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.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

8 thoughts on “Talkin’ ’bout litracy lol – I’ll get pwn3d.”

  1. When George Siemens transferred “Knowing Knowledge” to the print medium, he came up against challenges of the medium that made the transfer of an online publication less than straightforward.

    Increasingly, I am finding that I write for the web. With (aming other things) hyperlinks instead of references, and navigation links instead of section numbers. I now find the concept of linear navigation and section numbering restrictive. However, for my Masters’ degree, this is the required format. I am permitted to submit an electronic copy of my papers, but it must be an electronic copy of a print medium document, complete with Harvard referencing, and the hard copy must also be supplied. Since I am focusing largely on the impact of ICT on teaching and learning, and on collaborative and networked learning, it seems odd to revert to a medium best suited to a totally different approach.

  2. Hi Dave, we had a discussion on EdTechTalk about the Middlebury College/Wikipedia issue. I wanted you to know that I have thought about and I’m still thinking about many of the points you made there and here. In particular, I’m revisting my memories of being a History student as an undergraduate. I don’t have more to share at this point, but you got me thinking.

    Why paper? I’m not going to talk about why I love paper, or other people should, or some other Luddite rambling. In the study of history, there is no way and will be no way to avoid the ties to paper because no matter how many old texts Google scans and uploads to the Internet, the sheer volume of paper records from the start of writing on that medium until this point is huge. Historians looking back will be working with paper. An example of that would be this week’s revelation of missing letters from Otto Frank. Now, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to do their written work in other mediums. This post seems to be saying that the medium for your output (paper) shapes the message when you are creating. It may not shape it the same way, but I think the medium for your input — old paper records — can also shape how and what you see in the message. This will not be changing for historians at higher levels (where they use primary sources) anytime soon.

    Thanks for sharing, listening, etc.

  3. Karen,

    it does seem a little odd doesn’t it… being forced to work in a tired medium. And I know what you mean about writing for the web. I’ve had students come to me and critique my blogging style saying that this was not what I was teaching in class. To which, with a smile I always answer… you’re quite right. 🙂


    very interesting point about the medium argument working on both ends. One of the people that I’ve been talking to about this teaches comparative religion. We’ve been promising each other that we would get together on this question soon… I think that your point will probably be a central one.
    oh. And I’m a bibliophile. The book i’m… uh… most reading right now is a very nice 1916 copy of Gregory of Tour’s Historia Francorum (in English… sadly… my latin is next to non-existent). So I’m not ready to burn all the paper yet!

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