What if writing did not have to be an isolating activity? Dustin is the developer of Writer's Bloc, a software that highlights connections between writers as they write, which paves the way for rethinking the teaching of university writing. Dustin collaborates with New York University to experiment with how writing might be affected by stimulating greater awareness of others writing in the same writing situation.
Work on the Writer's Bloc project fits into a greater exploration of how we represent the voices of others in academic and public genres of writing. We 'represent' voices of others in everyday speech – in forms like quotation, paraphrase, and mimicry ('and so she goes… and I'm like') – but in genres like literary and political criticism this representation takes on particular salience, serving as the primary method of performing criticism: selecting someone's speech and putting it in a context produces a certain meaning. But we have no idea how this interaction works, what attitudes this practice is meant to elicit, and least of all how to train our students in this practice when it is working well (and often it does work well). My research uses large collections of written literary and political critical writing to investigate how meaning is created through the blending of voices.
What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?
In the university, we break up large, complex problems into smaller, compartmentalized problems and work on those. But the 'public' and its 'problems' are large, messy, and intersected. Being a public scholar goes beyond the mere application of our areas of isolated knowledge to a public good to finding, yoking together and contributing to unconnected knowledge within the university to address the big, interconnected world of the 'public'. The knowledge generated in the university is profound, and more than adequate to address big, real problems. But its isolated state is inadequate. Being a public scholar is a serious charge: it entails changing this state.
In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?
I think that the concept behind this initiative is brilliant. In a time when, particularly in the humanities (though elsewhere, too), the academic job market is grim, demands for 'alternative-academic' ('alt-ac') opportunities are increasing but with the tacit caveat that accepting these 'alternative' roles compromises our 'primary' ones as academics. Often, when we are presented with 'alt-ac' opportunities, it feels like opting out: self selecting out of the academy, resigning our identities as scholars, hanging up our research hats. But this initiative says differently, that what might have been called 'alternative-academic' is academic. Scholarship oriented to the public must meet the standard academic criteria – be of high quality and contribute to the ongoing production of knowledge in our fields – but research that looks a little different, with different orientations and outcomes, and with relevance to different communities, still has a solid place within the academy. However, this is a serious endeavour, and this seriousness is what I admire about this initiative. As I write above, knowledge in the university exists in a certain state, and this initiative motivates a significant change-in-state.
How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?
I love language research and making things, and so far in my PhD I have made a software to research language. After my degree, I would be very happy to keep making things and researching with the things I make.
How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?
My work with Writer's Bloc aims to produce a very practical, usable, and effective technology. But beyond the technology, I want to develop a pedagogy with an accompanying ethics. The ethical claim I make is that student voices in the university, and particularly during writing-based assignments, are suppressed, and suppressing voices during a practice (writing) that is innately social is anti-pedagogical. In working with my research partners at NYU, I hope to develop models demonstrating the effectiveness of a more social pedagogy.
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
There were some things I desperately wanted to know about how we use language and its effects in the world. I had questions that I knew couldn't be answered outside of a graduate degree.
Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?
The English department here has an interesting configuration, with a dual-focus on literature and linguistics. As I transitioned away from studying literature to studying language this departmental design was attractive.
My work with Writer's Bloc aims to produce a very practical, usable, and effective technology. But beyond the technology, I want to develop a pedagogy with an accompanying ethics.