Friday, February 26, 2010

How Do You Know You're Doing Significant Work?

“Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.” – Francis Bacon

Last week, we were pleased to host Dr. Hugh Burns at CSU-Pueblo. He visited English 304 (Advanced Rhetoric) and the graduate level Theories of Writing class. In both classes, I provided students a copy of Dr. Burns's 20-year-anniversary of Computers and Composition article, "Four Dimensions of Significance: Tradition, Method, Theory, and Originality." And, in the 304 class, he discussed the article directly with students (Vol 21:1, 5-13). It was a great way to cap-off midterm week, and it was a great reminder for me that I belong to a rich, rhetorical tradition... it's a tradition that I'm pleased to be opening up for my students now too.

Though there's much that I'd like to say here as I send Burns back home to Texas and TWU, instead, I'll leave it to my students to share their insights.. on Burns, on his article, on the scholarly tradition of which they've become a part. --DR. SOUDER


  1. Well… where to begin? Hugh Burns is awesome. He seems to be such a cool and collected guy. Still waters clearly run deep in this instance. I hardly know where to start so I’m just going to run with it. I appreciated how he took a moment to organize his answers in his mind when he needed. I believe he remarked something to the effect of ‘Give back what is being asked first, then modulate opinions.’ I think that most ‘genius’ minds flow right off the cuff and occasionally make mistakes. While I am sure Dr. Burns still makes mistakes he is far less likely to when he turns the wheels inside his head in order to produce a response of legitimate value. Let me prove it:

    The one eyed we you- admittedly a gimmick but an extremely understandable and effective one at that

    The 4 parts of a good definition-define, explain personally, give an example from the book, and give a personal example; it certainly makes it seem more difficult but actually understanding a definition versus being able to label it craftily is equivalent to the difference between night and day (not to sound hoity-toity because I’m still sweating the midterm)

    Tm squared- while I think that a lot of us were a little lost reading it initially it became apparent through the lecture why this piece was profound. It gives a good framework to determine whether or not something that an individual is doing is worthwhile or an abomination… I suppose there may be some in between gray area there.

    His view on filtering something through philosophy-( metaphysics, physics, logic, rhetoric, poetics) as the personal relationship with knowledge… (ethics, and politics) being the communal relationship with knowledge. But what did he mean? What it meant to me is that in line with natural progression he has arranged the schools of philosophy much as a person grows and develops… beginning with the spiritual, onto the actual, stopping by the quantifiable, dropping by determining and attempting understand the uncertain, rolling through the eloquent display of the previous...( alas we can share our knowledge with the world ) turning knowledge into wisdom for the greater good, makes us hold the rest of the world to a higher standard.

    Besides all that I liked one more set of statements that may not be verbatim. ‘How do you make sense of a world that is uncertain? By reasoning about your uncertainty, and that is rhetoric.’

  2. How do we know we are doing significant work?
    The question of significant work is an extremely complex question that can be answered on a number of levels. On one hand, following traditions and making original contributions of variations of methodologies and theories already in the realm of discourse is an easy way of padding a resume, and gaining recognition and “brownie points” in a respective field. However, how do the visionaries and the rebels, the likes of Freud, Nietzche, and Galileo know that they are doing significant work when there is no one placing merit badges on their lapels at every step along the way?
    Galileo knew in his heart he was doing significant work and that Helio-centrism for not only scientific reasons, but philosophical reasons needed to be defended, even as a desperate effort to silence and invalidate his life’s work was made by the Catholic Church. Catholic Authorities implemented their best spin control to the public framing Galileo as being a hardly legitimate scientist. The Church branded Galileo as being a vain man and a debater who was consumed with furthering his own fame at any cost. Galileo’s research into Copernican theory was taken as a direct attack on the church and left the Catholic authorities with no choice but to silence the heretic, sentencing him to life in the prison of his home, relieving him of his privileges to publish any knew work.
    The question of significant work lies in, as the Catholic Church has bitterly come to terms with since the inquisition of Galileo, a leap of faith, in many ways similar to divine faith they hold for God. This faith, the hope, the scientific or academic compass, whatever you feel most comfortable labeling it as, is the only way to measure significant work. If someone does not believe wholeheartedly in his or her work, it will not be significant, simple as that. An innovator can only hope that this faith they have will someday be validated by History as being truly significant in the eyes of Man. Unfortunately for many of these minds they do not live to reap in the fruits of their labors. It’s minds and ideas like Galileo and Helio-centrism that are the roses that grew from concrete that motivate the prophets of our time to not simply sell out and buy into the current traditions, methodologies, and theories, but to fight the good fight to be truly original.

  3. What classifies as “significant?” If a scientist makes a breakthrough discovery of another element, I won’t even look up from the novel I am reading to acknowledge this. To me, this is actually very insignificant. However, to the appropriate audience, this discovery could be the most important thing to happen all year, or in this entire decade. Similarly, a significant discovery or work in the field of English or history may mean very little to someone to an accountant. Let us not forget the rhetorical triangle – Audience, Purpose, and Occasion – as we ask ourselves this question.
    I like the way Hillary put it best: We know we are doing significant work when our students are able to teach others what we have taught them. However, my answer is not quite so positive or definite. I would say that there is no way to really know we are doing significant work. We can try to speculate, to measure what we have done, but we cannot be sure what we have done until we are gone, which isn’t very reassuring. I have heard the saying, “The most effective leaders are those whose ideas survive when they are gone.” It is easy to say that your work is “significant,” but in order to attempt to measure this, you must step back and leave your work in the hands of your subordinates. Will what you are doing today still be significant in ten years? In one hundred? Will the people you taught, your “followers,” carry on in your name, or will they unknowingly demolish it?
    Dr. Burns uses four areas to assess significance: tradition, method, theory, and originality, and believes, contrary to myself, that it can be measured. He asks a multitude of questions – topoi – to illustrate the difficulty of assessing this significance. The one thing in his entire article that really “stood out” for me was the following, “What will make tradition, method, and theory significant is originality” (Burns 6). I’m not sure about you, but for myself the one thing that will make me pick up a book or an article and read it is the originality of it, since my first impression comes from something as simple as the cover, the title, or the thesis. Setting that “attention getter” early on can help you get to that place we can only speculate about, that we call significance. Our teachers strive to show us the maps to the destination that they have yet to reach, that no one can possibly reach, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The impossibility factor doesn’t stop countless children from searching for the leprechaun and riches, and as adults and students, we should not be discouraged either. This search has been placed in your hands now, the legacy ready for you to take on.
    It’s a mighty legacy to take on, isn’t it? Rhetorician sounds a bit scary, right? It doesn’t have to be this way. We use rhetoric everyday of our lives, but once you give it that title, it takes on a different form. We cannot be afraid of titles, especially since adequate rhetoricians can euphemize – is that a real word? – a title away to ease your fear. They can talk others, as well as themselves, into believing anything. A rhetorician can convince himself that being a rhetorician isn’t as scary as they think it is, paradoxically.

  4. Mr. Burns advice to focus on pre-writing and the study of human consciousness, along with multi-modal composing was intriguing as new ways of thinking about collaboration. His videos and advice to become a member of NCTE was also memorable. The idea that global discourses are shaped by technology and the challenge to use digital media of moving and still images, text and audio modes to present rhetoric was very stimulating and motivating. His admonition that Aristotle works and Burke's theory did not in research of successful persuasion is also an incentive to understand both but focus on Aristotle! The knowledge that we are doing work that is meaningful will come through collaboration and ultimately from within. Just as he says public pedagogy involves how to truly belong and who has the right to tell this is what should be done. This is available information from our experiences with others and what we know is right from within. But as he says we have "work to make that land your land". P.S. I came in a minute late and never got a copy of Dr. Burns article--can you Dr. Souder bring me one next week?

  5. Done and done, Linda. Remind me on Tuesday...

  6. Dr. Burns is an amazing scholar that is perhaps one of the wisest people I have met so far. He left us with the question: How do we know we are doing significant work? This, perhaps destined to be ironic, is of course a rhetorical question. There is not one single answer that can be used to answer this question. I think it is an answer that is a combination of many different factors.
    For instance, the one-eyed we you,
    This nifty little helping bird can be used to direct the reader of the supposedly significant work in the right direction so that the reader is not thoroughly bashed or offended by what is being said. This is important because in order for a piece of work to be important, it needs to be appreciated by its reader (though there are exceptions to this).
    Another thing is theory,
    Dr. Burns’ gave a quite wonderful definition of theory with only three words: define, explain, predict. The same could be said about doing significant work. When there is no definition on what is going to be talked about, there is no reason to continue forward. And if there is no explanation of the definition, there is not enough information for the topic. If there is not enough information, there cannot be a prediction. So essentially, a paper (just an example of a potential significant piece of work) is a theory. There has to be a definition (like a thesis statement) on what is being said, followed by explaining the definition (body of the text), then finally the prediction comes in (like the conclusion).
    So in the end Dr. Burns gave me great insights into how I am supposed to write. His ideas are very ground shaking (and very similar to Dr. Souder’s I might add). They can apply to many things seen in everyday life. It does not have to be secluded to doing significant work.

  7. Having Dr. Burns join our 501 class was a treat and an honor. He has truly been on the leading edge of technological advances. Dr. Burns' article, "Four dimensions of significance" provides us with not only insight into his research and history, but he also provides us with a framework about how to ensure that research is significant and gives us a wealth of topoi! If we approach our own research and employ Dr. Burns' topoi, our research should follow the traditions of rhetoric, guide us toward using "the most appropriate methodologies for verifying and validating what we are doing," enable us to apply theoretic principles, question our originality, and ensure that our research, therefore, has significance.

    After class, Dr. Burns shared several multi-modal compositions. One was about a trip he and another professor took with a large group of graduate students to Italy, another was about children and their future visions of seeing Italy, and another was about children and kairos. Interviews were conducted with each of the graduate students. Because of their unique perspectives, each student had his or her own story to tell - audio/visual compositions. Multi-modal composition is an approach that is timely, and it is a form that our students should learn and our teachers should embrace. But as wonderful as our technologies are, we must continue to compose--and print. Consider that if Aristotle had had digital capabilities, would we, 2400 years later, be able to read decode, or interpret his ancient technology? Digital composing is timely; the written word is timeless.

  8. Dr. Burns was a pleasure to have in class. He has a great sense of humor and I can only imagine what being in a class with him is like. I thought that his drawing of a bird was wonderful and I picture it every time I drive on to campus now (with a little chuckle). Also giving the class a new way to write a definition was nifty. When I was studying, again, it gave me more of a goal to work for. It also became a new study guide hanging on the wall
    I guess when thinking about how a person would know that they are doing a significant job, my mind set was…… I really do not know.
    I was reminded of a story that I was once told about family traditions. Considering I heard it from my boyfriend, it may have been a joke. Anyways, as the story/joke goes……..
    A woman is cooking dinner for her family; her you young daughter stands on a chair next to her and watches with wide eyes. The woman pulls a roast from the refrigerator, sets it on a cutting board and cuts 2 inches off one end. The daughter asks why she was cutting the end of the roast off. The woman says that when she was little that’s what her mother did. She also loved to cook with her mom and cooked the way she was taught. That night the woman calls her mother and asks her why they cut 2 inches off one end of the roast. The same answer the woman told her young daughter came out. The now grandmother says that when she was little that what her mother did. She loved cooking with her mother and did everything just the way she did. The next day the grandmother called her mother and asked her why they cut 2 inches off one end of a roast. The great-grandmother stated that the roasts were always too big for the pot so she cut off 2 inches so it would fit.
    My intention is telling you all this story is in my opinion you know when you are doing a significant job is when people follow in your footsteps. They might not always know why they are doing things a certain way, but you have made such an impact that they continue to do it.
    At one time I taught special education in a public school district in Fremont County. I only worked with sever needs children and I was able see the impact I made day in and day out. Some days it made me cry when I watched how much the students had grown. Perhaps the greatest job I ever did was have one of my students walk a parade route with a marching band. In did not play an instrument, he could not even talk. Mentally he was 18 months old, but after months of practice he was part of something more than a classroom, he was a band member. At that point it was the most he had ever done in 15 years. To me and the parents of that student it was significant.

  9. First off, I would just like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the last two class periods. I am glad that I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Burns, and I hope to meet him again in the future. I did not expect him to be so down to earth. I loved how he shared his first hand experience of being an undergraduate again. He was able to connect with the students in a way that I do not see from many professors, much less an esteemed guest. His wisdom regarding everything from definitions to logic really helped when I took the midterm.
    One of my favorite thing that he shared was the “One Eyed We-You.” A seemingly small concept like this can have big results when properly executed. I was successful on more than one occasion this weekend when I used it to get others so see my point of view and agree with me. I think that Dr. Burns should definitely publish this in a book; many people would benefit from a tool such as this.
    And on to the larger question of how you know when you’re doing significant work… This question can be answered in so many different ways. Using Dr. Burns article as a reference, five groups discussed this exact question and each came up with vastly different answers. I liked my group’s answer that as a teacher you know that you are doing significant work if your students can teach others. But, of course, this only applies if you are a teacher. In other cases, it is much harder to find a way to actually measure success.
    I am honored to be a part of a scholarly tradition that I hope will continue for a long time. If I am ever a teacher (which I don’t think will happen but you never know) then I hope to be able to share my mentor with my students. I wish that this kind of tradition would happen in my other classes.

  10. I enjoyed Dr. Burns's presence in class, and wish he was coming this week too (so I will never have to present my oral!). Actually, more so to ask him more questions after having read his article. I went through it a couple of times, putting together different concepts, and agreeing with what he had to say. What I find most interesting is the relationship he makes between rhetoric, technology, and research. About research he states: "The research enterprise must never stop, for research can never be finished; the methods of inquiry and of curiosity are constantly at work" (4). And, as long as research continues to progress, technology will follow. It is up to teachers to keep up with this never ending cycle!

  11. I tagged you - ha!

  12. This is a great post. I just had one of the ‘Doh!’ moments and ran back to correct my own site before publishing my comment. You see my own comment form did not match what I’m about to advice. I get less comment than you, so never noticed any problem. I’ve changed it now anyway so here goes.

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