Thursday, February 21, 2008

"Free Bird!"

In my youth, whenever I attended large concerts (particularly outdoor concerts), it was very likely I would hear someone in the crowd yell "Free Bird!" to the musicians onstage as a customary gesture of audience participation. I don't suspect that the person ever expected that Tom Petty or Pearl Jam or Skid Row (yes, yes, I know) would take them up on their suggestion of live material--although I'm sure the entire crowd would erupt in impish euphoria if they did, celebrating their victory of agency in a situation where they are generally expected to simply react. Still, yelling out the song name was a ritual at these concerts. There was even a specific voice the shouter enacted, that of the hippy-dippy stoner from the Freedom Rock record commercials from the late eighties ("Free Bird" is even included on the record!):

Many see the act of yelling "Free Bird!" a concert an act of heckling. For example, upon my suggestion that someone in my group should yell out the song title at a Bad Company/Damn Yankees concert, a fellow concert goer reprimanded me, noting that yelling "Free Bird!" is best left to those concerts where the band sucks. (Again, I was at a Bad Company/Damn Yankees concert.) Me, I'm not so sure about the heckling bit. Yes, the musicians most likely are sick of hearing the half-hearted request lobbed at them, and the luster of the irony and mischief has worn off. Still, there's something to be said about the audience member who wants to do more than simply react to the band, but instead hopes to drive the action, or perhaps even cause it to detour ever so slightly. They recognize the custom as fitting for the milieu, building off of the good feeling everyone is achieving, and although the contribution is not original, if timed well, it can still be a contribution. And rituals like these, once they become convention, can give birth to ideas that play off of or augment the original. It might be downright funny to yell, "Play some other Lynrd Skynrd song--anything but Free Bird!" or "Free Bert! Ernie's got him locked up!" Or maybe even slightly less lame suggestions.

Bert and the stool pigeon that got him locked up. No
truth to the rumor that the pigeon is the "Free Bird"
that inspired Ronny Van Zant to take pen in hand.

And what does this act of concert crowd etiquette have to do with blogs? Only this (that I can see): Bloggers, no matter how selfish we may feel, must consider our readers (even if they are only imagined or, Blog gods forbid, imaginary). Blogging is a public act of writing and to do so just for the satisfaction of the self is a ludicrous, and (as mentioned last week) improbable venture. Musicians wouldn't tour if they didn't think their music can touch people. It shouldn't be any surprise that the people want to touch back. Every concert goer is a potential showman, to varying degrees, just like every reader of our blogs is a potential writer of her own. When we give a blogging concert and are fortunate to have an audience show up to "listen," we cannot expect only rhythmic dancing, swaying, and lip-syncing to our ideas. There will be some people who will want to discuss the lyrics or disparage the song or introduce us to new tunes. And, yes, there are gonna be some "Free Bird!" yellers out there.

Just promise me this: should you cave in and (metaphorically, of course) play "Free Bird," please-oh-please don't play the seventeen-minute version.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Six voices fight until there’s only one left! Only one left! Only one left!*

The metaphor of "voice" in writing has long existed, owing to rhetoric's oratory origins. Surely, the sounds of our voices, like any sensory detail, shape our identities, but they also have an impact on how the message we are sending is being received. The metaphor does not make a neat and tidy transition into written composition;thus, it has splintered into many meanings. "Voice" may be used to refer to a writer's graphical style, his perspective on the world, an outward expression of his true "self," or even simply the recognized assertion of one's opinions.

In Chapter 4 of The Weblog Handbook, Rebecca Blood advocates that nascent bloggers will be best off in their ventures by discovering and employing their "authentic voices." In so doing, she is advancing the notion of voice as perspective: "the writer's unique fusion of interests, enthusiasms, and prejudices--her personality" (59). Simultaneously, Blood suggests some support of the notion of "voice" as a mystical expression of the "real writer": a self that will "emerge" as the writer continues to "honestly stretch . . . to meet the world" (72).

I appreciate and endorse the idea that everyone has a perspective, a point of view, that is (at least somewhat) different than everyone else's. I also think that at base writing is an attempt of a person to assert one's self into the world around her. However, I think it is dangerous to assume that this self, this "voice," will magically emerge. I believe the process is one of negotiation and craft; a writer's real mettle, whether in the blogosphere or on essay exams or even e-mails to loved ones, is forged in reaction to and in concert with the outside world. It is a struggle--a larger one for some than for others.

Blood is certainly an advocate of the continual practice and process of writing, but I do fear that her suggestion to write for "an audience of one" is probably dangerous if it is in fact possible. We are social beings, and the way we view the world and then the way we express that view are shaped by the people we interact with, listen to, and read. Our "selves" as audience members are amalgams of the type of audiences of the sorts of things we like to read and hear. So, I suspect that those who claim to write for themselves and end up finding a broader audience for their work are in fact sophisticated readers who have a rich, well-crafted, multi-faceted "audience of one" reviewing their work. But before burgeoning writers can write for their "audience of one," they must themselves become audience members of many, many other writers.

And, I suspect that as if by, ahem, magic, they will find their "voices" strengthen in the process. But it won't be a cakewalk.

Incidentally, if your writing truly had a "voice," would it have the tonal qualities like your actual voice, or do you imagine it as sounding like someone else?

Me, I like to think of my voice as a Groucho Marx sneer belted out by an early-'80s Steve Perry.

I'd never want to join an arena rock band that would have me as a member
Stretching to meet the world, indeed.

* Thank you, Mr. Show "Subway" sketch.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

All about the Benjamin

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin wrote about how the technical advancements in the methods to produce and reproduce art changed the very nature in how we view the art. Benjamin argued that the “aura” of a piece of art—its authentic essence connecting it to time, place, and history—is demolished through the ease and acceptance of its reproduction. (While this may be oversimplifying things, let me put forth an example: after seeing countless reproductions of the painting, just what would most of us gain by viewing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre?) Further, Benjamin suggests that as these reproductions meets wider audiences, their “meanings” become more varied and fragmented, very dependent upon the viewers/readers/listeners of the texts:

By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.

And while he no doubt foresaw the acceleration of this phenomenon, Benjamin, one can assume, had no way of knowing that access we would have to instantaneous hyper-reproductions of sounds, images, and text—that is to say, the internet (and before it, to a lesser extent, television). The internet takes this reproduction further, as the responder can co-opt, manipulate and repurpose a text in the blink of an eye.

All of which brings me to the next task in crafting blogs in our composition class: the introduction of images to our weekly posts.

I think it’s safe to say that most of the images we view in blogs have been plucked from elsewhere on the internet. While original images would be safest, it is likely that many of the images you put on your blogs will come from elsewhere online. I suggest that you strive for proper attribution of original artwork (in many cases this is handled in the form of a link to the site the picture is from); however, there certainly is a lot of free-form image grabbing out there. Many images are scans from other sources (as I suspect is the case for the picture of the Missing Link I put in my post last week), which probably means that all sorts of copyright infringement is happening, a property endemic to the web. The manipulation of images in photo editing programs like Photoshop, like the image of my friend Tim (where I put his face into an Uncle Sam poster), complicates the issue further, and shows the continual destruction of the “aura” of a work of art that Benjamin wrote about.

You'll have to trust me; Tim found it funny.

To be on the safe side, we should add images carefully: we should use free stock image sites or include our own whenever possible and give proper attribution when we use someone else’s image. But for Benjamin’s (or maybe not) sake, include images. In this oftentimes too passive culture, what’s so wrong with a little "object reactivation," after all?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Glue and Rubber Bands of the Inter-Web

Recently, I was having breakfast in Chicago with my friend Jeff, who was bringing me up to speed on the plans of a mutual friend. He explained that our friend was busying himself with the composition of a text that investigates the effect technology has on the self, but that he was confining his text to his own musings and the words on one particular philosopher. Jeff lamented that our friend, who is brilliant and insightful, is choosing not to include himself in the ongoing conversation about current technology and subject positions, instead opting to shape his writing through his interpretation of this one text. That got me thinking—considering how this class is always on my mind these days—about how the writing our friend is doing is a lot like a blog post without hyperlinks. Smartly linking our text to other texts not only adds depth to the ideas we are trying to convey, but links have become such an integral part to “reading” on the internet that the blogger who doesn’t link is looked upon with some suspicion.

In fact, perhaps the most important reason to link to outside texts is to show that, perhaps unlike my friend, you are willing to acknowledge that you are taking part in a greater discussion. The more connection you can show between your ideas and outside texts, the more credence readers give your thoughts. To that end, links also serve as an immediate citation for the outside sources you bring to your work, sort of a documentation shortcut (although it is important not to rely on links alone when it comes to citing sources for hypertext essays). Connecting to other texts also gives readers the chance to continue their edification with additional resources, especially if the additional resources are more substantial in scope and research than the original. And sometimes links offer a deeper “showing” of a concept by connecting to a page with more detail or a visual or aural representation of that concept.

Linking is wonderful, but there are some caveats. First, linking doesn’t absolve us from quoting outside sources completely. We still should be prepared to offer short or even block quotes of important passages in the articles we refer to in our texts. We also need to remember not to go link-crazy. In “Link Theory: Keep it Simple, Pick Meaningful Words,” Steven Johnson quotes New York Times web site design director, Khoi Vinh, about a strong rule of the linking thumb:

"The important thing is to hyperlink meaningful text," says Vinh. "You're contributing to the overall semantic nature of the Web by linking meaningful text."

This rule—that is to say, the act of creating hyperlinks itself—requires that we writers be prepared to recognize what is “meaningful text” in what we compose. Welcome to the lifelong struggle. I mean, really, isn’t determining what is “meaningful text” what the practice of composition is all about?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

We’re Going Live in 5, 4, 3, . . .

We, the bloggers of Winter 2008 109N02 (we need a nickname, I think: “The Fighting Bloggers”? “The Blog Demons”? “The Blog-eyes”?) have emerged from a long weekend, a weekend during which we probably spent little time thinking about or tending to our blogs. Now we’ll be taking a step that might cause that to change ever so slightly. I am asking the class to register their blogs at, effectively adding them to a searchable database of online journals. By requiring this action, I am asking the students to go deeper in their sense of responsibility for the texts they post. They are further committing themselves to their writing by alerting list browsers to the existence of their online compositions. Of course, posting on Blogger is a public act in itself; however, this move is a moment of recognition of these blogs as honest-to-goodness blogs. Naturally, I can’t help but be a-twitter at the potential for surf-by chatter.

That said, I call upon my class (and myself) to temper any real hope for discovery with a heaping spoonful of realism. Blogs are strewn about the internet like glass in a liquor store parking lot. (Yipe, what a negative image. Let’s change that to “as prevalent as scratch-‘n’-sniff stickers on a twelve-year-old girl’s social studies folder in 1984.”) So it is unlikely that anyone will simply happen to bump into your blogs. Although they might. And that possibility alone should provide extra motivation for these emerging writers—not to mention the instructor who assigned all this craziness in the first place—to make these texts are strong as we possibly can.
Realism looks a lot like chocolate pudding. The taste, however, is chillingly different.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Quarter it.*

We have made our way through a quarter of the Winter quarter (which, if my math is correct,1 means we're a full sixteenth through the school year, give or take Daylight Saving Time), and look at how far the class blogs have come. With each passing week they get clearer in focus, fatter with ideas, and dressier with the pictures and lists of links and the like that lace the text. As a regular viewer of the blogs, I appreciate the lushness provided by the accoutrement of the blogosphere, although I can understand how some may be wary of too many frills. As with both putting together a winning ensemble in fashion and crafting a text online, we should rarely strive to sport flair for flair’s sake. However, if I’ve learned anything from those 5 minutes of House of Style that I watched back in November of 1994,2 it’s that sometimes the accessories bring additional meaning to the whole outfit.

And that’s the philosophy here. I hope that the choices that the students make when they trick out their blogs will add something to the texts as a whole. Surely, we find blogs with whimsical pictures and colors aesthetically pleasing, but these visuals also affect the way we view the text. A site with only words written in one of the standard Blogger templates will often be written off as “unserious,” and, depending upon the quality of the writing, “stark raving insane.” Those who humanize their blogs invite readers to put their feet up, sit with the blogs for a spell, indulge in the not-too-tart-not-too-sweet flavor of their prose. And the writers—I hope—achieve a stronger sense of ownership over their journals. If nothing else, perhaps they’ll be happy to fess up to the fact that they made that lemonade.

*With a wink and a nod to my high-school gambling buddies. You know who you are.
1 It isn’t.
2 I haven’t.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Word to the Whys

By now, those of you in the 109N02 class have probably spent some time wondering (and rightly so) why an instructor of an English Composition class would have his class write weekly blogs. Judging from the responses I received to the prompt where I asked you to comment on your online reading and writing experience, many of you recognize that the majority of immediate communication on the internet has a fairly informal feel to it. While it is true that blogs often play fast and loose with some classroom essay conventions, we will come to discover that, by and large, they are still beholden to many of the rules we ascribe to Standard Edited American English. So consider this a warning that while your language may be more informal in your posting of blog entries and comments to the entries of your classmates, grammar and style still matter.

But let’s return to the question of just why we’re focusing on blogs in class. I have a dual purpose, I suppose. We are utilizing the blogs as a tool that will assist us along the process of composition—the informality that we assign to the genre, I find, coaxes students to produce a higher volume of writing than even in-class freewriting assignments. Secondly, we must appreciate that blogs are playing an increasing role in the dissemination of information and opinion, so through our experience in keeping blogs, we are studying them as a form of communication. Plus, they enable for feedback outside of the insulation of the English classroom, an invaluable addition to a writer’s learning experience.

So there we are: a brief defense of just why we’re keeping and studying blogs in 109N02. I look forward watching the evolution of your blogs and your writing selves over the quarter. And if nothing else, with blogs on the writer's faith, being/becoming a parent, legalizing marijuana, turning cars into cash, joining the U.S. Marines, etc., I’ll have plenty an eclectic read.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Welcome Winter 08 109N02 class!

Take a look around my blog! I encourage you to check out the list of links to the blogs of the students from my class last spring, locatedin the left sidebar. They did a wonderful job with their blogs, and I'm sure they'll inspire you in your own work. I look forward to a wonderful quarter of writing and reading with you!