Shifting Realities

facebook                                           text message                                                shortwave radio

The shifting of the Caribbean tectonic plate that caused Haiti’s tragic double-earthquake provides an opportunity for insight into the shifting realities of communications technology, authority and power.

When major news corporations like CNN lost contact with Haiti and were unable to provide any information, images posted on Facebook by ordinary “nonprofessionals” were the first to be broadcast. The social networking platform has also been used  by Zynga games to raise $1.5 million for relief. Some of the earthquake victims have been able to contact rescuers via text messages and texting has also been used as a powerful fund raising instrument, raising $22 million.

These positive and potent applications of the latest digital technology are challenging old hierarchies, empowering new voices and inspiring fresh approaches. However, in our excitement over the potential of these new tools, we would be wise to remember their vulnerability and ongoing relevance and utility of elder technologies. It may be that our most intelligent and advanced approach to technology would be a thoughtful, selective hybrid of the new and the old.

While technologies like texting and Facebook rely on complicated and relatively vulnerable systems, a radio can be run by battery. Shortwave radio in particular has historically been effective for broadcasting in emergency situations, especially since its signal can reach any point on earth by using the ionosphere as a reflector. Because of this reliability and relative stability, shortwave radio is also a part of our technological response to the tragedy in Haiti. A group called Ears to Our World (ETOW) is providing shortwave radios for isolated Haitian survivors.

These are some of the shifting realities of human communication….and it all started with writing.

Wishes for 2010 in Writing

I’m hoping for the following on our campus this  year:

  •  Steady growth in what Stanford calls “a culture of writing.” I love this phrase from their Hume Writing Center. This would involve, at Richmond, faculty engagement in the forthcoming seminars to prepare us to teach in the First-Year Seminar program, more writing in disciplines where it is not traditionally assigned, and, perhaps, a different way of thinking beyond “writing to get it done” by students.
  • More work with technology in writing assignments. Eng. 103 faculty have done an admirable job, during their swansong years as the program winds down. But how many of my other colleagues have writers work online with blogs, wikis, or multimedia compositions?  These are the sorts of writing our students will do beyond the college gates, and I’m not seeing enough of this sort of work assigned.
  •  Fewer “busy work” assignments. Many of our students take writing less seriously than they might because we pack in so much reading, short assignments that never get assessed, and so forth. Part of this, I feel, stems from faculty belief that students won’t do any work unless we push them. My policy of late has been to assign less but assess more carefully. Grades still motivate students; a short “write to learn” in each class that may be occasionally graded will keep students reading more than regular and lengthy assignments. Then writers will have more time for formal writing.

Those are three wishes from the Writing Center Director! We’ll see what 2010 brings.