Monday, March 28, 2005

A Post-Conference Update & info about a cool community-based writing center

I'm back from the professional conference I attended over spring break. It's the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), and is the largest and most important conference in the US for college and university teachers of writing and rhetoric. It's a large conference; I don't know the exact number of attendees at this year's conference, but I expect it was over 3500 people.

What kind of topics are talked about at a conference like this? Just about everything that scholars and teachers of rhetoric and writing might be interested--from obscure historical research on Greek and Latin rhetoricians to writing centers and writing-across-the-curriculum programs to theories and practices of teaching writing to writing and technology to assessment to community literacy, etc. There's definitely something there for everyone (at least everyone who's interested in writing and rhetoric).

One of the coolest talks that I heard was about a community literacyproject. It was a talk about a project called 826 Valencia. This is a community-based writing center. The writer Dave Eggars, author of the truly wonderful memoir _A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius_ used some of his earnings from this best-selling book to establish a writing center in the Mission District of San Francisco. This is a non-profit center that is not associated with either the public schools or with a college or university. Their mission is to provide community based support for students in the neighborhood. They also provide programs for the public schools in San Francisco--but in their talk the speakers emphasized that they are independent of the schools' bureaucracy (which in my view is good).

It was really inspiring to hear about how 826 Valencia developed from a very small storefront to a center with 600+ volunteers, some of them well-known writers like Dave Eggars. According to the presenters, 826 Valencia centers (named for the address of the original center) have been developed in Brooklyn and Seattle, and are being established other places.

Here's one more bit of info about 826 Valencia. After Eggars and his colleagues found the storefront they wanted, the owner wouldn't lease it to them unless they had some sort of retail operation. The owner didn't expect the writing center to make it and thought he could more easily lease it again if it had some retail component. So what did Eggars et al do? They decided that they would sell pirate gear! (If you've not read Eggars' memoir, you might not know that he is one witty guy--even as he writes about the heartbreaking death of his parents and his decision to become the legal guardian for his younger brother.)

Now all 826 Valencia writing centers sell something; they incorporate what they sell into the general look and feel of the writing center. The Boston 826 Valencia, for instance, sells superhero gear.

For more information about this exciting project, check out

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Some thoughts on blogging, continued

I leave in about an hour to drive to the Portland airport--and then fly to my conference in San Francisco--but I couldn't head out of town without checking my blog, and boy am I glad that I did! Thanks to Kim, Hillary r, Alan C, Just rambling, Emily, Hope, Tavosmom, and Rosa G for a great conversation about blogging. This conversation alone seems to me to be a clear indication of how valuable blogging can be.

I look forward to checking out the website when I get back (thanksk just-rambling!). I just speed read the article by Daniel Drezner and found it quite fascinating--and also helpful for my research. I'll also follow up on it when I get back.

In the meantime, thanks to all for such a stimulating conversation.

On a more personal note, last Sunday my husband I planted two forsythias in my mother's memory. I grew up in Ohio, and my mother lived there just about all of her life. Since she had twelve children, mom didn't have a lot of time to pay attention to flowers and nature--but every spring she would exclaim over the forsythias when they bloomed. (They're the first sign of spring after a long and dreary Ohio winter.)

It will take a long time for me to deal with my mother's death. Friends who have lost parents tell me that in an important way you never get over this loss. But planting the forsythias helped. After we planted them Greg read the Mary Oliver poem "In Blackwater Woods." It's a very beautiful poem about nature, life, and death. I would love to be able to paste it into this post, but the university web software doesn't have an edit (copy and paste) function.

Don't get me started on that.

If you're not familiar with the poem, you can read it simply by googling "In Blackwater Woods" Mary Oliver. Several different versions will appear.

Hmmm. I wonder what it is about blogging that somehow makes it feel natural to go from a somewhat academic discussion of blogging to a personal comment about a parent's death.

Take care, everyone.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Some thoughts about blogging

I just spent about an hour responding to new comments on my blog, and that got me reflecting on the pluses and minuses of blogging. One obvious plus is the richness of the conversation that has evolved on this blog. Thank you readers! I've been given helpful hints on everything from skunk/dog interactions to my current scholarly study of online citizen reviewers. Several of you have also raised issues and asked questions that will really forward this research project .

It's been a fascinating experience for me as a writer and writing teacher to write my way into the blogosphere. As I noted in my first entry on January 11th, 2005 I found the thought of posting to my blog quite intimidating. I'm used to writing in quite specific rhetorical contexts: I typically know who my audience is (even if it's a general scholarly audience) and what the governing conventions are. I didn't have a good sense of this at all when I first began posting to my blog, and I'm still not sure I do. I am aware of having tried to tone down scholarly jargon and to mix the personal and the professional in a way that I hope readers will appreciate--but only readers can tell me if this has been effective.

Another plus--one I didn't expect--is the human empathy and support that readers expressed when I wrote about my mother's death. This was very moving to me.

And now the negatives: the big one of course is time, time, time. I don't know if I could possibly maintain my blog if I weren't having the luxury of a residency at my university's Center for the Humanities.

There's another unexpected negative: I find I'm spending more time on my blog and less on email. This leads to some interesting consequences. Hope (of Humor Hangout) and I have a long history of email conversations. But now that Hope is an active reader of my blog I find that I'm more likely to respond to her blog comments first rather than to her emails to me--even though the emails are arguably more personal. I'm not sure why I do this. I suspect it's because I'm aware that blog etiquette requires posting regularly to your blog, responding to comments, etc. And since my blog is public I may feel more pressure to do that.

I'd be interested in readers' comments about the blog/email relationship.

A final possible negative--I'm not sure about this--is the tendency for blogging to take over for/substitute for real life (whatever real life is). I just read that several well known bloggers have publicly announced that they're no longer maintaining their blogs. (Sorry, but the stories about them are at the Humanities Center, and I'm at home, so I can't say who they are.) I wonder how long I will be able to--and want to--maintain my blog. I guess only time will tell.

Hmmm. Perhaps this is the moment for me to say that I will probably post less frequently in the next two to three weeks or so. I'm just getting ready to embark on two big projects: writing a talk for the major national conference in my field and doing my husband's and my taxes. I've also got the typical slew of end-of-term letters of recommendation to write.

Once I accomplish these tasks, I'll head off to my conference, which over spring break, and then enjoy a brief post-conference vacation with my friend and coauthor Andrea Lunsford.

So don't be surprised in my presence in the blogosphere isn't as strong or frequent as it has been lately. I promise to check in now and then and to respond to comments--which I look forward to reading. I'm just not sure how many new posts I'll write.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A brief comment on the scope of my project

Hi there. Since I posted my Humanities Center proposal I thought I'd add a comment or two about the scope of my project. I'm not trying to do a definitive study of online citizen reviewers or to make highly generalized arguments about them. I'm definitely not trying to write a book on them! (I completed three books in the last two years, so books are a no no.)

Instead, I see my study as exploratory. Until I learned about the research that Professor Gronas is doing at Princeton, I hadn't been able to find any other scholars focusing on this emerging genre. So I'm hoping partly to describe what's already happening on the web and partly to raise questions about online citizen reviews. I'm also hoping that my research--which I hope I will ultimately present in an article--will encourage other scholars to investigate online citizen reviews.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Improved title for my project?

Hi again,
This afternoon I was fiddling around with revisions of the title of my project. I realized that there's nothing in the current title to indicate that the reviews are online. The title certainly wouldn't cause readers to think about customer reviews--at least I don't think so.

I also wanted to give a sense of the historical context of my project, so I thought of the following title: From The Monthly Review to Amazon.Com Book Reviews: Online Citizen Reviews and the Circulation of Cultural Power.

For those of you who don't know (which is probably just about everyone, since I didn't know it either until I read it), the Monthly Review was the first literary book review journal in Great Britain. It began publishing in 1749. There's a reference to it in the proposal that appears in the preceding post.

The proposal for my current research project

Here's a copy ofo the proposal I wrote last year when applying for a residency at my university, Oregon State University in Corvallis OR. It explains why I'm interested in what I'm calling online citizen reviewers--like reviewers on

If anyone has any comments or suggestions, please send them my way.


Citizen Reviewers
Popular Culture, Technology, and the Circulation of Cultural Power
Lisa Ede

Introduction. For some time now scholars in a number of areas in the humanities have been investigating the nature and consequences of popular culture. Central to these investigations are questions such as the following: To what extent might various forms of popular culture represent either active or covert resistance to cultural hegemony? What can scholars learn about capitalism’s ability to co-opt and commodify such potential resistance by studying diverse forms of popular culture, from films, television, and music to online fanzines (where, for instance, some fans write new story lines for the TV series Star Trek that feature homosexual relations between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock)?

The project for which I seek support, a study of “Citizen Reviewers: Popular Culture, Technology, and the Circulation of Cultural Power,” contributes to this line of research. Most centrally, my project identifies and investigates an as-yet-unstudied site of potential resistance to cultural hegemony: the online reviews “published” by what I am calling citizen reviewers, individuals who compose and disseminate reviews of all sorts of cultural productions (books, films, and music being among the most important) outside of traditional review venues. I will provide several examples of these sites later in this proposal; for now I will simply note that with the development of the World Wide Web, citizen reviewers are increasingly making their presence felt online. Indeed, as I will argue later in this proposal, online technologies are enabling ordinary individuals to claim new forms of cultural power and are challenging ideologically grounded assumptions about who can—and cannot—produce knowledge.

A simple Google search reveals a good deal about the extent to which citizen reviewer Web sites have begun to compete with online sites for more established cultural institutions. When I typed the words “book reviews” into Google on January 3, 2004, for instance, the first five sites that Google presented included sites for The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, the American Library Association’s Booklist, Bookwire—and a site titled “Book Reviews by Danny Yee.”[1] This personal Web site includes reviews for over 700 books; in 2002 alone Yee’s site had “2.4 million page views by perhaps 900,000 people (excluding robots and other automated accesses as far as is possible” (Yee, “Infrequently Asked Questions”). As this example suggests, thanks to the Web it is possible for ordinary individuals such as Danny Yee to compete for cultural power with such culturally sanctioned institutions as The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books. While such competition is limited to the Web, its significance should not be undervalued, for increasingly students and those raised in an online world turn to the Web before consulting traditional print sources.
Danny Yee’s Web site is a personal site; it is one of a number of such sites on the World Wide Web where citizen reviewers make their opinions about books, movies, films, and other cultural products known. A second major online venue for citizen reviewers is Many academics purchase books from, so readers may be aware of the customer reviews that accompany what refers to as editorial reviews for most books.[2]’s decision to include customer reviews of books, music, and other products on its Web site offers unique and powerful opportunities for ordinary people to claim the expertise usually accorded to traditionally sanctioned reviewers, for the site’s sponsorship of citizen reviewers gives them access to an enormous and diverse readership. The only way in which privileges editorial over customer reviews is via these links’ placement on the page: the link to customer reviews appears below the link to editorial reviews. Recently, Amazon has encouraged customer reviewers to link personal Web sites to; many reviewers also create lists, guides, and other texts that appear as links on this site. As a result, these individuals can create a significant personal presence on, a Web site that is visited by millions of consumers daily.

As an example, consider the reviewer who identifies himself on as Bob NothingElse. I encountered Bob NothingElse when I logged on to to purchase Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. As of December 20, 2003, Bob NothingElse was one of 1179 persons who have posted reviews of Kingsolver’s novel on Bob NothingElse has additional texts on this site. Links to one of these texts, “See What Bob NothingElse Has Read…Part II” appeared next to the title of Kingsolver’s title on the day that I accessed Curious, I clicked on it and quickly found myself linking to the following additional sites: “Items from Bob NothingElse’s Wishlist,” “A Recent Review by Bob NothingElse” with a link to all of his reviews on; and “Bob NothingElse’s So You’d Like to Inadvertently Become Known as a Wry Intellectual Guide.”[3]
As this example suggests, Bob NothingElse has quite a presence on’s web site—and Bob is not among the top ten reviewers who were recently selected via a popular vote by customers. ( did not list criteria for ranking reviewers but simply asked readers to submit the names of their favorite reviewers.) The top-ranked reviewer, Harriet Klausner, has published 6113 reviews on; the second-ranked reviewer, Lawrance M. Bernabo, has published 6872 reviews; and the third-ranked reviewer, Don Mitchell, has published 2109 reviews (, “Top Reviewers”).

Description of Project. As these examples suggest, thanks to the development of online technologies, citizen reviewers are challenging conventional distinctions between high and popular culture and between those who are granted the authority of “expert” reviewers and ordinary readers and writers. For my Humanities Center project, I propose to study citizen reviews on the World Wide Web and to write a substantial article on this phenomenon that I plan to submit to College Composition and Communication. Most generally, this article would investigate citizen reviews as sites of rhetorical performance and identify lines of research that other scholars interested in this growing phenomenon might wish to explore.

Despite my interest in the current practices of citizen reviewers, one aspect of my inquiry would be historical, for I believe it is important to situate citizen reviews and reviewers in the context of studies of the history of authorship, intellectual property, and the various professions associated with the production, sale, and consumption of culture. Because my discipline is English studies—and because the history of authorship and of the book are particularly well documented in this field—the historical component of my study will situate citizen reviewers primarily, though not solely, in the context of literary production in eighteenth century Great Britain. As readers may be aware, this was a time of enormous change for authors, booksellers, and readers. Thanks to the decline of the patronage system, in the early eighteenth century authors could no longer define themselves or be defined via aristocratic sponsorship—but neither authors nor their readers had developed a stable set of criteria for or public means of categorizing and, most importantly, evaluating and ranking both books and their authors. The rapid development of a vigorous periodical culture in the mid-eighteenth century played a key role in addressing this problem. As Frank Donoghue argues in The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers, in the emergent literary marketplace of the eighteenth century “authorship became increasingly defined in popular criticism. . . [so that] from 1750 onward, literary careers were chiefly described, and indeed made possible, by reviewers,” who published their reviews in such periodicals as the Monthly Review (founded in 1749) and the Critical Review (founded in 1756) (3).

Several centuries later, thanks to the development of the World Wide Web and other online technologies, authors and others involved with the production, distribution, and marketing of culture in all its various forms are find themselves again in a time of transition. The issues at hand are different from those facing eighteenth century authors, readers, and booksellers, but once again reviewers—in this case citizen reviewers—are playing a role in this transition. For these reviewers are challenging the very forms of cultural power that were developed in the eighteenth century to authorize, disseminate, and evaluate cultural production.
As this brief historical excursion suggests, citizen reviewers are participating in much larger technologically driven cultural, political, and economic changes that are challenging conventional assumptions about the nature of the subject, of the author, and of high versus popular culture. (Think, for instance, of the extraordinary growth of Weblogs in the last few years.) As such, they represent a potentially rich site for ideologically and materially grounded critique.

Research on citizen reviewers builds upon—and could contribute to—such diverse scholarly projects as Pierre Bourdieu’s investigation of the “economy of cultural goods” in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1) and Thomas McLaughlin’s exploration of what he terms “vernacular theory”—theory as enacted by the creators of zines and of Star Trek fanzines--in Street Smarts and Critical Theory: Listening to the Vernacular (6). Citizen reviews and reviewers should also be of interest to scholars in reception studies, such as Janice Radway, author of Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature and of A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire, as well as to scholars inquiring into the possibility of new publics and public spheres, such as Rosa Eberly, whose Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres explores “the public arguments of literally hundreds of actual readers of four controversial novels in this country during this century” (xii).
If citizen reviews on the Web represent an important site for cultural and ideological critique, they also are of inherent interest as online sites of rhetorical performance. How, for instance, have citizen reviewers and the sites that disseminate these reviews established new means of claiming authority (ethos) and of supporting and documenting the judgments that citizen reviewers make (logos)? [4] And how do they employ the resources of the Web to draw upon appeals to pathos (to emotions and beliefs)? Is it possible to identify a stable repertoire of rhetorical practices used by citizen reviewers, or are citizen reviews developing too quickly—and quirkily—for this to be possible?

As I hope is by now clear, scholars diversely situated in such projects as rhetorical and critical theory and cultural and reception studies should find citizen reviews a productive site for research. Despite this potential, to date I have not been able to identify any mention—much less sustained study—of citizen reviewers in scholarly work in the humanities. As a result, one goal of my project will be descriptive, for it will be necessary to conduct additional research to insure that I have identified the most important forms of and venues for citizen reviews on the Web.[5] Having accomplished this, I will then move to the more significant questions that motivate my study; these questions involve the nature and consequences of citizen reviews and the related online texts that are often linked to these reviews. Do these reviews represent an active resistance to cultural, political, and economic hegemony? Might they represent a potential public sphere, such as Habermas called for in such early works as Communication and the Evolution of Society? Or do they represent yet another example of capitalism’s ability to co-opt and commodify individual efforts to resist the ideological forces of hegemony? While I do not expect to develop a singular response to questions such as these—citizen reviews are simply too varied to accommodate such a reading—I do believe that my study will demonstrate that citizen reviews on the Web are a protentially rich object of study for scholars in the humanities.

Previous Humanities Center Grants. In 1995-96 I was awarded a Center for the Humanities residency to study the history of composition’s development as a discipline and the consequences of professionalization for both theorists and practitioners in the field. Two book projects resulted from the research undertaken while at the Center. In 1999 I edited On Writing Research: The Braddock Award Essays, 1975-1999. My lengthy introduction to this collection details composition’s professionalization and raises questions about its nature and consequences. A second book project, Situating Composition: Composition Studies and the Politics of Location, is forthcoming in fall, 2004 from Southern Illinois University Press.
[1] On his home page, Yee identifies himself as a Eurasian living in Sydney Australia who supports his book-reviewing habit by working 20 hours a week as a computer systems manager for the Department of Anatomy and Histology at the University of Sydney.

[2] These reviews most often are excerpts of print reviews published in such print venues as The New York Times Book Review, Choice, Booklist, etc.

[3] According to, by December 20, 2003 Bob NothingElse’s guide had been read 2,107 times. has been quite ingenious in finding ways to produce cultural value via customer reviews. The first review of Kingsolver’s novel that appears on the site is prefaced with the statement that “31 of 33 people found the following review helpful” and is awarded a 4 out of a possible 5 stars.

[4]’s recent invitation to customers to identify that site’s top ten reviewers and the related use of a star ranking system for reviews represent two efforts to claim cultural value for citizen reviewers and their reviews. Citizen reviewers such as Danny Yee often cite the number of “hits” their site has received over a specific period of time as implicit evidence of the value of their reviews.

[5] I am aware that print citizen reviews undoubtedly exist. A mother who writes and distributes an informal newsletter for members of her La Leche group might well include reviews of new books on breast-feeding and infant and child care—and these would constitute citizen reviews. I focus on citizen reviews on the Web because of their greater accessibility. As Danny Yee’s website and the customer reviews indicate, citizen reviews on the Web also have the potential to reach a broad and significant audience.