Writing the digital and Second Life architecture.

Was reminded again today how interesting it can be to be part of a blogging community. I received this pingback from the ‘Discourse about Discourse‘ blog regarding my last post about writing in our current post-paper age. In that post i laid the groundwork for an argument about what it must mean to do academic writing now that the limitation of paper has been removed from our work. I’ve been debating about the follow up I planned to write on that issue but have been drawn slightly sideways by the post listed above.

The dominant TEXT of our time will be digital. The ways in which we replicate the biases of a paper based world are no different than the criticisms I’ve heard leveled at Second Life architects who insist on putting roofs and stairs in their buildings in a 3D space that not only does not need them but is very inconvenienced by it. There is a hearkening in it for a time past, of a time that is passing. As the technology changes so does what we need from the world knowledge change.

Available technology is intrinsically tied to our understanding of what knowledge is at a given time in a given society. Or, to be more specific in this case, the state of technology is tied to what it means to be knowledgeable. For the purposes of this conversation think less about technology in the sense that it is used to mean electronics but the more general sense in which we talk about tools created by members of our society to accomplish a given task. A pencil is a fine example of technology in our given conversation.

In an era, for instance, before the technology of writing is widespread, where writing implements, surfaces are scarce, the memory becomes of paramount importance. Rhetoric, the ability to call upon inner reserves of knowledge and skill at a given time are also of supreme importance. As we see the transition to the written era, those skills start to be of less importance and writing and the deliberate thought necessitated by the written word begins to predominate.

If you are writing on vellum or parchment… you are going to spend a great deal of time considering what is going to be on that paper. It is a permanent record of the work that you do. There is a classic (and possibly apocryphal) story that one of my professors used to quote of a Phd thesis being submitted to Oxford and almost failing because the page number 472 was missing. A problem only solved by binding the work into two separate books. Under these circumstances knowledge production must by necessity be the result of LONG deliberation. How else to explain the explosion of energetic thought (mostly in pamphlets) that followed the adoption of the printing press.

We have another of these transitions on our hands. There is great security to be found in the permanence of printed text, and a security that we will not altogether lose… but one that we must put aside in our discussions about writing in this digital age. What does it mean, in our current era, to speak ‘the truth’ about the Middle East. Who is to say that the American Government, Wikipedia, the Times or Al Jazeera have a more balanced position. That the historian, the political activist, the ‘common person’, the journalist or the politician are ‘less biased’.

We need, as Ben has done in his post, to ask ourselves what writing the digital is going to mean to us. And that is the terrible trick to all of this. There is not going to be one answer to this question. What it is going to mean to me is not necessarily what it is going to mean to you. We are moving away from an era with a single dominant paradigm where people from one part of the world can ignore the truths of another part, or one class ignore the beliefs of another. We are, for better and for worse, all in this together. And the worst thing we can do is force everyone to agree. This is where, I think Stephen Downes‘ theories of networks over groups really comes into force. We must work, at least in part, as part of larger networks. We need not all be working toward a single goal.

Just as the Second Life architects (me included in my small way) are tearing down their buildings and putting up new ones without roofs… without stairs, we too must do the same with our writing. They have, for the most part, retained some kind of floor and have retained the purpose of having a building – a place to meet, a place to show a place to feel safe – we too will retain our own purpose — communication.

Talkin’ ’bout litracy lol – I’ll get pwn3d.

The owl way
More fun times out here on the east coast. Still waiting to hear back on a couple of different grants that could make the next year even more interesting than it is already promising to be. I’ve also been working pretty hard on getting the VRE (virtual research environment) together here at the university. More on this soon.

The owl way – a preliminary babbly post

I’ve been in a bunch of discussions recently about literacy. Not the newish version that I use here in the blog, the literacies that include all the things that are the backbone of the lowest common denominator of the skills necessary to perform in our society. Nope. Literacy. Writing. We’ve been talking about what a university writing program should look like. We’ve also been talking about what ‘should’ be happening in high school writing programs.

And it is this ‘implicit should’ that i’m finding interesting. There seems to be a general agreement, in maybe 90% of the people that I talk to, that writing is important and that writing is defined by what you might find on this website. The Purdue owl (online writing lab) is one of the cornerstone of online writing. The BIG YELLOW EYE has popped up on piles of forgotten handouts, sadly missing its sharp yellow jauntiness.

That view, not surprisingly, is upheld by almost every single person who has complete command over the secrets of the ‘owl way’. Now, one could say that this is a conspiracy to maintain the status quo… or one could say that the ‘owl way’ was somehow, through a process of trial and error – a science of the humanities as it were – the ‘best available’ way to pass information between different people, through both time and space. The truth, as in so many of these cases, is probably a little of both.
Lets take a closer look at the owl way, just for a second, as I’ve taught it to writing students here in Canada, in Slovakia and in South Korea. We will all accept, I suppose, that English is an ad hoc language. At least to a certainly degree, the rules and regulations of both the spelling and usage have been developed in response to common usage not the other way around. (like Korean say)

  • We use thesis statements, and paragraphs.
  • We use, some of us, topic sentences.
  • Things are spelled according to the OED or Websters.
  • Formal writing conventions are observed (no abbv etc…)
  • It is a linear argumentation style, usually presenting one point of view, or at least surveying several points of view on a given subject.
  • There is research.
  • There is ‘new research’ (usually separated into qualitative and quantitative research)
  • You can refer to other people’s published research. This presumes a trust in the publishers to hold to the rules of the ‘owl way’. Publishers who don’t do this lose this ‘trust’.
  • These publishers employ ‘experts’ to survey new research and decide whether it’s ‘valid’.
  • The goal of the owl way is to contribute to the ongoing discussion on a topic
  • Our students, in most cases, are not doing this. They are practicing so that they can both understand the discussion and then, someday, participate in it.

The crux of this, the key point to keep in mind, is that many of those rules are governed by the pros and cons of using paper, as well as the inability of people to establish a common context quickly and easily. If we can’t all agree on how to spell ‘read’ we’re going to have a difficult time understanding what is being referred to by that particular ‘sign’ of ‘read’. What was needed then was a concerted effort to standardize writing according to the technology of the day. Paper. Here’s a preliminary look at where bee vomit leaves us…

  • It is very difficult for two people to write on the same piece of paper at the same time.
  • It isn’t much easier to do it asynchronously
  • Because of the way that printing works, it is difficult to offer two different versions of the same piece of work
  • As printing is expensive and distribution complicated, the writing cycle (time from idea to dissemination) is relatively long
  • Paper isn’t easy to erase
  • Paper needs a nice dry play to live.
  • Generally, unless you’re very rich, you need to go to the paper (like a library)

The technology, then, lead us down the inevitable path to what we are seeing in academic writing today. The paper itself, transportation, the printing press… all had a direct impact on the way that we have constructed research writing.
I am starting, in my not so subtle way, to present a case of the technology changing the way we should be participating in the research discussion. In fields like physics, people are already starting to make this transition. It is almost a truism now, on the cutting edge, that by the time you make it through the writing cycle of traditional publishing, your conclusions are probably out of date.

coming in the next post…

The paragraph

The paragraph is intrinsically a one person beast. It is linear and it is single voiced. It is meant to convey on single idea. We have many people now who are trying to write collaboratively, but it is very difficult to bring this down to the paragraph level. Paragraphs tend to work together in an essay to forward the positions of a single thesis.

Phones in schools. A review and a rebuttal.

Busy times… I just fell exhausted off my exercise bike and fell over towards my computer to do the other thing that I keep meaning to get to… I have four or five posts that I really want to write… and have gotten tied between them. Today I’ll try and get some of the jumble out on paper.

The review

I was listening to cbc radio a couple of days ago (if you don’t listen… you should… they just might be our greatest export) and heard a very interesting conversation regarding the removal of student imported technologies in the classroom in Milwaukee. My interpretation of her position at the time was that we need to take the technologies out of the classroom in order to stop the disruptions and in order to protect students.

As all this stuff flies by, it’s hard to get any real grasp of what the issue really is. In this case, I’ve decided to do a little research, and pass it on to you folks. It seems that the rules are pretty specific. Here’s the cell phone guidelines from the administration’s website. There are three documents there, one for the parents, one for the administrators, and one that seems to be the actual ‘rules’.
The deadline for implementation passed last Monday…

“Students are not allowed to possess or use two-way electronic

communication devices such as pagers and cell phones while

on premises controlled by MPS unless approval has been given.”

I was very much prepared to react very violently against this policy when i heard about it. But, I must say, in print it looks pretty sound. There are a series of proceedures for punishing students who disobey the rules, as well as an injunction specifically demanding equality of judgement across schools. Nothing unexpected here. There is also the chilling line near the end

” Adults who engage in battery against school personnel will receive a criminal review for possible criminal charges. Any use of a device for criminal intent is subject to prosecution.”

It is clause number three in this ruling that makes me both very impressed with the work that the school administration has done in documenting their thought process… and makes me pleased that i actually took the time to check on what they were talking about.

3. Each school will establish a procedure for granting approval for students to possess and use cell phones.

According to the MPS rule, approval must be obtained for students who must carry electronic communication devices for medical, school, educational, vocational, or other legitimate uses. Obtain the request for approval in writing. Ensure that the student and parent understand that the device is to be used for the approved purpose only. Establish a procedure for communicating this information to staff members who come into contact with the student.

There you have it. A school that is trying to come to terms with a new technology… and is being very forthright about its thinking and still leaving a little room for the technologies to be used for educational uses.

The rebuttal

I think that the above response is the best bit of banning I’ve ever seen in this kind of situation. It is thoughtful, well organized and fair. It will probably accomplish the goals of reducing phone use in the classrooms… it will give teachers the support that they need in order to force students to focus on their lessons.

Most teachers I talk to are overworked… and the students they are teaching are not responding to the forms of discipline that worked even half a generation ago. The teachers are, also, undertrained, and are often overwhelmed by the vast number of ‘secondary literacies’ that they are forced to pick up just to keep up with their students.

What we have here is more evidence of the disconnect. The disconnect between our school system and the world that our students are living in. I’ve made this argument at length elsewhere… and will again in the next few weeks, but, in short

Twenty years ago my teachers felt they knew what I was going to need to know when I grew up. The things I did in class that got me thrown in the hallway

  1. passing hand written notes
  2. talking in the back of class
  3. pretty much anything else you can imagine that might be irritating 🙂

If you look at the literacy skill set there you’ll see that the things that I was doing in the classroom were actually different interpretations of the things that were already going on there. (that is, if you accept that my teachers were trying to irritate me… something of which i was mightily convinced when i went to school.)

Now, lets take a look at the things that are the cause for disciplinary action in the here and now.

  1. SMS messaging in class
  2. cyber bullying
  3. social networking (see myspace… you may have heard of it)

The literacies that these students possess are not really being valued… and they are moving on to the set of literacies that they will need in order to work in the next few years. When, I wonder, will we be able to change our schools so that those are the literacies that we are actually teaching?

The students are already leaving us behind.