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

Greetings From “The Old Man Store”

Old Time Office Supplies

Today I placed an order with Staples for some supplies badly needed at the Center:

  •  “Reinforcement, hole”
  • “Pressboard Report Cover, side tab”

My reader may well wonder, “why badly needed?”  No one died because pages fell out of a three-ring binder.

We forget at times how much the work of writing still depends on paper. As much as I’ve tried, mightily in fact, to be rid of paper in my office, I find that about once per year, I will need an ancient text I photocopied in grad school in the late 1980s, an article I saved and hole-punched from a moldy issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education in the mid 90s, or  a news item printed from the New York Times‘ Web site in 2005.

These sorts of materials are not alien to my students, but I suspect that keeping and organizing them are as alien as, say, using a slide rule would be to their peers in the sciences.  And yet a Writing Center could  not exist without its crumbling archives of printed matter.

One day in the not-too-distant future, such paper-based storage supplies will be as hard to locate as typewriter ribbons (Google that, you young rascals! We can still order them!). When that dolorous day arrives, I’ll do one of two things.

Option One: horde the remaining stocks of Dymo labels from the 1970s, hole-punch machines, and White-Out for personal use.

Option Two: Open “The Old Man Store,” with lines of clothing (suspenders, by gum!) and food (Where in the Sam Hill can I get me any Ovaltine?).

For a long while, The Vermont Country Store served this purpose, even including jabs at “the young word-processing crowd” in their praise for a manual typewriter (no longer available, it seems).

As if my students get sweaty palms thinking about opening MS Word.

I just wonder if, in a few  years, their younger siblings will be saying things like “OMG you still have an external computer!” as they chat on their brain-implants.

What that will mean for writing remains unseen, but I worry about the longevity of the technologies for paper storage. These everyday items have so long been a part of a writer’s fortifications against forgetfulness and stupidity.

1970s Dymo Label Maker

Shifting Realities

facebook                                           text message                                                shortwave radio

The shifting of the Caribbean tectonic plate that caused Haiti’s tragic double-earthquake provides an opportunity for insight into the shifting realities of communications technology, authority and power.

When major news corporations like CNN lost contact with Haiti and were unable to provide any information, images posted on Facebook by ordinary “nonprofessionals” were the first to be broadcast. The social networking platform has also been used  by Zynga games to raise $1.5 million for relief. Some of the earthquake victims have been able to contact rescuers via text messages and texting has also been used as a powerful fund raising instrument, raising $22 million.

These positive and potent applications of the latest digital technology are challenging old hierarchies, empowering new voices and inspiring fresh approaches. However, in our excitement over the potential of these new tools, we would be wise to remember their vulnerability and ongoing relevance and utility of elder technologies. It may be that our most intelligent and advanced approach to technology would be a thoughtful, selective hybrid of the new and the old.

While technologies like texting and Facebook rely on complicated and relatively vulnerable systems, a radio can be run by battery. Shortwave radio in particular has historically been effective for broadcasting in emergency situations, especially since its signal can reach any point on earth by using the ionosphere as a reflector. Because of this reliability and relative stability, shortwave radio is also a part of our technological response to the tragedy in Haiti. A group called Ears to Our World (ETOW) is providing shortwave radios for isolated Haitian survivors.

These are some of the shifting realities of human communication….and it all started with writing.

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.

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 🙂
  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.

Individual Conferences & Student Writing

Creating a dialog of growth.

Recently I had a conversation with Dr. Jim Kinney of VCU, a rhetorician who has taught writing for several decades. As he reflected on his teaching during this time, Kinney noticed the greatest improvement in student writing when he used “the Garrison method” of teaching composition. Using a list of specific areas for focus such as pre-writing or invention or organization, Kinney explained that after an initial introductory period, most of the semester involved short individual conferences with students, specifically focused on addressing these aspects of writing.

Intrigued, I googled the name of the method and found that JSTOR had a review of the Garrison method by Jo An McGuire Simmons published in the May 1984 issue of College Composition and Communication. In “The One-to-One Method of Teaching Composition” Simmons offers us a gestalt of the process: “Picture a classroom of students writing. The teacher and a student, sitting side by side, are conferring intensely on a draft of the student’s paper. Two or three tutors may be in the room holding similar conferences. While the other sutdents are waiting for their conferences, they are writing, re-writing and, revising works in progress. What you are seeing is the Garrison or One-to-One Method at work.”

According to Simmons the Los Angeles Community College Distriect tested and recommended the approach in 1974 leading Roger Garrison to publish  How a Writer Works in 1981 . Simmons notes that “the primary assumption behind the method is that the best way to write is by writing and rewriting. Roger Garrison thinks that the best use of class time, then, is not class discussions, nor lectures on writing, nor analysis of someone else’s writing, but writing.” Each conference is limited to one objective and situates the teacher in a less threatening coaching role, helping the student to recognize his own errors and find his own solutions in a series of personalized “mini-lessons.” Such individualized attention is a potent force in a student’s education and a strong draw for the schools or teachers that can provide it with some regularity.

While the method increases individual student attention and decreases time required for final grading, Simmons notes several challenges to this approach. To be practiced as Garrison recommends, each teacher would need two writing consultants assigned to assist with student conferences. This approach also slows production, potentially limiting the number of assignments possible in a semester. In spite of these potential drawbacks, the Garrison method is meant to be flexibly applied according to the requirements of the context. Teachers could apply the method for a specific assignment only or throughout the semester, or the series of objectives guiding each meeting could be abbreviated.

 Certainly there is no panacea for producing better writers, not classical rhetoric, not grammar, not reading the great books, not even individual conferences. Ultimately, the quality of a student’s writing depends on that student applying the writing strategies he has been taught.  Nevertheless, few pedagogical approaches are as effective, organic or cost-effective as increased interaction between teacher and student.

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