I'm lucky to be a teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, where I am also a PhD candidate in composition and rhetoric. Sometimes people ask what I'm working on, and I say generosity as methodology.
My dissertation project, Complex Descriptive Systems: An Object-Oriented Poetics for Rhetoric and Writing, spans the fields of composition, technology studies, visual culture, and poetics (with a focus on histories of ekphrasis and collaboration). I'm particularly interested in practices--like description--that are valued by both creative writers and technical writers. In 2016, my cross-platform approach to teaching writing and digital media production was recognized with a Kairos Teaching Award.
I came to Pitt with a BA in math from St. Lawrence University and an MFA in poetry from the University of Montana, where I also got to work with some amazing cultural geographers. And I've got some minor non-academic lives to my credit, too. One involved ecology field crews (in Southwestern Colorado and Western Washington). In another, I was a copywriter, web producer, and Seattle bike commuter. The Objectivist poet George Oppen is one of my great loves.
Many of my favorite case studies deal with the impact technologies of vision (microscopes, telescopes, camera drones, medical imaging...) have on rhetorics of sensation, the cultural imaginary, and/or literacy practices. As a rhetorician, I am interested in both New Materialisms and historical materialisms, in part, because I am interested in the ways personal (sometimes idiosyncratic) ontologies condition every individual composer's understanding of what rhetorical means are both available and appropriate in any given situation.
Composition (as I understand it) has obligations to ethics and aesthetics. Attunement to small things and minor changes bears across those obligations. To enact a word or an idea or an ethic is to compose---materially and bodily---one small, localized version of it. In other words, I believe that everyday practices of care, precaution, and generosity can and should impact our understandings of media and the world.
Complex Descriptive Systems
an object-oriented poetics for rhetoric and writing
We all have some idea what the word "description" means. Descriptive artifacts---lists, captions, street signs, packaging materials---crowd and structure our day-to-day lives. Ubiquity makes description seem straightforward, which accounts (in part) for how frequently literary theorists, rhetoric and composition scholars, and writing textbooks assign it second-class status. Description serves analysis, argumentation, and explanation---this conventional theoretical wisdom omits the fact that getting world into word isn't easy. If you have ever told a story or written a field report, you know something always gets left out. What gets left out depends on a describer's rhetorical skill, but it also depends on his or her values and expertises (what he or she is primed to notice). Practice teaches that description is integral to writing and living, despite being strictly impossible to get "right." Read the full summary, including chapter breakdown.
My dissertation mobilizes practitioner knowledge in order to theorize how description's inability to match the world is productive. Chapters on poets, photographers, designers, and technical writers elaborate complex, lively interplays between text-and-image, human-and-nonhuman, and observation-and-being.
My theory is one of ethical composition and collaboration. I argue that descriptive gaps contribute to the construction of communities precisely because description engages both what is prevalent and ordinary and what is shared among us and how. What is widely known and doesn't need to be described? Where do details improve safety? Where does concision prompt action? These are questions that arise when we understand descriptions as participants in what I call "complex descriptive systems," and they are questions that support ethical collaboration---between individuals, but also between humans and the world.
I further contend that description as ethical art requires understanding of technologies that share (and shape) our lives. Rhetorical history makes clear---this "simple" task is valued most during times of rapid technological change, and technologies of vision exert a particularly dynamic influence over it (see: Sundberg Wall). The present---in which smaller, smarter sensors keep sending digital cameras new places---is an important moment for description. Smartphones, drones, and advanced medical imaging all change what we want to describe by changing what we can see (and re-see). Moreover, the number of images in existence is rapidly increasing, which means we're under newly intense pressure to design structures and search functions that work with image collections.
The intersection of database management, machine learning, and computer vision is consequently a lively arena, but this isn't just a programmers' problem. Teaching computers to think with search strings entered by humans requires a sophisticated theory of how we describe things and our own desires. This suggests the need for more elaborate collaborations between technical knowledge workers and creative theoretical writers, and I offer one way into such collaboration. My examples span the fields of creative writing, technical writing (which often requires some knowledge of code or design), and multimodal/multimedia composition; these three vibrant research areas in writing studies are rarely (if ever) considered together, and I expose that disconnect as an impediment to cultural understandings of digital and public rhetoric.
Chapter one, "Complex Descriptive Systems and the Poetics of New Materialism," overviews the theory introduced here. It begins with a brief history of description's status as merely technical and/or merely aesthetic. I link this to writing studies' tendency to isolate technical and creative writing (with scholars specializing in one or the other), arguing that institutional history has prevented otherwise expansive ecological theories of communication from engaging the full range of writing studies' "traditional" expertises. I contend along the way that description's status as the rhetorical mode (and poetic figure) most likely to behave as if it were a non-linguistic object makes the study of description an ideal interface between writing studies and new materialist thing theories (e.g. Barad, Braidotti, Brown, Bryant, Harman, Hodder), which have gained traction across a wide array of academic disciplines during the last two decades.
Chapter two, "Generosity, Philosophy, and Objectivist Writing Practice," focuses on how description exposes aspects of world that cannot be communicated via language. In order to combat the widespread critique that new materialisms lead toward unethical activity (e.g. by shuttling limited resources away from human issues), I revitalize a realist philosophy found in George Oppen's poems and letters. Dedicated to observing the world like a scientist and driven by the principle "not truth but each other," Oppen offers a robust theory of care, which undergirds the rest of my examples.
Chapter three, "Art Methodologies and Small-Scale Descriptive Ecologies," foregrounds exchanges between makers. I recruit the concept of ekphrasis (synonymous with description in classical rhetoric, now generally used to mean writing about paintings or other fine art) to a study of rich, trans-media practices of invention. Drawing on poets Mark Doty, Cole Swensen, and Melissa Kwasny, this chapter leverages the way material things direct and intervene in artistic communities in order to position artistic practice as a model for working together while honoring differences.
Chapter four, "Diagrams, Stock Images, and Reusable Instruction," expands the reach of Paul Frosh's term "industrial ekphrasis" by focusing on how descriptive practices (including tagging, titling, and keywording) permit content creators who have never met to find each other's work and "collaborate." This chapter also acts as a pivot point in the dissertation, highlighting and exploring those under-theorized connections between image-oriented technical writing and artistic, poetic practice that my introduction put into play.
Chapter five, "Metadata, Markup, and Systems that Scale Description Up," turns to pieces of description users never see (e.g. that influence search algorithms) and to how saved links record intent (plans to cook, read, etc.). This sets the stage for a conclusion, "Emplacement Across Multiple Descriptive Systems," which consolidates my theory of description's complexity around ideas of distributed intentionality and invention---both implicated in the project of re-imagining agency and decision-making, which has ethical and political stakes extending far beyond writing studies.
I strive to make my classroom a place where structured, low-stakes experiments help individuals feel safe while trying on new-to-them styles of seeing, listening, writing, and thinking. Even in my most writing-centric courses, formal papers are assigned in tandem with digital essays and tactile, analog composing activities, like the creation of topic-based "wikis" made of colored index cards and string. Using many kinds of media to approach a single text, story, or idea---I tell students---has two benefits: it gives us better access to the histories, desires, and potential uses of whatever object is at hand; and it gives us a hands-on way to explore how specific forms of media work (what they do well or poorly, what they are entirely unable to do).
full list of
* Clicking course images reveals descriptions and materials.
A one-credit workshop for experienced teaching assistants across all specialties in English (composition, creative writing, film studies, and literature). Group goals include creating a collection of materials that can be shared both within and beyond the practicum itself and engaging wider departmental discussions related to digital media and pedagogy. Attention is paid to crafting rationales and other documents that help new pedagogical initiatives gain support at the institutional level; individual participants present and discuss detailed unit plans for assignments with digital production components and leave with several documents designed to strengthen their own teaching portfolios.
A writing-intensive, upper-division elective introducing students to new media theory and tools for composing across media. Students produce individual websites (using CSS3 and HTML5), compose alphabetic texts geared toward online environments, consider experimental and documentary audio, and work with a variety of visual modes. A collaborative, class-wide storytelling project encourages consideration of locative media, cartography, social media, and world building.
A core course in Pitt's Public and Professional Writing Certificate Program; students explore theories and practices relevant to writing that serves the public interest and compose in genres common to the nonprofit and government sectors; attention is paid to basic design principles, interview techniques, emergent digital genres, and rhetorical velocity. Projects range from infographics and blog features to press releases and long-form narrative journalism.
An interdisciplinary, writing-intensive literature course; content including ekphrastic traditions, typography, photography, and cartography. Students produce a range of visual-verbal texts; they are encouraged to consider historical context and aesthetic content, as well as ways in which technology shapes possibility and the social lives of artistic artifacts (i.e. circulation of bodies, ideas, and artifacts).
An interdisciplinary, writing-intensive literature course that asks: how do technologies of vision influence both individual stories and the concept of storytelling? Students explore the nature of formal, technical constraints by producing a range of texts----including card games, comics, machinima, and analytic essays. Content-based units focus attention on surveillance narratives, procedural art, and environmental media.
Workshop course with emphasis on developing vocabulary for discussing canonical poems, contemporary poets, and student work. Also featuring a focus on notebooks-as-tools, a collective digital notebook keeping component, and a unit on experimental hybrid forms.
I have taught two distinct versions of the required, introductory composition class. At the University of Montana, I worked with a rich rhetorical approach to the course that emphasized structure of arguments, development of ideas, and audience/genre awareness. At the University of Pittsburgh, I worked with course goals that emphasized critical inquiry and the relationship between reading and writing. Both iterations asked students to pay attention to the materiality of composing practices and engage in radical revision practices.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, I served as the University of Pittsburgh's Composition Program Assistant/Assistant to the Director of Composition. In this position, I planned and/or provided support for a wide range of events and initiatives---including curriculum development and assessment. Here are some highights:
Co-authoring (with Annette Vee) a successful internal grant that drew together $8000 from across campus in order to fund a digital storytelling event series; we then planned two successful two-day events---one focused on sound studies, one on game studies---each featuring a pair of speakers and a hands-on workshop.
Serving as project lead and co-producer (alongside the department’s Digital Media Learning Coordinator) for a three- minute "course trailer" video promoting ENGCMP1552: The Uses of Literacy. This pilot project was undertaken as part of an initiative addressing enrollment problems in upper-division English classes. (Vimeo link.)
Acting as a workflow consultant for a new undergraduate Social Media Internship hosted by the English advising office.
During Spring 2015, I had the opportunity to design a graduate-level Digital Pedagogy Practicum at Pitt, which I co-facilitated with Carrie Hall and Jean Ferguson Carr. This practicum drew participants from all four tracks in our English program (Composition, Film, Literature, and Creative Writing). As the sole "expert" on digital pedagogies in this diverse group of experienced teachers, I can’t overstate how much I learned from trying to help others figure out which approaches to digital pedagogy might fit well with their existing expertises, teaching styles, and goals. Basic materials for this course are included in my teaching portfolio (above).
I've also gained a lot of perspective from visiting other people's classes as an "expert" in digital comp. Inspired by these visits, I've created (or co-created) a number of resource sheets to help local teachers and students new to composing in various media. If you're curious what they look like, you can download a handout (pdf) shared with instructors designing audio units for FYC classes, a photoessay handout (pdf) designed to be student friendly, or the handout (pdf) from a digital brown bag talk that I gave with Carrie Hall on "Visualization in the Composition Classroom."
At CCCC 2013, I co-facilitated a decidedly analog workshop called "Evocative Objects: Re-Imagining the Possibilities for Multimodal Composition" with Jody Shipka, Amber Buck, and Erin Anderson. (TSA did not like the suitcase full of pliers and hammers I took to Las Vegas for this workshop). I've also been invited---twice---to present my materialist approach to in-class invention exercises for participants in Pitt's required graduate pedagogy seminar. A more complete list of workshops that I've run or helped run is available on my CV.
My creative work has appeared in a variety of nationally and internationally distributed journals, including: Colorado Review, Issue 41.3 (Fall/Winter 2014), Horse Less Review, Issue 12 (Summer 2012), Epoch, Issue 61.2 (Summer 2012), Quarterly West, Issue 77 (Winter 2013), Diagram (November 2012), Sentence: a journal of prose poetics, Issue 9 (Winter 2012), elimae (December 2011), Web Conjunctions (November 2011 and October 2010), Seneca Review (Winter 2010), and Third Coast (Fall 2009). A book manuscript You, Siphon / You, Skies [currently under revision] has been recognized as a finalist by several contests, including the National Poetry Series and the Sawtooth Prize.
In addition, I spent several years as the Crab Creek Review's fiction editor, and while at the University of Montana I was a managing web editor for CutBank.
If there's anything you have questions about, please don't hesitate to get in touch via email or twitter. I'm in the midst of updating this site to improve accessibility and responsiveness, and in the meantime am especially happy to provide alternate versions of the content presented here. You can also view a .pdf of my CV.