Category Archives: literacy

Do all Canadian Professors wear funny robes and require a moderator? The Book Is Not Dead []

Jentery Sayers at the University of Victoria posted a really interesting video set from a debate the humanities faculty put on about the book or the death thereof.  Couldn’t help being interested since it’s what’s absorbed me generally for the past several years, and since we here at Messiah had out own symposium on the book this past February.

I embedded one video below with part of Jentery’s speech–unfortunately split between two videos, and Jentery’s head is cut off some of the time, a talking body instead of a talking head.  The whole set is on Jentery’s website and apparently somewhere on the University of Victoria and of course on YouTube.  Worth my time this evening, though perhaps it says something about me that I am spending my time on a Friday night watching Canadian professors dressed in robes and addressing one another as “Madame Prime Minister” and “Leader of the Opposition”. Better than Monty Python.

The event is described as follows:

 As independent bookstores close their doors, newspapers declare bankruptcy and young people are more familiar with negotiating digitized data, it seems that the era of the printed word may be on it’s way out. Indeed, the emergency of digital humanities research seems to imply that, even in the most book-centric fields, the written word may be obsolete. Join us for a good-humoured look at whether the book is dead or if rumours of its demise are premature.

via The Book Is Not Dead [].

Takeaway line from Jentery:  “New Media Remediates Old Media”.  I’m still unpacking that, but I like Jentery’s general sense of the commerce between the traditional Gutenberg book and New Media.  It does seem to me that in a lot of ways this interaction between media forms is really what’s happening right now.  Every book published has a web site, a Facebook page, and the authors interact with readers via twitter and personal blogs.  A lot of what goes on in new media is repackaging and mashups of old media.  I do think though that its also the case that old media repackages new media as well.  Movies end up as books, and blogs become books that become movies.

It seems to me that our divisions between English and Film/communication/digital media might make less and less sense.  Would it make more sense to imagine books as such as “media” and simply have media studies, rather than imagining these things separately.

Other memorable line was someone quoting McLuhan.  “Old technologies become new art forms.”  Or words to that effect. I think this is right, and in the long haul I keep thinking this may be the destiny of the traditional book, though i could be proven wrong. I think book binders could be a growth industry, as well as publishers that specialize in high end book products.  I’ve mulled over the question of the book becoming an art object several times before, so I won’t bother to do it again here.

Side note:  Jentery Sayers was extremely generous with his time, attention, and intelligence in engaging with a number of faculty and students at Messiah College last week.  A lot of good ideas and great energy even if the computer hook up was less than desirable. Much appreciated.  The clip of Jentery’s speech is below:



We are all twitterers now: revisiting John McWhorter on Tweeting

Angus Grieve Smith over at the MLA group on Linked In pointed me toward John McWhorter’s take on Twitter a couple of years back. [I admit to some embarrassment in referencing an article that’s TWO YEARS OLD!! But the presentism of the writing for the web is a story for another time]. McWhorter’s basic case is that Twitter is not really writing at all, but a form of graphic speech. My term, not McWhorter’s. He points out that most people even after knowing how to read and write speak in bursts of 7 to 10 words, and writing at its origins reflected these kinds of patterns. In other words, as speakers we are all twitterers. Of Twitter, McWhorter says:


The only other problem we might see in something both democratic and useful is that it will exterminate actual writing. However, there are no signs of this thus far. In 2009, the National Assessment of Education Performance found a third of American eighth graders – the ones texting madly right now — reading at or above basic proficiency, but crucially, this figure has changed little since 1992, except to rise somewhat. Just as humans can function in multiple languages, they can also function in multiple kinds of language. An analogy would be the vibrant foodie culture that has thrived and even flowered despite the spread of fast food.

Who among us really fears that future editions of this newspaper will be written in emoticons? Rather, a space has reopened in public language for the chunky, transparent, WYSIWYG quality of the earliest forms of writing, produced by people who had not yet internalized a sense that the flavor of casual language was best held back from the printed page.

This speech on paper is vibrant, creative and “real” in exactly the way that we celebrate in popular forms of music, art, dance and dress style. Few among us yearn for a world in which the only music is classical, the only dance is ballet and daily clothing requires corsets and waistcoats. As such, we might all embrace a brave new world where we can both write and talk with our fingers.

via Talking With Your Fingers –


I mostly agree with this idea, that we are all code shifters. I’m less sanguine than, McWhorter, however. His eighth grade sample takes students before they’ve entered a period of schooling where they’d be expected to take on more serious reading and longer and more complex forms of writing. Twitter may not be to blame, but it’s not clear to me the state of writing and reading comprehension at higher levels is doing all that well. There’s some pretty good evidence that it isn’t. So just as a foodie culture may thrive in the midst of a lot of fast food, it’s not clear that we ought to be complacent in the face of an obesity epidemic. In the same way, just because tweeting may not signal the demise of fine writing, it’s not clear that it’s helping the average writer become more facile and sophisticated in language use.

Is Twitter Destroying the English language?

Coming out of the NITLE seminar on Undergraduate Research in Digital Humanities, my title question was one of the more interesting questions on my mind.  Janis Chinn, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, posed this question as a motivation for her research on shifts in linguistic register on Twitter.  I’m a recent convert to Twitter and see it as an interesting communication tool, but also an information network aggregator.  I don’t really worry about whether twitter is eroding my ability to write traditional academic prose, but then, I’ve inhabited that prose for so long its more the case that I can’t easily adapt to the more restrictive conventions of twitter.  And while I do think students are putting twitterisms in their papers, I don’t take this as specifically different than the tendency of students to use speech patterns as the basis for constructing their papers, and not recognizing the different conventions of academic prose.  So twitter poses some interesting issues, but not issues that strike me as different in kind from other kinds of language uses.

I gather from the website for her project that Janis is only at the beginning of her research and hasn’t developed her findings yet, but it looks like a fascinating study.  Part of her description of the work is as follows:

Speakers shift linguistic register all the time without conscious thought. One register is used to talk to professors, another for friends, another for close family, another for one’s grandparents. Linguistic register is the variety of language a speaker uses in a given situation. For example, one would not use the same kind of language to talk to one’s grandmother as to your friends. One avoids the use of slang and vulgar language in an academic setting, and the language used in a formal presentation is not the language used in conversation. This is not just a phenomenon in English, of course; in languages like Japanese there are special verbs only used in honorific or humble situations and different structures which can increase or decrease the politeness of a sentence to suit any situation. This sort of shift takes place effortlessly most of the time, but relatively new forms of communication such as Twitter and other social media sites may be blocking this process somehow.

In response to informal claims that the current generation’s language is negatively affected by modern communication tools likeTwitter, Mark Liberman undertook a brief analysis comparing the inaugural addresses of various Presidents. This analysis can be found on University of Pennsylvania‘s popular linguistics blog “Language Log”. Remarkably, he found a significant trend of shortening sentence and word lengths over the last 200 years. My research, while not addressing this directly, will demonstrate whether using these services affects a user’s ability to shift linguistic registers to match the situation as they would normally be expected to.

Fascinating question in and of itself. I think on some level I’ve always been deeply aware of these kinds of shifts.  As I kid when my parents were missionaries in New Guinea, I would speak with an Aussie accent while I was with kids at the school across the valley, which shifting back in to my Okie brogue on the mission field and in my house.  And as I made my way in to academe my southern and southwesternisms gradually dropped away with a very few exceptions–aware as I was that my accent somehow did not signal intelligence and accomplishment.  Mockery of southern white speech remains a last bastion of prejudice in the academy generally.  I don’t think these are the kinds of register shifts Janis is looking at, but same territory.

I’m also more interested in the general motive questions.  If we could prove that Twitter inhibited the ability to shift registers, would that count as destroying or damaging the language in some sense?  If we could demonstrate that Twitter was leading people to use shorter and shorter sentences–or to be less and less able to comprehend sentences longer than 160 characters.  Would this signal an erosion in the language.  We must have some notion that language can be used in more effective and less effective ways since we are all very aware that communication can fail abysmally or succeed beyond our hopes, and usually ends up somewhere in-between.  Does the restricted nature of Twitter limit or disable some forms of effective communication, while simultaneously enabling others.  These are interesting questions.  I’m sure more intelligent people than I am are working on them.

Writing and rites of manhood at Hampden Sydney College

It’s pedagogically incorrect to say so, but I have to say the grammar and test intensive writing curriculum at Hampden Sydney College really works. I taught there for a year right out of grad school at Duke, was skeptical of the whole idea of a sophomore year grammar and writing test when I came, and have never tried to implement it anywhere else I’ve been. But I will say it worked. For Hampden Sydney College, it worked. Hampden Sydney College produces competent writers across the board, its share of truly skilled writers, and a campus culture that is deeply committed to writing, all through the musty and most unlikely aegis of that thing called grammar.

Success there is bred, I think, partly through the usual ways: small intense classes and several of them. Learning to write is labor intensive, so mostly as a nation we get the kinds of writers we pay for. But I also think the grammar and writing exam plays a crucial cultural role at the all male school. It is a rite of passage that every student anticipates from the moment of matriculation, that every first year prepares for throughout the year, and that every sophomore endures more or less at the same time. At the end of the sophomore year it marks the passageway to upperclass status. Who would have thought that grammar and rhetoric could become an initiation into manhood.

An excerpt from the recent Inside Higher Ed story on hsc and Old Dominiom. (Side note: I got to hear an address from Hampden Sydney’s President, Chris Howard, at the Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest. Impressive.)

But at Hampden-Sydney, qualifying to take the test is the culmination of a yearlong (or more) process. The 1,100 men there must first pass two rhetoric classes (or three if they test poorly as incoming freshmen) before sitting for the test. The classes, which are capped at 14 students, stress grammar and essay composition. If a student fails the test, generally taken late in his sophomore year, he has two opportunities to pass it again as a junior and to seek help from writing instructors.

If a student still hasn’t passed by the start of his senior year – something faculty say rarely happens – he places into a writing-intensive course in which he is tutored and then asked to write three essays but isn’t held to a time limit. Lowell Frye and Elizabeth Deis, both professors in the rhetoric department since 1983, said they can’t remember a student not graduating solely because of the writing assessment.

But, they said, the test provides accountability and encourages a collegewide emphasis on writing. “It creates a climate in which writing is important for faculty and for students,” Deis said. “The students, and especially the alumni, are absolutely committed to the idea of this test.”

(via Instapaper)

Is the laptop going the way of the codex; technological nostalgia in the iPad imperium

My colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, pointed me to this essay by Alex Golub on the relative merits of the iPad and the laptop.  For Golub, the iPad is indispensable, but, as he puts it “it’s not a laptop and it never will be.”  Golub goes on with a litany of limitations that, in fact, I mostly agree with–too hard to produce things, too hard to multi-task, etcetera, etcetera.

On the other hand, I’m struck by the degree to which his lamentations strike me as just the sort of thing people are saying about the demise of the book.

Perhaps I am one of the old generation who will someday be put to shame by nimble-fingered young’uns tapping expertly away on their nanometer-thick iPad 7s, but I don’t think so. People may get used to the limitations of the device, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better than what came before.

In fact, I see this as one of the dangers of the iPad. I see them everywhere on campus, and I wonder to myself: Are my students really getting through college without a laptop? Frankly, the idea seems horrifying to me. I don’t doubt that they can do it — I worry what skills they are not learning because of the smallness (in every sense of that word) of the devices they learn on.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed

Substitute the word “book” for every reference to laptop and you’ve got a pretty good rendition of the typical concerns with the demise of the codex, profs in horror at the idea that students may someday come to their classes without books in hand and they may be required to teach students from text on a screen. (Who am I kidding, the thought horrifies me still).  As if somehow there were an inherent depth or proficiency of knowledge that is unavailable through this other form.  My college began an iPad experiment this year, and so far there’s been quite a bit of success, even if there are also hiccups.  Just yesterday I read an interview with Clive Thompson who is reading War and Peace on his iPhone.  On his iPhone!

As I said, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone. But you can’t tell I’m reading War and Peaceon my iPhone. When I take my kids to the park and they’re off playing while I’m reading War and Peace, I look like just some fatuous idiot reading his email. I almost went to CafePress and designed a T-shirt that said, “Piss off, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone.”

I mildly object to the notion that people look like fatuous idiots answering their email.  It’s what I spend about 80% of my day doing.  Nevertheless, I agree with the sentiment that simply because the embodiment or the tools of our intelligence are unfamiliar, we should not assume intelligence and learning aren’t present.

We’ve had the codex for about two millennia in one form or another.  We’ve had the laptop for less than 40.  I admit to being just a bit bemused at the foreshortening of our nostalgia for the good old days.

Literacy in the Digital Humanities: Or, a clueless “noob” in digital academe

Today my faculty group focused on the Digital Humanities here at Messiah College had a great session with Ryan Cordell from St. Norbert’s College.  Ryan blogs regularly for ProfHacker at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and holds down the Digital Humanities fort (or perhaps leads the insurgency) at St. Norbert’s.  He’s also especially done some work advising liberal arts colleges on projects in the Digital Humanities, so I thought he’d be a good choice for consulting.  I’m happy with the choice:  Ryan was practical and down-to-earth, while also pointing to really challenging and exciting places we could take some of our nascent ideas.  I think we came away with some good possibilities for next steps that will lead to some concrete action in the next year.  I highly recommend Ryan if your looking for a consultant for starting or managing digital humanities projects in a smaller school setting.

Earlier in the day I had had the good luck to look in on a massive twitter debate that was, unbeknownst to the participants, about or at least precipitated by me and a brief conversation I’d had with Ryan.  I’d told Ryan that one of my biggest concerns was professional development for faculty and getting them over some of the immediate humps of alienation that traditional humanistic scholars feel when confronted with what amounts to an alien DH world.  I mentioned the fact that I  and one of my colleagues, David Pettegrew--who is himself much more versed in technical know-how than I am–went to a THATCamp and spent the first two or three hours feeling completely lost and at sea, unable to fully comprehend half the language that was being used or the tasks that we were being asked to implement. I mentioned to Ryan that I felt that I probably needed to have had a half of a semester of a coding class before I would have gotten everything out of the THATCamp that I should have gotten.  Although that improved as things went along and we got in to concrete projects, and I also found everyone very gracious and the atmosphere enthusiastic,  I was worried that my faculty who were only interested in investigating (and perhaps then only after my pleading) would be discouraged or uninterested in engaging with DH if a THATCamp was their first experience.

Ryan mentioned this in a tweet yesterday.

All-twitter-hell broke loose.

Well, not really.  In fact it was a really fascinating and intellectually complex conversation–one I wouldn’t have thought could happen via Twitter.  I won’t try to completely replicate that conversation here.  You could go to Ryan’s twitter feed and find the essentials for yourself.  It was clear, though, that Ryan’s tweet had touched what amounted to a raw digital nerve.  Some twitterers were flabbergasted that anyone would find a THATCamp too daunting or that it could ever be alienating.  Others assumed that the problem definitely must have been with me, that I was too shy to ask for help.  Ultimately the conversation turned to a pretty serious engagement with the question of whether there were genuinely insider and exclusive groups and hierarchies within DH.

As a “noob”–which I discovered in the course of the twitter conversation yesterday is what I am–I am here to say without a hint of condemnation, “Yes, yes, yes there are.”

For me, this is not a moral or even a political statement, though it was very clear to me that for many people in the conversation this was a moral or political concern.  To admit to hierarchies and exclusivity was  a betrayal of the collaborative and radically democratic spirit that many feel is at the heart of DH work.  I will say that these collaborative aspects are part of what most attracts me to what’s going on in DH–as little as I actually do know;  I see it as a superb fit for some of the commitments my school has to the public humanities and to public service more generally, besides moving students in to more collaborative learning environments that will be useful to them in the world they are entering.

However, any academic discourse that is imaginable, maybe any discourse that is imaginable at all, operates by exclusion and inclusion simply given the facts that there are those who know the language and those who do not, there are those who are literate in the language and those who are not, there are those who are fluent in the language and those who are not, and there are those who are creators in with and of the language and there are those who are not.  It is impossible for me to imagine how this could be otherwise.

The reason DH can be difficult and alienating for beginners like me is because we don’t know enough of the language to even know what to ask for. I will say I mused over the question of whether I had just been too shy to ask for help at the THATCamp.  Being a fainting violet is not really a quality that will get you terribly far in administration, so I doubt it, but it may be that I could have asked for more help.  The problem was, I felt so lost that I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of help to ask for.  This is a basic function of discourse, to understand the parameters of the language games you are playing, to know what questions to ask, what moves to make and when, and where to go for the vocabulary you need.  Its why you need consultants like Ryan, or teachers who are in the know.  Its the rationale for the title of my post referencing Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe.  DH is obviously a part of academe, even in its alt-academic forms, and it is increasingly central to academic work in the humanities, and there are an awful lot of people who are clueless about where to begin.

There is nothing morally or politically wrong with this or with being a part of an in group.  To say there is would be to say there is something morally or politically wrong with being alive.  Hyper-Calvinists aside, I don’t think this is a tenable position.

The problem, however, from an administrators point of view–and I speak in to this conversation primarily as an administrator who is trying to facilitate the work of others and promote the well-being of our students–is the pathways toward accessing the language and practices of this world aren’t always terribly clear.  Indeed, ironically, I think some of the laudable democratic ethos in DH work and culture may contribute to this obscurity.  Because a THATCamp–and so much other DH work–is so democratically organized, it means that one experience, conference or workshop may in fact really work well for rank beginners, while another may really require attendees to be a little more versed in the basics before attending.

For me as a person and as a thinker, that’s fine.  I actually look forward to going to another THATCamp someday, even if I am just as lost as I was the first time around. My tenure no longer depends upon it–which gives me a freedom my junior faculty do not have.

However, as an administrator, that democratic quality is a disaster as I consider what kinds of professional development efforts to try to support with my faculty.  I would not be able to tell whether a particular experience would be appropriate for a rank beginner who is hesitantly interested or at least willing to give this a try.  Alternatively, I wouldn’t be able to know ahead of time whether a particular experience would be appropriate for a more advanced colleague who might go and get an iteration of the basics she already knows.  My ability to manage my budgets in a responsible fashion is hampered by my inability to gauge what kinds of professional development experiences I should pursue or promote with my colleagues who are at very different places in their experience of and expertise in DH methodologies and practices.

The traditional life of a humanist academic is elitist in its own obvious ways with its own arcana and exclusionary practices. But the pathway toward access to its languages is fairly well marked, even if it is now increasingly travelled successfully by the very lucky very few.  I could tell junior faculty members 10 years ago that if they wanted to succeed at my college they needed to do three or four things, and I could outline how they should go about doing them.  I don’t sense that kind of pathway to DH work, yet, so while I am wanting mightily to get my faculty more involved with some of these efforts, I’m also aware that without a clearer path for their own professional development, I may be as likely to facilitate confusion as I am to promote professional development.

This problem may simply disappear as DH becomes more and more central to the humanist enterprise, but I suspect as it does become more and more central that the pathways to access will have to become more and more clearly marked.  This means the development of disciplinary (or quasi-disciplinary–I am aware of the angst over thinking of DH as a discipline) protocols and expectations, and as importantly the expected means by which those elements of professional life are effectively accessed by beginners.

This means the recognition of certain gateways and the appointment of their gatekeepers, which all smacks a little bit of hierarchy and exclusion.  However, while it’s true that roadmaps undemocratically dominate a landscape, they also get you where you need to go.  And while gateways mark a boundary, they also let you in.

What is the future of the book?–Anthony Grafton’s Keynote lecture at Messiah College

This past February we had the privilege of hearing from Dr. Anthony Grafton from Princeton University at our Humanities Symposium at Messiah College.  Grafton is a formidable scholar and intellect, and a generous soul, a too rare combination.  The following video is his keynote lecture for the Symposium.  Grafton’s instincts are conservative, readily admitting his undying love for the codex and its manifold cultural institutions (libraries, used bookstores, even Barnes and Nobles).  At the same time, he is under no illusions that the future of the book lies elsewhere.  His lecture looks at what is threatened, what should be valued and protected from the fast, but also what might be a potential for the future of the book, and what values we should bring to bear to shape the book, which is, after all, a human institution.

Many thanks to Derick Esch, my work study student, for his work in filming and producing this video.  Other videos from the symposium can be found at the same vimeo page.

Dr. Anthony Grafton: 2012 Humanities Symposium Keynote Address from Messiah Humanities on Vimeo.