Why Some Academics Hate Twitter: Part III (The Sermon)


Location: Reading Student Journals (on paper!)

My dear fellow Humanists:

We are doomed in Birkerts’ “Electronic Millennium” unless we adapt to its forms of communication, yet carry with us the Humanities’ irascible and unhip hermeneutics for providing social commentary and critique. Notably, we somehow have to manage this for skim-the-surface students who live in an eternal now of consumerist bliss (or unfulfilled desire).

I nail these 9.5 theses to the digital doors at Wittenberg. Since this is a blog, I won’t make it 95, but that rascal Luther had the luxury of a bookish century to support his spleen.

  1. Get over your fetish for “The Book.” Reading and its habits, not bound volumes, transform our minds. As new forms of communication enhance the reading experience, we should move beyond our walls of books to consider how embedded film, audio, image, and experiential elements enhance new texts. Then we must develop critical methods to teach them. Civilization will not fall if we stop reading Henry James, sad as that would be. It did not end when most educated folk stopped reading Aquinas. If, however, we stop reading thoughtfully, we’re in real trouble.
  2. Embrace Web. 2.0 in a thoughtful manner. These tools can further the critical method of the technologically adept humanist. I’ve learned that Twitter provides a painless way to post a link, report progress on a project, and share ideas quickly with those who share my interests. Blogs provide my students with the opportunity to practice in public what they do only for me in their paper journals, as they move from private to public (and ever more formal) discourse at their course wiki-sites.
  3. Refuse the “eternal now” culture and its interruptive technologies. I don’t carry a cell phone. I check mail three times daily so I can focus on the tasks for which I’m paid and evaluated: supporting students, doing research, and teaching well. To what extent do you practice such habits and provide an example to students? They learn, for instance, that I routinely delete e-mails without a subject line ūüôā
  4. Seduce others into seeing The Matrix for what it is. We have many tech users but few who consider their practices critically. Ask students in appropriate assignments to log their uses of a particular networked technology. It reveals much about them. I’ve had fewer writers fret about “those addicted to gaming” when they take a long, hard look at how much time they dedicate to Facebook.
  5. Practice teche and episteme. Kudos to Tom Boellstorff in Coming of Age in Second Life for reminding me what these words mean, as he notes that academics live in their heads too often and don’t create enough. For me, Techne means making in Second Life and outside it, by writing for a general readership in our local alternative weekly and other non-academic venues.
  6. Employ “Ordnung” without driving a buggy. Futurist Howard Rheingold found, when doing research for “Look Who’s Talking,” that the Amish have a sophisticated system for deciding which new inventions get sanctioned or prohibited by their bishops. Generally the community use a new tool for a time, and at each step the members ask whether the tool builds community or pulls it apart.
  7. Dare to reinvent past treasures. Rezzable’s Virtual Tut, my own House of Usher Simulation, and Jane Austen’s (and Seth Grahame-Smith’s) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies point the way to a New Humanities that will move beyond rigor for its own sake to bring playfulness and the ancient sense of “ludus”–school and play–into our classrooms.
  8. Question to paddlers of tomorrow. Textbook publishers, software companies, and some of our colleagues who are early adopters become overly eager and evangelize us about each wondrous new application that awaits. Like some evangelists, some of these paddlers want our money. Others mean well. I listen and apply theses 1-7 in these cases.
  9. Watch South Park or write for the Alphaville Herald. We need to take ourselves less seriously and find social commentary in the lowest of places. Humor is the best medicine to prevent sanctimoniousness.

Thesis 9.5? Add your own in the comments section! “Hush up Iggy” does not count.

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.

New technologies teach us about their elders

Alphabet - Godfrey Sykes

In the link above we see an image of an alphabet design by Godfrey Sykes. The depiction of workers crafting each letter carefully highlights the craftsmanship possible in font design as well as the constructed nature of these abstract symbols designed as tools to represent sounds and guide their articulation in speech. In their arbitrary Latinate shapes there is no other significance, a trait that limits what they can represent and express. Recent developments in digital technology remind us of this semantic limitation.

One of the most recent evolutions of Web 2.o is the development of “micro-blogging” sites, the most well-known of which is Twitter, where users can send a regular stream of brief personal updates in text and other media. Unlike a¬†regular blog, micro-blogging messages, sometimes called “tweets” are often limited to 140 characters potentially posing a compositional challenge for more complex expressions. In a recent NPR story “Twitter Seen As Tool For Social Change in China” Li Zhuohuan, CEO of a Chinese micro-blogging company called Jawai, is counting on the Chinese enthusiasm for text-messaging to translate into a passion for micro-blogging.

¬†Though the Latin alphabet is that subtle and ancient elder from which many technologies evolved, this collection of arbitrary symbols of articulation is limited in its potential meaning by the abstract nature of the marks, known as phonemes, symbols representing speech sound. Chinese characters for example are not abstract phonemes but logograms, visual representations of whole words, concrete objects or concepts. Because of this, Zhuohuan notes that “posts to Jiwai are limited to 140 characters. But Li points out that 140 Chinese characters contain double or even triple the expressive power of the same thing in English”.¬†

We might regret micro-blogging’s reminder of the semantic deficits of the Latin alphabet, but we can rejoice in the simple design and convenience of its twenty-six characters in gratitude that we don’t have to navigate the thousands of characters used by the Chinese. And we thought the QWERTY keyboard was hard!

Chinese characters hanzi

“hanzi” the ideogram for “Chinese character”
in traditional and simplified Chinese

Taylorized by Tyrannical Time

Time Flies

How are we ‘written upon’ by our technologies and how can we avoid becoming Taylorized cogs in the rushing machine that is our culture?

You may not have time to read this, but if you seize it, you may find yourself in a new relationship with this valuable tool – a relationship that can decrease stress and increase creativity and even “productivity.” Now that we’re several centuries past the era when we began measuring ourselves and our accomplishments¬† according to mechanized time, it may seem too late or perhaps even quaint to reconsider our relationship to this man-made technology, but such reflection may be just what we need to step off the Jetson’s treadmill and into a more humane and appropriately paced future.

“Help! Jane! Stop this crazy thing!!” – who is in control here?

 Jetson's Treadmill

In his 1936 essay “The Olive Tree” Aldous Huxley notes that time as we experience it is a “byproduct of industrialism” and he asserts that “time is our tyrant.”¬† We might well consider how much we are tyrannized today with our¬† gaggle of gadgets that help us to schedule and connect with one another with increasing precision, packing ever more activity into the same solar cycle. While we generally grasp the positive utility of our time management tools, we rarely if ever consider how an increasing attention to time can become an obsession that undercuts our performance and our enjoyment of daily experience through embodied stress and blockage of creative thinking.

When it comes to education, sufficient time is essential. Unlike job training centers that claim to be “educators” and who proudly proclaim they can bring a student from “zero to Bachelor’s in 2.5 years,” a genuine liberal arts education requires a bit more time and a whole lot more thought and effort. Even if or when it becomes possible to buy a university education that can be simply “downloaded” into a student, the time compression would equal an elimination of a variety of valuable experiences and the resulting intellect would necessarily be shallower.

Sufficient time for reading, conversation and sustained reflection are as necessary to an effective education as they are to good writing. Our thoughts and writing do not fully mature when we do not allow them enough time to grow. Here is where we can use the tool of time to our greatest benefit. Instead of jamming our schedules with activity, we can discipline ourselves to reserve plenty of “growth time” that allows sufficient leisure for ideas and creative expression to flourish.

When rush important experiences and we allow ourselves to be herded into a chronological panic, we overlook things like the strings that are attached, or we forget the subtle, steady and ancient clock of the Sun that reminds us of a more universal perspective and puts our lives and “accomplishments” in a more realistic context. May we learn from Macbeth’s unsatisfied ambition and not be that “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” but rather let us stretch out our hours together on this Earth to maximize the joy and brilliance of human intellectual exploration and creativity while we have the chance….mind your business, be here now.

¬†For further inspiration to step off the Taylorized treadmill, check out Carl Honore’s 2004 book In Praise of Slowness.

Time Coin

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

blather and beyond

Whether we’re talking about the intimate triviality of personal “twitters,” the foamy rants of a racist blog, or insightful analysis by an average citizen, we are hearing more and more about social networking tools and the ways they are deployed – whether we use them or not. Far from being effaced by web-based networking, face-to-face often conversation seems to be inspired by these new tools as we explore them. Yes, we are spending more time communicating online, but we are also seem to be discussing these tools in more regular face-to-face conversations: why we avoid them or how we use them,¬† and what we learn from them in terms of information as well as technical skill.

Though the blowhards and the blather often fill the sensational spotlight, a close reader can find many thoughtful and worthwhile blogs, videos and other work but the going is thick and critical judgment must be sharp. In spite of the blowhard blather, there can be no doubt about the importance of these new media of writing. Politically, the “blogosphere” is a significant source of public discourse, opinion and information sharing – sometimes with serious consequences. A recent example of this occurred with a Richmond graduate named Adnan Hajizada who has been beaten and jailed for making a humorous political commentary video. His incarceration demonstrates the threat these new tools represent to repressive power – especially when deployed with humor, the terror of tyrants.

Donkey news conference

Type Adnan’s name into the Technorati Search for blogs and it comes up with 18 hits in at least a dozen languages. These blogs and the other new social networking tools we are using will play a central role in his release, and will begin to redefine power relationships around the world as users continue to connect, share, coordinate, plan and act with far greater rapidity and accuracy than ever before.

It might even be argued that to have a significant voice in this rapidly expanding, more democratic realm of exchange, a growing mastery of traditional alphabetic literacy will remain a necessity but it will need to be enhanced with courage, an openness to media experimentation, fresh thinking and close attention to what is unfolding around and within us. They won’t take us to utopia, but the nexus of these networks can be a powerful tool to bring us to a more humane and sustainable future.

The social networking tools of Web 2.0 are bedeviled with blather and other nonsense,  but not all blather is predictable.

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.

techno-mania

A recent NYT article “Texting May Be Taking A Toll” is relevant for any teacher today, but it is particularly relevant for teachers of writing who wish their students demonstrated the same mania for their textual assignments as they have for texting. With 2,272 text messages per month, it works out to about 6.3 text message per hour in a 12-hour day. That’s no small amount of writing – even in text-speak.

But for all its popularity, text-speak is not sufficient to develop articulated ideas or express complex emotions, so our avid communicators need to channel some of this enthusiasm into more focused practice at expressing their ideas more fully, coherently and powerfully.  Rather than simply reject or resist the trend in texting, let us harness it for more productive purposes.

And for when the cell phone is a constant class interruption there is the  cell phone jammer !

Recontextualize & Redefine

As digital and wireless technologies proliferate, writing teachers can understandably feel overwhelmed by the steep learning curves they pose as well as the sometimes negative impact they seem to have on our students. We worry about their distraction and decreasing attention span, and rightfully so, but these are not the only, nor are they the inevitable effects of using these new tools. If we dive in and experiment with pedagogical applications, modeling an eager curiosity and ongoing critical discussion about language and other technologies, we can maximize their value in teaching and move students towards a more thoughtful and engaged use of communication in all forms.

 Do your students sometimes arrive to class like this?

metropolis drones Whether distracted by digital devices, discouraged by poor teaching, few job prospects or simply misled by a culture that often undermines significant promotion of reading and writing, our students can arrive in our class alienated from language, incurious and expecting little to engage them. It is clear that reading of traditional typographic texts significantly enhances our ability for sustained, focused attention but it is equally clear that, in spite of the dominant authority of (not so) New Criticism , the “lineal uniformity and fragmented repeatability” of typographic text is not the only representation of consciousness.

As Marshall McLuhan notes in Understanding Media: the extensions of man, though we favor the linear and are comforted by sequence,¬†¬†¬† “there is nothing lineal or sequential about the total field of awareness that exists at any moment of consciousness" and he reminds us (from a pre-Web perspective) of the tremendous increase in the flood of information due to advances in electronic communication. What was a flood in the 1960’s is now a digital multimedia typhoon for which a traditional, step-by-step, linear approach to reading is no longer sufficient. The linearity of alphabetic literacy will always be a necessary foundation, but it cannot be our our only tool. When we are trapped between the lines, we can be blinded to the richness of human consciousness.

Instead, we can re-contextualize language for our students with some brief reflection on the history of our species and the huge impact that language, writing and subsequent technologies have had on human evolution. With a fresh perspective we might have a chance at reviving some genuine interest and increased appreciation for the practical value and relevance of writing courses. More than this, by acknowledging the technological nature of writing, we can more naturally move to discuss new tools of reading and writing in their most recent forms.

To do this, we also need to redefine “reading” and “writing” in a way that is not only relevant to our students but that also stimulates them intellectually and encourages prolonged, focused attention.¬† Reflecting upon Jacques Derrida‘s controversial and multivalent claim “there is nothing outside the text”, we might expand our definition of what constitutes a text and what reading means in order to promote close attention to detail and curiosity about signification in a variety of contexts – a critical consciousness. Students often show increased engagement when they realize that “text” does not only refer to alphabetic communications but also to movies, TV, music, faces, crowds, weather, architecture and a galaxy of other organic, material and cultural forms. These redefinitions are not meant to dismiss or substitute these forms for the alphabetic text, but to demonstrate the necessity of close and prolonged attention to detail and the value of curiosity about meaning. Careful analysis of media images can inspire a closer, more nuanced reading of a complex text as well as equip students with a critical attention that does not switch off when the book is closed.

As with alphabetic or typographic texts, the introduction to a movie is as carefully constructed as are the first few paragraphs of an excellent essay. The first 10-15 minutes of a celebrated film offers a bounty of visual cues and details (text included) as well as sonic content and compositional moves that students can be taught to read and consider. Fricke’s Baraka is excellent for this purpose and a comparison of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with Lucas’ THX-1138 including intro credits and audio yields a rich field of clues in a variety of forms. There are also excellent clips available on YouTube, a site that is not only handy for quick reference, but that also presents us with a completely new and evolving mode of communication in conversations that are a hybrid of text, audio and image.

Just as in the paper text world, there is plenty of useless crap and incivility on YouTube, but there are also fascinating and thoughtful conversations about crucial issues that elicit various responses in text and video offering us another complex text for analysis. One favorite is a masterful re-mix of Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis¬† composed by contemporary British artist Wax Tailor.¬† In its brief two-minute span the video “Que Sera” provides a good opportunity for close reading and listening that engages students and gets them thinking about reading and writing in new, more complex ways that can awaken a curiosity that leads to a useful and satisfying attitude of lifelong learning – the ultimate career preparation.