Sunday, April 19, 2015

Small Potent Gestures

In the Selfe and Selfe chapter, the authors make the point that the "actions within the discursive spaces of computer networks will not be grand gestures, but rather small potent ones" (pp. 348-349). This focus on "small potent" gestures is familiar to me because I worked with Cindy Selfe for five years at Michigan Tech where I got my PhD. Reading this phrase brought me back to the years that I assisted Cindy on CIWIC (Computers in Writing Intensive Classrooms). She emphasized how we need to be responsible for how we use computers to teach students how to write. Of course, this message seems old now given that computers, networks, and the language about them has changed so dramatically in the years since this chapter was published. However, I think it is still a concern; we should occupy our thinking with this responsibility.

I think about small potent gestures every time I prepare to teach. For example, in my Technical Communication class, I use a novel as a context for assignments. I use narrative because narrative is how we think and store memories. I also use it because narrative requires interpretation, a language act that every writer needs to learn in order to write. We must interpret a context before we can know what language to use. In the 15+ years I've been using a novel, I have had only 3 students who complained about it. First, they complained because they had to read a novel, and as one student said, "I haven't read a novel since high school." Second, they associated the type of writing we used in that class with creative writing used in the novel. They saw the writing as the same and insisted that they didn't want to do creative writing. The thing is that they don't do creative writing; they do creative thinking and then write in the style of technical writing. I have never been able to convince these students that the actual writing they were doing was technical writing and not creative writing.

I use narrative as one way to help students "develop a critical consciousness about the role of language" in computer networks (p. 331). This development means that students need to develop a sense that language is used to construct a picture (or act within) of a social context. To say it is constructed is to say that one must invent the language in response to a social condition, that is, in response to something that has happened. From this construction, writers learn to use the appropriate language that fits that context. Because narrative must be interpreted in order for meaning to happen, I see that students are doing the same thing--constructing an event/happening. We invent everything through language. We know what is happening because language was used to describe it. From narrative, students learn invention. I use narrative, then, as a small potent gesture thata enables them to engage in critical thinking.

I also assume that because interpretation happens, ethical situations will naturally evolve. I have not found that to be the case in my class. The writing that happens is basically supporting the status quo. I want students to develop the "ability to think against the grain of prevailing thoughts as well as with it" (p. 331). I thought narrative would naturally cultivate that thinking. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe the scenarios I create for assignments that grow out of the novel should be more specifically and more intentionally written as ethical dilemmas. From that, students will then need to "enter" the discursive landscape of the novel with a distinct ethical approach. I see that I have some serious thinking to do before I teach that class again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cultural Interace

Manovich's discussion of cultural interface makes me think of a project I was once involved with called the Women's Archive Project (WAP). You can view the website here: I was one of the original founders of this project and created the current design (interface). It was created to highlight the woman (faculty, staff, administrators) connected to UNO as a kind of historical lens. Despite a couple of features (drop down menu, animated museum (click the movie icon to view), the site is heavily influence by the print interace. The text is hierarchical in that it starts with the title, editor's name, provides an explanation of the project and a picture, connects it to UNO and the English Department, and provides a copyright date. When a profile of a woman is clicked, the website moves to an animated, page turning "book" that provides the story of the woman and her connection to UNO. The pages of this book are designed as if it were a physical book. The entire site uses a visual theme of a scrapbook. The pages are designed with a strict two-column design wrapped around images. I consciously made it with a print layout in mind so that the user would feel comfortable reading it online. We also provide a print friendly version that can be printed out. This project is very much a cultural interface in that the data is cultural, the computer replicates an online museum, and user read about women and UNO. 

I designed my journal Programmatic Perspectives ( in the same way. Because people publishing in this journal are publishing as a means for obtaining tenure, and because academia acceptance of online journals is moving slowly toward acceptance, I wanted the journal to look exactly like a print journal so that authors could easily print it and place it in their binders. The highest compliment I ever received about the journal is that one of the co-editor's colleague commented, upon seeing the page come out of the printer that the page looked exactly like a page from a book. This cultural interface reeks of academia, which I don't mean as a criticism. It's just a fact of a faculty member's life--publication. The scholarship produced embodies the culture of an academic community. It is our identity.

I design the way I do because I was training in the 1980s when focus was on print--magazines, books, newsletters. I learned to layout a publication in distinctively print fashion. In the last few years when HTML 5, which makes animation without code possible, I've come to realize that I need to update my skills. But I think of all the time it took me to learn print design and realize that I simply don't have the time. By not updating my skills, am I putting students at a disadvantage? Do they need to always learn the latest features? Or can I give them a foundation on which they build new skills? I do want to learn HTML 5 but the book I'm working on beckons me. In another year, I will likely be taking on a new administrative role that will consume even more of my time. How do I measure my needs and those of my students? How do I decide how much time I can spend on a given project. I'm no longer involved in the WAP project because my work took me away from being able to spend all that time laying out a profile and updating the website. I miss the project because I loved the content, but I just couldn't devote any more time to it. I'm also giving up the editorship of the journal for the same reasons. I spent 5 years on one of the projects and 8 years on the other. Maybe it's time to move on. Projects like these can become stale with the same creative energy being used over and over again. Bringing in new perspectives can reinvigorate a project. I guess I can't do everything.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Transparency and Opacity

I use the following two media on a daily basis. This is only a sampling.

Like many Apple products, the iPhone is has become incredibly transparent, and I would rank it at a 10. I use it to check the time (at this point, I no longer miss wearing a watch), to communicate (make a call, check email and send texts), to make simple editing changes using mobile Word, to access Facebook, and to check my finanical account. My iPhone is my only existing phone, and I take it everywhere with me. I once forgot it at home and could think of nothing else all day. iPhone's opacity level is quite low because Apple does not share its code or inner workings. Most functions can be set with an on/off button, but how it actually works is unknown to the average user.. 

As another Apple product, the iPad is incredibly transparent and has a low opacity level. I use it daily. I'm especially excited about it lately because I found out recently that I can download mobil Word and use download it through the deal UNO made with Microsoft. I was almost ready to pay the $99/year to use it on my iPad when I discovered that I only simply needed to log in using my UNO userid. This was good news because I want to use the iPad to take notes in meetings, to write notes to myself, and to essentially use it as a laptop computer (especially with the new bluetooth keyboard I just bought for it). I could use Pages, but then I'd have to export each document in order to use it on other platforms. What's especially good about mobile Word is that it syncs with my dropbox storage. Of course, its opacity level is still low because I don't actually know how it works beyond the fact that it talks to my network through algorithms, which is quite foreign to me.

Both the iPhone and iPad provide many affordances, especially a transportable work station, so to speak. One of the most obvious limitations of this technology is that it is reliant on a network system to be effective. I have a fairly good data plan with Sprint for my iPhone that has worked almost anywhere I have tried it. The only place it doesn't work great is in my classroom. I don't have a data plan for my iPad so I have to rely on WIFI, which has not been a huge problem. However, now that I know I can use Word on my iPad and connect it to dropbox, I'm seriously considering it. I think the iPad is going to become a huge part of most of the social practices associated with work, especially because I have a notoriously bad memory and the portability of the iPad will enable me to take notes quickly. I could simply use a notebook, but as I get older, my handwriting has gotten worse that even I have a difficult time reading it. I feel I'll be more in control as long as my iPad and its bluetooth keyboard are charged.

I consider myself to be a hacker only to the extent that I can set preferences in most of the software I use. I can especially turn off or create automated features that make my work easier.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Attention Structures

A lot of teachers make explicit instructions about the use of portable devices in the classroom. They don’t allow students to be on their laptops or their phones or tablets while class is in session. They fear that students cannot pay attention or will engage in web surfing, texting, or email while they are trying to instruct. I have not found this to be a problem in my classes. Students use their phones and laptops as much as they want in my classes. Students don’t seem to be disruptive in my classes as a result of using mobile devices. Part of this situation is likely due to two things: 1) it is difficult to get a WIFI signal in ASH 145 and 2) most of the work we do in my classes involves hands on projects. If a student wants to bring her/his own laptop, I would not tell them they couldn’t, especially given that they probably purchased the Adobe creative cloud. Why would I prevent students from using their own laptops? Of course, not everyone teaches in a computer classroom, so the instruction is often very different.

I’m often one of those people who likes to multitask. I can write, text, Facebook, and email simultaneously, at least that’s what I like to think. Part of my ability to do this is my training as a secretary. A secretary has to be able to handle multiple tasks at the same time. I learned to answer phones, type a letter, take care of a personal request, and greet newcomers into the office all at the same time. But I wonder how much I can really do that. When I’m writing, I have to pay full attention. When I’m reading theory, I need quiet in order to pay attention. Otherwise, I like mild chaos. I feel I pay better attention when there’s background noise. I always assume that students can do the same but lately, a couple of students have told me that they need absolute quiet. I wonder if there were others who just haven't spoken up. But I believe in the chaos of the workshop style I use to teach. I think we learn by doing and by seeing/talking about what others’ are doing.

Are we living in an attention economy as Jones and Hafner note? If so, how do we develop strategies for dealing with that kind of stress? Even as I write this post, I am also thinking about a presentation I have to give next week. Travel always stresses me out, so I’m making lists in my head as I write. I have the TV on in the other room for background noise, and I have Facebook open on one of my monitors. In the midst of all that, I received a text that needs my attention. This is why I learned to multitask. From an attention economy perspective, which tasks have the most value? Which project should have most of my attention? Students? Presentation? Both probably. From a broader perspective, I want to pay attention to/learn more about the stock market in terms of my retirement funds. Each year that I get closer to retirement, that claim on my attention becomes more pronounced. I want to pay off my student loans—always a part of my background thinking when focused on financial issues. I want to teach new classes that require a lot of preparation—a task I would claim as needing a lot of attention especially given that the bookstore already wants book orders for fall. New classes are exciting, but a significant amount of work. And so on—there’s always something that wants my attention.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Question Concerning Technology

Despite how difficult it can be to read Heidegger, it’s still one of my favorite essays. Every time I read it, I see something new. How I understand Heidegger’s argument is that there are two perspectives that can influence the question concerning technology. If we ask about the technology, then we are seeing it as a means to an end, as a standing reserve, which is to say that we see something (technological understanding) as “ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so it may be on call for further ordering.” This view represents what he calls an instrumental perspective that presents technology as neutral and the primary goal is efficiency. When I think of this perspective, I think of deforestation or oil drilling. In my hometown state, North Dakota, a large reserve of oil was discovered in the top, western portion of the state. This has lead to significant wealth on the one hand, but also, for example, housing (not enough or makeshift) and personal safety issues (to just name a couple). There are also environmental issues such as tearing up the landscape and using natural resources. From this instrumental perspective, the oil reserves are seen only as being there for us to make use of, to order, and to find an efficient method for getting the oil out of the ground.

But Heidegger says that if we ask about the “essence of technology,” then we are viewing technology from an anthropological perspective, which sees technology as a human activity. But this too can conceal a means-to-an-end approach to understanding technology. Whereas the instrumental perspective chains us to technology and makes us believe that we can master technology, the anthropological perspective creates a technological understanding of being that is seeing people as resources. For example, companies that decide to layoff large numbers of people in order increase stakeholder profits, see people as just numbers on a budget line. The same can be said for companies that use algorithms to determine productivity without talking to any human beings (in this case, they are viewing people as resources).

What Heidegger is asking us to do is question these “enframings” first by seeing the frame (a “clearing”) and then by revealing (articulating) it. What I think of here is the effort to define global warming as a very real phenomenon and not just a theory (e.g., Al Gore’s documentary about global warming). For Heidegger, one way to create a revealing is through techne (art), which can lead to a free relationship to technology. Techne is productive knowledge that is concerned with making. It refers not to the end product, but to the making that leads to the end product. Aristotle defined techne as the “reasoned state of capacity to make” by which he meant that the maker can not only do, but also knows the how and the why of the making. Most people in my field associate techne with what would be considered expert or professional knowledge. It moves beyond simply knowing how to practice; the maker is able to state reasons why. Heidegger believes that techne, then, is one way to create a clearing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Online Language

I love the topic of this week's chapter--online language! As someone who studies language, I wonder about the impressions other people have. For example, a colleague of mine recently posted to Facebook that after posting his syllabus, he discovered a usage mistake--using the wrong verb tense. I responded with the question, What is it about our profession that we feel we can't make mistakes? Everyone makes mistakes in his/her language use. It's human nature. I added in my response that surely students would understand if there was one mistake. But do they? Do students think less of a professor if there is a mistake in any of the instructor's written materials? I believe that people make mistakes not because they are stupid or uninformed, but because they are tired of their own writing. This is why we have editors. It is very difficult to proof your own work because you are too used to the text you're writing that when you read it, you see it as you meant for it to be written (although there are different tricks I've learned to help the proofing process). Something like syllabus materials, assignments, and any ancillary instructional documents always involve multiple drafts and readings. Mistakes can happen. I am an editor and I can tell you that whether one is a long-time scholar or a newbie, everyone makes mistakes.

I'm also curious about other forms of online communication and mistakes. I text a lot with friends and family. Recently, a friend said that she reads her texts over before sending them because I am an English teacher. I've told her that I don't pay attention to mistakes especially in texting and that I've made plenty of my own. Using the contextual cues perspective that Jones and Hafner discuss in this week's chapter, I'm curious as to why an informal medium like texting would encourage a response that is more formal. It is just texting. Who cares if there is a mistake? I text with people who use shorthand language ("u" for you, for example), people who write out every part of a sentence including using correct punctuation, and people who use a mixture. Mistakes in texting are really innocuous yet some people will send a second text correcting their mistakes. In fact, I find myself doing it even though I know the other person knows what I meant. Is there a transaction cost even in texting?

What about our blogs? When I see mistakes in our blog postings for this class, I feel compelled to say something because I am the teacher, but on the other hand, I want the blog posts to resemble verbal discussion as much as possible. If we were talking face-to-face, I probably wouldn't correct someone. For one thing, to correct someone disrupts the flow of conversation especially in the classroom. But it does depend on the context. But these blogs are also a little more formal than if you just kept a blog for your personal use because they are connected to your performance in this class. How do I judge that? The transaction costs would be high in that case. How about in a formal paper for class? Of course, it is nice to see a well-written, well-edited paper, but how important is it if there is 1 or 2 mistakes? I had a professor in graduate school who counted off points on a paper if there were 2 or more mistakes per page. Granted if someone is making 2-3 mistakes per page, then he/she is not spending much time proofreading. I think that 2-3 mistakes per page is too much and would likely count down as well because submitting a paper for a grade involves more than writing; it also involves good, clear writing.

In my profession, accuracy is a strong component of technical communication. Mistakes are costly and could get someone killed. Imagine someone trying to dismantle a bomb. Would we really want that person faced with mistakes? In terms of costly, I once worked for a technical college as a public relations specialist. I create a viewbook (what now would be a website) about the college and discovered that on one of the pages, the toll free number was incorrect. We had printed 40,000 of those books and had to have them reprinted. Mistakes like that could get one fired especially if there's a costly mistake in everything you write. Where (or should we) draw a line with mistakes? (I read over my post and found at least 5 mistakes. I corrected them of course, but what would you all have thought if I hadn't?)