Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cape and Gown

At the recent New Media, Technology, and the Humanities conference, which was sponsored by UC Irvine's own Humanitech, USC's Tara McPherson gave a demo of the supercool online hypermedia journal Vectors in which several of the featured sites could be read as relevant to the institutional politics of the university.

"What if Your Academic Research Were a Superhero?" This is the liberatory proposition of Jane McGonigal's PlaceStorming, which is intended to bring together manifesto writers, geocachers, and others actively involved in intellectual role-playing games. For those who need rhetorical context for the superhero topoi, the site also includes a review of recent superhero literature from the magazine Reason.

The PlaceStorming process began with manifesto-writing for my superhero narrative, which was definitely more fun than writing a dissertation prospectus, a book proposal, or even an FAQ. Following McGonigal's directions (or at least trying to), I came up with the following elements:

Your supertool = Virtualpolitik
Your superpowers = rhetorical analysis, the location of primary sources, self-deprecation, wit
Your mission = fighting public diplomacy, social marketing, risk communication, and the corporatization of access to information.
Your call to action = "Read the fine print!"
Your home turf = cyberspace

To help with their transformation to being super-researchers, fledgling academics might also find Ellen Strenski's humorous glossary helpful, at least for graduate students to learn to work the cultural studies/critical theory jargon-decoder ring. Of course, there are many with secret identities at the university, not all of whom have their exploits reach the front page of the Daily Planet. For example, there is the Invisible Adjunct, the author of an abandoned blog preserved on the Internet Archive. Certainly, any super-instructor with delusions of grandeur might need to be brought down to earth by this funny Dear Adjunct Faculty Letter, which was printed in the Chronicle of Higher Education and widely forwarded in ivy-covered cyberspace.

Indeed, not everyone gets to be a superhero at the university. The supporting cast of office workers who maintain the vast Weberian bureaucracy of higher education certainly understand this fact. At the conference, McPherson also showcased a Vectors project that implicitly acknowledges these information workers who are often treated as an underclass: Stolen Time by Alice Gambrell, which was recently also featured on Design Your Life. In addition to its critical hypertext, Gambrell's site offers a tutorial in traditionally gendered office procedures, such as shorthand and filing. At the end, visitors to the site can take away a collage that they have assembled. As the daughter of a legal secretary who earned her B.A. only after having four children, I was genuinely moved by Gambrell's site, which emphasized the challenges of learned skills not superpowers.

Knowing this, I figure that if I'm going to take on a cartoon identity, I certainly don't want to aim too high. And recently, the academic team at has been having fun with the Simpsomaker. So I had to try it myself. (See above.)

In other academic news, since I'm an actual undergraduate alum, I suppose I should have something to say about Lawrence Summers resignation from the Presidency at Harvard. Other than "FINALLY!" that is. It's worth noting that his resignation letter is online and available for analysis as an artifact of digital rhetoric, at least for the time being. Summers' controversial speech about women in the sciences is also located on the university website, as is his mea culpa from a few days later.

The whole genre of apologies on university websites is actually quite fascinating. I personally find such apologies much more interesting than denials. Resignation letters, messages to the campus community, and official reports about institutional scandals are becoming a normal part of the .edu domain. For example, the UCI Medical Center has suffered through a series of scandals that are commemorated in electronic ephemera, most recently involving the liver transplant program. For that matter, the U.C. system itself recently suffered through a management shake-up after accusations of nepotism in high-level hiring surfaced.

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Blogger Siva said...


Check out Altercation on today. I have more on Summers' resignation.

Also, I am going to apply to be president of Harvard. I hope I would have your support.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

You have my vote, Siva.

11:01 PM  

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