© Collin Brook and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Brooke was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on August 19th, 2012
Collin Gifford Brooke is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing in the Writing Program at Syracuse University, where he directed that department’s doctoral program in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric for roughly 5 years. He is the author of Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media (Hampton Press, 2009), which received the 2010 Computers and Composition Award for Outstanding Book. He served as the Associate/Online Editor for College Composition and Communication for 3 years, and has published in a variety of edited collections and journals, including CCC, JAC, Kairos, Enculturation, and Computers and Composition Online. His current research interests center on the digital humanities, genre studies, games, and networks.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I probably didn’t consciously choose my career until a year or so into my doctoral program, so I may have been a late bloomer in that regard. I went to graduate school directly after college, and honestly, I wasn’t ready for it, nor did I understand what it meant to become a professor. After my first stint in graduate school, though, I took a couple of years off, teaching at a community college, working in a restaurant, and renovating 19th century houses (including one that I was living in at the time). Taking that time off from schooling helped me clarify what it was that I really wanted to do.
When I began my doctoral program, it was right at the time that Netscape had been released, and a handful of people were just beginning to imagine the possibilities of the web. In fact, I had a couple of friends who ended up leaving graduate school to pursue careers in web development, and I can still remember consciously deciding that I was going to stay in academia, complete the degree, and become a professor. I’d say that it wasn’t until I had another realistic option, though, that I consciously chose to become a professor.
Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
I consider myself pretty lucky in that regard. At the time I attended Texas-Arlington, the rhetoric program there was “housed” in a college-wide interdisciplinary program. Even though most of my coursework was in the English department, the rhetoric faculty (and the students) had a fairly broad range of disciplinary backgrounds, which fit with the program’s ideas about rhetoric existing across disciplines. I studied with Victor Vitanza, Luanne Frank, Jan Swearingen, and Hans Kellner, among others; each of them taught me how to read, write, and think in particular ways. Collectively, I think they taught me that knowledge isn’t always about synthesis–sometimes it can be productive to hold ideas in tension with each other, and to see what emerges. They all helped me to find my way intellectually without feeling like I had to commit fully to one particular style or set of ideas.
I was also fortunate to attend UTA at a time when one strong group of students was finishing and another was entering. We had a strong sense that we were at a program that was different from a lot of others in rhetoric; that intellectual community was the source of a great deal of lateral mentorship, which has lasted for me to the present day. I think one of the things that’s changed quite a bit from that time is that sense of graduate education as immersive–intellectual community used to depend much more on geography than it does now.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
It’s difficult to know where to start to answer this question, and even more difficult for me to think about it in isolation from higher education more broadly. The answer is almost certainly different among disciplines, nations, institutional types, etc., and it’s a moving target. I do think that the academic life is more precarious now than it used to be, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. While this may be true already for professors in other disciplines, I think those of us in the humanities are increasingly called upon to reflect on (and sometimes justify) our place in the university and in society more broadly.
On the one hand, we’ve had to think more carefully about the ethics of what we do, how to maintain our relevance in light of technological shifts, and whether our institutions are sustainable any longer. Many of those changes in attitude are probably overdue. On the other hand, though, at least in the United States, higher education is a lot more vulnerable than it used to be. Budgets and missions are subject to a great deal of political and economic pressure, and the professoriate hasn’t always done the best job of representing itself outside of the academy.
I guess that I’d say that the biggest change is the collapse of that binary, the idea that there’s an inside and an outside to our institutions now. I’m not sure that it was ever the case that we could afford only to talk to each other, but it’s certainly not a wise strategy for today’s professoriate.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by attention deficit and information overload?
When I think about the best teachers I’ve had, and about what I try to do in the classroom, I don’t know that I ever really “command attention.” In recent years, I’ve really tried to rethink my approach to individual courses, to think less of them as sites for covering a particular body of knowledge and more of a place to explore questions with my students. For me, that means trying to engage them first where they’re at, and to set up courses that will build on their interests and curiosities. My ideal would be to find out where they’re already paying attention, and to build on and connect to that in the classroom.
Typically, I come to an individual course with a range of possible directions in mind, some open questions, and a pretty flexible attitude towards the kinds of writing I can ask them to practice in order to succeed. When students have some say and some stake in the way the course unfolds, I’m not competing for their attention so much as collaborating with them to shape it. I’d be lying if I said that it always works, but it’s more rewarding for me as a teacher (and I hope for my students) when it does.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?
I think it’s vitally important to read widely, so my first piece of advice would be to find those writers whose work resonates with you, and to learn from them. It’s important to find those models within a discipline, the audience with whom you imagine yourself communicating, but only up to a certain point. A lot of the reading that I do is still exploratory, and not all of it is academic. I keep a pretty close eye on my own discipline, but I read plenty of work that only relates to what I’m doing tangentially–sometimes that exploration will circle back around and impact what I’m writing, but more often it won’t.
The great thing about our present moment is that so many voices are available to us online–it’s a lot easier to find your affinities now than it was when I was in graduate school. The time I spent poring over bookstore shelves when I was in graduate school is time that I now spend online. One important difference is that the threshold for putting your own work online is much lower than it is for those bookshelves, and I think that’s something that is still sinking in. Some time soon, we will tip away from the mindset that online writing is something extra that interferes with our “real” work; we will begin to see it simply as “what we do,” which sometimes gets translated into more traditional academic genres like journal articles and books.
As far as specific texts go, that’s a tough question for me to answer for anyone else. The articles and books that tend to stick with me the longest are the ones that move my thinking in new directions, or make things click for me in ways that they hadn’t before. On the one hand, for example, I can remember reading Latour’s Reassembling the Social several years ago, and something about it made everything else of Latour’s click into place for me, and it sent my own thinking forward in important ways. Franco Moretti’s Graphs Maps Trees, Duncan Watts’ Six Degrees, and W. J. T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want? were all books that resonated for me. Jorge Luis Borges had as much to do with my interest in new media as any media theorist. Brenda Laurel’s and Richard Lanham’s work in the 1990s helped me connect technology and rhetoric in important ways. Since college, I’ve been drawn over the years to Barthes’ later work, even when I don’t always agree with it. I’m a big fan of Steven Johnson, China Mieville, and Jonathan Hickman, and I just spent some quality time catching up with Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ The Unwritten. I’m slowly making my way into the nexus of posthuman, nonhuman, and object-oriented work that’s happening now, so Jane Bennett, Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, Andy Clark, Eileen Joy, Brian Massumi, Timothy Morton, and many others.
I don’t know how many of these I’d recommend to others–these are writers that make me want to think and to write, and my sense is that it takes plenty of time and trial-and-error to find one’s own list. That circles back around to the importance of reading widely. We can’t ignore those texts that are important in the disciplinary sense, but it’s important as well to find the ones that provoke us i our own work.
Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?
I wish I had an optimistic answer to this question. I think we’re at the point where the university is in a permanent state of crisis. When I took my first position fifteen years ago, all of my institution’s new hires were herded into an auditorium and treated to a “motivational” talk by a guru-of-the-month, who proceeded to explain how the university as an institution would disappear within ten years. Several years later, I was a conference where the keynote speaker outlined his vision for higher education, one that bore a strong resemblance to recent discussions of corporate MOOCs, and he struggled to understand why we wouldn’t automatically embrace a model that rewarded the 1% of superstar faculty at the expense of the rest of us.
This summer, we all got to watch the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia basically try to sell the university to an online content provider. These developments are neither new nor historically unwarranted, sadly enough. The university as an institution is so overwhelmingly complex, and so deeply embedded in the educational, cultural, economic, and informational fabric of society that there is no one perspective that can encompass it. And as a result, no one is happy with it. I don’t know that there’s anyone out there who defends the university in its current configuration. Where we all disagree is where the actual problems lie, and what steps should be taken to address them. And some of those disagreements are simply intractable. The status of the university is a “wicked problem” that we have been trying to solve in traditional ways, without much luck or wisdom.
I’m not sure that this situation is unique to our current era, though. Some of the proposed solutions rely upon contemporary technologies, and certain dimensions of the problem are relatively recent. I do think that the pace of change and the consequences of our decisions have accelerated as well. In the case of UVa, social media allowed faculty, staff, and students to mobilize resistance to the Board of Visitors at an unprecedented speed, but they also allow groups like the BoV to operate at a remove from the communities and institutions that they allegedly represent. There’s no magic wand, but to the degree that I remain cautiously optimistic, I do believe that contemporary shifts in media will help us to ask better questions.
In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. In a short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both
inside and outside the university. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?
Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried, and I’d say that I feel similarly about tenure. Tenure is the thread that a lot of people want to tug on, imagining that it’s somehow the key to unraveling the problems of higher education, but I think much of that is driven by misunderstanding, or an unwillingness to see the bigger picture. I seriously doubt, for example, that instructional costs on most campuses have grown at a faster pace than administrative salaries, infrastructural costs, and/or student life improvements. And I struggle to understand how abolishing the security provided by tenure would lead to intellectual boldness–those who fear to take risks for the 5-6 years leading to tenure would fear taking those same risks for their entire careers.
There’s real hostility towards the idea of tenure, however, that reminds me a lot of the “welfare queen” strategy deployed by Ronald Reagan to cast doubt upon any kind of governmental aid to the disadvantaged, a kind of anecdotal hyperbole based more on stereotype than fact. Are there people who abuse the tenure system? Undoubtedly. But are there more of those people than there are doctors who bill HMOs for phantom procedures, lawyers who inflate their billable hours, accountants who exploit tax loopholes, or business people who bill clients for personal comforts? Honestly, I doubt it. For every example of someone abusing tenure, there are hundreds of professors who take on additional work supervising students, sitting on department, college, and university committees, participating in community engagement, working for national organizations, and reviewing for and/or editing journals and books. What it’s difficult to see from the outside is that academia operates by a gift economy, one that is arguably more primary than the material economy. Part of what happens with tenure is that professors’ obligations increase substantially, and those duties are frequently less visible. What appears like less work can often actually be more.
Nor does public discussion of tenure take much account of the opportunity costs. In the humanities, we know that we must go where the jobs are, or be willing to sacrifice our opportunities. We have very little choice over where we live and work. Unless the faculty at an institution is unionized, tenured faculty are rarely guaranteed any kind of cost of living adjustments to their salaries. Salary freezes, especially in recent years, are common. Because starting salaries do tend to rise with cost-of-living, it’s not unusual for faculty in some disciplines and at some institutions to make little more than their freshly hired colleagues, despite five, ten, or more years of service.
The fantasy of a three-month vacation every year is just that, a fantasy, for most of the faculty that I know. This summer, I presented at one conference, attended another, and attended two others virtually; reviewed three submissions for journals, two book proposals for academic presses, and a tenure packet for a colleague; supervised students working on their comprehensive exams and dissertations; drafted two articles, sent out a proposal for a third, and worked on my next book. And I don’t consider this to be outside the norm. Until a few years ago, I had taught during the summers just about every year since the mid-90s.
Tenure is a nexus of benefits, obligations, and tradeoffs. There are certainly some ways that the tenure system limits our institutions, but it also provides a check against some of its worst excesses. The push in recent years to treat universities like businesses can result in any number of decisions that would sacrifice educational quality for short-term profitability–if the people making those decisions can simply lay off anyone who disagrees with them, I don’t think that bodes well for higher education in general. Universities are businesses, but they are also culture institutions, community organizations, and sites of education. Tenure does commit the institution to a particular group of people, but those people are also committed to their institutions as well as their fields of knowledge. The people I know who have the privilege of tenure take the responsibilities that come with it just as seriously.
What attracted to you to rhetoric as a field of inquiry and scholarly research?
Rhetoric is an odd field in that there really aren’t a lot of undergraduate degrees in the area yet, at least in the humanities, although you could argue that communications comes pretty close. There’s an interesting relationship between speech and writing disciplinarily, at least in the United States. On the writing side of things, most of the people in my field tend to receive degrees from English departments, where the undergraduate focus is literature, although that’s begun to diversify. The result is that a lot of us tend to have conversion narratives about the field, moments where we consciously made the switch from literary study to rhetoric.
My initial attraction came during my first stint in graduate school, towards the end of my first year, while I was taking 2 courses specifically, one in literary theory and another on social theories of reading and writing. I’d been interested in literary theory as an undergraduate and was lucky to be at a college where it was taught pretty intensively–at the time, that was pretty rare. So while I was well-prepared for each of those courses, I wasn’t prepared for how much they ended up overlapping for me, even with completely different reading lists. I ended up discovering that it was precisely the rhetorical dimension of literary theory–the focus on thinking about how language worked–that interested me most. From that point on, I think I was basically a rhetoric student, regardless of the courses I was taking. (An interesting aside: one of the first graduate courses I taught was a figures course, where we looked at writers like I. A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Wayne Booth, et al. with the idea that one of the recurring features of 20th century rhetoric is this move from literary study to rhetorical theory. Each of them arrives at the point where they realize that what they have to say about literature pertains more broadly to language.)
When I returned to graduate school for my PhD, my second “phase transition” was to realize that regardless of its relative importance within an English department, rhetoric was actually this sprawling, transdisciplinary endeavor, with a long history and complicated relationships with several fields of study. We were reading scholars from a range of different fields, all of whom had something to contribute on the topics of language and knowledge, and I was just trying to soak it all in as fast as I could. In some ways, I still am. But I can still remember that feeling of near-infinite possibility, the feeling that rhetoric was inexhaustible. Almost twenty years later, I still feel that way about it. I never feel locked in to a particular approach or site of analysis, and I find that incredibly appealing.
I assume you know Lanham’s Economics of Attention. What’s your opinion of it?
I’ve always been a fan of Lanham’s, dating back to a book more folks should probably read, The Motives of Eloquence (1976). He’s better known these days for Economics and also The Electronic Word (1993), which was one of the first books (along with Bolter and Landow) to think seriously about digital rhetoric. (I dealt pretty directly with Lanham in one of the chapters of my own book, as his ideas were formative for me.)
If you’ve read his earlier work, then Economics of Attention feels like a logical extension of that work–the oscillation that he describes there is a theme that appears throughout his career in different places. And the idea that rhetoric is concerned with the management of the scarce resource of attention shows up in Electronic Word, if I remember correctly, in a discussion of Richard McKeon and Donald (now Deirdre) McCloskey. I always thought that, in some ways, Economics was a response to some of those writers who were coming around to Lanham’s positions some time after he himself had gotten there, although you could attribute Herbert Simon as well.
If I had one qualm with the book, it’s that I think it could have gone further than it did, in terms of tracing out some of its implications. Culture Machine recently published a special issue on the attention economy (http://culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/issue/view/24), that gets beyond simply diagnosing the existence of an attention economy to critiquing and exploring it in productive ways. I think much of the early work on attention economies celebrated the novelty of the metaphor (attention as currency), rather than really thinking it through.
A multitasker does many things at once, which is to say that he ignores most things most of the time. How would you put together an Economics of Inattention?
I’m actually kind of fascinated by the idea of multitasking, because I’m not sure it really exists. I vaguely recall some discussion of the idea of “the myth of multitasking” last year, but I’m not sure how much impact it’s had. What intrigues me about it is how attractive it seems to be to us culturally to think of ourselves as effective multitaskers. I wonder to what degree we compensate for information overload with this idea, in the same way that some college students valorize “procrastination” to compensate for a schedule that forces them to do so much of their work in the shadows cast by various deadlines.
That being said, I do think that there’s a long history of attention/inattention out there that has to do both with interdisciplinary work on memory as well as more contemporary neurological studies. Katherine Hayles has written recently about the idea of “hyperreading” as characteristic of a cognitive shift that’s happening with the digital, but we could easily trace that notion back to Debord’s idea of dérive or Benjamin’s discussion of distraction. It’d be interesting to take our current notions of multitasking and see what sorts of resonances might exist with that earlier work.
What is the relevance of rhetoric in this age of information characterized by digital interactive media?
Among others, one of Plato’s critiques of rhetoric is that it has no proper subject matter; for me, that’s always been one of its greatest strengths. I think that once we move past the idea that rhetoric must be anchored in a particular technology or medium, it really opens up the kinds of questions we can ask and underscores the relevance of rhetoric as a perspective. In a lot of ways, this is what I try to do in Lingua Fracta. Rather than seeing the products of print literacy (books, essays, et al.) as our units of analysis, I argue that we should be thinking of them as particular kinds of interfaces, albeit ones that we have privileged for some time. That privilege led us to think about rhetoric in technologically specific ways; much of the book is spent rethinking the classical canons of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery) as repertoires of practice that shift as our available technologies do. The discursive goals of meaning, community, knowledge, and connection may stay constant, but the ways that we achieve them are always in flux, and rhetoric provides us with a strong handle on them.
At the same time, I don’t think relevance is something that rhetoric (or the humanities in general) can simply take for granted, assuming that we’re able to achieve it. We’re accustomed to measuring our relevance in terms that are fairly insular to the institutions where we work, and that’s a mode223zl that’s increasingly come under fire. Those of us who are interested in the digital need to work more directly with the tools and contexts that we study, and we need to forge relationships with interdisciplinary fields like design, media studies, digital humanities, game studies, information science, critical code and platform studies. I also think it’s important that we begin to bring what we learn back into our institutions. Rhetoric is not the only discipline capable of achieving these things, but its breadth and flexibility can provide a great place to start and the practices and knowledges to build upon.
What are you currently working on?
For the past several years, I’ve been tinkering around the edges of network studies, and that’s probably where my next major project will ultimately land. I’m not sure yet if it’ll be a book–I’m privileged to be in a position where I can experiment a bit with form without the time pressures that the tenure track placed on my first book. I’ve published a couple of different chapters and given maybe a half-dozen conference presentations that I can probably collect for the purpose, but we’ll see. I’ve also detoured a bit in the past year or so, picking up on an earlier interest in rhetorical genre studies and also reading around a little in the sociology of knowledge.
I’m interested in what these different fields have to teach us about rhetoric, and how methods like distant reading, topic modeling, culturomics, etc., complicate what is still a fairly human- and text-centered model of communication and persuasion. Looking forward, I’m curious about how we might start going about representing rhetoric digitally, whether as information visualization, network maps, et al. And I do believe that underlying these various phenomena are some important rhetorical insights.
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