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.

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.

Language, Perception & Diversity

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In Genesis 11, the building of the Tower of Babel is represented as the result of human organization facilitated by a single language.  The tower itself is an ideal representation of written language: made of many small parts carefully assembled into a structure that encourages further construction and reveals complexity through an increasingly elevated perspective developed over time. In the Biblical story, Jehovah’s fear is that humanity will be able to achieve whatever it imagines and this prompts him to prevent this by creating a confusion of many languages:
Genesis 11:5- 9  “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

And we might think Jehovah was right. After all, look at what we’ve achieved without a single unifying language: from cuneiform to the Cassini-Huygens Mission, humanity has advanced through a shrinking galaxy of about 7000 languages. But it is a single, shared language that is represented in this story as the key to high human achievement and some believe this today.

I used to believe in the deliberate promotion of English as “the” global language until a student essay took issue with my assertion and made a good argument against it. In a nutshell, my student noted that diversity of language is important for maintaining the broadest possible understanding of our world. He argued that if we had a single global language like the 1500-word “Globish” being promoted today, even if other languages were permitted, the dominant language would naturally drown out and eventually replace them. Diversity of linguistic expression may be as important for human knowledge as biological diversity is for promoting maximum health in an ecosystem.

In The Wall Street Journal “Lost in Translation” by Lera Boroditsky reviews the question of linguistic diversity along with recent cognitive research that indicates a profound connection between language and perception. That our language shapes the way we understand the world seems obvious, but this tenet has been resisted and rejected over the years mostly, Boroditsky claims, due to the influence of Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory which dismisses differences in languages as insignificant. Boroditsky’s article is full of interesting tidbits about linguistic differences such as various conceptions of “space, time and causality” that demonstrate how profoundly language can shape perception. To explore these differences can only expand our understanding, and so it behooves us to resist any homogenizing force that would eliminate or obscure them.

One linguist who challenges Chomsky’s theory is Dan Everett whose work with the Brazilian Piraha is outlined in “The Interpreter” by John Colapinto in The New Yorker. Unlike our number-obsessed culture with its innumerable systems of measurement, the Piraha only have three quantity words: one, two and many. It only takes a moment to imagine the vast cultural differences we would experience with such a counting system.

With a simple and loose “one, two, many” system of counting, we may have never been able to achieve the $35 laptop recently unveiled by the Indian government, but that may actually be a good thing. Such a heresy might need some extensive defense, so before I’m tied to the stake the short version of my concern is this: the $35 laptop could easily be the same kind of homogenizing force that a single global language would, even if it is used with a variety of languages. As much as I love my Mac and spend hours online, using a computer is just one of many ways of knowing and it has its limits.

The problems of homogenized thinking and experience are just one of several relevant ideas that Aldous Huxley explores in Brave New World where people are cloned, conditioned to hate reading, repeat simplistic slogans and fear nature and natural experience – sound familiar? We can get a glimpse of his insight into the question in chapter 8 in a scene where John Savage is being taught by old Mitsima, an elder on the reservation: ” ‘First of all,’ said Mitsima, taking a lump of wetted clay between his hands, ‘we make a little moon’…Slowly and unskillfully he imitated the old man’s delicate gestures…to fashion to give form, to feel his fingers gaining in skill and power – this gave him an extraordinary pleasure…they worked all day, and the day was filled with an intense, absorbing happiness.”

E-mail From a Deceased Attorney

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image credit: Sabrina of Introverted Wife

Usually, I simply delete “scam” e-mails without a second thought. This one, however, got me reading. I wonder if Mr. DeSilva’s legal fee would be “your brain!”

Ah, what magic a simple apostrophe + s can work on a piece of writing.  It can even bring back the dead.

Attn: Dear

My name is Barrister Martinez De Silva , My aim of writing to you is to seek your consent and present your humble self as trustee of my deceased client estate and the bank had issued me several notifications on my capacity as the deceased Attorney to provide a legal representative thereof.

Moreover, the fact that there is no surviving relative or trustee to inherit the estate of my deceased client  which may spur the bank to classify the estate as unserviceable and legally uncollectible after statutory time limit imposed by the law.

If you are interested in my project please contact me immediately so that I can provide you with more details and procedures.

Regards

Barrister Martinez De Silva.

Postscript: The comments are flooding in to this site. All of them are spam linked to products (often pornographic or financial). The best so far, however, is quite innocent in its surrealism:

“I found your article, Richmond Writing » Blog Archive » blather and beyond, is one of the most interesting articles about face cream.”

Keep that spam coming! We get great laughs from you spammers!

Language Erosion & Our Reference Books

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image credit: Colin Galbraith

I recall when my father, a man of limited means, brought a copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary into our house. The old man knew I had academic promise and such a book, I’m sure he was told, would help me get ahead. I recall the reference book that survived to accompany me to college, sitting on top of the ancient, rumbling GE refrigerator.  My paws were only to be on it when I was doing school work. Hardbound books were expensive.

Of course, I stretched out the time I spent doing homework to leaf through the dictionary’s bible-paper pages, learning new words and the black-and-white drawings of everything from magnetos to Piltdown Man. That habit remains with me, as does the wonderful dictionary.   When I write, I often think “my God. I’m made of words. They are my surest companions.” If the office caught fire, I’d grab three things, in this order: the photo of my wife, the laptop, and the old dictionary. As I age, I find myself clinging to linguistic habits that, at times and to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, seem to be shards shored up against the ruin of our shallow times when language gets twisted to venal ends and louts shout into radio microphones.

The old book taught me a new lesson last week, while I was trying to find a precise  definition for the loan-word “métier.” My enormous copy of the American Heritage Dictionary lacked the term.  I turned to dad’s old standby and there it was, with enough context for me to employ the word properly.

Sven Birkerts, in his magisterial and sad work The Gutenberg Elegies, noted one of the effects of networked communications on our habits of language, self, and history. In all cases Birkerts sees a flattening of perspectives, a loss of nuance, and an erosion of propriety. I find that a bit prudish–I am a blogger, a smartass, and user of virtual worlds–but I will agree that nuance helps us to shape utterance to meaning. Without a good vocabulary, we exist in a semantic cage.

When I finished my M.A., my parents made the long drive to Bloomington, Indiana to attend the commencement. They asked what I wanted as a present, and I didn’t hesitate: another hardbound dictionary. We got an updated version of the New Collegiate at the IU Bookstore, and it too lives with me. When one of my great-nephews or nieces goes to college, if he or she is like me and as likely to consult paper as well as pixels, I’ll send that newer edition along.

That’s a ways off, so the older copy will have a vacation at a bindery soon, to get the spine repaired and perhaps a new library binding. It should then last the rest of my days on this planet, a constant touchstone for my life, if only to see what time does to our language.

This is Your Brain, Hooked on Gadgets

Location: Doing ONE Thing at a Time
image courtesy of UCLA Magazine

I was pleased to see “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price” in The New York Times, and it’s a decent follow up to my recent post about why I resist getting an iPad right away.

My own students love to multitask, and, frankly, often their work lacks depth because it has been done haphazardly and with partial attention. Too many students get Cs or lower because of this. Even though I encourage multimodal work that includes more than text, the core of the idea under discussion must be sound, and the execution must be excellent to earn an A.

A few of us in academe, notably Michael Joyce in his book Othermindedness and elsewhere, have celebrated the ways in which we think laterally and associatively, under the influence of networked technology. Joyce once praised “successive attendings” as more important to our future than a sustained attention span.

I won’t deny that appeal and the power of lateral and associative thinking, because brains like Thomas Jefferson’s thrived on it. But sadly, for most of us multitasking seems an either/or proposition. Michael Joyce has always impressed me with his expansive mind, like his fellow poet Walt Whitman’s, able to contain multitudes.

Most of my students, as well as this writer, can contain only a few things at a time. The result of trying to overload the brain often comes with a price, and for students, it’s likely the one paid by Connor, the son of one of the people interviewed for the Times story:

Connor's troubles started late last year. He could not focus on homework. No wonder, perhaps. On his bedroom desk sit two monitors, one with his music collection, one with Facebook and Reddit, a social site with news links that he and his father love. His iPhone availed him to relentless texting with his girlfriend.

Connor began getting Cs in school, largely, his parents claim, because of his multitasking. And that is what happens too often to my students. Parents can–and too often do not–encourage better habits by example and, old schooler that I am, punishment. But Connor’s parents are both heavy multitaskers, so dad interrupts vacation time to check mail and make calls. That’s a different world from that of my med-school-bound friend John, when he was in high school. After one B on the report card, John got pulled from our gaming group until he again got straight As.

John got the scholarship to UVA. I limped in and out of Virginia with a C+ GPA. I will admit that I had a lot more fun.

Some diversions were different then: paper-and-dice games, dorm bull sessions, movies in an auditorium and not on a computer. Others, notably women and beer, remain the same. But the effects of dividing my personal time were pernicious. Luckily, I had no cell phone or laptop when I burrowed into the depths of the Alderman Library to read and prepare drafts in writing.

Now, every square centimeter of our campus library has wireless access, and the students don’t look up as they cross our beautiful grounds. Their thumbs are busy, texting. With that goes a chance at introspection. As this shift has happened, I’ve grown less afraid that my students won’t know the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree than I am that no one but me and a few other old folks will notice the cherry trees blooming in front of Ryland Hall. This is the emblematic price we pay for multitasking. Cherry trees are the unnoticed wallpaper for student walks, not a vital part of their college experiences to remind them that beauty and youth fade quickly.

One of Sven Birkerts’ great fears in The Gutenberg Elegies, the waning of the private self, is coming to pass. There’s no quiet time alone for those I teach. You can get a 2010 sense of his thinking in “Reading in the Digital Age,” from The American Scholar. The waning process is well underway. How do we fight it?

I’ve learned, the hard way, to tell those who IM me at Gmail, despite the busy status, that “I’m busy.” In Second Life I’m relentless about not answering IMs when building. I check mail three times daily at work, and that’s it. I do not answer the phone, ever.

I’ve recaptured acres of time, as a result. But I have a strong will, strong to the point that I’ll hurt others’ feelings if they interrupt my work. My students, for whatever reasons related to peer pressure and a lack of counterexamples, live in a hive.

As a beekeeper, that’s a metaphor I normally enjoy. But humans are not honeybees.

As a student put in in the UCLA story where I found the image for this post:

“If I’m reading for one of my classes, and doing other things as well, then I am not paying my full attention to the reading, and therefore learning less.”

Other than “focus on one, maybe two, tasks until you are done,” I see no other way around this dilemma. The task is hard, but the reward, as Birkerts notes, is no less than living what Socrates would have called an examined life:

Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one's essential position.

Alphabetic Literacy & Thought: Tactile Insights

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A recent interview of reporter Rachel Aviv during the radio program “On The Media” makes some interesting connections to the thinking of Walter Ong and reveals some insights from the blind regarding the significant impact of alphabetic literacy on human thinking. Digital audio technologies continue to develop for the assistance of the blind so Braille seems no longer necessary, but this may be an illusion. Because it is based on the alphabet, Braille seems to have the a greater capacity for promoting intellectual complexity than simply listening to speech.

The oft-quoted observation of Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message” is usually applied to electronic technologies, but it is the medium of the almighty alphabet that has had the greatest impact on our consciousness – both positive and negative.

Ong reminds us in Orality and Literacy that “more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” and he notes how it freed the human mind from the mnemonic exercises of oral tradition and allowed humans to develop more complex and abstract thought via the alphabet. The alphabet, along with a few phonetic symbols, is capable of representing any speech sound a human might make, but its use for organizing and improving our thinking through writing is its greatest power. By externalizing our thoughts in writing we can more easily revise them and develop their sophistication and complexity. This leads, as we are experiencing, to ever more complex thoughts and technologies.

In her NYT Magazine article “Listening to Braille” Rachel Aviv cites recent studies that seem to verify the complexity-building impact of alphabetic literacy. In a study of two groups of blind children where one group learned Braille for reading and the other used digital audio, the audio only “readers” were less organized in their thinking and their thoughts were less complex.  Unlike strictly oral communication and aural reception of information, alphabetic literacy allows us to easily draft, develop and edit our thoughts in ever more sophisticated ways. Through Braille, alphabetic literacy can stimulate the visual cortex of the blind as Aviv notes regarding a series of studies done in the 1990’s demonstrating that “the visual cortices of the blind are not rendered useless, as previously assumed. When test subjects swept their fingers over a line of Braille, they showed intense activation in the parts of the brain that typically process visual input.”

As the digital age continues to transform human communication, in spite of our many new options, we are beginning to see the essential nature of a strong alphabetic literacy for maximum intellectual development. And, to further maximize our intellectual potential we must also know the limits of this most powerful tool. In Understanding Media McLuhan discusses some of the overlooked limitations that alphabetic literacy brings with it and notes the homogenizing influence of “typographic principles of uniformity, continuity and lineality.” (27) We need to cultivate our alphabetic capabilities without being blinded and trapped by them for, as McLuhan notes, there is “nothing lineal and sequential” in any moment of human consciousness – the lineal and sequential are the impositions (or the scars) of the almighty alphabet. As Emerson reminds us in his “American Scholar” graduation address, “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments.”


Language on the Skids: Planet Biscotti Goddess

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Admittedly, unlike the cartoon (taken from UPenn’s Language Log blog) this post is tepid stuff. I find myself, by inclination a descriptivist about propriety in language, vexed by the overuse of “goddess” and “planet” and even “club.”

Each of these words has been debased and lost some of its grandeur by their use in marketing.

This screed of mine began as I looked across the desk, delaying grading student work, when my eyes lighted on the box of biscotti I’d picked up at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, my favorite place to shop. The brand, Biscotti Goddess, appears at the local coffee shop and I’m fond of them.

I’m not fond of the name. Deities, even heathen ones, or especially those, merit some respect.  I’d say “Biscotti Diva” except I’d be falling into the same trap.

My concern with using such signifiers this way comes from the ability to suck the life from what they signify.  If you look up “weasel word” in Wikipedia, you’ll see that the term comes from how an actual weasel empties an egg that still appears intact.

And thus with language. Almost time for Planet Lunch!

Writing Consulting with Non-Traditional Students: Some Advice

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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.

Social Media and Employer Pre-Screening

Homogenized, sanitized and safe!

Social Media sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are being featured more regularly in the mainstream media and becoming part of our national conversation even though 51% of Americans do not use them.  However, one group that is using these sites extensively are employers who pre-screen via social media. This topic came back to my attention recently when a student wrote a journal posting about an NPR feature on this practice and its implications. My student’s response was to consider pulling all of her social media sites down to prevent potential prejudice. And she is not alone in her concern.

Employer snooping is enough of a concern to inspire a social-media deletion site called Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and Facebook is apparently trying to block it from deleting sites that users want deleted. I guess we all click that “terms of agreement” button without really thinking about it (or reading it!). I doubt we would be so quick to click if the first lines of the agreement read: ANY AND ALL INFORMATION, IMAGES, AUDIO, VIDEO, TEXT OR OTHER COMMUNICATION BECOMES CORPORATE PROPERTY AND MY NOT EVER BE COMPLETELY EXPUNGED, RETRIEVED OR CONTROLLED IN ANY WAY BY THE USER. Of course, this is generally true for email as well, but that hasn’t bothered us much over the years.

No doubt employers will continue to snoop and surveil, but I wonder about the impact. In a way, such social media are a mildly homogenizing influence already, in spite of their many options, but if we’re all afraid to express ourselves in these limited ways because we might lose out on a job, won’t we become even more homogenized and bland in our timidity? When Huxley wrote Brave New World one of the purposes for the application of technology was the deliberate homogenization of each class to promote easy management and maximum production. The novel reveal the future of that world, but it is clear that submission to such micro-management and identical duplication are subtly conditioned over time. One clue to the future of their world comes in the opening scene of the novel as a group of Alphas are given a tour of the Hatcheries and Conditioning Center: “A troop of newly arrived students, very young, pink and callow, followed nervously, rather abjectly, at the Director’s heels. Each of them carried a notebook, in which, whenever the great man spoke, he desperately scribbled. Straight from the horse’s mouth. It was a rare privilege.” This does not sound like a group likely to take initiative or arrive at creative solutions to persistent problems – but I’ll bet they would pass an employer pre-screening.