Monday, September 29, 2008

Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

Every once in awhile a book comes along relating to a topic you understand and perhaps even enjoy and proceeds to remove any desire to associate with that topic ever again. This book by Stuart Selber is not quite to that point yet, but I am only halfway through it, so give it time. The most important contribution so far is Selber's insistence that computer literacy goes beyond just being able to do things using a computer. We have to be able to contextualize our use of technology and use it appropriately.

photo by austinevan

Like Steph, I question the place of the English department to fret about computer literacy any more or less than any other department on campus, as important as the concept happens to be. The author appears troubled due to the fact that English departments, for whom this book is written, are not regularly consulted in matters relating to computer literacy at most institutions around the country.

I have to challenge the author's anecdotal assertion that any given department would not be consulted when it comes to something as foundational as computer literacy. Anyone who has spent any time at a higher education institution knows that every decision made goes through multiple committees made up of faculty who volunteer (or are volunteered by the department head or dean) to spend their time ensuring that the needs of faculty and students are being met (in no particular order). Those who do not know anything about computer literacy are those who choose to ignore it.

Selber's point is well taken that institutional computer literacy requirements focus generally on a disembodied understanding of technology. What does he really expect it to be, however? For most students, the basic knowledge about computers is the same across disciplines. We all press the same little button with a 0 and a 1 on it to turn on the computer, and we all need to keep our operating systems and applications patched (yes, even the Mac users). Within a major, the skills needed to succeed may be different and should be integrated across each department's curriculum based on what makes sense for that department or major. Imagine an Electrical Engineer trying to tell the English faculty what technologies should be included in their courses or vice versa.

What I would hope is that English faculty or anyone else that happens to read this book would take away that they can't depend on someone else to make their students literate, because it takes on different meanings for different people. The institution is right to establish a baseline knowledge set to be considered computer literate, but after that the departments have to properly situate further literacy instruction and practice within each field.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Writing On-Line

I found an interesting old book at the library a few days ago while looking for a different book. The one I wanted is missing, even after requesting that a librarian search for it. The book I found instead, published in 1985, is titled Writing On-Line: Using Computers in the Teaching of Writing. To clarify, when they talk about writing online, they mean writing with a word processor.

It is interesting in light of the topic this week in one of my classes, discussing the effects of Web 2.0 technologies on writing. The editors note that the purpose of the book is to caution against getting caught up in the hype surrounding computers, but rather proceed with implementing the use of computers in the classroom based on careful research.

A few paragraphs really caught my eye:

It's invitingly simple to log random flittings of thought, to etch them blithely in phosphor and with the blip of a key to store them on a disk. Somehow, I figure, they'll eventually prove useful, like the broken stepladder I dragged home last garbage night. If you write regularly, you already know that your best stuff is lodged somewhere in a vast cerebral ragbag-that a writer's ultimate, irreplaceable resource is the chaos that lives just beneath the outer dress of reason.

A word processor can make it slightly easier to tap, that's all. Easier because it can bring tantalizingly close to print what psychologist Lev Vygotsky termed "inner speech", the fluid medium somewhere between pure thought and its externalized linguistic formulation. I can sit here on a good night and, without contriving to, simply let things come, catch perhaps a thousandth part of what swarms to mind. This machine has brought home to me how taxing is the physical act of writing, how lopsided the contest between mind and hand. For better or worse, less of me will remain unsaid because of the speed and ease and even intimacy of computer-assisted writing. (Stillman, 1985)

Does that sound like any bloggers you know?

There's something for the wiki advocates among us as well:

Researchers soon moved on from a stage model of the writing process, where writers prewrote, wrote and revised (ideal writers, anyway, allegedly wrote this way; student writers seemed to write because we told them they had to, and just wanted to get it out of the way). This model didn't begin to describe accurately the ways actual writers compose; it was too neat, too simplistic and just plain wrong no matter which writers were studied. Now strong evidence leads to a view of the writing process as recursive and idiosyncratic. Flower and Hayes (1981), two leading researchers whose work is drawn in part from problem-solving research in cognitive psychology, are among those who see the writing process as a more complex series of processes than the three-stage model (Sommers, 1985).

These same discussions are happening today, with some professors banning the use of Wikipedia in class papers at the same time that others help their students write a wiki-based textbook.

Flower, L. & Hayes, J.R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 32.

Sommers, E.A. (1985). Integrating composing and computing. In J.L. Collins & E.A. Sommers (Eds.), Writing on-line: Using computers in the teaching of writing. Upper Montclair, New Jersey: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Stillman, P.R. (1985). A writer (and teacher of writing) confronts word processing. In J.L. Collins & E.A. Sommers (Eds.), Writing on-line: Using computers in the teaching of writing. Upper Montclair, New Jersey: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Over the last week or two on campus, there have been some preachers handing out books and talking to people just outside my building. I ride my bike past them and pay little attention to who they are talking to or what they are saying, but I occasionally hear little pieces of their conversations. A couple of things during the past couple of days have bothered me a little, and it comes down to a lack of respect for others.

I overheard one of the preachers explaining that the person he was talking to doesn't believe in Jesus. He said there are a lot of people who think they believe in Jesus, but they don't really. Really? Every religion is going to have some disagreements, but it doesn't even make sense that one person can tell another that the latter only believes that he believes in God or that he believes in a different Jesus. Whatever. It's just semantics. To me it's just a disagreement as to the nature of God, not that they believe in a different God. That difference in how it is presented is based on whether or not the presenter has respect for his or her audience. Specifically phrasing it that way tells me that the preacher has no respect for the person he or she is talking to.

What goes around comes around, however, as I witnessed an obviously fake preacher with a larger audience than is usually gathered listening to him pontificate about an important book in his life as the other preachers waited patiently for him to finish his sermon. It is a book that can tell the future. It is a book that is available to all, but that few of us take advantage of like we should. The book is the TV Guide. Huh? Leave them alone. Pass on by or go see if they have something worthwhile to say, but the open mocking is uncalled for. It's not like the preachers were taunting or desecrating sacred items or yelling outside weddings or funerals like some that I've seen that are just out to start arguments that accomplish nothing. Go talk to them - you might learn something - or they might.

On a non-religious note, I was having a conversation with someone whose class I was visiting. She mentioned something about how students often don't show professors respect in their emails. Her observation was that students treat professors like their buddy or type in all lower case or have unrealistic expectations about how quickly they should get an email back. I proceeded to mention how it bothers me when some people type in all caps or put that they need a response ASAP. Then I realized when I got back to my office later that she had sent me an email that morning with the subject line in all caps, including ASAP. Oops. I felt bad that I had totally called her out on her lack of email etiquette, even though I didn't mean to. I considered apologizing, but then as I thought about it, she's the one that sent me a message in all caps and ASAP, and it almost kept me from reading the message. I choose to think that I simply did her a favor, like the person that lets you know there is something hanging from your nose or stuck in your teeth after who knows how many people saw it there but were too embarrassed to say anything.

Monday, September 15, 2008


I sometimes feel like Don Walsh in The Chromium Fence. The political issue in this story is not as relevant as the politics themselves. Politics do not seem to ever change, as the issues at stake ebb and flow - peace, energy, hygiene, arts, education, religion, economy, healthcare, recreation, immigration, transportation, morality, etc. We move up and down Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but no matter our level, there are two opposing points to argue.

As Don refuses to take sides in the political battle taking place because of the extreme nature of the two positions, his counselor points out,

You see, Don, you have a psychological inability to come to grips with an issue. You don't want to commit yourself for fear you'll lose your freedom and individuality. You're sort of an intellectual virgin; you want to stay pure. ... You've got to make a decision. You've got to resolve this conflict and act. You can't remain a spectator. ... You haven't quite got to the point of facing reality. But you will.

I find myself asking what's so wrong about Don's position, probably because I straddle the fence on some issues myself and refuse to register with either of the major political parties. I believe both have strayed far from what their founders intended and that neither is as concerned with the issues their polemicists debate as they are concerned with maintaining the status quo, that is, their own power.

So am I maintaining my integrity as Don asserted he was doing or am I separating myself from society by registering with a minor political party? Am I, in effect, ripping up my vote and allowing myself to be disposed of just to make a statement?

I maintain my own beliefs about the issues, and it is only by apathetically restraining from making a choice between the two equally but oppositely distorted views of reality that an actual choice is made. In voting one way or the other, my vote is truly thrown away, because in this world of artificial dichotomies, one vote does not make a difference. Every vote for a third party, however, lends credence to the claims of third parties, gradually increasing support and funding until they hold enough sway to start influencing the actions of the major parties. There will actually be another option to replace them if they don't temper their extreme beliefs and learn to compromise.

One day, we'll have the opportunity to choose among instead of simply choosing between in our elections. That is worth sacrificing for.

Closing courses

An email was recently sent to instructors of online courses to let us know that Summer courses would be hidden unless we specifically ask them to remain available for students to access.

Each new semester we hide the previous semester courses from students as a means of protecting copyrights on multimedia content and preserving the security of assessment materials and other content items.

Compare that to Kevin Young's Human Physiology class that wrote a textbook using technology to encourage access rather than to hide it.

For classes of mine that have used wikis or even just static webpages that only the instructor can edit, I often refer back to them later - much more often that I will rifle through old notes or a print textbook that I probably sold back to the bookstore.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

No skin allowed

I found the following snippet in the cheating section of a course syllabus at another university recently:

It is considered cheating to input course information into PDA’s, cell phones, or other electronic or paper devices to be used during a test to look up answers. This includes your own skin.

You've got to be careful about all the new technology students are using to cheat, especially their own skin.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Desperate Commercialization

As I continue to make my way through Philip K. Dick's stories, a few of those stories presented what could be construed as a warning message against the crass commercialization that we see in our lives - made all the more interesting by the fact that they were written about 50 years ago. It appears that the pace over the last half century has not slowed down in moving us towards becoming completely inundated with advertisements for garbage.

In Sales Pitch, Ed, the weary commuter, makes his way home across the solar system while being attacked on every side by advertisements. Once his spaceship makes it home he is approached by sales robots roaming the sidewalks. Nowhere is safe, as the indefatigable fasrad robot enters their home and commences to demonstrate its abilities until such time as Ed agrees to buy him. This drives Ed over the edge, and as he tries to escape to another planet that runs at a much-slower 20th century pace, the fasrad stows aboard and continues to give his sales pitch. Ed all but destroys his ship, pushing the rockets faster than his craft could handle and opening the throttle all the way when the fasrad goes in the back to check on the rockets. As the crippled ship with Ed pinned under the debris starts its 2 day approach before a spectacular fiery descent over the rural planet he wished to visit, he relished the silence he would enjoy the last few hours of his life. The half-destroyed fasrad then makes its way towards a captive Ed to continue its sales pitch and ruin any chance of a peaceful end for Ed.

photo by Lorri Auer

In Foster, You're Dead, marketers have sold everything they could possibly sell, and change their sales tactics to sell shelters and other devices to save people's lives in case of a supposedly imminent attack. As soon as Mike's dad gives in to his constant pestering for a new shelter, the next big thing comes out and his dad has to return the shelter to the store because Christmas season sales at the family store are low due to everyone buying the new protection devices to hit the market.

These stories are a sad commentary on our society, as everything we see or do is sponsored by some company or another. All video that is shot must be scrubbed of any intellectual property references, lest anyone accidentally get free advertising or that it be construed that a passing glimpse of a logo on a t-shirt constitutes endorsement of the video production by the company whose logo was recorded. It will be interesting to watch Google over the next 10 years (they were incorporated 10 years ago yesterday) to see how their business model possibly changes. They have built their current empire on the back of targeted advertising, but perhaps as their products become more ingrained in society, they will be able to phase out advertising as their primary revenue source in favor of charging service fees to use their products. What is worse - paying for a product or receiving it free with advertising? For years, we received TV free in exchange for ads, and now we pay hundreds of dollars a month in cable and satellite subscription fees and we still have to watch the ads, unless we're willing to pay extra for a time shifting device like TiVo which lets us skip through the ads that aren't smart enough to trick it.

In Pay for the Printer, we find a society that has been decimated by nuclear war and rebuilds with the help of the Biltongs, a race of creatures that can make copies of objects brought to them. After 150 years go by, humans have been dependent on the Biltongs to print everything for them that they need and have lost all ability to build anything. The Biltongs begin to wear out and people realize that they can't build things without tools, but they can't build tools, because they don't have tools. Society has to start anew, learning to build rudimentary devices, with the few leftover pre-war devices and objects as goals to work towards.

On Michael Pollan's NYTimes blog, he posted the question Why Bother? That is, what difference will one person make in the climate change war? If I change my light bulbs, bike to work, eat locally grown food, and turn down the thermostat in my house, will I really make a difference? He places the blame for this predicament we find ourselves in on specialization. We do our job, our one little piece of the assembly line, and by focusing on our specific job, we don't think about all the costs that come into play. We blog about how we need to save the environment, while composing our eloquently loquacious posts on computers powered by coal-fired plants. We don't see those coal-fired plants, because that's someone else's job, so we forget they exist, except to the extent that we need to blog about them so we can get rid of them.

Stephen Dubner points out on the Freakonomics blog that being a locavore is inefficient, however. So specialization helps us all be more efficient but reduces our individual skills to the point that no one person can survive by him or herself. With so many of our manufacturing jobs being outsourced to China, with or without us paying attention to the fact, we are suddenly taken by surprise that lax quality control and cost cutting measures have resulted in many of the toys we give to our children being produced with large amounts of cancer-causing lead in them. Oops. Yet the Wal-Mart parking lot remains full.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Turning Wheel

Having not read any of Philip K. Dick's short stories before, Fair Game was a fun introduction to this sci-fi author. Of the ten stories that I've read so far, it was my favorite - a mixture of tense moments with a light, yet morbid touch at the end. I found myself pulling for Professor Douglas, anxious for what was to happen. With what little I had read about Dick's writing style, I knew to keep my hand over the last couple lines of the story to avoid accidentally experiencing the Aha! moment even a paragraph early. I wasn't disappointed.

photo by Michel Filion

In contrast, while reading The Turning Wheel, I found myself disliking the protagonist Bard Sung-wu, yet finding much more deep meaning in his story. His inability to comprehend those who lived in different circumstances with supposedly less access to education bothered me. I couldn't wait for him to find out that the Bards were really the fanatic cult and not the Technos. As Sung-wu rants and raves both aloud and in his own thoughts about the terrible state of things and the possibility of the classes mingling or even marrying, I thought of a former professor of mine from India telling us about the caste system there and its purpose to keep the ruling party in power and keep the peasants under control. That is, this kind of thing is happening today.

Sung-wu continues his annoying display of superiority over all he meets until he ironically finds himself being taken care of in a household of the lowest class. When he realizes the power they have over his life, he breaks down and confesses his fear of dying before he has a chance to make amends for his sins. It is interesting that he does this right in the middle of a philosophical discussion with an eloquent Techno, who points out that using technology to improve the world around you is not necessarily out of line with divine processes. Sung-wu, as part of the highest and most enlightened Bard class, has been taught (and teaches) that we must accept everything as it is, yet the lowest class of society is more technologically advanced due to their willingness to fix those elements around them that are broken and to try new things. He completely misses this point that Ben explains to him, as he is worried about his own future, but then he experiences it himself by accepting technology which will save his life. In exchange for saving his life, the Technos save themselves from further scrutiny by the goverment with Sung-wu's dismissive report about the extent of their activities, thus allowing them to continue to covertly work towards re-inventing technology that has been lost because of the repressive governing class.

In the end, sharing technology contributed to the survival of all those involved, whereas artificially suppressing the dissemination of technology through legal and cultural means caused an entire society to lose what it did have at one point.