Friday, March 30, 2012

Hope: True or False

Everyone in America, it seems, is rushing out to participate in the big Mega Millions lottery. The drawing is this evening, and the jackpot is a staggering $640 million.

Here's a secret: I have managed to reach this advanced age without ever playing the lottery -- until today.

Why not? Even if my chances are only about 1 in 160 million, I might as well give it a try for just a couple of bucks. Somebody has to win eventually, and it may as well be me (echoing the thoughts of millions of Americans tonight, I imagine).

What's the Draw?
Not being a gambler, I don't really understand the attraction of games of chance. It always seems sort of pathetic to me when I see a discarded lotto ticket on the ground, pathetic that someone wasted a couple of their precious hard-earned dollars on false hope.

Nor do I feel pulled to casinos. In fact, they seem ugly to me, dreary, smoke-filled places with people grimly feeding coins into vending machines that give out no merchandise. Whether they're on Native land in California, or rising out of the desert in Nevada, casinos look to me like resource-extraction devices, draped in a very thin glamor.

It Was My Idea
Nevertheless, it was at my request tonight that my boyfriend and I trundled down to the liquor store in his rusty old Toyota to buy lottery tickets.

I didn't even know how to go about buying a lottery ticket.. He had to show me every little step. I had to read the instructions on the back of the card. I had no idea it was so complex,

All the people were gathered 'round the lottery kiosk waiting their turn to use the single pen, to pick some numbers and take their chance. I picked at random, without thought or system, and my boyfriend let the computer pick for him. We spent $4 total. The drawing is in two hours

All this is leading up to what I really found interesting about the whole experience, as a person working two jobs, living in a small apartment with few amenities, and driving a borrowed car. A person like so many others, who works hard and just can't seem to get ahead. A person with one-in-150-million chance of getting a lucky break, a chance to stop the vicious cycle of struggling until your youth fades and your health fails and you die.

What's interesting to me is our conversation about what we would do with our money.

We agreed, by the way, that if either of us won, we'd share equally with one another.And our dreams were rather similar.

I want a house, a Victorian maybe, on a very large piece of land, free from neighbors. A flower garden, a nice big kitchen. I would get myself a reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle.

I'd pay off my student loans and get the government off my back. I'd still work part time because I like to work, but I would also have some of the free time I crave. Maybe I would get my PhD, but only through a distance program, like Texas Tech's, because I wouldn't want to be far from my children.

I'd get everyone in my family set up comfortably, with a helpful person coming by my parents' house every day to give them a hand with their chores and drive them wherever they need to go. I'd set my kids up with a monthly allowance that they could have as long as they were enrolled in college full time or working at least 20 hours a week.

My boyfriend's dreams looked a lot like this too. He'd build a big wall around his big comfy house and garden. He'd surround himself with people who didn't hassle him. He'd buy his mom a house but stipulate that there could be no animals in it. He'd still work too, building and refinishing things, maintaining a small vegetable farm.. He'd buy a truck just like the one he has but new and in pristine condition.

What strikes me about these dreams of ours is that they are so modest. No Ferraris, no Tahitian vacations, no plastic surgery, no exploitation of other human beings at all. Wow, what would the world be like if people got rich and didn't exploit anyone?

The whole thing, the lottery, the millions of Americans participating, the tiny rays of sunshine as they hope, "Maybe it could be me!" All these things seem like a statement on modern American life. We're so fat, so surrounded by plastic crap and conveniences, so seemingly robust and fortunate, but it's false, false, false. Under it all, we're unhealthy, tired, in debt and our dreams are fading fast.

But somebody's going to win the lottery, maybe tonight. Someone is about to get another chance.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Generalizing about Genres

Oh a day off, and it's glorious. Of course, I spent it polishing up my curriculum vitae so it hardly counts as a psychological break from work.And never really a break from thinking about writing.

Resume vs. CV
My resume is pretty well rounded, but my CV is disappointingly thin. I wish I'd gone to more conferences while in grad school, published more of my papers.

I was a single mom through grad school, and as a result life narrowed right down to only what was absolutely necessary: the kids and the requirements of school. Conferences, traveling, would have been extravagances I couldn't afford.

Still, I have managed to assemble a rudimentary CV that I will refine over the next few days. My deadline is the end of the month, but now during Spring Break, I have time to think about it.

Professional Wordsmithing  
I'm also struggling with how to translate a year in the marketing field into relevant academic experience. It absolutely was, but how to articulate that?

It's going to translate into the ability to teach how to write in the real world, write for money, to turn your wordsmithing into cash to support yourself. I'd like to find a way to offer that as a course in the English department.

Writing Across the Disciplines
While I was thinking about it, I went through all the course offerings in all the departments and discovered that so many disciplines offer courses in writing. Journalism, Communications, Special Programs, Business, even Engineering. I wonder why these departments don't recruit faculty from the writing department.

A New Genre: Historiography
Along the way, I also discovered a new genre, from the History Department: the historiography.. It's a "focused study on a particular theme, problem or issue from a specific era and field of history" and an assessment of the secondary literature on this topic. Basically, it is how historians assessing how other historians have written about history.

Even blogging can be lucrative, though I am not particularly interested in changing the (self-indulgent) nature of the Bitten Apple. I looked today at the analytics of this blog and discovered that 53,000 sets of eyes have read it.That seems like a lot, though hundreds of those page views were probably my own to see how it looked.

While pondering that, I discovered the intriguing detail that readers of The Bitten Apple arrive here while searching for the following topics: Goth, sock monkeys, social exchange theory, Swedish Easter witches and pink Smith & Wessons. I wonder what they think when they arrive?

I can see getting here on the wings of social exchange theory, something I tend to belabor, but it's the strangest thing is that the Goth keyword would get readers here (rather than somewhere else). I've written about Goth exactly once, in "Goth RV Rodeos" (describing a strange dream I had about my neighbors).

And as for pink Smith & Wessons, that was in "Things I Wish I Had." You just never know what you'll write that many people will read.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Becoming Fluent in the Rhetoric of Empowerment

I read an article by Elizabeth Flynn called  “Composing as a Woman” wherein she assigns gender to different rhetorical styles and notes that these differences (linearity and nonlinearity) are related to unequal places in the social order. The article focuses on American English and American comp studies.

In response, I am troubled that Flynn advises women to cling to and celebrate their non-linear approaches. Instead, I think that oppressed people (whoever they are) might consider becoming adept in the linear rhetorical approach as a way of finding a stronger place in the social order. 

Obviously, there are problems with that approach as well. For example, what might be lost or overlooked without the nonlinear perspective? 

Rhetorical Fluency
Maybe it's similar to teaching speakers of nonstandard dialects to be fluent in standard dialects, so that they are able to shift back and forth as the situation demands. Maybe women should be as "fluent" in a linear rhetorical approach to writing as they are in a nonlinear approach. 

After all, isn't part of rhetoric choosing which approach is right for the occasion? Furthermore, isn't advising women to continue to write in a way that is indicative of a lower place in the social order a way of fossilizing women into that lower position?

"Feminized" Comp Studies
Flynn points out that, thanks to process pedagogy, wherein the teacher nurtures rather than directs, composition studies have been "feminized." Feminist scholars, who are usually in the same department as comp programs, note that the marginality of comp departments may be linked to the marginality of women.

I am intrigued by these observations and their implications. But instead of exploring them, Flynn delves into the question of how the findings of feminist researcher apply to student writing.

The Social Differences
Feminists argue that men and women differ as a result of an imbalance in the social order. What are these differences?
  • We identify rather than stress difference: First, research suggests women have different self-conceptions and modes of interaction as a result of our early relationships with our mothers. Girls never give up our primary identification with our mothers, whereas masculine identification stresses difference from others, including the mother.
  • Morality equals responsibility rather than rights: Women tend to define morality in terms of conflicting responsibilities rather than competing rights, illustrated by metaphors of a web and a ladder, respectively. 
  • Interpersonal is considered feminine, while abstraction is considered masculine: In regards to intellect, our culture labels abstraction and the impersonal as “thinking,” in contrast to the interpersonal which it labels as “emotions;” two modes of thinking our culture attributes to men and women respectively, although they are present in both genders.   
  • Intuition plays as strong a role in intellectual development as authority does: Women’s stages of intellectual development are linked to the development of an authoritative, public voice as well as the ability to integrate intuitive knowledge with externally acquired knowledge.
How does this play out in writing?
Flynn wanted to know if these relational, moral and intellectual differences find their way into women’s writing in first-year composition. It's an interesting question, but to answer it Flynn did not use a scientific approach. Instead she chose student writing samples that already met her criteria, i.e., she chose female students’ writing that focused on relationships and males students’ writing that focused on achievements. 

Flynn advises writing teachers to provide a critical perspective by making gender differences in behavior and language the class subject of investigation. This alerts students to “the possibility that gender affects the way readers, writers and speakers use language” (433).

This seems like an interesting and productive approach to critical cultural studies. 

To Write Like a Man, or Not
But next Flynn's bias takes over, when she advises teacher to alert female students of the limitations of attempting to “think like a man” in order to take part fully in our culture. She explains that to compose as a woman is not to avoid composing as a man, since identity through differentiation is a masculine concept. Instead, she writes, composing as a woman is active rather than reactive; it is to make connections “between facts and ideas which men have left unconnected” (435). 

So Flynn is pointing out that abandoning a nonlinear rhetorical approach would be to lose possible connections and insight. 

I have to agree when it comes to thinking, but in regards to writing, there is more to consider. Flynn also notes that the differences between men’s and women’s thinking and writing are less related to their gender than to their placement in the social order.

Social Inequality and Nonlinearity
These differences, Flynn writes are “the result of an imbalance in the social order, of the dominance of men over women” (425). Therefore, the linearity is the rhetorical style of dominance, and the nonlinear the style of the oppressed.

If that is true, then it is all the more important for women and others who may lack social status to be able to present their insights in a way that has resonance and power in the culture.

In other words, I argue that for optimum rhetorical effect on the dominant culture, those who occupy a lower place in the social order (women or whoever they might be) should, after arriving at their ideas and insights via nonlinear avenues, present them in the fashion that has greatest impact on the dominant culture.

The Trouble with Nonlinear Approaches
Reading this article brought to mind also a young woman I know, who is attempting to define for herself what it means to be a woman. This is an example of conflicting responsibilities defining morality.

At 18, “Amanda" instantly acquired three step-children. Now at 23, she works full time and goes to school half-time. When she comes home after work, she cooks and cleans and does everyone’s laundry, then does her homework after everyone goes to bed. Last night on the phone, she laughingly told me she is near a nervous breakdown. 

But her definition of what a good woman/wife are do not seem to permit her to rearrange this situation. Personally, I would already have had the nervous breakdown, run away from home or, at the very least, delegated aggressively. Only Amanda’s youth and inner strength have allowed her to tolerate it thus far. 

These conflicting responsibilities define Amanda's morality. To suggest that she change this situation, in the interests of fairness and sanity, is to suggest she become less of a woman. Meanwhile, her husband is busily defining his morality by his rights, to have a “good” woman to take care of these matters for him, the right to a meal waiting on the table, the right to have his expectations met.

I am interested in how Flynn's observations apply to first-year composition, but her article, just as it seems to promise to answer my question, ends. So I still don’t know. 

Yet, I feel that I have observed this conflict in the writing of two different students. One is a freshman, female and 18 years old, who has difficulty crystallizing her profound ideas into her essays. She thinks she has done it, when the ideas are still scattered and hidden within her lack of structure. The other is a graduate student trying to draw elements of Native American epistemology into her academic writing. In both cases there is a struggle between linearity and nonlinear thinking, between abstraction and interconnectedness. 

The grad student solved her rhetorical problem with a river metaphor, where one idea flows into the next and there is no pretension to abstraction, no pretending that anything can exist independently of its context, a notion strongly echoed in the writings of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin.

All Flynn offers is the caveat that women should not “immasculate” their writing, not attempt to make their writing masculine. Is that what we do when we pretend anything can be abstracted? Is that what we do when we structure our essays, develop our ideas in paragraphs?

I don’t think so. But perhaps I write like a man.

I tell students that the structure is a way of being considerate of the reader’s time. Opening paragraphs hint at what is to come. Topic sentences do too. The reader needs these to decide whether to read at all! 

Writing for Empowerment
After considering Flynn's article, I am left to continue pondering the questions:  

If we teach students in the American university writing classroom to master a linear structure for their thoughts and writing, will that raise their standing in the social order?

Could teaching linearly structured writing be a way to challenge oppression?