Where is the University?

During the pandemic, Lisa and I moved west, to the Mount Olive, NJ area. Apparently I’m just a few miles from Kenneth Burke’s farm, where he wrote a good bit of his later work, but I haven’t figured out exactly where it is yet, and whether or not any of his papers are nearby. I’ve just mostly been trying to work peacefully with the bear that likes to hang out in my yard.

Twice a week, at Montclair State, I teach a hybrid class, where I teach some students face to face at the same time that I teach others on Zoom. I have a mask and a headset. Sometimes there are a few students in the physical classroom. Other times the classroom is empty and everyone shows up on Zoom.

All of this has me thinking about where “the university” actually lives, as student, teacher, and administrative versions of “the university” seem to have been brought into stark collision during all this.  I guess I want to update Pirsig’s chapter about people’s confusion of the University and its location, as it very much applies to what happened this fall with reopening. Just as the church is different than its building, the University is different than its location. That has always been true. But I wonder if the possibility that university classes can happen online hasn’t complicated that issue in different, more difficult ways. That is to say the forces that have always believed they own the university (trustees, admin, governors, and so on) fought this past summer to make sure that the location IS the university because that’s where the profitable machinery runs.

Faculty, on the other hand, can impart (to some degree) the University from anywhere, but of course we want to get paid for doing so, which binds us to the machinery of location in ways that some of us do not want to acknowledge. (Students have bought in to the University as location, too, because, well, that’s where the fun is at). 

I don’t know what else to say about that right now, but I’m interested in the tension that schools like Harvard are experiencing versus aspirational schools like mine are facing and maybe how that would graph in Lacanian terms. University discourse is unconsciously supported by the master, sure, and the master has been making its long arc toward capitalism for quite a while. But (And?) there are endowments that allow schools to just go online (because after all even the very rich can’t afford to take a gap year from Harvard and be in competition with the next rising class) and there are schools like mine whose endowments would be done in less than a month if they did not offer the promise of university as location.  

In any case, that’s what I’m thinking about this morning as I prepare to go into my campus classroom to stream a class to college students on Zoom. As the weather turns colder, the campus becomes emptier and emptier. Each student seems to decide that the university lives in digital space, and that seems to be a day by day decision.

The Rhetoric of the Prewar Banjo

A presentation for the Sound Studies, Rhetoric, and Writing Conference 2020

In the bluegrass community–to adapt a common expression from my hometown of Roanoke, VA–opinions about prewar banjos are like assholes, in that (unlike a prewar banjo) everyone has an opinion. Outside the bluegrass banjo community, though, very few people have an opinion on prewar banjos. It is difficult, therefore, to explain to an audience that may or may not be familiar with the amount of rancor involved in these discussions what’s at stake with two definitional arguments: 1) What is a prewar banjo and 2) what is prewar tone? I need to start somewhere, though, and so what I want to explain in this presentation is how and why people argue about prewar banjos and prewar tone, and why that argument matters for the study of communities that develop around particular sounds. 

At the most basic level, a prewar banjo refers to a Gibson banjo that was made between the years of 1927 to 1942. To a traditional bluegrass banjo player, the most desirable prewar banjo is one that is closest to the one played by Earl Scruggs, an original 5 string, flathead, one-piece flange model. At current count, there were only 206 of these ever made (Spann), so the cost of these often goes above $300,000. With the relative scarcity of these, it is safe to say that there are far fewer people with one of these than there are people with opinions about them. Most banjo players, if they are trying to buy a prewar banjo, settle for what is known in the banjo world as a “prewar conversion,” a less “authentic” banjo that has some component that was made before the war but that also has modern components. 

For example, there are many “pre-war” banjos that were originally four string flathead tenor banjos that were converted to 5-string banjos by replacing the tenor neck with a modern five-string neck. These are the most desirable of the prewar conversions because they have the highly coveted flathead tone ring, so many of these banjos still fall in the 100,00o dollar range. Another layer of conversion would be a banjo that has a modern 5 string neck, plus its archtop or ball bearing tone ring has been replaced with a modern flathead tone ring. More often than not, this kind of conversion requires putting the banjo rim back on a a lathe so that it can be turned to accept the flathead tone ring. In these cases, the banjo has an altered (but still prewar) wooden rim but an original resonator and metal flange, tension hoop and tailpiece, but the neck and tone ring–primary drivers of banjo tone–are all modern. Another layer of conversion would be further turning the rim of a two piece flange banjo to make it accept a one-piece flange. 

Even though having a banjo that sounds like Earl’s may be the primary factor for players, the reasons that emerge from that original desire become more complex. In order to avoid going into the minutia of an already esoteric situation, I attempt to lay out these reasons below without a great deal of analysis:

#1 Better Metal: Metal shipped to the Gibson factory before World War II was of a superior composition before WWII than after. Despite numerous attempts to recreate the metallurgical components, no metal (it is argued) has been able to match what came before WWII. Because bluegrass banjos have many metal parts that influence tone, in particular the tone ring, the composition of the metal is very important to the sound of a banjo. Therefore, the flathead tone ring is the holy grail of prewar parts. Following the importance of the tone ring, would come the flange, and then the tailpiece. 

#2 Better Wood: It is generally argued that wood from the prewar period was superior to wood today. “Old growth wood” from Michigan would have been from trees more than 200 years old at the time, where “old growth wood” today would be closer to 70 years old. Hence the rim, resonator, and neck of a banjo from the prewar period is significantly older wood than banjos made today. 

#3 Longer Time: Other arguments about why prewar banjos have a unique sound relate to the time that the instruments have been together as a banjo. 80 years of vibration through the wood and the parts make them better instruments. 

While I could go further into an explication of prewar banjo materials, I want to focus now on the mystical concept of “prewar banjo tone.” If you ask the question “what is prewar banjo tone,” the answers parallel answers to the question “what is a prewar banjo?” The first answer to the question is simply “Prewar tone is what Earl had when he played the banjo.” 

In this case, Earl is playing an authentic prewar banjo on a quintessential banjo album. Just as with the argument “what is a prewar banjo,” more complex arguments emerge when one moves outside this territory. That is to say when someone who is not Earl Scruggs plays a banjo that is not an authentic 5-string, flathead, one piece flange banjo.

The dilemma that this brings up is very well summarized by Banjo Lefty on the Banjo Hangout:

Here’s what I know for a fact: the majority of pre-war Gibsons were tenors. The “pre-war” sound you are supposed to hear today comes from banjos that have been converted to five-strings. This means that one-half of the instrument, the part that, according to many builders, is the second most important contributor to the tone, has been replaced with a modern (post-war) part. Of course, the tailpiece has to be changed as well; the strings are new, the bridge is new, often the original skin head has been replaced with a mylar one, and sometimes the rim has been cut to accept a modern tone ring.

So what exactly are we listening to? Not a pre-war sound, that’s for sure. What you hear is the sound that an old pot with new parts makes today. Would that banjo have sounded just like that in the twenties and thirties? I highly doubt it, although we’ll never know for sure because all the people who actually heard these banjos being played before the war are all dead and gone, and what recordings we have from that era are imprecise, to say the least.

What becomes interesting to me in the idea above is that “prewar tone” becomes something separate from the material that brings it about. Arguably, one could say that this separation does violence to banjos, as more and more banjos that were never meant to be 5-string, flathead, one-piece flange banjos are cut and reshaped to become imitations of “true” pre-war banjos. As one can see by scanning classified ads of “Prewar banjos” for sale, people are willing to put in a great deal of time and money in order to either obtain “prewar tone” or to obtain the cash of selling a “prewar banjo.” Beyond changing out necks and cutting rims, banjo makers are now adding additional wood to four- string necks and adding an additional layer of wood to the thinner rims of non-Mastertone banjos.

What I want to suggest is that the violence we see enacted upon the original intention of other kinds of prewar banjos has a parallel in bluegrass communities itself.

What AWK Means

I remember more than once when I was a student getting the dreaded AWK in the margins of my papers, and I never really knew what the term meant. Yes, I knew that the teacher was telling me my prose was awkward, but it was always a mystery to me how to fix that AWK.

Most often, I would sit down and tell myself what it was I was trying to say. I’d type, retype, rethink. (At that time in my life, I was not a fan of reading my work to other people.)

It wasn’t until I was teaching graduate courses in Style and Editing that I started to get a grasp on what AWK means. Given to New Information, Characters Doing Action, Making sure that the character doing said action was the subject of the sentence and that the action said character was doing was actually the verb… O, no, I sense an AWK coming on.


Problem Solving Emails

It always amazes me how much class discussion can be generated with a simple activity, especially when the activity is grounded in the experience of students. Take this one, from Graves and Graves’ A Strategic Guide to Technical Communication: 

In-Class Exercise 7.3

You have to miss class to attend the funeral of an extended family member, but you have an assignment due at the beginning of that class. Write an email message to your instructor using the information in the previous section and the organization pattern outlined in Figure 7.3 to help you develop and structure your communication. Remember, you need to both identify and solve the problem that your upcoming absence will create.

The organizational pattern for problem solving emails that Graves and Graves provides is as follows:

Figure 7.3

1) Identify and describe the problem.

2) Give whatever background is necessary.

3) Describe options for solving the problem.

4) Recommend a solution and offer assistance to solve the problem.

I believe the reason that this assignment generates so much discussion in the classroom is that it is a very real and relatable situation, but I also think it presents an important intellectual challenge for students because it asks them to think, in a very concrete way, from the reader’s perspective. Students have to think of the problem from the instructor’s perspective. The student has to miss class and will not be able to turn in an assignment and will also miss the work done in the class that day. The necessary background is not about the student’s life, it’s about the work missed, how it is articulated on the syllabus. It also give the students the ability, in presenting solutions to the problem, a chance to articulate their understanding of the values of the course.


Cover Letters

I’m on a really large search committee with professors from both the Arts and the Sciences, and I’ve been surprised by the number of people in the Sciences who do not read cover letters, who only look at the CV portion of job application packets.

My students in technical writing mentioned that some firms hiring interns explicitly ask students not to include cover letters with their resumes.

I argued in class that even if an employer does not want a cover letter, writing one is a good idea because doing so will help you develop stories and examples that you could use in an interview session, but now I’m really curious what this potential trend means.









Teaching Technical Writing By The Book

I am teaching technical writing “by the book” for the first time in many years. That is to say I’ve taught technical writing a few times in the last few year, but this is the first time in a while that I’ve used a book. This semester, I’m using Heather Graves and Roger Graves’s Strategic Guide to Technical Communication (2nd Edition). 

I have to admit that I’m departing from my usual textbook-less approach because I am finding the business of being a departmental chair more time consuming than I’d like, and I’m hoping that the textbook provides structures that I’m currently not able to provide.  I want to write about some of the experiments I’ve tried in technical writing, but I thought I’d do so through the lens of comparison with this semester.

(The last time I taught technical writing, for example, I centered my class on making robots, and there isn’t a textbook that let me do that, but I will have to tell you more about that later…)


Teaching Revision with Manuscripts

Deep Down in the Classroom

By Jennifer Daly

Synthesis of an Idea:

During this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities two-week seminar “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller” we would get together for discussion forums on everything from our own writing to pedagogical practices to activism inside and outside the classroom. One evening, a professor had mentioned the Digital Thoreau Project as a way to show the students the synthesis of Walden and to track the very deliberate changes Henry David Thoreau made in each of the manuscripts.  After much thinking, I had the thought that this could be done with almost any writer—as long as there was a manuscript. I decided that I would utilize manuscripts to open a conversation about process and revision with First Year Writing students this year and see if it was accessible to them.  There was a chance that they a) wouldn’t care, or…

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Assignment: Creating (and Coding) a Professional Website

(Note: If you have stumbled on this page by accident, this is an assignment I’ve given my English 5593 class. I’m posting it here because some colleagues are interested in seeing the assignment. –rb).

By April 14th, you will have created a professional website and an “off the grid” replication of that website, which will be built from the ground up and which will replicate as many of the features of your professional website as you are able to create.

The Professional Website:

Using WordPress, Weebly, or another free site, create a digital portfolio that allows future employers to find out who you are and what you do. At minimum, this site should have an “about me” page, a CV, and a description of working projects.

Here are a few examples of Professional Websites:




Process Material for the LRO:

  • include any challenges you encountered when creating your professional site, as well as a description of how you met those challenges
  • include a description of the ethos you are trying to project and how you believe this site projects that ethos
  • include a description from someone else of your site’s ethos. Is there a difference between your perception and the perception of the outside observer? What do you make of these differences?

The Replication

Create a multiple page “website” (turned in on a jumpdrive, a CD, or hung up on the web somewhere) which has working links (internal and external) and CSS applied.

Process Materials for the Replication:

  • keep a good record of roadblocks you experienced, how you got around them, and how you helped others
  • reflect on the process overall and what each (the WordPress and the ground up) taught you about online style, editing, and persuasion



This assignment has been written to meet the experience level of the majority of the class, who has little to no experience coding. We are assuming, then, that many of us are going to fail to fully replicate our professional websites. Unlike most assignments, then, failure is part of the point. What has the attempt to replicate something already on the web taught you about coding? What has it taught you about writing for the web? By keeping an accurate record of our thoughts along the way, you will be given a clearer sense of when to allow digital platforms to do coding work for you, when you should do the work yourself, and when you can and should copy code (giving proper credit to the original coders, of course.)

If you are in the small minority of people in this class who has experience coding, remember that in order to have something meaningful to write about for your LRO, you will need to push the boundaries of your experiments. What things have you not tried in your coding experience yet? What happened when you tried to apply those experiments to the replicated professional page?

Exercises Related to Editing Project 1

  1. Using the basic terminology from Chapter 1 of Castro and Hyslop, see how many of the “Webpage Building Blocks” you can identify on the homepage of the professional website you created in WordPress, etc. To do so, you will need to look at the coding underneath your page by “viewing its source.” Annotate, in some way, the code of the site, labeling what makes up the “head” and “body” sections, what specifically is part of the “markup,” what specifically is a link to other content, and what specifically is textual content on the page. Don’t stress about getting this right (at this point, a great deal of this is going to look like goobledygook). The goal here is simply to see what you are able to identify and what you are not. Feel free to compare notes and ask others in the class.  (2/01/15)
  2. Use Chapters 2 & 3 of Castro to “reverse engineer” your WordPress site. Start with the simple text of your site, then see if you can add headings, links, headers, and footers. (2/10/15). The same rules about stress from above apply. Our goal is to engage the process and keep a log of what happens throughout.
  3. Use Chapter 4 of Castro to continue this process. Today, you might experiment with isolating a line of code from your WordPress site (or from somewhere else) and cutting and pasting it into your own site. What happened when you did that? What does the process teach you?  (2/12/15)
  4. Use Chapters 5 & 6 to continue this process. As some of the code becomes more complicated, you might utilize some of the ready made work at htmlcssvqs.com. (2/17/2015)
  5. Use the material about CSS to create a style sheet you apply to the HTML pages you have created. You might eventually experiment with CSS Zen Garden, in order to give your website different looks. (First mentioned 2/26/15)

Use the Force

In Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams teaches us to make characters active agents (actors) of sentences. Philosophically, I’m interested in the way that this imperative works and what it could mean.

Throughout the text, Williams focuses on how readers feel when they read certain sentences. We prefer sentences that tell clear stories, stories where the main characters act, or more specifically where “the main characters are subjects of verbs,” and “those verbs express specific actions” (29). His advice, though, becomes more complicated (or more rhetorical) when he notes that writers often have to choose which characters should act and that those should be the characters that are most important to the reader. (32)

For the editor, at least according to Saller, considering the readers’ needs is the primary job, but these needs often have to be balanced against the will of the author and the constraints, conventions, and requirements of language and genre.

So questions on my mind:

How does Williams’ imperative to make the main characters of a sentence active agents speak to our programming as human subjects? Whether or not it’s true that we are programmed to tell stories, and to hear them, I can at least say that I often find that what I like to read (academic writing or otherwise) does exactly what Williams says good writing should do: it speaks to our nature as storytellers.

Where does this feeling come from? If we imagine ourselves as programmed, does a tendency to find this kind of writing pleasurable relate to the one-to-one relationship between characters and actions we find in computer code? (Think about how the statement “this is a nonsmoking building” would be interpreted by a computer unfamiliar with the idiom.) Does it relate to how early on in our development we used stories to remember key aspects of our cultural memory that could not be written down?  Nominalization is an effect of print culture (Ong, etc.) But what if our human code contains the imperative to move us “beyond pleasure” and develop the kinds of thinking that is only possible when one creates nominalizations?

ReStarting Things Off

As this site is mostly dedicated to my professional persona, most of what I plan to post here are reflections about the courses I’m currently teaching. This semester that course is “Style and Editing,” a graduate level course at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

For the record, this is the fourth time I have taught the course but the first time I have made knowledge of Html5 and CSS a major component of the course. It’s likely, then, that I’ll be focusing on that, as well as returning to some thoughts I’ve had about posthumanist approaches to grammar.