Why Some Academics Hate Twitter, Part II

Location: Ensconced Before My Walls of Books

image above is not my office!

In “Into the Electronic Millennium,” a chapter in the very readable and depressing The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts laments that our culture of connectedness and instant access destroys something that he–like many Humanities faculty I know on campus–cherish: the contemplative life as reflected in the slow, thoughtful, and reflective reading of challenging books:

Curricula will be streamlined and simplified, and difficult texts will be pruned and glossed. Fewer and fewer people will be able to contend with the masterworks of literature or ideas. Joyce, Woolf, James, and the rest will go unread, and the civilizing energies of their prose will circulate aimlessly between closed covers.

Enter Twitter, with its 140 character tweets, and you have exhibit A for the decline of civilized life as we know it (or maybe we have exhibit R–the lamentations have been going on for a while).

I set out here not to skewer Birkerts or my cyberphobic colleagues. Instead, while reaching to an audience that accepts Web 2.0 tools like Twitter, I want to point out the nature of the cultural decay Birkerts catalogs:

  • Language Erosion: Nuance gets lost as we shorten our prose, substitute little words for big ones, and lose touch with the origins of words and our cultural history.
  • The Flattening of Historical Perspectives: Neil Postman’s belief that we live in a “and now, this!” culture of consumption and gratification.
  • The Waning of the Private Self: Expectations of 24/7 access, quick replies, and easy answers at our fingertips lead us suspect the introspective person, the loner, the dawdler.

And, Professor Birkerts, I agree with you, even as I post a tweet and log on to Second Life.

I too fear a future like that of M.T. Anderson’s Feed, a dark satire of a consumerist culture out of control where vagaries such as “thing” and “stuff” are about the most complex terms in the language, where the Internet is in our heads and not outside them, and where no one remembers much of anything from before the globe became a deadzone of toxic waste-sites.

My students read less and less for pleasure. Most take the easiest path in their studies and even crossing campus. They even fight the difficulties of learning the non-intuitive interface of SL. In fact, many of them seem to want a eternal early-June day of temperatures in the mid-80s, low humidity, and someone else to cut the grass they sit on with their friends. In time they may, in another reference in your book, become “efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference.” That is Anderson’s vision of a time just before the Great Collapse of American life.

Twitter alone won’t make that future arrive, especially if we academics appropriate (ah, Marx, thanks for that verb) it for noble ends.

So how do we “Fight the Feed” while using it to keep our cherished ways of learning alive?

Good news, Humanists: you still have a mission.

Next Up: Part III–My Sermon To Humanists

Why Some Academics Hate Twittter, Part 1

Location: Puritan Cleaners

Please explain to me why my dry-cleaners has has Twitter Feed and a Facebook page. Now, I can see how a program like “Coats for Kids” could benefit from the added cheer-leading that a few well-chosen tweets provide.

On the other hand, as a reluctant and recent Twitterer, I feared that Puritan is drifting from the stolidity of their New-England namesakes and was falling prey to the Gartner Group’s hype cycle for new technologies. Second Life users know this well. We SLers are climbing out of stage 3, the “Trough of Disillusionment” and staggering up stage 4, “The Slope of Enlightenment.”

Three years ago, Puritan would have a created a storefront in SL. They are clearly riding high on stage 1, “The Peak of Inflated Expectations.”

Yes, and SL was to make all of us zillionaires selling…um, something…in 2006, just as protologyinthehome.com would in 1999.

Such hyperbole is antithetical to the academic mind, with its rather staid manner of vetting every source, considering every point, and taking one’s time to say a whole lot, lest one be labeled a dilettante.

We profs don’t look kindly on dabblers. And Twitter is a technology of dabbling, of telling one’s circle what one had for lunch or other minutiae. Consider my last two tweets:

  • “Checking Twitter feed for my dry-cleaners. Cat has a hairball.”
  • “Began reading Coming of Age in Second Life. Outstanding! Had broasted weasels for lunch. Tasty but needed more sauce.”

Okay, I cannot stand it when someone tells me on Twitter what they had for lunch. So my lunch tweets will get more surreal, as my 140 characters permit.

Now if they found a great tapas place in Madrid, I’d be all ears (or stomach).

Next up: About those 140 characters, Sven Birkerts, and Tweeting barbarians eroding our language and, hence, our Gutenberg World.

I’ll tweet
when it’s done.

Saving Isis: Critical Thinking with Rezzable’s Open Sim Tut

The South Wall
Location: Rezzable’s Valley of the Kings in Open Sim

On my first tour of Rezzable’s Heritage Key site dedicated to King Tut, and when the entire project was quite new, I was taken by the South Wall of the young king’s tomb.

It was an immersive moment; I felt that I was as close to the actual site in Egypt as I’d ever get.

Anubis and Hathor greet Tut as he enters the other world, but Howard Carter had to destroy a figure of the goddess Isis (to the left of Anubis, in the image above) as he and this team made their way into the tomb. This struck me as a tragedy that might have been avoided.

With modern technology, we might have been able to plunder (there’s no kind word for it) the tomb without destroying Isis’ image. So I’ve decided to let my writing students have a crack at this. They’ll work in teams to solve the problem, if they can. And to make their writing “count for something” beyond a grade, I’ll have readers I invite vote for the strongest solution to this archeological dilemma.

Read the assignment here. Projects are due Oct. 29 and I’ll provide updates and may open up judging the projects to readers here. Meanwhile, my Heritage Key avatar will be bumbling around virtual Egypt, trying to look like the poor man’s Indiana Jones…

Room of Swag

The Silence of the Floppy Disks

Location: Rummaging Through Desk Drawer

The annual office-cleaning before the semester turns up some interesting artifacts. This year, it was a 3.5″ floppy disk of an external reviewer’s 1998 report on our writing program.

I mused on this homely item and the fate of our media-storage technologies.

The report is on one of four or five disks I have left, after a massive dumpster-dump of the rest (I broke cartridges, one by one, to make data-retreival harder). They now reside in a strata above the cassette tapes, and those lie above the Eight-Tracks in our landfill, one day to be an archeological dig when Richmond lies in quaint ruins.

The report in question had become important again. We are in the midst of curricular change again, so instead of slapping more prims (and removing some redundant ones) in our Second Life simulation of Poe’s House of Usher, I decided to make sure I had a backup copy of the report.

I have it on paper, but puh-leeze.

For a technology only a few years out of date, the floppy sounded positively Victorian once I hooked up the small USB drive I keep around just for such antiquities (I’ve a USB Zip Drive here too–for 100MB or 250MB cartridges).

I soon found that I did not have an electronic copy of the report on my laptop or backup hard disk. The floppy, creaks, clunks, and groans, saved the day.

Now to make MORE backups. I wonder, as I go back to adding features to the House of Usher, how transferable the skills from SL will prove, when I move on to other virtual worlds. Let’s hope those skills have more longevity than, say, an Eight Track of Barry Manilow.

Students Online: Their Engaged is Not our Engaged

SLER6_1_09_008

Location: Montclair State University Virtual Campus

Photo Courtesy of Olivia Hotshot

We faculty who teach with technology claim we can multitask. Yet there is a bigger question: can anyone really do that? And what does “engaged in learning” mean to the Millennials we now teach?

I went to the June 2 Second Life Education Roundtable with those questions in my head, after hearing our topic from organizer AJ Brooks. AJ pulled off a coup by bringing Harry Pence, (SL: John2 Kepler) to a voice-chat meeting where Harry discussed his ideas and took questions from the audience.

Points worth noting:

  • Harry defines engagement as involving “being focused on the matter at hand”
  • We tended, as a group, to dismiss the idea that our minds can really multitask. Harry noted reading in Howard Rheingold’s blog about two types of attention, “multitasking” and “continuous partial attention” (Visit Rheingold’s entry on attention, as well as higher-level links to his Video Blog and his Web site).
  • Harry has never had a college student say “that’s too much” when he presents using voice and screen, but older audiences often get lost.
  • His college students agree with him when he says that their younger siblings are truly fluent with networked technologies and will replace them in the workforce.
  • AJ Brooks made a salient point I have often found true with my students: they are adept at using but not understanding the technologies. Iggy’s examples from his students: how few reallly can solve problems that require alpahnumeric fixes (such as tweaking source-code) or making proper back-ups or hardware hacks that come naturally to old geezers like me who can work on their own cars and build stuff with tools.
  • KZero’s diagram of Virtual Worlds by age of users, Q4 2008: http://www.kzero.co.uk/blog/?page_id=2563 shows SL with a smaller, and older, demographic than many of the virtual worlds younger Millennials are using now. The open question remains whether or not they’ll take to SL or something like it, with user-generated content, when they get older.
  • We noted how many of the worlds younger users encounter do not permit creation of new content. CathyWyo1 Haystack then asked, “do we want a generation of kids who are passively engaged or actively involved in the creation of their space?”
  • We all grew concerned about a generation “taught to the tests” and not encouraged to do as much collaborative learning. Harry noted a class in high school he encountered, where “Principal put them at the end of the hall b/c they were making too much noise and having fun” and making noise.

I’m fond of Rheingold’s maxim that “Mindfulness and norms, my students helped me see, are essential tools for those who would master the arts of attention.”

Can one be mindful of two things at once? Yes. Do them equally well? That I don’t know, but that too is where the norms for my class come in. In fall, if a student is online during class and it’s not course related, the norms are this: first time = warning, second time = “skipped class” in gradebook.

You can read the entire transcript of Harry’s talk here.

Correspondence The Old-Timey Way

Time to write
Location: Writing Desk

A funny characteristic of the Millennial students who attend Richmond is their preference for old-school communication, at least after graduation. I guess I’d expected them to invite me to some social networking site (a few have) but I get more letters than anything else.

A printed card or letter comes as a shock to faculty who still remember when this medium was the default choice for communicating between two people at great distances. For a student writer, the letter or card shows real seriousness, and a faculty member is more likely to remember the writer. This is no small thing when a graduate comes asking for a reference or letter of recommendation (usually done online, these days).

Today, as a break from grading final projects, I’m answering printed mail. That used to be a large part of the day for many people who kept up correspondence with others.

Since my stamps are SO old, I’m running out to get some one-cent ones to avoid the recipient finding a “postage due” announcement (if the post office still does that).

At times I miss letters. My handwriting is actually decent when I slow down and use my favorite pens. In the crush of answering e-mail, replying to blog-posts, and preparing for class, I do wonder what we’ve given up in the service of greater productivity.

But usually I’m too busy to think about that. If you’d like to send me a letter, just drop me an e-mail first. I’ll clear the desk and pen a reply.

Goals for a Writing Class?

Our Task Force on the First-Year Experience has begun meeting. We are a ways from sharing anything with the public, but that will come. Right now we are “blue sky” thinking. I’ve no idea what would come to replace Eng. 103 or Core (if that happens) or who would teach any new courses.

I’m also reflecting upon what I learned during my and Lee’s Stanford Trip. Stanford requires 6 quarters of courses that include writing, and two of them are in a writing program. PWR 1 and 2.  To encourage you to use this blog, I’m also attaching Julia Bleakney’s PWR 1 syllabus that she kindly provided us.  It’s a PDF file attached to this post. Syllabus from Julia Bleakney's Class

Here are some of their goals for the one-quarter (10 week) class:

  • make writing assignments in which students carry out increasingly sophisticated forms of rhetorical and contextual analysis, taking into account differences in audience, purpose, and genre.
  • engage students in conducting research drawing on the University's rich resources and in identifying, evaluating, and using a range of primary and secondary sources in support of their own research-based arguments.
  • offer students an opportunity to write for a range of audiences and in several genres.
  • offer students opportunities for substantive revision of their own work focusing on content, organization, and style as well as for frequent peer review of the work of their colleagues.
  • provide ample opportunity for individual conferences on writing and for reflection on writing and writing development.

Given that Richmond’s focus is on analytical, persuasive writing in academic contexts (rather than exploration of the self or engagement in contemporary issues), what should we do in something like Eng. 103?  Here are our current goals from the common syllabus for Eng. 103:

Goals for Students:

  • Understand principles common to analytical writing, with and without sources, at the university level, especially focusing writing on a purpose and supporting assertions with evidence
  • Discern the differences between personal writing and writing for academic and other audiences, and show awareness of and aptitude with voice and style appropriate for these audiences
  • Demonstrate a command of language, at the paragraph and sentence level, appropriate to survival in UR classrooms after Eng. 103
  • Develop good research skills that include the ability to evaluate the reliability and quality of source material, printed and electronic, especially the importance to all academic disciplines of refereed/peer reviewed journals.

Further Worthwhile and Optional Goals:

  • Understand the relationship of the visual to the textual; learn to “read” images
  • Prepare multi-genre projects that embrace academic thinking and prose, sources, personal writing, photography, and multimedia
  • Integrate technology in a rich and meaningful way into the research and writing process
  • Encourage students to write for a “real world” audience beyond the classroom, if possible for campus or local publication.

The Skin They're In: Writing About Second Life and Race, 2008

Location: Student WikiIn 2006, when I began reading about Second Life, a random Google search turned up "The Skin You're In," the tale of Erika Thereian's time as a black woman instead of a blond.  She received lots of harsh treatment, including racial slurs, and was even snubbed by friends.To see if things have changed in nearly three years, my writing students recently spent a week as another race or gender (in some cases, both).  Here are a few standout posts, with links to the students' project pages in the class wiki.  One tentative claim stands out from several students' projects: newness to SL and the degree of customization, more than any racial or ethnic characteristic, get an avatar accepted or snubbed.For Rae Belgar, switching race to a tall, dark-skinned woman led to little attention of any sort, Once she clad the same avatar in a sari, however, compliments and attention came her way. Rae feels that her newness of and lack of customization, rather than any racial trait, led others to ignore or notice her. Other students' experience supported Rae's hypothesis.When Deklin Windlow became a black man, he did not receive negative attention, though in many cases he got no attention at all in places where his white male avatar had been noticed.  At the Public Orientation Island a group of older avatars, including some hero in a Batman costume, simply walked away when Deklin asked for assistance.What VinceGold Rexen found as a black man resembled Deklin's experience, yet VinceGold finally was able to crack the wall of silence at both the Ahern Welcome Area and a store that sells avatar shapes and skins.  A group of experienced residents provided this advice, after learning about the race-switch project:"They told me many stories of how at first they were ignored by other residents or had even outright insulting things said to them, but that I should not take these isolated incidents to be representative of everyone in SL. They actually encouraged me to meet as many other avatars as I could and to not be judgmental of anyone I meet."I caution writers from jumping to conclusions, preferring that they crawl to them after many observations.  We need to continue this experiment, especially since Kiaarra Karillion, whose avatar is normally a black female, found that "with my African-American avatar, I rarely was offered packages (or much advice) from people on Second Life.  During my completion of this project, I was offered packages [of freebies] from every direction!"So while no one had racial slurs hurled at their avatars, Kiaarra and more than a few of her classmates felt like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.Several students noted the dearth of ethnic skins, especially for men.  I'm pleased that Linden Lab included a black man as their default "Professional Male" avatar.  Perhaps Barack Obama's charisma may change real-world standards of what's considered attractive. My students will be back in SL in coming semesters, to see if Obama's victory changes hearts and minds online.

“Rhetoric” becomes “rhetoric” in politics

This is a completely bipartisan lament.  When did the word “rhetoric” become synonymous with “empty speech”?

Demosthenes PracticingPerhaps it’s as old a smear as the attacks by Athenian philosophers on the Rhetoricians of their day.  I’d contend that Rhetoric (with an R) is a noble art, but the term can hardly be used anymore.

By the way,  both President-Elect Obama and Senator McCain made very powerful speeches on election night. McCain was noble and magnanimous, and he used a rhetoric of inclusion that nicely matched Obama’s approach a little while later.

Core Writing Workshop Report

I was pleased to join several Core 101-102 faculty members for a recent workshop.  We shared excellent WAC-style pedagogy and I can take no credit for this; the Core faculty developed and led this event.

The most important lesson for this observer is that faculty are concerned about commentary.  I’ve long known that faculty work hard when designing assignments, but I’ve had an impression–probably mistaken–that most faculty are writing the sort of vague and counterproductive commentary I once saw as a Writing Center tutor.

Ray Hilliard moderated our meeting; Ray returned to his former position of coordinator while David Leary is on leave. Ray has always had a strong investment in improving students’ academic-writing skills, and we covered a lot of ground with our colleagues.  We discussed the follow topics, and participants used actual student papers to consider appropriate pedagogy:

  • Eric Yellin (History) had a very useful yardstick for measuring student understanding of an assignment.  He said that one mark of  a strong writer would be someone who was “thinking beyond the question” and doing original work as compared to a writer who might be “struggling with what the question was.”
  • Ray finds himself spending less time writing commentary now that he employs MS Word’s embedded commentary feature.  Several participants either use that tool or plan to do so.
  • We all noted that in our sample papers, the instructors began with positive reinforcement for something a writer had done well, then maintained a friendly tone all along. This is a pedagogical approach all Writing Fellows learn in Eng. 383.
  • We all agreed to “put grammar in its place” as an important, but not primary, concern when writing commentary. In Core, crafting one’s focus, analysis, and support are first-order concerns.  Grammar must be addressed, but faculty, again in the same way Fellows learn, agreed that finding patterns of error rather than isolated incidents would best serve writers.
  • Several faculty did lament that students were not being careful enough with word-choice. This lack of care and nuance can lead to prose that does the job but not in an eloquent manner.