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.

Writing Consulting with Non-Traditional Students: Some Advice

nontrad.jpg

I want to thank Writing Consultant Megan Reilly for providing the advice that follows. Megan has assisted Dr. Leatherman’s HRM 398 course this fall in The School of Continuing Studies.

This type of work is more common now at Richmond, yet often our 18-22 year old undergraduates find the experience to be daunting. I know the feeling; when I was new to teaching, I found it difficult to assist writers who might have been my parents’ age. It was hard to “correct them.”

The theorists whose work we read in the Eng. 383 course leave it as an open question whether it’s fair, or ethical, to make assumptions about writers based upon their ages. The professional literature often portrays “non trad” students as more engaged in learning, better prepared for meetings, more likely to start work early. At the same time, the flip side of this stereotype notes they may have full-time jobs, families, and other civic and personal responsibilities that our (in comparison) carefree undergraduates do not.

 Let’s see what Megan has to say about these writers and how we can provide effective assistance to them.

I think that one of the biggest worries that Writing Center Consultants have about working with nontraditional students is the fact that there typically is a considerable age difference between consultants and SCS students.  I’m sure both parties do not want any type of “awkwardness” because of this age difference.  SCS students are at a very different place in their lives than undergraduate students, and that is something to take note of; however, you do not want this to be a barrier between a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ session.

One of the biggest differences that I’ve noticed between UR undergrads and SCS students is that because SCS students can have regular, full-time jobs and families, this makes it harder to meet in person.  I still encourage all of the students in Dr. D’s HRM class to meet with me at the Boatwright Library.  When they do, I try to be as prepared as possible and go over the exact same issues that I would bring up with undergrads: content, sentence structure, organization, transitions, APA (or MLA) format.  If Dr. D’s students cannot meet with me in person I have them e-mail me their papers.  I provide comments via the “Review” feature in Microsoft Word and also e-mail them my thoughts and tell them to e-mail me if they have any questions! It is not uncommon that I look over a couple different drafts and rewrites of the same paper for one student.

I have also consulted with SCS students that have had trouble writing in English–English was not their first language.  In many ways this can be a daunting task because you do not want to correct everything wrong in that student’s paper.  I suggest choosing a couple sentences that display sentence structural errors (because this could most definitely be the case) and write how such a sentence should be written.  Have the SCS student try to correct these errors themselves when going through their paper.

I, personally, do not find working with SCS students that much different than UR undergrads.  I think both dynamics require patience and maturity on the part of the Consultant.  I believe that it is very important to be prepared, have constructive criticism, and that sense of maturity.  You need to show SCS students that you are capable of helping them improve in their writing, even if you are an undergraduate.  When I went to introduce myself to Dr. D’s class one student asked my how long had I been working in the Writing Center.  The question threw me off-guard at first, but I came to realize that this was a valid question.  As the Writing Consultant for this HRM class it was my job to show that I had experience both in the Writing Center and within my own classes.

19th Century Clues Explored with 21st Century Writing Tools

Usher, Beeble & Swedenborg

Here, avatar Beeble Baxter muses upon the image of Immanuel Swedenborg in Richmond’s virtual House of Usher.

During our pedagogical collaborations in virtual reality, there have been surprising parallels with traditional composition, but finding these parallels is not difficult. More challenging is the invention of an engaging and useful composition in virtual reality for use in our courses to help us to create that balance of challenge and learning that Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, or ZPD.

Poe’s horror story “The Fall of the House of Usher” has always fascinated me in terms of its psychological prescience and its manifold intriguing but arcane details. Like many Poe characters, Roderick Usher is melancholic and has surrendered to “the grim phantasm, FEAR” that seems to  paralyze him. Sometimes a cursory reading of Poe moves us to dismiss his tales as merely formulaic, but his details are often doors to the dank dungeons of the human psyche. The narrator of this tale, responding to Roderick’s desperate letter, attempts to distract his friend’s obsessive and fevered mind as they “pored together over” the titles in Usher’s library. In so doing, the narrator gains some understanding of Usher’s disintegrating psyche, but we do not.

However, it only takes a look behind the mention of Immanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell (1758) to get a more detailed insight into Roderick’s madness. The full title of the text the narrator finds in Usher’s Library is Heaven and its Wonders and Hell from things Heard and Seen.  Swedenborg begins with an exegesis of Matthew 24:29–31 in which he makes the following claim after dismissing the literal reading of the passage:

 “However, people who believe such things are not aware of the hidden depths that
lie within the details of the Word. There is in fact spiritual meaning in these
details, for they intend not only the outward and earthly events that we find
on the literal level but spiritual and heavenly events as well.
This holds true not just for the meaning of phrases but even for each word.”

This passage almost seems to apply to Poe’s tale as well, and so in traditional text we have mirrors of meaning. Roderick’s belief in the consciousness or “sentience” (1st coined in this story) of his house and the influence of the masonry, most specifically the “collocation of the stones”or their particular arrangement, seems to suggest a tendency to find hidden meanings not unlike Swedenborg. The “House” of Usher certainly exhibits the layered meanings that Swedenborg sees in the Scriptures. In his mystified mental misery, it may be that Roderick overlooked or dismissed Swedenborg’s insight in entry 311 where he reminds us that “heaven and hell come from the human race” a concept that might have encouraged Usher to clean up his own haunted palace to end the personal hell he had endured for so long.

It is such detail that suggests virtual reality as a potentially powerful tool for motivating students to dig more deeply into the details of the text and reflect upon their narrative function. Why does Poe bother to list these specific titles? The image of Swedenborg on one of the walls of the Usher library can be “scripted” to provide clues for student research prompting them to ask: how can Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell can help us understand the intricacies of Roderick’s madness?

 And this is but one of the books named by the narrator of Poe’s story, each of which provides its own web of connections and opportunities for research. In “Fall of the House of Usher” the line of exploration can run from Poe to Swedenborg to William Blake whose astonishing hybrids of poetry and image composed via etching and engraving, continue to provide fertile intellectual and aesthetic delight even in the digital age.
The William Blake Archive is one of the first collaborative hypermedia texts to receive academic acclaim and its design provides unprecedented access to the vast collection of Blake’s genius scattered across the globe. Here students can follow the thread from Swedenborg to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell which includes images and text critical of Swedenborg’s views.

When the 19th Century meets the 21st Century in the dark digital hallways of our virtual House of Usher, the possibilities begin to unfold for the bold who playfully pioneer.

Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell

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.