On reading, writing, social media, surveillance, videogame violence, and genre #dyr

the human brain was never meant to read. Not text, not papyrus, not computer screens, not tablets. There are no genes or areas in the brain devoted uniquely to reading. Rather, our ability to read represents our brain's protean capacity to learn something outside our repertoire by creating new circuits that connect existing circuits in a different way. Indeed, every time we learn a new skill – whether knitting or playing the cello or using Facebook – that is what we are doing.

Touch typing allows us to write without thinking about how we are writing, freeing us to focus on what we are writing, on our ideas. Touch typing is an example of cognitive automaticity, the ability to do things without conscious attention or awareness. Automaticity takes a burden off our working memory, allowing us more space for higher-order thinking. (Other forms of cognitive automaticity include driving a car, riding a bike and reading—you're not sounding out the letters as you scan this post, right?) When we type without looking at the keys, we are multi-tasking, our brains free to focus on ideas without having to waste mental resources trying to find the quotation mark key. We can write at the speed of thought.

Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social software are about consumption and production, about dialectic interaction on the read/write web. It’s no wonder short-form writing in sociotechnical networks is epistemologically productive, often leading to richer, longer-form writing work. Savvy writers might intentionally deploy sociotechnical notemaking as a powerful heuristic strategy for moving from short-form to long-form writing practices. Sociotechnical notemaking may therefore be defined as short-form writing work that is typically enacted informally via the enabling technologies of social software, with explicit heuristic, inventional, and epistemological implications.

before we give more attention to having students write briefly to fit their text-messaging sensibilities and the latest technologies, we should be more forceful about expecting and bringing their attention to accuracy and precision. Strunk and White, in their classic The Elements of Style, caution against predilection for brevity over precision in their 19th style reminder: “Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity." I suspect most instructors would agree with this admonition, as I trust precision of thought and expression from our students is paramount for most of us.

Ideas don’t need the media any more than the media need ideas. They’ve relied on each other in the past, true enough — media as the gatekeepers, ideas as the floods — but the present media moment is characterized above all by the fact that ideas, Big and otherwise, can be amplified independently of traditional media filters. The public, online, is empowered to decide for itself which ideas are worthy of changing the world.

In their concern to stop not just mob violence but commercial crimes like piracy and file-sharing, Western politicians have proposed new tools for examining Web traffic and changes in the basic architecture of the Internet to simplify surveillance. What they fail to see is that such measures can also affect the fate of dissidents in places like China and Iran. Likewise, how European politicians handle online anonymity will influence the policies of sites like Facebook, which, in turn, will affect the political behavior of those who use social media in the Middle East.

Through two online surveys and four experimental studies, the researchers showed that people stayed glued to games mainly for the feelings of challenge and autonomy they experience while playing. Both seasoned video gamers and novices preferred games where they could conquer obstacles, feel effective, and have lots of choices about their strategies and actions.

These elements, said coauthor Richard Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the University, represent "the core reasons that people find games so entertaining and compelling. Conflict and war are a common and powerful context for providing these experiences, but it is the need satisfaction in the gameplay that matters more than the violent content itself."

There are no meaningful genres in games anymore. It’s a good thing that developers are pushing back borders and finding interesting ways to combine old mechanics, but as a consequence, there’s no ways of separating works with huge and obvious disparities. There ought to be a way to categorize games in a meaningful, succinct way that doesn’t implicitly suggest a high art/low art dichotomy.

tweeting guidelines, updated Fall 2011 #111cr #252ac

[amended from Brian Croxall]

To create and sustain further conversation this semester, all students are required to maintain active presence on Twitter for a minimum of four weeks. One post (or tweet) per day is required, but there is freedom regarding content. Students are welcome to post original thoughts, "retweet" classmates' updates, @ (reply to) classmates' updates, and share course-relevant links with the course hashtag. Posts unrelated to course content are okay, but these will not count toward the requirement. I am very active on Twitter, so I encourage all students to check my profile (as well as those I follow) for potential models of engagement.

Twitter is a writing platform, but simpler. It's similar to a Facebook status update, except you're only allowed to post entries that are 140 characters long. This is because Twitter was designed to work via cellphone text messaging. You can update Twitter from your phone as well as "follow" people on Twitter (and they can follow you back). Updates come to your phone (or online) instantly. You get real-time updates from peers and others you are interested in knowing what they are doing. 

But why are we doing this? As we'll soon be reading, there are a great number of ways of writing and Twitter is a new one (kind of). Perhaps Twitter can help us learn better clarity and concision. Furthermore, employers in a variety of fields and industries are interested in hiring employees who are social-media savvy. Knowing how to use Twitter could even help you get a job. I'm also curious, though, to see if using Twitter changes the culture or society of the class in any appreciable way. 

So, if you haven't joined Twitter, join Twitter. You should also:

  1. Create a profile. In your username or bio (or both), use your real name (e.g., my username is "betajames," but have my real name in the bio section). Don't forget to upload a picture!
  2. Make your profile public. If you already have a Twitter account that is private and would prefer to keep it that way, create a new account for this class. (If your profile is private, classmates cannot search for you and your course-related tweets won't appear in the archive I set up.)
  3. Find and follow all members of our class (students and professor). (I'll try to make this easier by sharing a full list of users.)
  4. Search for and follow some other interesting people, such as @barackobama, @ConanOBrien, @shakira, and/or @TheScienceGuy. Consider following different services that provide updates, too, like @CNN or @FOXNEWS.
  5. Post at least once a day from September 12 to October 12. When posting about our class, please use the course hashtag. This will allow us to better track one another's tweets. 
  6. Consider connecting your cellphone or smartphone to Twitter to get real-time updates. Having phone updates is not required for this assignment, but it could be helpful. Regular text messaging fees do apply. 
  7. Get into the habit of checking Twitter at least once a day. (Don't worry about keeping up, though. Just see what's happening when you check in. Think of Twitter as a river of information. Dive in and you might get swept away; stick in a toe, or even a whole foot, and you should be fine.)
  8. Post an evaluation of Twitter (and how we used it) on your blog (due Wednesday, October 12). As a class, we will decide whether or not to keep using Twitter for the rest of the semester. This assignment and the subsequent evaluation will be assessed on the same basis as everything else written in this class, i.e., if you make an honest effort to play along, you will be in accordance with the grading contract.

Here are some other interesting ways to use Twitter:

  • There are a number of desktop and smartphone applications for using Twitter. They’re very easy to find and most are free.
  • You can sync your Twitter updates to your Facebook status. Just install the Twitter application on Facebook.
  • Use your cellphone camera in conjunction with Twitpic, Yfrog, Instagram, or other such services.
  • Check out the autopost feature on Posterous. Any time you update your blog, Posterous will send an update to Twitter, too!

blogging guidelines, updated Fall 2011 #111cr #252ac

[amended from Delia DeCourcy, Alan Jacobs, and Bill Wolff]

Your blog is a place to further explore the ideas we discuss in class, to write about related concepts of interest, and to ask questions about them. When creating, designing and writing in your blog, please complete the following:

  1. Choose a professional and meaningful title and subtitle.
  2. Compose a detailed and relevant About page discussing who you are and the focus of your blog.
  3. Choose an appropriate theme.
  4. For each blog post, compose a meaningful title written for an audience beyond our class.
  5. For each blog post, include 5-6 tags.

There is no set requirement for the length of a blog post. One of the features of the blogging medium and the characteristics of individual posts is that length is determined by content and goals. However, each post you make should be thorough in discussing the subject at hand. 

During the weeks regular blogging is required, be sure to post 1) an entry that extends the class discussion and 2) one that explores an area of interest particular to you. These posts should serve as exploratory, introductory writing toward larger, later assignments. I encourage you to offer an interpretation, ask a question, link to, quote from, and respond to anything and everything we read this semester.

Again, blogging in this course should be concerned with the regular examination of ideas and provide concise arguments via unique viewpoint and voice. With that in mind, I encourage you to:

  • Find new ways of saying what you think you want to say.
  • Make clear to readers that there is substantive thought behind the ideas presented. 
  • Push yourself to explore the ways you can get at ideas through the use of different media.
  • Have specific references, including text, hyperlinks, video, images, and audio, as means of support.
  • Experiment with the dashboard area.
  • See how things work and what happens when you make changes.

The more you engage with, customize, and explore your blog, the more effective it will be and the more you will get out of the assignment.

On writing, blogging, design, fake Twitter accounts, spoilers, and death on Facebook #dyr

research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don't look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.

 

I have come up with a conceptual framework that explains what I believe to be the core elements--and the essential worth--of a blogging initiative, either within a course or across an entire program. I've built the framework out of three imperatives: "Narrate, Curate, Share." I believe these three imperatives underlie some of the most important aspects of an educated citizen's contributions to the human record. And in my experience, blogging offers a uniquely powerful way of becoming a self-aware learner in the process of making those contributions.

 

Breakthroughs in all fields—science and engineering, literature and art, music and history, law and medicine—all come about when people find fresh insights, new points of view and propagate them. There is no shortage of creative people in this world, people with great ideas that defy conventional wisdom. These people do not need to claim they have special modes of thinking, they just do what comes naturally to them: break the rules, go outside the existing paradigms, and think afresh. Yes, designers can be creative, but the point is that they are hardly unique.

 

One of my indulgences, however, is reading well-crafted tweets from satirical Tweeters who've taken on the persona of someone else. To do it right is like being a method actor: You have to get inside the head of a famous person but with a twist; the post has to be funny and insightful. It isn't easy and Twitter is littered with failures.

 

Subjects liked the literary, evocative stories least overall, but still preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones.

Why? The answers go beyond the scope of the study, but one possibility is perhaps the simplest one: that plot is overrated.

 

Nobody is resting in peace anymore. The suicide, the aneurysm, the overdose. Distilled into how they died because their [Facebook] pages are a persistent reminder they are dead, not of how they made me feel alive. I’d like to believe a legacy is in memories made, not the unintended irony of a last status update.

 

On writing, grammar, gamification, videogames, education, academia, and data preservation #dyr

I don’t know the origin of the “write what you know” logic. A lot of folks attribute it to Hemingway, but what I find is his having said this: “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.” If this is the logic’s origin, then maybe what’s happened is akin to that old game called Telephone. In the game, one kid whispers a message to a second kid and then that kid whispers it to a third and so on, until the message circles the room and returns to the first kid. The message is always altered, minimized, and corrupted by translation. “Bill is smart to sit in the grass” becomes “Bill is a smart-ass.” A similar transmission problem undermines the logic of writing what you know and, ironically, Hemingway may have been arguing against it all along. The very act of committing an experience to the page is necessarily an act of reduction, and regardless of craft or skill, vision or voice, the result is a story beholden to and inevitably eclipsed by source material.

 

there is still no widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun. In part, that’s because pronoun systems are slow to change, and when change comes, it is typically natural rather than engineered.

 

Game developers and players have critiqued gamification on the grounds that it gets games wrong, mistaking incidental properties like points and levels for primary features like interactions with behavioral complexity. That may be true, but truth doesn't matter for bullshitters. Indeed, the very point of gamification is to make the sale as easy as possible.

 

I have never been much for handheld games, cell-phone games, or smaller games in general, but after spending several weeks playing games on my iPad, I can say that the best of them provide as much, if not more, consistent engagement than their console brethren. In fact, a really fine iPad game offers an experience in which many of the impurities of console gaming are boiled away.

 

Games are based on problems to solve, not content. This doesn't mean that game-based problem-solving should eclipse learning content, but I think we are increasingly seeing that a critical part of being literate in the digital age means being able to solve problems through simulations and collaboration.   

Videogames, and the type of learning and thinking they generate, may serve as a cornerstone for education and economies of the future.

via pbs.org

 

Simply put, we can’t keep preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist. We can’t keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they’re developing on their own. And above all, we must stop disparaging digital prowess just because some of us over 40 don’t happen to possess it. An institutional grudge match with the young can sabotage an entire culture.

 

Everyone benefits from more education. No one benefits from an educational system that defines learning so narrowly that whole swaths of human intelligence, skill, talent, creativity, imagination, and accomplishment do not count.

 

Thesis Whisperer is part of a growing trend for PhD students to meet and support each other through social media as they pursue the long, demanding and often draining journey to a completed thesis.

 

At first glance, digital preservation seems to promise everything: nearly unlimited storage, ease of access and virtually no cost to making copies. But the practical lessons of digital preservation contradict the notion that bits are eternal. Consider those 5 1/4-inch floppies stockpiled in your basement. When you saved that unpublished manuscript on them, you figured it would be accessible forever. But when was the last time you saw a floppy drive?

 

a quick one, while i'm away

If I use Twitter that is in any way detrimental, it probably concerns tweets like this:

Twitter allows for the quick thought and the half-formed idea and I take advantage of this. Perhaps I even fool myself a bit into thinking I've performed scholarship of some kind. Rare is the occasion, though, in which I revisit past tweets deserving of elaboration elsewhere.

As I continue to build and cultivate this particular online space, I want revisiting to be more frequent. Hell, I'll even take requests. So, if you follow me on Twitter (or Google+, I guess) and I posted something you questioned or wanted to see more of, let me know and I'll see what I can do.

 

Of course, writing this quick entry is a rather cheap way of delaying the inevitable, but I hope I'll be forgiven come next week.

On texting, videogames, and writing #dyr

Last year, 4.16 billion users made SMS the most popular data channel in the world. An estimated 6.1 trillion texts were sent, up from 1.8 trillion in 2007. And while the proportion of customers using SMS for more than simple messaging is still small, in poor nations these services are already changing the nature of commerce, crime, reporting news, political participation, and governing.

 

The subjects and themes and audiences of games should be no less of a concern than the contexts and purposes to which they are put. Not just adolescent fantasy and political activism, but everything in between.

 

research found that giving players the chance to adopt a new identity during the game and acting through that new identity – be it a different gender, hero, villain – made them feel better about themselves and less negative.

Looking at the players' emotion after play as well their motivation to play, the study found the enjoyment element of the videogames seemed to be greater when there was the least overlap between someone's actual self and their ideal self.

 

Video games aren't science. They are not a mystery of the universe that can be explained away via testable predictions and experimentation. We need to stop looking for answers, whether those answers would come from a technical innovation whose arrival only renews obsession with the next breakthrough, or from the final exploitation of the true nature of our medium by means of a historical discovery so obvious that it will become indisputable. The answers lie not in the past or the future, but in the present

 

We enter college hoping to learn effective communication skills—the kind of skills the recruiter in the Wall Street Journal article wished we possessed. But the joke is on us: the professors from whom we seek guidance, themselves don’t know good prose from porridge.

When we attend college, we throw our impressionable young minds headlong into this bog of ”scholars” such as Parsons; headlong into this asylum in which esteemed academic journals will publish gibberish if one uses the right buzzwords; headlong into this funhouse in which a computer program can generate random meaningless prose that reads passably like the stuff assigned in most graduate and undergraduate humanities classes. And from within this stylistic cesspool, we hope to get an education in how to write good prose.

 

Future assignment: The reverse-engineered essay

Among the ideas behind assignments like Mashup Scholarship and Pop Up Scholarship are that students need lots of practice writing and that they need to perform this practice in different ways. By explaining why and reflecting on how they perform academic writing instead of just producing 4-5 essays over 16 weeks, I like to think that more is happening here. The performance, i.e., the essay, is but one way of showing proficiency. The ability to reflect on that performance before, during, and after is just as important.

Such assignments also challenge how we should conduct ourselves in relation to academic writing. We need not be serious as a heart attack when discussing particulars of the kinds of writing students will be expected to do in college. There is no reverence in Pop Up Scholarship, given how much I encourage students to approach the assignment in much the way Pop Up Video did its own subject matter, i.e., with an affable, critical, knowledgeable, and playful edge. Furthermore, Mashup Scholarship invites students to do what other writing instructors may balk at.

However, both assignments focus on somewhat specific aspects of writing, including audience, grammar and syntax, organization, and source materials. Neither account much for argument or idea development, though, focusing and reflecting instead on the end result over whatever process produced it. This is not to say that my first-year writing courses are bereft of discussion concerning argument, idea development, or writing processes, only that I haven't devised a clear assignment addressing them. I think I might have something for my Fall 2011 class that does, though.

During my first year at UM-Flint, I had the privilege of working with a fourth-year student on an independent study project about comic-book writing. The student's semester-end project was a 25-page script of an origin story for a new superhero. Helping the student get to that point was an earlier assignment in which he reverse-engineered Dennis O'Neil's Batman: Birth of the Demon, breaking it down into constituent parts for further examination, seeing how the frames, panels, and pages fit together, and where O'Neil likely began.

A recent column on plagiarism got me thinking about reverse-engineering again. Even if a student were to reverse-engineer a plagiarized essay, they will undoubtedly still learn something worthwhile in the process, yes? Both Mashup and Pop Up Scholarship as well as some of the required reading in my first-year courses lean toward the idea of reverse engineering. This is something I want to explore more with students. So, similar to Mashup Scholarship in that I ask students to do something they and/or other professors may have reservations about, reverse-engineering an essay asks students to fill in the steps that led to final publication.

I'm still working on the specifics of the assignment, but here's some starting language:

Choose one of the longform articles below or submit another for approval. In an entry this week, provide context for and a summary of your chosen article. That is, note the author, the publication in which the article appears and when, etc. It's pretty much impossible to reverse-engineer an essay you haven't read.

Using either the sample steps provided below or your own identified process, reverse-engineer your chosen article. Over the next two weeks, we will move from revised drafts to shitty drafts to outlines to brainstorming to initial curiosity/perplexity. In other words, we will work backwards until we have reached a satisfactory starting point for your chosen article.

 

I welcome any/all feedback on this. Do you see particular use in devising such an assignment?

On blogging, social media, self-publishing, and teaching reading and writing #dyr

What does that mean: Blogging is writing without a safety net?

This means that you are on your own. Your work is all yours, and it rises or falls on its own merits. Nobody is fact-checking you before you hit “Publish” (though many commenters will afterwards), and nobody is having your back after your publish – you are alone to defend your work against the critics. If you are good and trusted, you may have a community of bloggers or commenters who will support you, but there is no guarantee.

You can see, from the above paragraph, that there are two senses of “blogging is writing without a safety net”. One concerns pre-publication – there is no editor to check your work. The other concerns post-publication – nobody protects you.

 

While the blogs have exposed wrongdoers and broken news before, this week’s performance may signal the arrival of weibos as a social force to be reckoned with, even in the face of government efforts to rein in the Internet’s influence.

The government censors assigned to monitor public opinion have let most, though hardly all of the weibo posts stream onto the Web unimpeded. But many experts say they are riding a tiger. For the very nature of weibo posts, which spread faster than censors can react, makes weibos beyond easy control. And their mushrooming popularity makes controlling them a delicate matter.

 

We assume that Facebook is something we should associate with the young, but my evidence suggests that this is entirely mistaken.

If there is one obvious constituency for whom Facebook is absolutely the right technology, it is the elderly. It allows them to keep closely involved in the lives of people they care about when, for one reason or another, face-to-face contact becomes difficult... Its origins are with the young but the elderly are its future.

 

Twitter/Facebook/G+ are secondary media. They are a means to connect in crisis situations and to quickly disseminate rapidly evolving information. They are also great for staying connected with others on similar interests (Stanley Cup, Olympics). Social media is good for event-based activities. But terrible when people try to make it do more – such as, for example, nonsensically proclaiming that a hashtag is a movement. The substance needs to exist somewhere else (an academic profile, journal articles, blogs, online courses).

 

There are many reasons potential authors want to publish their own books, Mr. Weiss said. They have an idea or manuscript they have passed around to various agents and publishers with no luck; they may just want to print a few copies of, say, a memoir for family members; they want to use it in their business as a type of calling card; or they actually want to sell a lot of books and make their living as writers.

 

In a hyper–abundant book world, where previous patterns of discovery may not work as well as they used to, readers are developing, and increasingly will need to develop, new ways of discovering titles that might interest them. Marketing and discovery are moving to the forefront of book marketplace activity, and social networks are adding new ideas and opportunities to the stable of traditional ways to bring books to the attention of potential readers.

 

The academic study of literature is a wonderful thing, and not just because it has paid my salary for most of my adult life, but it is not an unmixed blessing, and teachers will rarely find it possible simply to inculcate the practices of deeply attentive reading.

Over the past 150 years, it has become increasingly difficult to extricate reading from academic expectations; but I believe that such extrication is necessary. Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about—I scruple not to say it—skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.

 

email has such obvious promise as a tool for writing, and sharing writing, and teaching writing. It takes words and it sends them anywhere right away. If in 1976 you wanted to see a student's work in progress, you needed a printer and an appointment. The student had to take notes while you talked, walk home, remember what exactly you said, and work up a new draft. If he came to another impasse he'd probably keep it to himself -- nobody is going to office hours five times in three days. (Nobody is holding office hours five times in three days.)

Today each of these transactions -- copy, paste, send; receive, annotate, reply -- might take a few minutes. Emails can be composed and consumed anywhere, privately, quietly, at one's convenience. It is the free ubiquitous highway for words. It is exactly the tool you'd invent if you were a teacher of writing who wanted a better way to teach people to write.