My dear imagined readers,
I imagine you must have been wondering, these long months since my last post, what (if anything) I’ve been up to, since it clearly has not been writing punnily titled essays and posting them here. As it turns out, I’ve been up to quite a lot, for quite some time, and the first of those projects to bear fruit is finally ready for harvest today. I am pleased to announce the official launch of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, a free and open-access online academic journal that has the benefit of combining several of my academic interests, including interactive pedagogy, digitally enhanced learning, and long strings of modifying phrases. The easy-to-remember url? cuny.is/jitp.
The journal’s architecture and mission are the product of an editorial collective that includes faculty, staff, and students (with fully half of our 14 members current PhD students), mostly from CUNY, and mostly either participants in or leaders of the certificate program in interactive technology and pedagogy. Among our goals is to raise the level of the conversation around how tech is used in teaching and learning, recognizing that the tools themselves are neutral: they can harm as well as help, depending on what they’re being used for, so we should examine closely what we want to use them for, and why. The JITP has the support of some top-notch scholars in the DH and TechRhet worlds, and I’m rather excited to see where we can go from here.
My involvement, like the involvement many of the collective members, has been widespread: I’ve helped write and revise guiding documents, both internal and public; I’ve reviewed incoming submissions, and copyedited several of the articles now published. And, with my Co-Editor of Issue Two, Joe Ugoretz, I wrote the now-active Call for Submissions (running now through May 1st!), and will soon be ramping up to even fuller involvement in the crafting of the journal’s contents. But the real motive force behind this entire year-plus worth of effort is our amazing Managing Editor, and Co-Editor (with Kimon Keramidas) for Issue One, Sarah Ruth Jacobs. She is a living testament that grad students can be a powerful force against inertia, and I am extremely grateful to have worked with her thus far, and delighted to continue doing so in the future.
So: check out the journal! Leave comments and extend the conversation! We’re looking forward to hearing from you! No exclamation marks necessary.
In yesterday’s tribute to Rebecca Mlynarczyk on the occasion of her retirement, one repeated point, intended as praise, got me thinking about how composition/rhetoric is (or may be) perceived within academia. “One thing Rebecca taught me,” Karen Pitt said, “is that it’s okay if you fail at something. You can even publish from it.”
Now, I believe I know what she’s saying here — see below — but all the same I heard this with a note of fear, worried about how the audience might interpret her comment. The English department announced last semester that it would not be hiring the two candidates for comp/rhet faculty, both of whom are much beloved by the comp/rhet students in the department; while the full reasons are confidential, and the final decision is still being negotiated, the air was full of insinuation: that ours was not a serious field, or that these were not serious scholars, because where were their academically published single-author books? With that fallout still drifting as background to our event, I couldn’t help but imagine a hostile (or even skeptical) listener’s smug reaction: You see? Comp/rhet is a field in which failure is acceptable. Q.E.D. not serious!
But rather than saying merely that failure is “okay,” I think comp/rhet teaches two related but different things about failure: that it is inevitable, and that it is interesting.
To say that failure is inevitable does not mean it is final: it means that, in most circumstances, the road to success does not lead in a straight line from inception to completion. The observation that “there is a forward-moving action that exists by virtue of a backward-moving action,” as Sondra Perl put it in “Understanding Composing” (364), may have come about as a description of writing process, but it could equally well apply to many endeavors, especially where learning is involved. And in English Studies, where so much learning takes place through writing (as the construction of arguments), set-backs and dead-ends are worth recognizing, and owning, and not being afraid of — or ashamed of. As I have recently argued in a forthcoming paper on metaphor, writer’s block, and the Legend of Zelda, the kinds of “success” we can have without such “failures” are perforce of limited scope: the end-stages of a rather boring game. So perhaps I shouldn’t say that failure is inevitable, but rather that it is normal.
Failure, then, is “okay” not as an end-point, but as a positive sign that you’re still engaged in the process of discovery — and should keep going. Another speaker, Nichole Stanford, highlighted this aspect of Rebecca’s teaching when she pointed out that her generous nurturing nature often manifested itself in rigorous ongoing demands for improvement, to the tune of (in this particular case) eleven drafts of a dissertation proposal.
But even beyond that, I believe that comp/rhet has taught us — and Rebecca in particular has taught me — that failures are in fact desirable, interesting in the scientific sense, as objects of study. Why? Because moments we experience as “failure” are moments of rupture between what we expected would happen and what actually happened: moments, therefore, in which the workings of the world are revealed in surprising ways. In the comment that triggered this essay, the idea that “you can even publish from [failure],” Karen was referring to a moment when an initially horrifying setback — one of Rebecca’s case-study students throwing her journal in the garbage prior to their first follow-up interview — became the starting point for a major re-evaluation of how students, vs. teachers, viewed these journals and what they were for. The new understanding emerging from this crisis became one of the driving forces behind Rebecca’s first book, Conversations of the Mind: The Uses of Journal Writing for Second-Language Learners . (Karen or Rebecca, if you’re reading this, please correct me if I’m getting this reference wrong. But I hold to the principle, regardless, and will continue to see Rebecca as one of the people who has taught me this lesson most clearly.)
So for anyone out there who was saddened or smug to see failure so praised, don’t think failure is weakness. It takes, if anything, rather more strength to look closely at something so potentially fraught with pain, frustration, or guilt. Composition is not the only field in which crises and ruptures and disappointments become grist for the discovery of new insights, but it is characteristic of compositionists to be fascinated with drafts and cuttings and negative spaces — to look at something in-process, and pause, and then look at the process itself. To move, in a word, to the meta.
Perl, Sondra. “Understanding Composing.” College Composition and Communication 31.4 (1980): 363-369. http://www.jstor.org/stable/356586
Mlynarczyk, Rebecca. Conversations of the Mind: The Uses of Journal Writing for Second-Language Learners. Psychology Press, 1998. via Google Books
Long-time followers of this blog will know that, in a previous incarnation, I had listed myself quite simply as Ungooglable. That title was, much like the title of this webspace, suggested by my wife, who pointed out that “Benjamin Miller” was an awfully hard person to find reliable information about. It’s not that there’s no information; it’s the opposite. There’s just too much. From the first page of Google hits alone, you find that Benjamin Miller is a professor of math and logic, a comedian and actor with a background in solid-state physics, a dermatologist and organic chemist, a fairly hackneyed and omphaloskeptic WordPress blogger, a Columbia-affiliated scholar of culture and sanitation in New York City, a Twitter-ing programmer of browser plugins, and an education policy consultant with an Ivy-League undergrad degree and an interest in reforming high-stakes assessment.
None of these are the same person, and none of them are me. So the first observation here is that my Search Engine Optimization could use a lot of work. (Just one reason among several I’m not linking to the aforementioned pages.) Yet what I find most striking about this list is how close so many of them come to sounding like me: I have degrees from Harvard and Columbia; attend grad school in New York City where I study writing pedagogy, and complain about high-stakes assessment, with the goal of becoming a professor; follow interactive tech gurus on Twitter; and write a WordPress blog about subjects that coil in on themselves. When I tell my students that I came to college wanting to study physics, or when I use math analogies to explain punctuation, it must fit right in with the picture they had of me when they Googled their potential teachers before selecting my class. (Does anyone do that?)
It’s kind of a problem.
But more than the mistaken generic identity, which I suppose I must simply get used to, it’s the mistaken identity within specific genres I care about that really has me worried. For example, I am a poet. I have an MFA diploma sitting in a box in my bedroom to prove it! (See left. Sigh.) More usefully, my work has been published multiple times in respectable journals; I’ve been a finalist for a book prize and a chapbook prize. (Fingers crossed for this year.) And I find it matters to me that when you search for “benjamin miller poet,” “benjamin miller poem,” or “benjamin miller poetry” – as perhaps friends and students will do when they first hear that I write poetry – the first several links they come up with are not only not poems I wrote, they’re poems I wouldn’t want to write: trite rhymes that slap with a monosyllabic flatness into quatrain boxcar regularity (this is the top hit, evidently What the People Want) and then the opposite extreme, an ambient jazz experimentalist. Let me be clear: I do not intend to disparage these people or their work on absolutist grounds, but rather to point out the distance between my aesthetic and theirs. For all I know, they may well be achieving the apotheosis of their musical and syntactical goals, or those of their community – witness, again, the high PageRank these pages achieve. But it unnerves me to think that those I would try to impress, those who I believe do share my own aesthetic, would look me up and think I’d been found.
So what to do, then, with this name, this ungooglable name? Much though it might make life simpler, I don’t think I can sign every poem as benmiller314, and run with that – although a search for that tag does turn up me, and only me, for five full pages. (Well. Five full but, um, repetitive pages. I’m working on it.) While I’ve not yet reached a full conclusion, I believe this blog will play a major role in the taking control of my online identity. You can reach me now at the convenient address of majoringinmeta.net, which I trust will be far more memorable – and pronounceable in conversation – than the full-length CUNY Commons URL. From here, I can link outward to the rest of my work as it exists online. (I guess you can consider that a coming attraction?)
And, as of today at least, a search “majoring in meta” will lead you here. Perhaps it has. And if so – and even if it’s not so – welcome.