Back to…Paper in the Classroom?

Pile of Papers

I have a penchant for mixing things up in class, if only to keep writers on their toes. For many semesters, I got away from any writing on paper in favor of blogs, digital stories, and wikis.  Now, in a literature course I last taught as paperless, some old friends (and nemeses) have returned: staples, margins, page numbers.

Why have I returned to the 20th Century?

When conducting a “paper chase” with 16 Writing Consultants and 18 literature students, I found that paper enables my Consultants to write the sort of commentary they will most likely write for our professors or in our Writing Center. In time, our faculty will embrace multimedia for many projects, but even then, Writing Consultants will need to understand the rhetoric of linear as well as associative, collaborative projects.

One could do what I’m doing with file exchanges, of course, and some faculty do just that. I’m no stranger to MS Word’s track changes and embedded comments, but even as I write this post, a student has contacted me with a question: the introduction I returned to her, with my comments linked to text, does not seem to be “working.”

I’m not fond of MS Word’s dependence upon co-writers having similar versions. I’ll probably have to switch to Google Docs to finish helping her. It’s simply a simpler, and more ubiquitous, technology. Yet even that lacks the ubiquity of paper.

Paper cannot show multimedia (yet). Paper cannot have live feedback forms or allow online tagging and collaboration (yet). Despite these limitations, I’m most curious to see how a paper-based class goes for me this term. Stay tuned.

Some tasks are, however, inefficient on paper. I’d include sign-up sheets for Writing Consultants, whether done collaboratively or with a single editor, as in this example from my current lit. class. Everyone with the link can view the document from wherever they may be. I now consider Google Docs to be “paper plus,” since they preserve what is best about linear discourse but add collaborative features that are clumsy in Microsoft Office, a technology designed for print.

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

Academic Blogging: Impressing a Professor in 350 Words


image source: Creative-Commons licensed image from xkcd

My colleagues are, increasingly, reading blogs and assigning them in classes. “Weblogs,” the full name for this medium, appear in every class I teach. I use them for weekly reading responses, warm-ups for formal writing, and even for graded multimedia projects impossible on paper.

A blog like this, rather than a closed discussion list at a course-management system like Blackboard, provides students with several real-life advantages. First, the secondary audience for a blog, one far greater than professor and classmates, enables writing for publication in the real-world Internet, rather than what we techies often call a “walled garden.” Second, blogs resemble the sorts of collaborative tools coming into use in the workplace. Finally, blogs are not bound by the conventions of print, and that enables them to do things impossible on paper.

How to Get Started

In planning the workshop on academic blogging, I decided to first write what journalists call a “nutgraf,” or a few sentences that sum up the focus and claims the writer will make. Here’s mine:

 Academic blogging opens a new and easily used venue for student and faculty writers. A blog provides a number of advantages when compared to traditional papers, such as the ability to embed photos and videos, the use of easy-to-manage feedback from other writers in a class, and an informal style that tends to help writers still learning to write for the academy. Blogs also pose certain problems, and in my blog post I will outline them as well.

Now that you have my nutgraf, how about  those problems? From my experience with many student bloggers, here are some issues that hurt their assessment when I ask them to blog.

Paper-based thinking: Blogs and other Web-based media do not need double-spacing and they do not tend to support paragraph indents. Instead, single-spacing, left-justification, and one blank line between paragraphs suffice.

Unclear focus: preparing a nutgraf avoids the sort of rambling monologue that can afflict a new blogger. Keep in mind, readers, that your readers choose to visit your site. Keep them informed and stay focused. For this reason, blogs rarely cover more than a single topic.

Broken links: Non-working links hurt all sorts of Web texts, but a blogger should take extra care; one’s reputation depends on providing accurate references to other materials. In print, an analogous mistake might be a severe error in a citation, such as providing the wrong title for a printed work.

To avoid such errors, be certain that every link works when you preview or publish the post. Note that links to on-campus resources requiring a university log-in will not work off campus. Check all links from a computer at home or find a public version of the material.

Clumsy links: Also beware of pulling in URLs (Web addresses) like this:

Instead of testing readers’ patience, if the post needs a URL rather than a link from text (as I have just done) consider a Web site that can make long URLs short. These “crunched” URLs persist, and I have had good luck with and I used the latter to shorten that monster address above:

In some classes, and for formal projects published online, you may not be permitted to do this. Check with your professor and a handbook for documentation. Both MLA and APA formats now give advice on how to shorten a URL for publication.

Microsoft Word & Blogging: Word is designed for printed documents, no matter what appears under its “save as” menu. Word works wonders on paper, partly because the software enables dozens or even hundreds of fonts, sizes, and margin-changes. But Word does this through hidden formatting codes.  We never see them when cutting and pasting to a blog, but in some blogging software, these typographic phantoms cause nightmares.

I just typed this line into Word: “Now is the time for all talented geeks to come to the aid of Cyberspace.”

Here is what I got when I copied the text from Word and pasted it to the editor of Google’s Blogspot:

@font-face {
font-family: “Cambria”;
}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }
<div class=”MsoNormal”>
Now is the time for all talented geeks to come to the aid of Cyberspace.</div>

Oh oh. Normally, this is not a problem, if a blogger does not put any bolds, underlines, or other formatting into Word. If those features appear, however, it may take hours to untangle the mess. I have encountered lines that do not want to single-space, strange changes of fonts, and more.


Random eye-candy: Why use a photo, video, or other illustration in a blog? They can emphasize an argument and save you words. In every case, they should be placed close to the material referenced.

When choosing images, search for those licensed for non-commercial reuse. You can do this with the advanced options for Google image search as well as Flickr. I’m sure that most other image-sharing sites have ways to find content with Creative-Commons licensing. The candy-apple image appeared licensed for reuse in a Google search.

Bad Tags: Tagging blogs permits readers to aggregate topics by clicking a tag. Huge sites need this. I’ve found that even my blog on virtual worlds and gaming, “In a Strange Land,” needs tags so I can, say, separate how-to advice for folks from general news about the industry.  At the same time, tagging can be tedious when misused. Why on earth, at this blog, would I need to tag this post or any other with “writing”? That is, after all, the focus on the entire blog and its sponsor.

My post has gone on far more than 350 words (it’s at 991 now!), but I think it presents the basics.

The hardest part remains the writing itself. No medium changes that.

Refer to links at this Writer’s Web page for more advice on academic blogging. Good luck with your posts!

On Egypt and other Toppling Towers

The Tower Tarot Card

 Fast on the heels of the Wikileaks scandal, Web 2.0 media have also been central to the massive protests by the Egyptian people against their President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian leader came to power after the 1981 assassination of Anwar al-Sadat a co-winner of the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize along with Israeli Menachem Begin for their collaboration on President Carter’s  Camp David Peace Accords.  In response to the assassination, President Mubarak enacted Egyptian Emergency Law No. 162 of 1958 through which he has justified and maintained his decades of power and position in the name of fighting terrorism and drug trafficking.  While it is not clear what touched off the protests at this particular time, it is clear that new social media tools on the Web have played a central part in challenging controlling regimes of all types, political, economic or academic that resist the obvious flow of history towards greater openness, connection and democratic participation.

In response to the democratic use of technology by protesters, Egypt attempted to shut off all web access in the country via a “Web blackout,” a feat possible only with the cooperation of private corporations.  True to the nature of the Web, protesters were able to do a work around by using their cell phones to access the web by the elder technology of a dial up connection. This is not only a prime example of the ultimate uncontrollability of the Web but also a reminder of the wisdom of keeping in touch with elder technologies  that may continue to be useful when newer, more complex systems fail or are shut down by those who wish to control the flow of information because they cannot stand up to public scrutiny. For Mubarak the excuse to stifle web access was to “combat terror” but we needn’t be too smug at this familiar ploy – such stifling happens in America as well. Recent US attempts to limit access are claimed to be instituted to “fight piracy” or to increase the corporate profits of companies like Verizon with a hierarchical plan to enclose parts of the Web from those unable or unwilling to pay higher service fees for the fast and capacious connection speeds that are currently our common level playing field.

One of the most insightful observations William Burroughs ever made certainly applies here:

“Control is controlled by the need to control.”


Maybe the OCD control freaks of the world should re-read the recent news from Egypt and reconsider their ill-advised and ultimately futile fight against the unstoppable evolution of freedom…

NPR “Anti-Government Protests Roil Egypt”

Aljazeera reports in “Talks fail to end Egypt protests”


a flickering flame?

kindle illuminated manuscript

My Kindle arrived the day after I called and I had to re-register it to my Amazon account and then re-load the texts I bought which I had assumed would have been pre-loaded  since I already made the registration switch to my account. One of the interesting features of the Kindle is a variety of images it displays when it is shut down. In my first entry we see the image of Ralph Ellison  and above an illustrated manuscript that I can’t quite identify except to find that Johannes Aquila was an Austrian painter in the 14th Century – not sure about his illuminations. I really like this image because it highlights the history of text and how much it has changed in 700 years – but the beautiful hand painted image is not so brilliant in black and white.

Once I got my Kindle charged up, I took it with me to our new Passport Cafe and began reading Poe’s “The Angel of the Odd” when I was interrupted by some kind of a download that was never identified. It didn’t take long but I didn’t appreciate it – especially without an explanation.  Downloads can be updated spontaneously, and  books can be added or deleted remotely which seems creepy but something we’re all getting used to with our computer updates. I can even see the notes other people have made on the texts I’m reading and I can offer mine to the public as well.

I plan to use it for teaching as much as reading and I can have multiple texts with highlighting (really just underlining) and annotation all bookmarked to the passages I have lined up for discussion. It’s nice to be able to enlarge the fonts for easier reading and having the ability to search any of the books is a great tool for study and teaching. A Kindle or any e-reader is much cheaper and smaller than an i-Pad and much easier to read outside. It doesn’t offer color, or movies or lots of other features available on other digital devices but it does hold a ton of searchable text that can be conveniently accessed and somewhat less conveniently annotated. The keyboard is small and, like the screen, is not backlit so it’s difficult to see and the keys are smaller around than new peas so my huge hands must be very agile to type in my notes or a search term.

I’m still grateful that my wife gave me this. Knowing that I’m a bibliophile she thought I might hate it, but at least it would be an informed hatred. The fire of my enthusiasm for this Kindle may have dwindled but there is still a flickering flame for future experiments and opportunities to use it in different situations. I like having my Kindle so far, but I’m sure not getting rid of my books!

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


Enkindling Experience

My Kindle

I got a Kindle for my 49th birthday and I can’t help but wonder what it will enkindle in me. When I checked the OED for “kindle” I found, as I expected, that the word means to set aflame or to arouse or inspire. The more surprising meaning was to bring forth or give birth. At the very least, the Kindle and other e-readers will bring about passionate discussions of text, meaning, materiality and technology.

Though I am a firm multisensory lover of printed materials that I relish marking up with abandon, I found myself immediately loading my Kindle up with the Complete Works of Shakespeare, the Complete Works of Dickens, the King James Bible, the short stories of Poe & Bierce as well as Brave New World, Brave New World Revisited, Chrome Yellow , Wieland and 1984 – a load of books that would fill two steamer trunks and weigh several hundred pounds.  This 7.5″ x 4.8″ e-reader is only 8.7 ounces and could fit in a generous jacket pocket – no steamer trunks or roller-luggage required. Lest the reader think this a shameless promo disguised as a blog posting, let me add another fact: it already broke.

I don’t know what happened, but when I went to dinner at my in-laws and went to show off the Kindle, it wouldn’t even power on though I had half a battery charge when we left the house. When I tried to charge it with the handy wall & computer compatible plug, the charge light wouldn’t even come on. So I’m returning it for a replacement.
When I called Amazon, initially they tried to re-boot my Kindle by remote but when that didn’t work the service agent told me I’d receive a replacement within a day. I was pleased with his service but the remote re-boot reminded me of the ironically Orwellian way Amazon remotely deleted 1984 and Animal Farm from customer Kindles without their permission.

Even with this initial glitch in my e-reader experience, I find myself looking forward to getting a functioning Kindle pre-loaded with the books I already downloaded and paid for. It’s not that I planned to sit down and read them all through, but I thought such a collection in an electronic format might be very useful to reference during teaching. Of course, I could access the same texts online as in the links above, but if I wanted to hold class outdoors or not be posted at the podium, the portable e-reader might be very handy.

Kindle is the trademark name for Amazon’s e-reader but there are several non-compatible competitors like Barnes & Nobel’s Nook, the Literati Digital Reader by Sharper Image or Sony’s Digital Reader. Naturally, due to the ‘wisdom’ of market competition, none of them are compatible. While the “electronic paper” and “digital ink” used in e-readers is the result of R&D attempts to give the most print-like reading experience, I found myself wanting a backlit screen when I began to read it in a dimly lit room.

When I get my new Kindle, I’ll post a follow up assessment of its usefulness for quick reference, powerful searching and annotation of my steamer trunkloads of texts.

Fighting “Link Rot” in Webtexts

It just happened this week. I got an e-mail from a student doing research on the Beat Generation. She’d discovered a site I did a decade ago (or more) using a campus MOO, a text-only virtual world.  My “build” in the world was a writer’s space that resembled my vision of a 50s coffee shop in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

“RichMOOnd” is long gone but the site about it remains on our server and I guess Google picked it up. The links to Beat-Generation sites have long vanished or moved.

It’s a common problem, but as I read in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a group of scholarly publishers called CrossRef have been working for a decade to solve this problem.  Their plan will provide a sort of digital ISBN for publications.

While I love the idea, it won’t help self-published work (such as this blog). What can writers outside the CrossRef imprimatur do?  I claimed in a publication a few years ago that the hyperlink is the first new form of punctuation to come along in a while. It contains the sense of multiple conjunctions, depending on context. For the link above, it’s an “and” but in some cases it can be “and/but” or “and/or,” depending upon the context and the writer’s intention.

I teach students who are Google-happy to find an academic source for information, preferably one that is archived.  Even when a casual source offers well written content, will it still be there in a year? Students often don’t care, since they they their work to be ephemeral, but if a class project endures, employers and prospective employers might want to see the brilliance on display.

Thus I point students to libraries, government sites, and university pages for “hard links” to at least keep the “rot” minimal.

St. John’s fights The “Great Books” on iPads

St. John’s is truly like no other institution of higher education. Have a look at the reading list that constitutes the curriculum.

It’s easy to poke fun at a way of learning that, aside from some Supreme-Court decisions in the fourth year, includes no works written by anyone still alive.  The emphasis on Great Books, it appears, does not include any consideration of networked technology and its impact on us.

To that end, apparently, St. John’s faculty voted to “discourage” iPads loaded with Descartes or Sophocles from coming into the classroom. You can read more about the decision and follow the commentary flame-war, at this story in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I’m a contrarian by nature,  so part of me, at a distance, loves the attitude of this liberal-arts school. I think of resistance every day,  whenever I see my students rushing between classes, gazes frozen. They work both hands frantically to text someone, as they notice nothing around them.

I wonder if just yanking the damned things from their hands and smashing them would help.

Well, it would help me to get arrested and fired.

Ostensibly, St. John’s revolt against what Neil Postman called a culture of “And Now This!”  was to insure that students had the same editions of all of the texts used in seminar. Faculty also do not want students distracted, something I’ve seen again and again in our writing lab or even with laptops in traditional classrooms. I ban laptops except for taking notes, and the students must send me copies.

Were I a faculty member there, as a contrarian I’d insist on only e-texts for my students. I’d make them do annotations and share ideas via a blog. I dislike the iPod’s lack of Flash, a technology I use to collaborate with a co-writer via Google Docs. But the platform is less important than how we use the knowledge it bears. I’d do my best to make the Great Books hip. The ideas in them are, after all, undying. If they are too frail to survive an ADD time, we are truly in trouble as a civilization.

And I do think we are in trouble, from the rise of anti-scientific thinking, to the loss of nuance and decorum in spoken language, to the waning interest in the unmediated experience of reading for its own sake.  Then there are climate change and resource depletion, the monsters in the room we choose not to acknowledge.

Recommendation to St. John’s: stay the course, but add Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death to your fourth year. He raises an enduring question as networked technologies literally change the structure of children’s minds.  As I noted in my comment at the Chronicle, St. John’s reminds me of heirloom varieties in a monoculture of GM crops.

We may need to same that DNA again one day, when the lights flicker and our wonderful inventions do not return all of the promises we have come to demand.