Interview with Alex Reid
© Alex Reid and Figure/Ground
Dr. Reid was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. September 20th, 2012.
Dr. Alex Reid earned hi PhD from SUNY Albany in Writing, Teaching, and Criticism in 1997. Since then he’s taught at Georgia Tech, Penn State, SUNY Cortland, and now at the University of Buffalo. He studies digital media networks with a particular interest in their operation within humanities pedagogy and scholarship. His book, The Two Virtuals: Composition and New Media, examines the intersection of technologies of virtual reality with philosophies of the virtual and considers how bringing these two discourses together offers insight into teaching writing. He is co-editor of Design Discourse, a collection of essays on the construction of technical and professional writing curriculum. He has also published articles in several journals and book collections. His primary blog, Digital Digs, deals with developments in new media, rhetoric, and higher education.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
That decision came during my first or second year as a doctoral student. I had first gone to graduate school to get an MA in creative writing. I hadn’t done that with any career in mind. In fact, a large part of my motive in going to New Mexico State was a desire to live in the desert. However I really enjoyed my time in that program, so I decided to continue my studies. I applied to both PhD and MFA programs and chose Albany because the program at the time was quite experimental and designed to integrate writing and theory in a way that really spoke to me. Anyway, I met my future wife in New Mexico and convinced her to move to Albany with me. We married the next year. Soon after our wedding, I remember sitting in our apartment and looking at the MLA job list. That was when I realized that I needed to think about what I was doing in terms of some future career. I also realized that identifying myself as a rhetoric and composition specialist was going to be a good strategic choice, so I started angling in that direction.
Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
To be honest I can’t say that I had any mentors as a student, at least not in the sense of someone I turned to regularly for advice or took a special interest in my development. I also can’t say that I sought out a mentor. That said, I had a number of interesting professors over the years. As an undergrad at Rutgers, I met a history professor, Calvin Martin, who studied Native American culture. It was his courses that first got me to see the world from an oblique angle. Reading Ceremony and Desert Solitaire in one of his classes was what first got me to think about moving to the desert. At NMSU, Joe Somoza supervised by thesis, which was a collection of poetry. Joe was very laid back and spent much of this time in his backyard writing poetry. We would play basketball with some of the other faculty and grad students on Sunday mornings. I think I probably learned a degree of insouciance from Joe. In contrast, Albany was a crazy place, very politicized, and the faculty were at each other’s throats. One group of faculty tried to break away from the department and take the doctoral program with them. It didn’t happen, but the experimental program that had attracted me to Albany didn’t live long past my time there. Steve North was one of the well-recognized rhetoricians who was there when I was, and I took a couple courses with him. I always respected that he was level-headed and straightforward. In my experience those aren’t common traits among academics. I’m not sure that he was greatly interested in the weird, non-disciplinary, theoretical mess that was my dissertation project. In any case, he was away in Finland during the year that I took my orals and wrote my dissertation.
There were a couple rhetoricians who deeply influenced me in graduate school through their books, particularly Victor Vitanza and Gregory Ulmer. Many years after graduate school I met Victor, and while maybe it was a little late in my professional career to develop a mentor relationship in the way you are asking, Victor is someone I deeply respect and would seek out for advice. Also David Blakesley, who published my book, is someone I would turn to for professional advice and has been supportive of me. I think Dave and Victor have each given me important insights into how our profession operates. They were among the first established scholars in my field to recognize the merits of my work, which was valuable in helping me to keep moving forward.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor “evolve” since you were an undergraduate student?
I was an undergrad in the late eighties, and I think there have been significant changes since then. I will break it down in the familiar terms of research, teaching, and service. In terms of teaching, even the less technologically-savvy faculty have had to shift the way they interact with students. Email is a mundane technology today and has changed the way we communicate. Of course now we have course management systems, online courses, and related applications of digital media that have transformed the way many of us teach.
The eighties were the earliest days of the PC industry. I imagine many faculty then would still compose by hand. I can remember when, as a grad student in the early nineties, the MLA bibliography would show up on a CD-ROM. So the practices of library research and composing scholarship were very different. Furthermore, our ability to keep in contact with our colleagues on a national or international level was severely limited compared to our networked relations today or even the email listserves of the nineties. This is why I think it is so strange that we still produce the same kinds of scholarship: the monograph, the 20 minute conference paper, and the 7000-word or so journal article. The pace of communication, our access to information, and our capacities for composing have radically changed but our scholarly practices haven’t caught up… yet.
To step away from the technology theme, at least partly, it is also clear that university culture has changed a lot over 20 years. The ratio of tenure-line to adjunct faculty has shifted considerably across the nation and we’ve seen a proliferation of bureaucratic, administrative roles on campus, in part out of increasingly demands for regulation and assessment. In turn faculty play less of a role in campus governance as well. Higher ed is just more a business than it once was.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
The unsatisfying answer is that there a lots of ways to be a good teacher: different disciplines, institutions, and courses require different kinds of teaching. I’ve never lectured to 100s of students. Mostly in my career I have taught small writing and digital production courses. These days I teach mostly graduate seminars. Since I’ve never been much of a lecturer, the attention issue hasn’t been a major problem for me. In my undergraduate courses, students aren’t asked to be passive learners very often. Ideally, students are active in the classroom: writing, working in groups, and collaborating on digital projects.
I suppose another way of thinking about this question is in terms of reading and having the concern that the amount of reading in a course has to be reduced. When one flips the classroom in this way, it is important that students are reading. I try to construct classroom (and online) activities that will support students’ reading. These strategies vary depending on the course, and I need to be aware of the resources and tools that are available to me as a teacher. In the end, while I suppose, at its worst, our era is one of interruption, fracture, and overload, I wouldn’t characterize it that way. Instead I see our age as one of challenge and opportunity, where we have to develop new rhetorical and cognitive practices for operating in a networked world. As teachers we should be helping our students to develop such practices.
What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the text that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?
A recent MLA study indicated that the average time from BA to PHD was more than 10 years of full-time study. We are in a time of tremendous flux in higher education, particularly in the humanities, as we have been discussing here. It’s very hard to know what our profession will look like in a decade when today’s grad students will hit the job market, let alone what their professional lives will look like over the next 30-40 years. That said, it seems crucial to me that humanities graduate students should acquire a high degree of digital literacy. I don’t think everyone needs to specialize in the digital humanities. However, I do believe we will all be research, composing, and communicating via digital media (aren’t we already?). I see many graduate students who are technically savvy, but I see just as many that echo some of my more senior colleagues who take an odd pride in their lack of technical ability. I think that in the very near future saying that you aren’t good with digital media and networks will be akin to saying that you aren’t a good reader.
As to the task of reading, I think the most important work is being done in the areas of speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, new materialism, nonhuman/posthuman theory, assemblage theory, and actor-network theory: Bruno Latour, Manuel DeLanda, Graham Harman, Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, Tim Morton, Karen Barad, Jane Bennett. There are plenty more important figures, but that’s a good start. Though there are significant differences among these thinkers, they share an effort to build upon but also move past the postmodernity of the last century to address the concerns of objects (or actors or machines or whatever you want to call them). This is significant for rhetoric and composition, which needs to pay attention to role of nonhumans, especially given the revolutionary shift in communications technologies. To this end, in my field, along with Vitanza and Ulmer, who I mentioned earlier, I am always in interested in the work of Diane Davis, Byron Hawk, Collin Brooke, Jeff Rice, and Thomas Rickert. Jody Shipka’s new book deserves attention. Finally I’d be remiss to not mention Geoffrey Sirc. What I think you’d find in common among these folks is a strong interest in the philosophical and experimental dimensions of rhetoric and composition, combined with a concern for technology.
How would you define Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology? Would you highlight the importance of their intellectual efforts and theoretical contributions for us?
Both SR and OOO strike me as terms that might have started in a fairly definitive space and moved into greater diversity, in part because they have been taken up by more people. I think about how a term like deconstruction or nomadism starts in one place and then becomes many unexpected things. Object-oriented ontology is very clearly Graham Harman’s concept. Others have taken up the term, principle Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, and Levi Bryant, but I think at least Bryant has a version now that diverges from Harman that he has taken to calling machine-oriented ontology a few times on his blog. So either OOO will remain proprietary and limited or it will become a more common term and end up less focused. I’m not sure which. Either way, I think it is fair to say that OOO rests upon a few foundational principles.
- All objects are real.
- Objects withdraw from one another and even from themselves, which means that no object can fully know another object or even fully know itself.
- As such, objects exist in excess of their relations.
- Objects do not require relations in order to exist.
- Objects exist in a flat ontology, which means that although in certain relations some objects may dominate or even destroy other objects, there is no fundamental ontological principle that states certain objects are necessarily dominate over others.
I would recommend Harman’s Quadruple Object to anyone who wants an introduction to OOO. Speculative Realism is a more nebulous term and might refer more to a historical moment than to a unified set of theories or methods. It comes out of a conference at Goldsmiths College in 2007 featuring Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux. What I think is shared among these thinkers is an interest in addressing correlationism, to use Meillassoux’s term: “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (After Finitude, 7). However each has understood this problem somewhat differently and found different aspects of it interesting. Furthermore, I think that speculative realism suffers from being at once too broad to be neatly defined and too narrow in the sense that there are many other scholars who have taken up realist ontologies but probably don’t call themselves speculative realists (e.g. those involved with new materialist feminism). I suppose one can say that these theories are moving away from the postmodern-cultural studies emphasis on textuality and representation. Many take Deleuze as a departure, with some, like OOO, putting more distance between themselves and Deleuze than others. In part this distance depends on the degree to which a theory places emphasis on process (more Deleuzian) or objects (less Deleuzian). However, that might be more my take (as I have come to this work as a departure from Deleuze) than a definitive quality of speculative realism.
I would say that it is still too early to know for sure what the value of these contributions will be long term. However I do have a sense of their potential. In my view, the humanities are facing a moment where neither their traditional methods nor the methods of postmodernity/cultural studies are sufficient for addressing the aesthetic, rhetorical, ethical, social, or political challenges that we face. Realist ontologies of various stripes have developed in meeting the challenges of ecocriticism, science studies, digital media, and related fields where an increasing emphasis on the role of nonhumans has been called for. The anthropocentric view that implicitly permeates the human-ities arguably limits their viability in addressing many of the key issues of the contemporary world but has perhaps also closed off opportunities to understand the traditional objects of humanistic study in new, productive ways. Big data digital humanities projects offer to investigate literature, for example, on a scale at which no human could ever experience it. But what does that knowledge mean? How do the relations and knowledge composed by big data analysis inform the way literary objects exist? These kinds of philosophical questions about nonhumans require new ways of thinking. Object-oriented ontology and speculative realism are integral parts of meeting that challenge.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?
In a word, yes, I do think the academy as a whole is under threat and some institutions may be in crisis. Digital media plays a part in a larger historical shift. I think this story is somewhat familiar now. The modern, German-model university was designed for industrial, nationalist purposes in the nineteenth century and flourished, especially in the US, through the Cold War with the nation’s industrial dominance and deep Pentagon pockets for pure research. The shift toward a global, information economy that started in the 70s changed the role of the university. Universities started opening their doors to more people and a college degree became more of a necessity for a career in the information economy. By the time we got to the 80s, universities were far less about supporting the nation and more about educating individuals and supporting economic interests rather than national defense interests. In the 80s we start to hear about “academic entrepreneurialism” and higher education as an investment in individual human capital. The State begins to reduce its direct support of higher education and universities begin to operate more like business and less like a public service. That’s where the threat comes from. Digital information technologies have played a role in that shift as they have powered the economic changes we have seen in a manner analogous to the way the steam engine powered the first industrial revolution. That said, I can certainly imagine a world with digital technologies where universities play a central role (one could say I am professionally counting on that possibility being realized), so I don’t think that there’s anything inherent to digital media that is a threat to the continued existence of universities.
Setting all that aside, universities are hardly innocent victims in these matters either. I am hardly an expert in the business side of higher education, but there’s a clear disconnect in my view between the way we depict college as a lifestyle in brochures, the very utilitarian way we talk about degrees and jobs in mainstream media, and the more traditional educational mission most academics see, at least in the humanities, arts, and sciences. These different conversations need to come together in the context of digital media, which are clearly shifting the way we compose and share information. We still absolutely require the creative and intellectual work of scholarship and research; we still need learning communities that are led by passionate experts. But we need to recognize that our teaching and research practices and the ways that we have organized and delivered academic work are historical products rather than universal principles. Maybe larger political, economic, and technological changes will sweep away the university, but any chance we have to survive in some recognizable form will depend on our ability to make these shifts.
Your book, The Two Virtuals: Composition and New Media, examines the intersection of technologies of virtual reality with philosophies of the virtual and considers how bringing these two discourses together offers insight into teaching writing. In a nutshell, what do virtual reality and technology studies have to say about the teaching of writing?
In a nutshell, a lot. Writing is a technology and technological practice (depending on whether one is speaking of the object or the activity). The same may be said of teaching. Since the appearance of personal computers in the 80s, the study of computers and writing has been a growing area of concern in the field of rhetoric and composition. Today it is so common for rhetoric and composition job ads to seek some expertise with digital media that I think it would be very unwise for anyone entering the field now to not develop some technological facility. When we began to study computers and writing, we implicitly stated that writing was not just one thing, that the objects that participate in the network of our writing activity play an integral role in composing. I took up the philosophical angle because I believe that a theory of written composition must rest upon a more capacious theory of composing (or ontology). Our theories of written composition were (and still are) so interwoven with particular technologies and networks that we needed to extricate ourselves. Furthermore, we couldn’t understand the role of these objects in composing without an ontology that would sufficiently account for nonhumans. This is something we can get from studying technology.
How does that inform the teaching of writing? If one imagines writing as a strictly individual, internal human practice, then teaching writing focuses on solitary humans and their internal mental states. Most writing assignments still work this way, asking students to write individually, be “original,” and to recognize deficiencies in writing as individual deficiencies. If one imagines writing as a cultural-discursive activity (as we see in the cultural studies turn in rhetoric in the last 25 years), then one might teach students to critique the ideological function of discourse and media so as to become a more savvy and/or resistant subject. However, oddly, in practice in these classes, the activity of writing is still largely viewed as solitary as the cultural-discursive elements are understood as a kind of ethereal ideological force in our minds or in representations/texts. The view I am pursuing imagines writing as a distributed, networked activity involving humans and nonhumans where thought and agency are not internal to any one of these objects but produced in relations. Here writing is not solitary; even if it doesn’t involve the immediate proximity of other humans in the room, it involves many objects that need to be recognized. By helping students become conscious of the networked activity of composition, it becomes possible for them to intervene experimentally in that network: change the objects and change the composition. This is very different from imagining that change must be a correctional of some internal deficiency (e.g. not knowing grammar) or a change in critical subjectivity (e.g. being able to critique).
What is writing anyway? How would you redefine this fundamental human activity in an age of digital interactive media?
Writing is many things and many activities. I agree with the view put forward by David Russell and others that there really isn’t a generalized writing to speak of (beyond the practices one commonly learns in grade school). Rhetoric does provide a set of methods for studying a variety of writing practices but we shouldn’t mistake those methods or the knowledge they produce for the practices themselves. Rhetoricians traditionally focus on symbolic action, which would include speech along with writing. To those we might add symbolic action in other visual media. I have some interests in what I have called a “minimal rhetoric,” which explores rhetoric without symbols, so I might want to define writing without calling it a specifically human activity. That is, I wonder if there’s a kind of taxonomic problem in trying to create a category that includes all the human activities we might want to call writing and excludes any nonhuman activities. That said, I do think that it is feasible to think about writing as coded expression, as long as we do not limit expression to humans and as long as we realize that coded expression rests upon the ontological capacity for un-coded expression/relation.
Speaking of writing in this age of information, your blog, Digital Digs (www.alex-reid.net), deals with developments in new media, rhetoric, and higher education. How does blogging fit within your larger scholarly enterprise? Should academics befriend social media?
Blogging is a primary element of my scholarship. Undoubtedly most people who are familiar with my work have become familiar with it through my blog. By simple measurements of blog subscriptions and web traffic there’s no doubt more people read my blog than read any article I’ve published. Last May I gave a keynote at the Computers and Writing conference. It was the largest audience I’ve ever had for a presentation and yet it was smaller than the number of visits to my blog on a day when I make a new post. I become introduced to the OOO community through blogging, which is probably the most important intellectual event in my work in the last couple years. I receive regular invitations to contribute to books and journals that almost always begin with “I’ve been reading your blog.” In short, I believe the work I have put into my blog and the success I have had with it have been central to my success as a scholar. As a general rule I would encourage academics to get involved with social media, but they should realize that it will change the nature of their work. However I would also say that it depends on one’s field. Obviously as someone who specializes in digital media, it makes sense for me to be out there.
What are you currently working on?
The short answer is “read my blog.” If I am working on it, I’m blogging about it. The longer answer is that I am about one-third of the way into my second book, which will deal with object-oriented ontology, assemblage theory, actor-network theory, and other realist ontologies. It will intersect these with various technological developments in gaming, mobile devices, and so on. I am envisioning three parts. The first will deal somewhat more abstracting with theories of the nonhuman and their implications for rhetoric. The second third will explore compositional practices. Here I will be working off some of the work I discussed in that computers and writing keynote (which will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Enculturation) on the “new aesthetic” and the concept of the glitch, as well as some of my interests with the digital humanities. The final third will take on some institutional issues, such as the future of the university. So much of what we’ve been discussing here will be addressed in more detail there.
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Ralón, L. (2012). “Interview with Alex Reid,” Figure/Ground. September 20th.
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