And The Students Stop Blogging?

At the very time that I feel most comfortable teaching with blogs, I read that blogging is on the decline among the very demographic I teach.

I like Twitter and other sites for short notices, but few ideas can be expressed in 140 characters. Perhaps “the unexamined life is not worth living” by Socrates would fit in a Tweet. The Apology would not.

As usual, I’ll blame what I call a life of constant interruption. My Neo-Luddite side, and it is a prominent side, finds some cold comfort in the warnings of writers and thinkers such as Nicholas Carr, Mark Edmundson, and Sven Birkerts. Even tech-savvy Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, warns of the shallowness of our “social” networking habits.

I look out for such writing, so I quickly ran across Gregory Palmerino’s article, “Teaching Bartleby to Write,” in the January 2011 issue of College English. Palmerino writes of his “students who would prefer not to remember to hand in writing because of their complex and distractable lives.”  Such students rarely linger in my classes after the add/drop period; the writing is plain on the syllabus about the consequences of Bartleby’s passive-aggressive preference of preferring not to do.

While I do find a kindred spirit in Palmerino, I part ways with his resistance to new technologies in the writing classroom. Blogging provides one excellent example of a type of writing that demands focus. Distraction here, in a post, can be as fatal as it would be in a short story or analytical essay.  So far, however, none of my students Tweet or use Facebook status-updates for any sort of serious discourse.  I doubt they ever will.

In print and online, we who cherish nuance and complexity in language need do something. Rejecting the new is not the answer.  So for now, my students, at least, will keep posting to blogs and replying to each other.

Wonderful Wordle

Wordle is one of several tag cloud  sites that can be fun to play with and may have useful potentials for writing and reading.  A tag cloud or word cloud image functions like a visual concordance that reveals word frequency through font size. Most of these sites have various tools for adjusting the image, font, orientation and number of words processed so that a variety of “readings” are possible. Here’s a word cloud made from our WAC Program page that portrays writing as the foundation of a program involving curriculum, consultants and faculty. Other permutations of this image left the word “writing” looming ominously above the other words, perhaps suggesting a potentially crushing descent.

Wordle WAC

And here’s a word cloud I made with Maria Rajtik’s newsletter submission “Feedback: A Grade is more than a letter”

 Rajtik essay

Word clouds can also enhance literary discussion. One word cloud I made for Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” surprised me by demonstrating that the name of John was the most prominent word in the story even though the tale is about a woman being subjected to the “rest cure” of the celebrity Dr. Weir Mitchell.

Yellow Wallpaper

Others have been Presidential Inauguration speech word clouds to provide interesting insights into their rhetorical patterns and even the economic prognostications of Fed Chair Ben Bernanke have been fed into word cloud generators to see what comes out. This new digital tool could be usefully applied to famous speeches, editorial essays, mission statements and even personal writing. To create effective word clouds Smashing design magazine suggests a few “good practices” .

Here is a word cloud of the first 100 words of “The Richmond Promise”


A Word cloud of Sarah Palin’s Tea Party speech is revealing…

Palin Tea Party

What texts come to your mind for word cloud analysis?

Check out these other word cloud sites and start your own experiments:

Free online word cloud generator



Many Eyes

Emerson’s Pedagogy – radically relevant

            rows of desks     rows of desks   rows of desks

As some American scholars continue to drag their feet, preferring to hunker in their bunker of familiar disciplinary and practical entrenchments, the exciting rush of the Digital Revolution reminds us that the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson continues to shine through the smoke of battle with practical pedagogical insights that demonstrate an increasing relevance in the digital age. Though bold thinkers and creative educators like Sir Ken Robinson are beginning to re-assess traditional pedagogical perspectives & practices, the rusty residues of the Industrial Revolution continue to stain and restrain the eager minds of our students who often arrive full of enthusiastic hopes for a humane educational experience only to be disappointed by increasingly mechanistic and inflexible institutions that are unconsciously shaped by a kind of educational Taylorism.

factory school

 In his “American Scholar” address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Cambridge in 1837, Emerson writes “Perhaps the time is already come…when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.” Here Emerson seems to be suggesting that America has much more to offer than physical manufacturing and industrial development. But in the digital age, a re-ordering of his last four words here might suggest a more relevant contemporary hope for something greater than mechanical production. Emerson had not seen Ford’s mass production assembly line, but his emphasis in this essay and in “Self-Reliance” indicate his awareness of the dangers of homogenizing conformity and robotic (re)production when it comes to learning.

In his address, Emerson mentions “laborious reading” and seems to anticipate the objections of traditionalist complaints about the risks of reduced rigor whenever anyone strays from strict disciplinary boundaries and practices. Radically, Emerson argues that a college education should involve something more important and inspiring than mere content delivery, mechanical productions or laborious achievements:

“Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office,–to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”

Yet if we polled students across the country, I would bet that the group of students with a glowing passion for learning would be relatively small. Perhaps we could call this the “enthusiasm gap” – that gulf between the lofty educational hopes of our students and their dull and sometimes humiliating encounters with the dry, distant, “rigor” of an outmoded or unplanned pedagogy that often crushes those hopes. Sometimes the authoritative deployment of the word “rigor” can be an excuse for petty meanness or simply a distraction from a more serious intellectual and creative rigor mortis that can develop in a protected and powerful elite. This is a “rigor” that will never enkindle the flames of enthusiastic learning or evoke a desire for education.

The etymology of “educate” includes the idea of drawing forth or drawing out of a student his particular genius, it is not simply the disciplinary stamping and rigid reproduction of pre-approved perspectives and forms of expression.  It’s not hard for students to recognize the disconnect between institutional lip-service to values like “free expression” and “passion for learning” and the stifling realities of their everyday experience.

Many students desperately want to learn, but they rightfully resist a high-pressure non-stop assembly line approach to teaching that cranks out slick but somewhat identical mechanical productions devoid of genuine student input and engagement. Some of these students accept their disillusionment and re-group to successfully “play the game,” but other students drop out – or worse.

It seems that good old Emerson was way ahead of the curve when it comes to pedagogical insight and in our digital age, his ideas are more relevant than ever.


wiki wabbit

logobugs bunnyfoia redacted

If you ever watched Bugs Bunny…

You might read the title of this posting with an echo of Elmer Fudd expressing his chagrin at one of our beloved tricksters. The relevance of this, if not immediately apparent, will be suggested in a bit.

 Wiki what?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning fast, the emphatic form of which is “wikiwiki.” This phrase was first used to apply to a user-edited website called WikiWikiWeb composed by Ward Cunningham in 1995 – this was the first wiki. With 9,889,432 views per hour in English alone, most folks know about Wikipedia, but fewer understand what a wiki is or how to use one. Unlike traditional semi-static/gatekeeper websites that require complex software to create and are often controlled by a single person, a wiki can be built online, often for free, and designed so a limited or unlimited number of people can edit it easily.

I have been using Wikispaces for my writing workshops as well as for process drafting of research essays in my first-year writing courses. All changes are recorded in the “history” tab, so there is a complete record of who wrote what and when and this makes for a more thorough collection of drafts and revisions. Often the pages will have a “discussion” tab that is useful for writing workshop feedback, posting questions to readers etc. But wikis can be used for more than writing courses, they can be convenient and flexible group collaboration tools for any project, academic or otherwise. Browse the sites for Wetpaint or PB Works and note the varying complexity and features offered, or check WikiMatrix to find a handy tool for comparing a number of wikis of your own choosing.

Oh, and about those leaks….

In terms of “wiki-ness,” the Wikileaks website is not really a wiki since it is not editable by its users but its revelations certainly introduce an element of speed into the slower pace of partial diplomatic disclosure. Aside from speed, another aspect of wiki-ness manifest by Wikileaks is that of transparency and accountability – or at least the transparency and accountability of the powerful, since Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is less than transparent himself.

On a wiki, every user and every change are recorded, there is no way to hide and all information is immediately available to users. By contrast, FOIA information is laborious to obtain and is often heavily redacted, which is partly why these leaks evoke mixed feelings for me. Why do we subscribe to transparency so selectively? Isn’t one of our chief criticisms of North Korea its absolute lack of transparency? No doubt these leaks will increase tension, make negotiation more difficult and possibly risk some lives but it might also be argued that, in a WMD world, everyone’s life is at risk every day when governments are not transparent.

However, there is a surprising amount of government and institutional cooperation worldwide and a massive assault by individual hackers to shut down or shut out Wikileaks, a fact suggesting that the threat we feel from transparency trumps the value we claim to put on it. Or perhaps it is a measure of our faith in the goodness of what our leaders and institutions do in secret, but this doesn’t seem in keeping with our recent waves of anti-government sentiment, so the motivation of leak opponents is unclear to me. And now, these anti-leak actions have led to “Operation Payback” a barrage of counter-hacking by supporters of Wikileaks in what may be our first public cyberwar.

One thing is for sure: without that cloak of secrecy, with the knowledge that we were watching, powerful persons and groups at all levels would act quite differently, perhaps with more humility, responsibility and vision. As the ambiguous Wikileaks logo suggests, time is running out for our planet and it may just take some kind of digital trickster to stir things up. Ultimately such transparency may be what assures our survival.

thats all folks


Language, Perception & Diversity


In Genesis 11, the building of the Tower of Babel is represented as the result of human organization facilitated by a single language.  The tower itself is an ideal representation of written language: made of many small parts carefully assembled into a structure that encourages further construction and reveals complexity through an increasingly elevated perspective developed over time. In the Biblical story, Jehovah’s fear is that humanity will be able to achieve whatever it imagines and this prompts him to prevent this by creating a confusion of many languages:
Genesis 11:5- 9  “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

And we might think Jehovah was right. After all, look at what we’ve achieved without a single unifying language: from cuneiform to the Cassini-Huygens Mission, humanity has advanced through a shrinking galaxy of about 7000 languages. But it is a single, shared language that is represented in this story as the key to high human achievement and some believe this today.

I used to believe in the deliberate promotion of English as “the” global language until a student essay took issue with my assertion and made a good argument against it. In a nutshell, my student noted that diversity of language is important for maintaining the broadest possible understanding of our world. He argued that if we had a single global language like the 1500-word “Globish” being promoted today, even if other languages were permitted, the dominant language would naturally drown out and eventually replace them. Diversity of linguistic expression may be as important for human knowledge as biological diversity is for promoting maximum health in an ecosystem.

In The Wall Street Journal “Lost in Translation” by Lera Boroditsky reviews the question of linguistic diversity along with recent cognitive research that indicates a profound connection between language and perception. That our language shapes the way we understand the world seems obvious, but this tenet has been resisted and rejected over the years mostly, Boroditsky claims, due to the influence of Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory which dismisses differences in languages as insignificant. Boroditsky’s article is full of interesting tidbits about linguistic differences such as various conceptions of “space, time and causality” that demonstrate how profoundly language can shape perception. To explore these differences can only expand our understanding, and so it behooves us to resist any homogenizing force that would eliminate or obscure them.

One linguist who challenges Chomsky’s theory is Dan Everett whose work with the Brazilian Piraha is outlined in “The Interpreter” by John Colapinto in The New Yorker. Unlike our number-obsessed culture with its innumerable systems of measurement, the Piraha only have three quantity words: one, two and many. It only takes a moment to imagine the vast cultural differences we would experience with such a counting system.

With a simple and loose “one, two, many” system of counting, we may have never been able to achieve the $35 laptop recently unveiled by the Indian government, but that may actually be a good thing. Such a heresy might need some extensive defense, so before I’m tied to the stake the short version of my concern is this: the $35 laptop could easily be the same kind of homogenizing force that a single global language would, even if it is used with a variety of languages. As much as I love my Mac and spend hours online, using a computer is just one of many ways of knowing and it has its limits.

The problems of homogenized thinking and experience are just one of several relevant ideas that Aldous Huxley explores in Brave New World where people are cloned, conditioned to hate reading, repeat simplistic slogans and fear nature and natural experience – sound familiar? We can get a glimpse of his insight into the question in chapter 8 in a scene where John Savage is being taught by old Mitsima, an elder on the reservation: ” ‘First of all,’ said Mitsima, taking a lump of wetted clay between his hands, ‘we make a little moon’…Slowly and unskillfully he imitated the old man’s delicate gestures…to fashion to give form, to feel his fingers gaining in skill and power – this gave him an extraordinary pleasure…they worked all day, and the day was filled with an intense, absorbing happiness.”

Language Erosion & Our Reference Books


image credit: Colin Galbraith

I recall when my father, a man of limited means, brought a copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary into our house. The old man knew I had academic promise and such a book, I’m sure he was told, would help me get ahead. I recall the reference book that survived to accompany me to college, sitting on top of the ancient, rumbling GE refrigerator.  My paws were only to be on it when I was doing school work. Hardbound books were expensive.

Of course, I stretched out the time I spent doing homework to leaf through the dictionary’s bible-paper pages, learning new words and the black-and-white drawings of everything from magnetos to Piltdown Man. That habit remains with me, as does the wonderful dictionary.   When I write, I often think “my God. I’m made of words. They are my surest companions.” If the office caught fire, I’d grab three things, in this order: the photo of my wife, the laptop, and the old dictionary. As I age, I find myself clinging to linguistic habits that, at times and to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, seem to be shards shored up against the ruin of our shallow times when language gets twisted to venal ends and louts shout into radio microphones.

The old book taught me a new lesson last week, while I was trying to find a precise  definition for the loan-word “métier.” My enormous copy of the American Heritage Dictionary lacked the term.  I turned to dad’s old standby and there it was, with enough context for me to employ the word properly.

Sven Birkerts, in his magisterial and sad work The Gutenberg Elegies, noted one of the effects of networked communications on our habits of language, self, and history. In all cases Birkerts sees a flattening of perspectives, a loss of nuance, and an erosion of propriety. I find that a bit prudish–I am a blogger, a smartass, and user of virtual worlds–but I will agree that nuance helps us to shape utterance to meaning. Without a good vocabulary, we exist in a semantic cage.

When I finished my M.A., my parents made the long drive to Bloomington, Indiana to attend the commencement. They asked what I wanted as a present, and I didn’t hesitate: another hardbound dictionary. We got an updated version of the New Collegiate at the IU Bookstore, and it too lives with me. When one of my great-nephews or nieces goes to college, if he or she is like me and as likely to consult paper as well as pixels, I’ll send that newer edition along.

That’s a ways off, so the older copy will have a vacation at a bindery soon, to get the spine repaired and perhaps a new library binding. It should then last the rest of my days on this planet, a constant touchstone for my life, if only to see what time does to our language.

Alphabetic Literacy & Thought: Tactile Insights

Braille smallest

A recent interview of reporter Rachel Aviv during the radio program “On The Media” makes some interesting connections to the thinking of Walter Ong and reveals some insights from the blind regarding the significant impact of alphabetic literacy on human thinking. Digital audio technologies continue to develop for the assistance of the blind so Braille seems no longer necessary, but this may be an illusion. Because it is based on the alphabet, Braille seems to have the a greater capacity for promoting intellectual complexity than simply listening to speech.

The oft-quoted observation of Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message” is usually applied to electronic technologies, but it is the medium of the almighty alphabet that has had the greatest impact on our consciousness – both positive and negative.

Ong reminds us in Orality and Literacy that “more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” and he notes how it freed the human mind from the mnemonic exercises of oral tradition and allowed humans to develop more complex and abstract thought via the alphabet. The alphabet, along with a few phonetic symbols, is capable of representing any speech sound a human might make, but its use for organizing and improving our thinking through writing is its greatest power. By externalizing our thoughts in writing we can more easily revise them and develop their sophistication and complexity. This leads, as we are experiencing, to ever more complex thoughts and technologies.

In her NYT Magazine article “Listening to Braille” Rachel Aviv cites recent studies that seem to verify the complexity-building impact of alphabetic literacy. In a study of two groups of blind children where one group learned Braille for reading and the other used digital audio, the audio only “readers” were less organized in their thinking and their thoughts were less complex.  Unlike strictly oral communication and aural reception of information, alphabetic literacy allows us to easily draft, develop and edit our thoughts in ever more sophisticated ways. Through Braille, alphabetic literacy can stimulate the visual cortex of the blind as Aviv notes regarding a series of studies done in the 1990’s demonstrating that “the visual cortices of the blind are not rendered useless, as previously assumed. When test subjects swept their fingers over a line of Braille, they showed intense activation in the parts of the brain that typically process visual input.”

As the digital age continues to transform human communication, in spite of our many new options, we are beginning to see the essential nature of a strong alphabetic literacy for maximum intellectual development. And, to further maximize our intellectual potential we must also know the limits of this most powerful tool. In Understanding Media McLuhan discusses some of the overlooked limitations that alphabetic literacy brings with it and notes the homogenizing influence of “typographic principles of uniformity, continuity and lineality.” (27) We need to cultivate our alphabetic capabilities without being blinded and trapped by them for, as McLuhan notes, there is “nothing lineal and sequential” in any moment of human consciousness – the lineal and sequential are the impositions (or the scars) of the almighty alphabet. As Emerson reminds us in his “American Scholar” graduation address, “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments.”

Language on the Skids: Planet Biscotti Goddess


Admittedly, unlike the cartoon (taken from UPenn’s Language Log blog) this post is tepid stuff. I find myself, by inclination a descriptivist about propriety in language, vexed by the overuse of “goddess” and “planet” and even “club.”

Each of these words has been debased and lost some of its grandeur by their use in marketing.

This screed of mine began as I looked across the desk, delaying grading student work, when my eyes lighted on the box of biscotti I’d picked up at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, my favorite place to shop. The brand, Biscotti Goddess, appears at the local coffee shop and I’m fond of them.

I’m not fond of the name. Deities, even heathen ones, or especially those, merit some respect.  I’d say “Biscotti Diva” except I’d be falling into the same trap.

My concern with using such signifiers this way comes from the ability to suck the life from what they signify.  If you look up “weasel word” in Wikipedia, you’ll see that the term comes from how an actual weasel empties an egg that still appears intact.

And thus with language. Almost time for Planet Lunch!

e.g. i.e. etc. What to do?

Defending the Empire

A reader who uses our Writer’s Web online handbook contacted me concerning my use of “ex.” before an example of correct usage:

 I was of the belief that the correct way to abbreviate "example" was, in fact, e.g., (preceded and followed by a comma), then the example itself.

I realize that the English language is ever-evolving and Latin is considered by many a dead language, but there are a number of other credible sources that still show exempli gratia in its abbreviated form as being the correct expression to use when providing an example.

Thank you for an otherwise valuable resource for the finer points of written English.

Dear Reader:

Language is indeed changing; what is “correct” today will be forgotten tomorrow. No cohort of academics can stem the tide.  Language policies are, at best, like Hadrian’s Wall: it cut off intruders who managed to slip over, so their small bands could be easily wiped out.  On the safe side of the Wall lay the Roman civitates, unarmed and peacefully doing the business of Empire.

Yet no Wall–Hadrian’s included–could withstand a mass onslaught. That is, indeed, what new media, and before it, television and radio have done to formal English.

To your questions: for the sake of modernity, I’m going to retain “ex.” in my examples. For the sake of clarity, however, I won’t abbreviate it. All “ex.” instances will become “example” since the abbreviation might be misconstrued as “former.”

Let us be Stoic about this, as Marcus Aurelius did in the face of change. As he so wisely put it, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

With this in mind, I teach writers to appeal to their readers. While a few well educated readers like yourself will be offended by my modern usage, in a few years no student I teach–at a selective liberal-arts university–will ever use “i.e.” or “e.g.” or “op cit.” or “idib.” except when writing a paper using the Chicago Manual of Style. Even that will be fleeting as fame and earthly treasures were in Aurelius’ estimation. I do not believe that the “paper” as we know it will even exist in a generation. Multimedia projects will replace it.

Ars Rhetorica will survive this change, as it did when Socrates lamented that his follower Phaedrus would recall nothing important during the arrival of that pesky new technology called writing. Had Socrates’ idea prevailed, would the Romans have plundered–I mean, appropriated–what they did from Athens’ rich heritage?

Take heart! Even as our old Roman stalwarts vanish into the linguistic sunset, the dogged centurion “Etc.” will, however, limp along, often misspelled “Ect.” Its original will remain as meaningful to modern readers (we bloggers do still read) as, exempli gratia, a Roman gladius would against a British Centurion tank.

Once I saw the need to hold some sort of line against language change. No longer, except when students veer into contemporary slang (much of it on the way to becoming formal English). Seeing the following changes in formal academic prose, for instance, I no longer penalize students for contractions or the use of “center around.” These both pained me at various times in my academic career. Now I’ve just moved along since, as Aurelius reminds us, “Every man’s life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain.”