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”

wordle-richmond-promise.jpg

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

TagCrowd

Tagxedo

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.

 

Academic Blogging: Impressing a Professor in 350 Words

blogging.png

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:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/07/magazine/07awareness-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&ref=magazine&pagewanted=print

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 bit.ly and tinyurl.com. I used the latter to shorten that monster address above:

http://tinyurl.com/6e4fyez

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:

           <style>
@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; }
</style>
<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.

candy.jpg

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!

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.

Academic Demands & Student Stress

Bridge below Cornell

I’ve been thinking of Cornell University lately, the site of a first-year seminar program that heavily influenced my thinking about first-year education at Richmond.

Instead of having fond memories of my three visits to Ithaca, lately I’ve also been thinking about the three apparent suicides on the Cornell campus.

Bodies were discovered in the bottom of the gorges–huge canyons, really–that cross Cornell’s grounds. The image above shows the lowest of many foot bridges; on the bluffs above the bridges cross  gorges that are perilously deep.

There have already been six deaths on campus ruled as suicides, not including these three who presumably jumped into the gorges.

Later in life, it’s difficult to comprehend the stress that makes a young person do such a tragic and, finally, selfish thing.  Encountering suicide in person, however, is life-altering. In my second year as a UVA undergrad, I recall coming back to Monroe Hill’s dorms to find police on the scene. An electrical-engineering student had electrocuted himself by wiring his body to his room’s air-conditioner. For the first time in our self-centered lives, most of us came face to face with the reality of death.

Richmond does not have an engineering program, where students often take 6, even 7, classes per term. I roomed with an engineer in my third year, and the workload he faced was simply excessive.  The goal early in the program was to weed out many students, and luckily–I think now–I got weeded. But even at Richmond, faculty and students may not realize the demands we place upon each other. I grow concerned that we are only a year or two away from a tragedy on our campus as well.

Faculty at Richmond could do more by assigning less busy work, shorter readings, and shorter papers. At the same time, that reduction in workload needs to come with a clear message to students: “I will be asking more of you.” I’ve tried this in a limited way, and while I recapture some free time, and my students appear to be doing better projects at the end of the terms, they place enough emphasis on the grades they get to worry me.

Students need to understand–and this probably could be emphasized more effectively in orientation for first-years–that not everyone gets an A at Richmond, that a B or C will mean little, in isolation, to future employers, and that faculty are not understanding when a student places friends or social activities ahead of coursework.

This proposed attitude falls into a generation gap. Millennial-generation students have been studied extensively, and one apparent characteristic is their desire to do meaningful work on a schedule that pleases them. They crave constant assessment and demand both service from authorities and continual guidance. At Richmond, too often, they exhibit a strong sense of entitlement and treat the university like a product they have purchased. All of that grates on many faculty, especially those like me who believe that failure is a teacher and self-reliance the best guide in life. Yet “I’m confused; what do I need to do?” could be the mantra of Millennials, just as “Suck it up and do it yourself” was–well, is–the mantra of my fellow Gen-Xers. Circumstances from the early 70s onward taught many in my age cohort that life is, indeed, hard. We missed the late 1960s and its culture of bliss.

I’m not that callous, usually, but often I find myself telling a student who wants more from me “you cannot have that” or “that’s not A work.” Many, especially in the first year, have never been told this before.

Often, I worry about the consequences.  Yet the world is not made for us, whatever well intentioned but coddling parents claim when they, in effect, tell a child “you are wonderful, and always will be. You can be anything you wish.”  Xers had a different lesson; we older ones had distant and “tough love” parents. “You have no sense at all” and “life will teach you” were common messages among my friends’ and my parents. Younger Xers often had parents who had divorced; as children many led “latchkey” lives. That was rare among my friends, and all of us, after a time of rebellion, came back to love and honor our parents when they, in old age, most needed our help.

Yet Millennials now share something with Xers: graduating into a world with economic turmoil and no guarantee of lifetime employment, something only the oldest Boomers can recall.

If college should be a place to prepare students to think for themselves, to cope with adversity, and to broaden their intellectual horizons, are we Xer and Boomer faculty doing the best job? Or, perhaps, making the lessons too hard for young people who are not able to cope?

We all need to talk more about it, and change our expectations.