About sherrinf

Researching libraries, book culture, & writing processes.

Wrapping up Writing Machines

I just finished up a semester teaching an online 200-level writing course called “Writing Machines” for the first time. I developed it as 100% online and asynchronous, so we were not affected by any covid-related social distancing policies. But the stress levels, fatigue, and multitude of external events pulling on our collective attention affected my students and me as much as any face-to-face class. The exhaustion I feel, and that my colleagues and students have shared that they’re feeling too, differs from the usual end-of-semester exhaustion. And not in a good way.

Despite these hurdles, I feel like the class was a success.  I had several goals in mind as I developed the new content, some of which I met more effectively than others. In the spirit of reflection and writing in public view (the same wringer my students have to go through), I’ll share them here.

Goal #1: Do not require any book purchases. The cost of textbooks in many general education courses is way too high, and our campus encourages faculty to consider OER materials. But sometimes you need a very specific text for a specific reason: it’s about the author, context, style, and argument more than just the information conveyed. Fortunately, our campus library has many of the books and articles I wanted to assign, so by using e-books through our library and a few articles posted freely online, I was able to create (what I believe to be) an amazing reading list of relevant articles and chapters written or edited by rhet/comp experts. Eliminating book costs as a barrier to completing the course was an unqualified success.

Goal #2: Focus on diversity in the reading list. Amplifying the work of missing or marginalized voices in one’s field is more important than ever, and I feel good that our final reading list includes professional writers who identify as women, Native American, Black, Latinex, LGBTQIA, and as members of the disability community. Goal #2 was difficult, in large part because of Goal #1. There were many texts written by a wonderfully diverse group of professionals that would have cost too much money. Finding a better balance is something I will focus on in future semesters. [Students, I challenge you to review your course reading lists next semester and consider what kinds of writers are included and excluded, and then consider why that might be the case.]

Goal #3: Incorporate hands-on, non-digital activities. A course emphasizing the materiality of writing, taught in an online format, relying solely on digital texts sounds like an oxymoron. Is it possible to describe online the differences among papyrus, linen, and bark papers? Yes. Could I post pictures of the 18th century pages with heavy typesetting embossing? Yes.  Would this be anything like holding, sniffing, folding, and writing on those papers yourself? Not. At. All.  So I mailed out packets of supplies, and then we wrote a series of blog posts, each of which required some kind of experiment or project and reflection. In addition to the tactile aspects, I also wanted students to do some of our classwork away from the computer because we were all suffering some degree of “zoom fatigue.” AND I wanted to give them a reason to practice their own writing style and voice through public writing. I think most of the students really enjoyed this part of the class. I know I did.

Goal #4: Make explicit connections to Writing Studies pedagogy, and specifically to Writing About Writing. About 50% of our ENGL 111 classes in the fall used this textbook (our First-Year Writing program has not adopted an OER textbook), and I wanted to reinforce some vocabulary and concepts for those students. For other students, I wanted to introduce the concepts. The book was not a required purchase. I used a series of assignments from the textbook, modified for our particular course content. I think it worked pretty well and served as a springboard into some amazing student papers. 

I have some revision and development to complete before I teach this again next year based on student feedback and my own lagging to-do list.  While a couple of students have expressed dissatisfaction or frustration, it does seem that most of them had at least a good experience, if not an outright enjoyable one.  In their final blog reflections (you can read a couple here, here, and here) a great many of them explained how their relationship with writing had changed for the better and how their own identity as a writer had become better developed.

You can read more about the course here. If you want to talk about this class, about “writing machines,” or about the materiality of writing, let me know!  I would love to have a conversation.

First reviews for Libraries amid Protest

Today, the first two reviews of the book crossed my social media feed. I am elated that these reviewers took the time to read the book and to write so thoughtfully about it.

From Cherilyn Elston in Full Stop: “What is original about LIBRARIES AMID PROTEST is Frances’ decision to foreground the library not as a distraction from the “real work” of the occupation but as a key component of its politics.” https://www.full-stop.net/2020/11/06/reviews/cherilyn-elston/libraries-amid-protest-books-organizing-and-global-activism-sherrin-frances/

From Margaret Sylvia in Library Journal: “A stirring book, with plenty of food for thought; recommended for those with an interest in activism and protest.” https://store.emags.com/libraryjournal_free (Nov 2020, p.97)

New class! ENGL 390.01, Libraries & Communities*

ENGL 390 promotional graphic. Image text repeated below.

Please join us in exploring the benefits and controversies that libraries bring to their respective communities. We will address public and university libraries, but we will also spend considerable time investigating “outsider” libraries. These include the Underpass Library under a Canada freeway, the BiblioBurro delivering books by donkey in Chile, and the trash library built by sanitation workers in Turkey. How do these non-traditional libraries both form and inform the community? What do they say about our relationship to reading, freedom of information, and the durability of the book?

Special for Fall ’20: We will partner with Saginaw’s Roethke House Museum library for some hands-on experience, and we will also Zoom with a variety of librarians throughout the fall. This will be a small class, so we will meet twice weekly in a traditional face-to-face (LEC) format. I am VERY excited about the opportunities we have this fall.

If you are interested but want more detail, or if you want to make any suggestions as to the content we cover, please email me at sfrances@svsu.edu. I will be finalizing the syllabus in a few weeks.

*ENGL 390 is a special topics class, so technically this is a new topic and not a new class. But it is the first time that this topic has ever been offered.

Counting the days: Zero hour.

Several years ago I began a blog to document my pursuit of a math degree. I was sidetracked by other things more closely job-related (I wrote a book about libraries, among other things.) It has been three-ish years since I took my last math class. That pursuit, though not abandoned, has been tabled indefinitely. I’m renaming this site to something more generally professional where I can post things related to more than math. Although when math returns, this is where you’ll see it. This little note to for the few of you connected to this site, and serves as the milestone marker between what began here and what lives here now.

Calculus: Formula for inspiration

I started Calculus I this fall.  We’re six weeks into the semester, and I just passed my first test (a surprise, considering I could only remember one formula so I used it on every single problem).  I haven’t posted since the end of last semester because, honestly, I just wasn’t sure until today that I was going to keep going with this math shenanigan.  This is a huge expenditure of time and, despite my enthusiasm, it still does not come naturally.  And there are so many things going on.

But this morning a girlfriend told me today that I had inspired a mutual friend to take a class next semester.  This made me happy to hear.  I was flattered.  My ego got a little bigger.  My guess is, though, that this mutual friend would probably have taken the class anyway, because he’s that kind of person.

Then this afternoon, I ran into a math classmate on campus and we had a brief exchange about the class–she is struggling, too, but has to complete this class in order to get into grad school.  And she inspired me, even though I’m (obviously) already taking the class.  Inspiration is a funny thing.

Hebetude, and other words I learned this spring

WordListI’ve had some glorious downtime recently and managed to read Combes, Finn, and Ronell.  I looked up all the words I had never seen before, the words I could only make educated guesses about, and the words I wanted to confirm based on context.  It’s what I tell my students to do, but it had been a long time since I’ve done it myself.  Tedious but fruitful. Also, I’m a little gratified that, of the 37 words, spellcheck claimed 12 did not exist.  Here’s my list, which includes the authors’ original sentences.

Anodyne: “Many poems seem to respond to their prompts with the same flat, affectless tone as the Mechanical Turk system itself, offering up anodyne confections of cliché and truism, completing the task of composition in as little as twelve seconds” (Finn 140).

Apeiron: “With this reference to nature, Simondon places himself in a pre-Socratic lineage, which is asserted explicitly in his definition of nature as ‘reality of the possible, in the form of this apeiron from which Anaximander generates all individuated forms.’“ (Combes 46).

Apophenia: “One of the most compelling aspects of games is precisely the seduction of algorithmically ordered universes–spaces where our apophenia can be deeply indulged, where every event and process operates according to a rule set” (Finn 123).

Arbitrage: “These companies are engaged in a form of algorithmic arbitrage, handling the messy details for us and becoming middlemen in every transaction” (Finn 97).

Autopoiesis: “This line of argument evolved into the theory of autopoiesis proposed by philosophers Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the 1970s, the second wave of cybernetics which adapted the pattern-preservation of homeostasis more fully into the context of biological systems” (Finn 28).

Avuncular: “He leaps over the diegetic boundary of the story to touch us in a way that manages to be both avuncular and calculating” (Finn 107).

Badinage: “Algorithmic platforms now shape effectively all cultural production, from authors engaging in obligatory Twitter badinage to promote their new books to the sophisticated systems recommending new products to us” (Finn 53).

Catachrestic: “The point to be considered here, though, is that God needs the catachrestic maneuver in order to love” (Ronell 54).

Chiaroscuro: “The images show the data points of cars and office lights, buildings and structures, weather and movement patterns in long, unmoving chiaroscuro shots” (Finn 105).

Coelenterate: “Although the example of coelenterates on which Simondon bases his description of the individuation of living beings may appear surprising, or even poorly chosen in light of the difficulty in this case of precisely determining the site of individuality, it does not seem to me that the author made this choice lightly” (Combes 24).

Colloidal: “The clay can eventually be transformed into bricks because it possesses colloidal properties that render it capable of conducting a deforming energy while maintaining the coherence of molecular chains, because it is in a sense ‘already in form’ in the swampy earth” (Combes 6).

Concrescence: “Insofar as any technical individual is a system of elements organized to function together and characterized by its tendency toward concretization, we must distance ourselves from human intentionality and enter into the concrescence of technical systems in order to understand the mode of existence of technical objects” (Combes 58).

Consilient: “The spare utility of the search bar or the interfaces for Gmail, YouTube, and other essential services mask a deep infrastructure designed, ultimately, to construct a consilient model of the informational universe.                (Finn 66).

Diegetic: “Like other elements of the diegetic background of the show, the Enterprise’s talking computer was meant to be unremarkable and efficient” (Finn 67).

Dyad: “To begin with the operation of individuation is to place oneself at the level of the polarization of a preindividual dyad (formed by an energetic condition and a structural seed)” (Combes, 7).

Elide: “Algorithmic systems and computational models elide away crucial aspects of complex systems with various abstracting gestures, and the things they leave behind reside uneasily in limbo, known and unknown, understood and forgotten at the same time” (Finn 51).

Farragoes: “We tell collective jokes and stories using comment threads and hashtags, building shared narratives and farragoes that can evolve into sophisticated techincal beings in their own right as Internet memes as superficial as #lolcats or as potent as #blacklivesmatter” (Finn 193).

Fiat: “The blockchain relies on a computational fiat by rewarding the miners who bring the most computational power to bear on calculating each new block” (Finn 166).

Fungible: “If software is a metaphor for metaphors, the algorithm becomes the mechanism of translation: “the prism or instrument by which the eternally fungible space of effective computability is focalized and instantiated in a particular program, interface, or user experience” (Finn 35).

Hebetude: “Back at his desk from the Orient, Flaubert famously bounces Charles Bovary’s hopeless hebetude against his wife’s destructive jouissance; the life span of the nonstupid, frustrated and shortened, considerably fades, whereas the dumbest, including the calculating pharmacist, survive” (Ronell 38).

Homeostasis: “Central to this upper ascent is the notion of homeostasis, or the way that a system responds to feedback to preserve its core patterns and identity” (Finn 28).

Hylomorphism: “In this respect, the philosophical tradition boils down to two tendencies, both of which are blind to the reality of being before all individuation: atomism and hylomorphism” (Combes 1).

Hypostasis: “Could we not avoid this hypostasis of a ‘sense of becoming’ wherein normativity culminates in the notion of ‘error against becoming’?” (Combes 62).

Imbrication: “Google’s near omni-presence online, its imbrication in countless cultural systems that do not merely enable but effectively define certain cultural fields of play for billions of people, make this more than just a suggestion service or even a sophisticated form of advertising” (Finn 74).

Inchoate: “Thus the animal appears to the observer of individuation as ‘an inchoate plant,’ that is, as a plant that was dilated at the very beginning of its becoming;” (Combes 22).

Isomorphic: “Thus, in super-cooled water” (i.e., water remaining liquid at a temperature below its freezing point), the least impurity with a structure isomorphic to that of ice plays the role of a seed for crystallization and suffices to turn the water to ice” (Combes 3).

Littoral: “Part of the work of the Netflix culture machine is to continually course-correct between that narrow aesthetic littoral and the vast ocean of abstraction behind it” (Finn 108).

Ontogenesis: “As is always the case with Simondon, philosophy will remain a philosophy of individuation, an ontogenesis” (Combes 58).

Parallelepipedic: “Now, the clay matter and the parallelepipedic form of the mold are only endpoints of two technological half-trajectories, of two half-chains that, upon being joined, make for the individuation of the clay brick” (Combes 5).

Predation: “The heroes of Lewis’s story are those trying to eliminate the ‘unfair’ predation of HFT algorightsm and create an equal playing field for the trading of securities as they imagine such things ought to be traded” (Finn 153).

Prenoetic: “The preindividual dyad is prenoetic as well, which is to say, it precedes both thought and individual” (Combes 7).

Propitiating: “Yet these tricks come with a script that Siri must learn–for Siri to deliver each punchline we must carefully set up the joke, propitiating the culture machine with appropriate rituals” (Finn 60).

Puerile: “There is something unquestionably Nietzschean about treating practically everyone as puerile and stupid” (though Nietzsche never did so–he credited them with cleverness and, at most, with acting stupid or like Christians, who introduced a substantially new and improved wave of stupidity, revaluating and honoring the stupid idiot: O sancta simplicitas!)” (Ronell 39).

Reticular: “And while ethics is said to be ‘sense of individuation,’ and there is ethics only ‘to the extent that there is information, that is, signification, ethics is simultaneously apprehended as reticular reality, the capacity to link the preindividual in many acts” (Combes 65).

Scholium: “Scholium: The intimacy of the common (chapter title)” (Combes 51).

Stochastic: “Computational systems are developing new capacities for imaginative thinking that may be fundamentally alien to human cognition, including the creation of inferences from millions of statistical variables and the manipulation of systems in stochastic, rapidly changing circumstances that are temporally behind our ability to effectively comprehend” (Finn 55).

Thanatological: “In sum, what confers separate individuality on a living being is its thanatological character–the fact of detaching from the original colony and, after having reproduced, dying at a distance from it” (Combes 24).

 

Stupid velocity

There’s a lot in this world about which I am not stupid: practically, I’ve navigated life more or less effectively so far.  But more and more often I notice am annoyed that there is someone at the table who professes to know more about [X] than I do.   And the more I am expected to know, the more I question what I think I know.  Maybe this is why I am enjoying the math classes: I’m allowed to be stupid* there.  I am supposed to be stupid there.

WhiteboardWithConcert

Years ago, a professor was describing the idea of “lines of flight” from 1000 Plateaus, and he said (loosely paraphrased) that it means running headlong through a mountain rather than intentionally trying to go around it.  His example was a 3¢ bank fee that you disagreed with.  Rather than protesting and not paying it, which would ultimately benefit the bank, you should write a separate check for the 3¢ every time the fee is due.  If we all wrote separate checks for these tiny fees, we could cripple the bank by costing it more money to process the fee than the fee itself is worth.  Don’t avoid the fee.  Force everyone to look at the fee in excruciating detail.  Maybe this is what I’m doing with my own mathematical stupidity: running headlong into it and gazing on every horrifying crevice.  To what end, I don’t know.

All of this to say: I have finally passed MATH 140: Introduction to Mathematical Analysis.  It took me three tries, and I wasn’t entirely sure that I had passed until final grades were posted.  I’m registered to take Calculus in the fall.  Also, I’m getting better at finding textbook deals, so the book this time was only$180, and I bought the Student Solutions Manual up front, too–that might have saved me last semester, if only it had been “required” and not “recommended.”

The velocity of my stupidity is picking up steam.  Maybe even accelerating?

*My use of stupidity is loosely based on what I vaguely remember of Derrida and Ronell.  Probably stupidly misinterpreted.

Math as Corpse Pose

What a hiatus.  Not long after my last post in October, the election cycle ramped up to such a level of screeching that many of us couldn’t hear ourselves think.  And since the election itself, many of us have been struggling just to get out of bed and face the world, much less practice being in and being with the world.  And since the inauguration, we’ve been too angry to focus on anything that hasn’t been overtly political or that might smack of self-indulgence in a time of crisis.

But last weekend I managed to pick up and open Manuel Castells’ Networks of Outrage and Hope. And I’m excited again to be on this math journey, even though it has stalled a little.  I’m taking MATH 140 for the third time this semester.  I dropped it this summer for a lot of good reasons.  I took it again in the fall and saw it through all the way to the bitter (BITTER) end when the final exam knocked my barely-passing average down to a D.

So here I am, for, the third time. Things are vaguely familiar, and the repetition of material is replacing my frustration with a sense of calm.  Muckelbauer in The Future of Invention talks about the “inventive singularity within repetition itself” (44). He says he is “not so much interested, for example, in getting Plato right,” but rather “in orienting toward the singular rhythms that circulate through his writing” (45).  When I think about that, as I struggle to complete literally the same set of problems from the same book for the third time, unaware of everything except my pencil, the calculator, and that smooth, seductive graph paper (I LOVE IT SO MUCH), the repetition does not feel like a waste of time.  Far from it.  The two-hour block is functioning as a vacuum, as a sensory deprivation tank. Now that I in my third repetition, I can anticipate some quizzes and lectures as smoothly as if we were moving through a daily same-but-different sun salutation sequence. The logarithm as mode of unification, pencil grip as mudra.  Trigonometric identities leading to Shavasana. This third-time math class has become a meditative chant through which a hidden rhythm is emerging.

When I am returned to the outside-math world and come face-to-face with (what feels to me like) political madness (for example the multiple readings of Coretta Scott King’s letter by Udall, Warren, Brown, Sanders, Merkley), I think I am able to focus on the emerging rhythm and repetition rather than the cacophony of certain voices and the attempted suppression of certain others.  Even in my failure, especially in my failure, this third-time-around math experience is proving to be an especially valuable one when processing the multiple failures of the world around me.