those aides that the White House is bringing up this issue for debate, and they want to have a lively debate, but that they will not stand for hypocrisy; those congressmen are free to discuss the issue, but if they engage in ad hominem attacks on Leo, or decide to start spouting accusations of the president being “soft on drugs,” the media will hear about how gently their relatives have been treated by the justice system.

Whew.  Ok.  That was a long story, huh?

Here’s the payoff, I hope: throughout the entire exchange, the character of Josh seems pretty amped up for the confrontation, while Leo seems resigned and a little sad about the whole thing.  Leo says something to the effect of “where do I get off lecturing anyone about…” etc.  He does it, though, because he sees it as a political necessity.  This, I think, is where I differ from Michael.  I agree that this kind of outing is distasteful, and there are definitely ways in which it does not serve to further the cause for queer rights.  The problem, though, is that it doesn’t end there.  As Michael asks,

What do we actually learn or do by attempting to out explicit homophobes as closeted gays? The Right is hypocritical, we can announce! But we already knew that!

Except that the people who already knew that are not the ones who need to be reached, are they?  I think that there is actually a real political necessity to pointing out that people who think homosexuality is unnatural, voluntary, and inexcusably wrong can indeed by gay themselves.  That is a powerful statement in favor of accepting that queer culture is not going to go away.  Sure, the good that exposing this hypocrisy does might be offset by the damage of such “outing” behavior, but that’s a “might” that I don’t feel qualified to judge.  And yes, I do think there is probably too much of a revenge feel to this sort of tactic.  It’s a particular kind of theater that is cathartic, and maybe a little disturbing.  But that’s why, even if some aspects of it are objectionable, I don’t think this kind of outing is going away any time soon.  Too many people love to hate the Larry Craigs and Ted Haggards of the world.