Self-care and Students

This week, Jay Dolmage–a prominent disability and disability rhetoric scholar–has been to Syracuse for our department’s Spring Conference, giving a talk and leading a workshop (both were wonderful, and here are the materials and more on accessibility and disability studies). It, along with some other things, have made me think about self care and students.

I’ve always found that writing instructors have a unique connection with students, compared with other disciplines. We often have smaller classes, we tend to get a huge portion of the university, and we get a lot of frosh students. In addition, writing tends to involve many more skills than “grammar”: critical thinking, reading strategies, synthesizing ideas, formulating arguments, researching topics, analyzing primary and secondary sources, evaluating sources, cultivating and managing productive work and workflow strategies, etc.

And, perhaps in a more Romantic sense, writing, even academic writing, is a personal task. Though the image of the lone writer in some castellated tower is not accurate, writing and authorship–crafting a cohesive document that carries our mark and oftentimes our name–is something powerful, even in our information-saturated age. Issues of voice and privilege play a role, along with identity. And, one of my favorite adages from the field remains: “Writing is thinking.” Often, as we think through an issue by writing, we learn something new.

I am not saying that this is true for all writers nor with all writing, but it happens. And we often give a space for students to reflect on issues like identity and experience because literacies, in all their forms, are fundamental to how we exist in and experience the world. As the humanities get stripped and softened in many universities, “writing” provides a space to reflect on fundamental questions and experiences–should students and administrators allow it.

All this is to say that increasingly, though we already have too much to teach in a semester, I’ve been trying to address, or think about addressing, issues that are not immediately tied to writing. And this post, I want to stress self-care (or self care, with no hyphen?). Inspired by my colleague Allison Hitt, and others, I’ve increasingly made some space to address self-care with students, particularly strategies and experiences.

This deserves its own post or article, and the input of others with more experience, but for now, I often start with this article on perfectionism and procrastination. It disarms the usual narratives we and our students tell ourselves–and are told–about productivity and laziness.

But in a more general sense, I think “addressing self care” involves getting into the embodied, day-to-day experiences of being students and writers, of being friends and partners, of being sons and daughters (or something else, articulated or not)–in short, we get at being human.

And, it does not always work. And it can been exploitative and risky for you and students, with plenty of pitfalls–and is impossible with increasingly destructive teaching loads for adjuncts and others–but I feel like it is important to consider and strive for when possible, not only for our unique connection with students in higher ed, but also for the fact that questions of productivity, writing, and development involve care.

You cannot succeed, or even survive, if you’re always treading water.

And, as part of my own focus on technology, I also increasingly think it’s important to talk about privacy, cyber security, and technology habits as part of our profession. Media literacy, password security, the mental effects of social media, screen time, etc., are both questions of literacy and questions of self-care. As our digital lives and “flesh” lives infuse–as well as the literacies and skills we rely on to negotiate these lives–the importance of these topics increase.

I know I am not new at this, from Stuart Selber to Estee Beck–and Selfe and Hawisher and a bunch of other brilliant young and cornerstone scholars–writing instructors have long recognized the role of technology in composing. But, I think we also recognize the intersection of self, technology, and literacy in ways that are profound and unique. And increasingly important.

Watson Talk – Ownership and Online Composition

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

-Lord Byron

Watson Talk Slides

Starting off a reflection about social media with a quote from Byron about the solitude of nature seems counter intuitive. A “society, where none intrudes” clashes with the usual rhetoric surrounding the networked culture of digital spaces, and the “lonely shore” and “pathless woods” probably lacks WiFi–or broadband.

But bringing in Byron highlights the paradox of place that the Internet and digital technology brings. We are networked selves, accessing the Internet in multiple ways from multiple places or portals, as our physical self continues to take up space and air “irl.” And much like the narrative locales of Romantic poetry, many digital spaces are constructed and emergent.

Byron’s saga traces the physical geography of Southern Europe, but Byron’s textual place–his “pathless woods” and roaring sea–arrive at us in ephemeral language through his poetry. They are authored locales. Phrased another way, one can visit the spaces where he allegedly traveled while writing Childe Harolde Pilgrimage, but those irl locations—the rocks, the rivers, the trees, the moss-laced logs—all of these differ from the locations that we envision when reading or hearing his poetry—nor are they constant over time, like the printed word. Language both signifies and creates locales.

Similarly, I think that the quality of born-digital space forces us to look at space as an ephemeral, emergent gathering. Websites may have a url pinning them down and servers in world sucking up power and taking up space, but we largely experience them more subjectively. In his later work, Martin Heidegger discusses the notions of “location” (or “locale”) and “space.” As he writes in “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”:

“The location is not already there before the bridge is. Before the bridge stands, there are of course many spots along the stream that can be occupied by something. One of them proves to be a location, and does so because of the bridge. Thus the bridge does not first come to a location to stand in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge.”

The bridge in this example, by being constructed, is opening a “location,” a significant site where different elements can gather and be. One can look at the bridge as a concrete space of possibility, a site that can direct meaning at some level in ways that an unmarked, undeveloped area cannot. Before the bridge exists, the area is just a “spot.” Things are happening in it, but nothing is built there. And with no building–or inscribed significance, like a park or childhood memory–the place feels anonymous.

On the one hand, this is obvious, and Heidegger’s obscure thinking may over-complicate the matter. But I think it gets at something important: how construction creates a fundamentally new reality at a site. Before the bridge, the space was simply “nature” or a river bend. Now, the bridge may have a name. It serves a human purpose for commerce. Lovers add locks to it. It may be in a film. It may represent a certain style or culture. It interacts with the nonhuman environment, deflecting rain and providing shelter for animals.

In Heidegger’s thought, a “thing,” like a bridge, is not an inert site of stone and steel. Drawing from the older use of thing in Icelandic and Germanic language, “Ting” and “Ding” respectively, thing is a site for an assembly, a gathering of people to reach decisions. With thinkers like Bruno Latour and Thomas Rickert picking up on this use more recently, I think we can look at Internet architecture with a similar dynamism.

A site is often even more of a “thing,” in this sense, than Heidegger’s bridge. It is a place for gathering. And in that gathering, a fundamentally location-attuned way of being arises through the interplay of different forces. As Nancy Baym argues in “The Emergence of On-Line Community,” online communities are emergent rather than dictated. As she writes, “Social organization emerges in a dynamic process of appropriation in which participants invoke structures to create meanings in ways that researchers or system engineers may not foresee.” Participants inherent certain structures or systems, Baym points out, and users dwell in and add to these initial elements to construct social practices and communal spaces. Location emerges. The community of individual authors writes and is written by the location.

But I want to turn, particularly, to authorship.

As Jessica Reyman argues in “Authorship and Ownership,” such spaces are often “co-authored” by algorithms and multiple people. By drawing from user data—as they point, click, and brows the digital spaces—algorithms tailor adds, curate feeds, and allegedly cocoon users in “filter bubbles” of easy-to-consume content, all the while drawing meta data for marketing and research. Today, this data mining and site curation is commonplace, and though scandals brought by Cambridge Analytica and others have brought renewed scrutiny, Reyman offers an important perspective. She argues that users have a right to this data: they are the ones creating it, while corporations profit off it. This sort of free labor, sometimes fit under the term “playbor” abounds in the Internet. As Andrew Ross argues, “The social platforms, web crawlers, personalized algorithms, and other data mining techniques of recent years are engineered to suck valuable, or monetizable information out of almost every one of our online activities” (15).

The relationship between authorship and labor has had a pronounced history leading back to the Statute of Anne in 1710 and the tensions of “intellectual property.” The image of the gentlemanly author plucking inspiration from muses and native genius to create new ideas, taken down in print, remains a sticky one. Today, if one follows Reyman’s argument, we are all authors at some level, as our being-in-the-(digital)-world adds to that world, co-authoring these spaces through our content creation and meta-data. Considerable playbor takes place in the form of Instagram posts, linking to articles, fanfiction, videogame modding, and more. Indeed, part of the reason that videogame companies endure the cottage industry of streamers and walkthroughs is for the free publicity it provides, and it has been common place since the 90s to collect and re-release content created by fans for company profit. Turn-it-In also owns student work, creating a financial empire from the labor of student writers.

In the more material sense, in terms of dollars and cents, this is a problem, but I want to take it to a somewhat deeper level–first addressing the authoring on the other side.

As philosopher Daniel Estrada wrote in a Medium article on filter bubbles, “in a very deep sense, you are your bubble. The process of constructing a social identity is identical to the process of deciding how to act, which is identical again to the process of filtering and interpreting your world.” While I would argue that identity is more than “the process of deciding how to act,” a point that I reckon Estrada would likely recognize, I think it definitely plays a central role. Sartre put it best: “We are our choices.” Our choices have echoes, and sometimes those echoes etch our being–or how others view our being.

But Estrada goes on: “any constraints imposed on your filter are also constraints on your possibilities for action, constraints on the freedom of your decisions and the construction of your world. If you are your bubble, then any attempt to control or manipulate your bubble is likewise an attempt to control you.” As technology ethicist Tristan Harris puts it, you may get to decide what you eat in these platforms, but they provide the menu.

Again, this has implications as we consider our selfhood or identities. While for Kant, the self is largely insular, cognitive, sensory, and self-contained, thinkers continue to argue, from a Buddhist metaphysics of emptiness to Diane Davis in Inessential Solidarity and Thomas Rickert in Ambient Rhetoric that the self is more osmotic or relational. It is permeable and messy, bundled and blurry, oozy and diffuse, yet localized by language and materiality. As Rickert puts it, we don’t just live in a world, we are enworlded.

And here come the algorithms. These too, if you want to go this way, are part of us, and so is the digital pathways they “co-author” from our metadata. To use Kant’s term, this digital world informs–or possibly is–our phenomenological experience and the self that this experience informs. In many cases our digital selves are ourselves—networked and saturated by technology and the nameless bots and programs in the background. And as both Reyman and Estrada point to, we don’t really own, or fully understand, these algorithms. Eusong Kim has argued about trending, for example: “We don’t know why something trends. The algorithm is a locked secret, a “black box” (to the point where MIT professors have built algorithms attempting to predict trending tags). The Fineprint: Trending is visibility granted by a closed, private corporation and their proprietary algorithms.”

This leads me back to Reyman’s view on data and our ownership of it. As we live in a more English model of copyright, economics and law tend to steer the conversation. But as this digital composing infuses our lives, both the deliberate messages we send out and the co-authoring of our data, issues of ownership, autonomy, and originality come to the forefront—especially that of ownership. Who owns our data is not just an issue of privacy, but it is an existential one. As our being-in-the-world co-authors and becomes entangled with our personas and places online, so do our selves. Just as England wrestled with the intellectual labor and textual ownership of traditional authors, we face a world in which our own ideas and our own digital being has become monetized and divested from our hands. Despite efforts by Facebook and others to allow us to see our data or have more input on our privacy and feed, a fundamental structure of black-boxing already exists, persistent through law and custom, to own and profit from our online meanders and statuses—and filer our own experience and online localities.

As we make paths in this pathless wood, Facebook profits and shapes the woods around us.

CCR 633: Multimodality, Part 2

Chapter three begins with the “prosumer,” an idea that Alexander and Rhodes borrow from Daniel Anderson. The “prosumer,” they describe, is “a convergence of the consumer and the professional in terms of new media tools” (106). Many new media tools allow consumers, formerly just receivers, to produce products, thereby acting as professionals. This, in turn, allows a more critical focus on production, as it is no longer black-boxed behind the usual channels, but in the hands of the consumer.

This similar idea–that of consumer as professional or producer–also connects with the Situationalist notion of “détournement,” a form of “pillaging or appropriation,” as Frances Stracey describes (qtd. in Alexander and Rhodes 112).  The Situationalists argued that capitalism had the constant need to project a “spectacle” of needs that inspire consumers to thirst after products, so people should critically produce to counter this.

Alexander and Rhodes connect these ideas to current DIY movements, but emphasize the “critical” dimension of this production. In other words, it’s not simply enough to be critical, in a humanities sense, or to produce; one must use production in a critical way, engaging in multimodal production through new media tools. They provide the example of images that grew in “excess” from their work that argue their work or ethos as “queer rhetoric” scholars in different ways.

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CCR 633: Handwriting and Withdrawal

One of the tensions in the reading, particular in Thorton, was the role that handwriting has between self, discipline, and social role. Early on, Thorton writes, “Faithful imitation of penmanship models-what teachers would call good handwriting-thereby signals  conformity and ordinariness, while breaking all the penmanship rules, even to the point of illegibility, is a mark of individuality” (x). This immediately connects with some of the disciplining that Trithemius discusses in relation to scribe work. In both, a certain rigor and repetition, a discipline of the body and the “hand” takes place.

I think, then of writing’s broader potential to discipline, like what McCruer discusses in composition’s ability to “compose bodies” in “De-Composition” (2008) or even in formal rubrics, genre conventions, curricula, the Harvard rhetoric requirement, and pre-set forms, like the five paragraph theme. This capacity that rhetoric and writing has to conform and prescribe has along history, as Thorton points out.

But, in slightly different sense, writing also created or highlighted larger social identity, and in this way it also polices or defines. For example, as Thorton points out, business, itself a core catalyst to writing instruction (p. 6), prescribed more clerk-like ways of writing, rejecting the flourishes of more gentlemanly backgrounds. Writing was also gendered, with many “feminine” scripts designed to take longer and exhibit “fair” qualities. As Thorton writes, “mercantile advice books urged men of commerce to shun penmanship refinements appropriate for gentlemen in favor of a straightforward ‘Clerk-like Manner of Writing.’ And where men might be urged to cultivate a ‘good’ or ‘fine’ hand, Women were urged to cultivate ‘fair’ one” (37).

And through this quality, handwriting, seemed to exhibit a sort of self-expressive quality, growing from social identities. As Thorton writes,  “As each human being performs a socially differentiated part, so is each given a different ‘script.’ Conversely, by reading that script for its social information one could learn all there was to know about the writer. Here at last was a sincere medium of selfhood” (37). Hand writing analysis and associations with different scripts connected the self (albeit a socialized self) to the script, presenting a certain window of expression.

But once again, the movement to “automatic handwriting” and related systems of standardization, like the Palmer method, disciplines expression, but through a certain systematized erasure. By making writing more standardized and less idiosyncratic–whether justified through “science” or a sort of “lore”–one is essentially erasing the body, or trying to. This erasure or withdrawing is particularly bad for embodied backgrounds that do not fit the standard, like lefties, people with disabilities, or those with less training and resources. It is a sort of gate-keeping, but one that erects its gates by assuming writing a certain way is a type of present-for-hand skill and not a complicated, socialized, embodied action.

With this, I often think of a quote by Nirma Erevelles about special education that has been following–or rather haunting–since last semester: “Haunting these policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. . . In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable.” (Disability and Difference). In other words, as the body withdraws from systematization, quantification, and abstraction–as it often does–what bodies and what people get left behind?

And though handwriting is still “a thing” as they say, something that we discuss and learn and use, I am curious about the same disciplining, social-signifying, and withdrawal (in a Heideggarian sense) that takes place in today’s context through digital print or new media.

Computers and Writing Talk

The following paper considers the rhetorical situation of playing a videogame in terms of co-authorship between the player and game. Put simply, in playing a videogame, something—a level, a character, a city, a story, a world, etc.—is being composed, and this “composition” is indebted to the ongoing interplay of human and computer. Looking at games in this way can help us rethink what we mean by authorship and text in a new media context, building off work like Jessica Reyman and Krista Kennedy. Moreover it focuses the act of composing more on specific contexts or events that rework already circulating material. This is not to critique the use of game design in class—indeed, I’ve employed it myself as a unit of inquiry—but I think it offers a new way to rethink gaming literacies and composing in class and beyond.

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CCR 611: Avoiding Neutrality

I found a lot of rich material from today’s readings, so I guess I’ll just pick a thread and run with it: neutrality.

As Horton notes, “Neutrality is just following the crowd. Neutrality is just being what the system wants us to be. Neutrality, in other words, is an immoral act” (102). In this context, neutrality is immoral because structures remain in place–be they of racism, classism, etc.–that thrive on the status quo. Thus, to remain neutral, one perpetuates the problematic momentum that already exists.

This resonates with Kynard’s observation on the rhetoric of student “need” that often gets invoked by teachers and administrators in the face of more radical critique. As she writes, “the trope of what students need is usually claimed as politically neutral territory for
a rather conservative mode of curriculum and instruction” (93). Such needs, argues Kynard, “are for the monolithic student, the monolithic kind of college writing requirement, the monolithic argumentative essay, and the monolithic college assignment” (93). In this way, doing nothing, one is siding with the status quo.

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CCR 611: Citizenship, Affect, and Literacy

As Amy Wan highlights, citizenship is a messy word, a word that comes up in many discussions about writing but rarely gets interrogated or defined. It exists as a “ambient” term.

At its most reductive, it’s a legal status, as Wan points out. But it also has a cultural element infused with literacy. As Wan notes, “it [citizenship] is not simply a conferred legal status, but cultivated through a number of civil political, and social rights and obligations” (27).  Literacy training allows one to “cultivate” these abilities, letting people who lack literacy–like the immigrants whom Wan discusses–enter as “productive” members of society.

Here, once again, literacy instruction is tied up with gate keeping. Instructors of writing, as part of the ambient cohort of literacy training, do citizen training. And the roles of this citizen, while having many contradictory forms, closely align with economics in Wan’s view: “Through an emphasis on productivity and economic survival in literacy training, immigrants were taught the importance of literacy as a habit of citizenship and as a marker of productivity” (41). And this productivity was further aligned with the habit-training of literacy. “Good” citizens are not only literate and productive, but honest and clean.

And above all, this citizenship bore the odd paradox of becoming part of something–the state, the market, the culture, etc.–but had whil being individual. One chose to be productive, good-natured, and American, says the narrative, by pursuing literacy.

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CCR 611: Discussing Remedial Writing

I’m not sure what to take away from the readings. Perhaps that’s the byproduct of my own frazzled ontology as of late, but I also think part of the difficulty arises from the complex, fraught nature of the debate.

Kynard, I think, presents the most dynamic critique. By redrawing the history, she presents a completely new insight, approach, perspective, tear in the curtain. As she says:

“When I stopped looking for black folk in basic writing scholarship and in the history of open admissions and instead placed basic writing scholarship and open admissions into the already existing history of African American education and literacy, lo and behold, I got a whole different kind of story” (189).

And indeed, that story was different. Protest, tension, ransacked offices, Jim Crow and bodily danger at the heart of literacy. The voice of student. The bodies of student. The structures–both physical and conceptual–making walls and red lines. The pilling up of de jure and de facto discrimination. The hard-fought challenges. And Kynard goes on to vocalize an approach:

“The issue here then is not to insert black teachers into the basic writing paradigm, but to deliberately see black compositionists’ practices, research, politics, and discourses inside of the much longer standing protest tradition of black teaching” (189).

In other words, this “whole different kind of story” needs to keep going, not just in the way composition constructs or tells history, but in how it in enacts it. In how it makes history. How it orients itself.

In other words, composition has a lot to think about.

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CCR 611: Professionalism, Boundaries, and Theory

As an undergraduate, my first taste of “composition” was through a sort of disciplinary tension between three schools of thought. In a creative writing club on campus, I worked heavily with one set of professors: communication instructors with a penchant for creative writing and literary journalism. Most of the club was also journalism majors. But we were also poets, fiction writers, and and creative nonfiction writers.

In this camp, I found a practical outlook: write often, read often, experience widely. While one of the profs had an MFA–and later a PhD–in creative writing, he was skeptical of the MFA rout, thinking it to be little more than an expensive qualification badge. “Real” writing could still take place without this training.

Camp two was a literature professor who edited a poetry journal and was well-steeped in Literature and contemporary work. Without much taste for theory, he celebrated the passion of writing and reading. Reading my short stories, he encouraged me to pursue the MFA and didn’t have much feeling about composition beyond, “The job market seems better than literature.”

Finally, the rhet-comp faculty encouraged me to go the rhet-comp rout. I heard the job market argument, but they also asserted how it connected to my philosophy interest. And like the communications professors, discussed the difficulties of the MFA–although one of the profs was a published creative writer with an MFA.

Each of these camps intersected and fractured in odd ways. The communications side considered rhet-comp boring. “They can’t persuade the school to pass a writing major, even with rhetoric in their name,” one said. But the communications faculty also critiqued the Ivory-Towered literature profs talking themselves into circles over Derrida and Keats. For their part, the English profs disparaged the dirty hands of those engaged in the “dark arts” of PR or the slipshod quality of fast-paced journalism.

And most other departments had never heard of composition as a field, and those that did thought it dealt with things like comma splices and thesis statements. Even more bizarrely, our philosophy department taught the second required writing course, with many making it a class in symbolic logic and syllogisms.

All I knew was that I liked writing. But everyone talked about writing in different ways, caught in disciplinary worldviews.

Continue reading “CCR 611: Professionalism, Boundaries, and Theory”

CCR 611: “In order to have a language remain fixed”

“[I]n order to have a language remain fixed, it is first necessary that those who speak it become dead.” –Thomas Lounsbury (qtd. in Harker 18)

“Reality is infinitely diverse, compared with even the subtlest conclusions of abstract thought, and does not allow of clear-cut and sweeping distinctions. Reality resists classification.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

Both Crowley and Harker pick up the “gate-keeping” function of composition and its role in erecting a “great divide” between the educationally privileged and others left outside the gate, sifted into basic writing classes through exams or excluded altogether.

Harker takes a more historical approach centered around the assumptions of literacy, particularly the literacy myth. Crowley takes a more contemporary, labor-focused approach, examining the problems associated with the universal composition requirement and making the “modest proposal” to make it optional for students, though she  grounds this in historical issues.

Crowley’s modest proposal to end the requirement did not seem as far fetched as I initially thought it would. Combined with Harker’s historical look at literacy and role it played in similar proposals, I found myself more responsive to the proposal. I’m not sure it would do all of the things that Crowley lists–like the erasure of intake exams or the creation of more equitable curricula and labor–and as she notes, “if you work in a corrupt system, you have to face the fact that making things better for people working
in one part of the system may make things worse for people who work in another part of it.”

But I think the “universal” nature of this requirement is worth considering, but to do so, I want to step back from the readings, focusing on the notion of “death” evoked by Lounsbury and Dostoevsky’s title, a reference to the Czarist prison he served time in. For Dostoevsky, the people “die” through their exile from society. Although many of his characters will face literal death via execution, their exclusion results in a sort of death-in-life.

In Lounsbury’s quote, I see a potential link with “dead” languages. Latin and Greek may seem more fixed than contemporary English because the speakers are all “dead”–though I think this stability is somewhat simplistic and wrong. But also, the “death” here is a similar exclusion from the influence of language. The language is both “fixed” (repaired) and “fixed” (made stable) as one “fixes” (sterilizes) the speaking public in a given context. Heteroglossia and utterance give way to print’s perceived permanence and longevity.

Thus the question of who and what get excluded from composition becomes the more salient question. Phrased another way, perhaps the difficulties of this “universal requirement” aren’t in the required part, but the universal. Needing to fit a unified goal across an institution or a set of institutions feels both impossible and oppressive. And in particularly top-down universalizing curricula goals–like in states like Colorado–I wonder how assumptions get made about students, institutional goals, and literacy.

I argue that these assumptions lead to the exclusions that “fix” language student voice, creating the gate-keeping that Harker and Crowley critique. In an ideal world, composition could be about opening gates or complicating gates, drawing from the embodied, enworlded, and contextualized “reality” of students and instructors, which remain frustratingly unfixed and non-universal.

But ever resilient and reified, myths of literacy persist and perpetuate power structures. Thus, I think the step may begin more basically by challenging these myths. Perhaps this may involve repealing the requirement, but it may also involve something more basic: checked assumptions, nomadic sensitivities, and a careful assumption to listen closely to both labor and student–not just as abstracts, but as ever-changing bodies.