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Booles rush in

I expect that this will be a less playful version of Jeff's entry. Sorry about that.

Back in the day, back when Lingua Franca was still printing issues, they did a series of special turn-of-the-mill essays. One of these was a top-20 list, a list of those people in the academy who were doing innovative work with technology. I didn't see this list until a year or so later, in part I suppose because no one in my "field," computers and writing, was talking about it. And no one in the field was talking about it, in part, because no one in the field was represented on it. There were people from a broad range of disciplines on that list--not just tech ones--but despite the fact that my field had (at the time) an almost-20-year history of work with technology, despite an annual conference, despite a journal, despite a semi-professional organization, despite all of that, there wasn't a single member of that field represented on that list.

It was kind of depressing. But more depressing was the fact that there really wasn't anyone in my field who deserved to be there, myself included.

Flash forward to the present. Today, there's a "View" called "Hypertext 101" appearing over at Inside Higher Ed, which represents pretty conventional thinking in my field. I could snark up and down, believe me, but I'm going to restrict myself to two main points:

First, there is not a single thing I see there that couldn't have been written 7 or 8 years ago, and in fact, was being written then. With the possible exception of the "web in a can" reference (and the mistaken assignment of Blogger to the same category as Blackboard and WebCT), there is nothing new here. The examples with which this article closes? Using HTML editors to design web pages.

Second, and somewhat relatedly, I present to you a version of "net research" that was feeling its age back in the days of Gopher and Lynx:

However, research on the net means much more than typing a few words in to Google.  

A more sophisticated approach to teaching students how to do Internet research involves showing students some of the ways online searches use Boolean logic, and this is simply accomplished by visiting the Google Guide.

Ah yes. Research on the net means typing a few words into Google as well as Boolean operators. That's the ticket. I don't know what it is about this ridiculous field I'm in, but for some reason, every handbook we write testifies that Boolean operators are some sort of magic bullet for research. That, somehow, Boolean operators and a "credibility checklist" will actually result in research.

This is research that elementary school children are capable of doing. This is not "innovative" or "critical" thinking about research, or technology. This is the 5-paragraph theme of net research, an outmoded formula for gathering information that lacks any sort of nuance and actually discourages critical thought.

This is embarrassing.

Okay, a third point. Call it the bonus round. We are well past the point where it is kosher, in any venue, to issue these bland, pointless "calls for thinking critically." Put up. Give me some examples of the kind of innovation that you're calling for. Here's a few, completely off the top of my head: Will Richardson is doing more at the primary level than most college instructors are willing or capable of doing at the college level. And he's looking at the ways that weblogs, wikis, & the read/write web are challenging a model of schooling that's grounded in the narrowness of print literacy. Why not look at his work? How about EPIC 2014 as a new model for the argumentative essay? How about John Udell's study of the emerging professionalism and credibility at Wikipedia? How about, how about, how about?

Bottom line: it's not time to start thinking about technology. If you haven't started yet, it's time to catch up. If you don't know how to put together a QuickTime movie, you're behind. If you haven't futzed around with sound tools, you're behind. If you're still thinking about how to do web pages, you're behind. If you don't "get" blogs and wikis, you're behind. If you don't think that the Grokster case has anything to do with you, you're behind. And I could keep on going. There is nothing wrong with writing an essay, a view, a site, whatever, addressing those who are (by now) late adopters, but why in the world would exhortations to think critically about technology have any effect on those people when they've been hearing the same song for years now? The net is changing education, journalism, politics, science, culture, etc etc etc. If you're not keeping track of those changes, you're behind. Pure and simple.

Let me close with a passage that John Holbo cites over at his new blog The Valve. (By the way, if you don't know who Holbo is, you're behind.) Anyhow, it's from Lionel Trilling, and I've just been itching to use it:

From the democratic point of view, we must say that in a true democracy nothing should be done for the people. The writer who defines his audience by its limitations is indulging in the unforgivable arrogance. The writer must define his audience by its abilities, by its perfections, so far as he is gifted to conceive them.

"Hypertext 101" counters with this:

Computer technology has swiftly become our key writing tool but it’s too easy to imagine everyone “gets it.?

And hence the essay. But I work in a field which is frozen in this moment, the moment of assuming not only that "not everyone gets it," but also that "no one gets it." And this assumption frees many of the people in my field from ever having to really "get it" themselves. Instead, they can simply call for us to try harder to "get it."

Fact is, it's not "easy" to imagine the audience that Trilling describes. It means being willing to be ignored, which is hard. It means trading academic microfame or microcelebrity for the sake of good, meaningful, productive work. For years and years now, we've defined our work in my field as primarily pedagogical, and there's a real questionable ethic at play here, because I believe that behind that definition lurks the arrogance that Trilling describes. In other words, we've believed it easier to define the primary audience as students, the archetype in my field for an audience defined "by its limitations." So what happens when Will Richardson's students come to our classes, having learned by age 10 not only how to do Boolean searches but having been blogging, both in and outside of formal schooling, for upwards of 10 years. What are we going to have to say to them that they didn't know before they got to our classrooms?

What we need to start doing, right now, is to conceive of an audience capable of understanding what it is we have to say. We're already that audience, and sooner rather than later, our students will be, too. We need to start writing articles that take for granted the "critical thinking" that this essay calls for.


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I must confess to being woefully behind. At least I know it?

You know, at Cs I was spilling my blog enthusiasm around my friends and random strangers, and it was interesting how defensive many, even most, people were. "But, but, I don't have time." "But, but, they're so egotistical." "But, but . . ." Why is that? Why is there so little curiosity and so much attachment to the tried and true in "this ridiculous field" that we're in? (And I have to say--especially as a follow up to Boolean logic--I find that one of the saddest and funniest lines ever written about rhet/comp.)

(I do feel the need to add a small personally-motivated defense: I know both Will and Chris and would imagine they're quite capable of writing more up-to-date articles. But it is curious that something about broad public discourse about technology puts pressure on writers in our field to, as you say, address the lowest common denominator. Sort of like when a couple of well known scholars in our field "broke through" into print in PMLA a few years back and wrote the most boring, 15 or 20 year old stuff on collaborative writing.)

Thanks for your comments. I've got nothing against Chris or Will--I don't really know them--and really, my rant here is not personally motivated at all. Their piece is just so relentlessly typical of that LCD pressure you describe, Donna, and that's what irking me.

The folks at Technorati just had a party to celebrate the billionth weblog entry that their system tracked, and that fact alone should be enough to overwhelm all of the "buts."

One. Billion. Essays.

That is nothing short of incredible, and it's only secondarily about technology. Primarily, it's about writing, all this writing that's taking place in the world, and challenging all of these static, stolid institutions. They're rewriting the world around us, and the people in our field "don't have time" to investigate it? That's more than a little sad.


Have you posted a link to this entry after the article? I think you should, and I almost did it myself but thought that choice should be up to you. I think it needs to be attached so those readers will see your points, as opposed to your readers who already get it, or get a lot of it, already.

I think my trackback screwed up. Here's the url:

Great post!

I want to disagree with one thing Donna says; agree with another; and add more evidence to yet another. I concur with Donna's sense of being "behind." It's humbling. But one of the reasons I've cut back on my speaking schedule is to allow myself a little more time for catching up in new literacies. I know I never will catch up, but being not so far behind is good. Disagree: Donna, you know the authors and I don't, so you can better speak to what they actually can do. But apparently Will at least feels he's saying something important in the article: "I believe in what we say" is the sort of statement one makes in order to stand behind controversial claims. And indeed, what's in that article is not only not controversial but not new. Additional evidence to what you say, Donna, about people's reactions to blogging: I've found another wrinkle, and that's that several people read my blog and then charge me with slacking. I blog instead of working, they believe. Nor is it an idle charge, nor one made only once.

Thanks, Collin, for this post. We need these details. All those of us who have only part of a clue need to know what parts we have--and what we don't; and we need to quit thinking that because we know something about new media, we know about new media.

I so want to send the URL to your post to our English department listserv.

I hear ya. But I am a little uncomfortable with the issue of "being behind," as least as conceptualized as a lack of timely skills and/or knowledge. I have to doubt that, if compositionists were up-to-date as far as web writing &c. are concerned, that things would be much different. Rather, I think the problem is that folks are not at all interested in getting ahead; they are content to stay with whatever systems, techniques, and mindsets which developed as they learned to use computers and other technologies.

Then, because so much of composition studies is "write what you know" and empiricism and lore, we transfer those limited frameworks to our students, pedagogies, curricula.

I think cbd has a good point: the problem isn't so much being behind as it is an orientation toward knowledge. Worsham, of course, calls it the "pedagogical imperative," but I'm more inclined these days to think of it as the managerial imperative: the need to make knowledge containable, transferable, and, above all, fit-able into time slots (we have all become, as Deleuze warned us we would, administrators--not that there's anything wrong with administrating qua administrating, but there is something wrong when that becomes one's primary knowledge filter). Time is a significant material constraint, but that's not really the problem: the problem is that the management of time and space is the driving force behind much of the work done in composition studies.

And Becky: that's truly creepy, truly disturbing that you're being surveilled in that way.

A couple of quick thoughts:

* I'm working on a textbook project right now-- actually, I have been working on it off and on for years and years-- and one of the editors, out of the blue, said I needed something in a particular chapter about boolean logic. I could say more, but I'll keep the rest to myself.

* I too am woefully behind in most ways, but I'm also way out ahead in so many other ways, frankly. I've always been like that, a simultaneous early and late adapter, and I suppose that most of us are in at least some ways.

* Having said all that, I have to say that I am not completely convinced that blogs are all that useful as teaching tools. Not that they aren't useful as writing tools of different sorts, not that our students at a whole bunch of different levels shouldn't be using them, not that they aren't important, etc., etc. It's just that I haven't had a lot of successes in my teaching with them yet.

Now, I say that in part because it's a gross generalization and a lot more subtle than that. But I say this in part for two reasons. First, journals like Inside Higer Ed or CHE trade in generalizations because they are, relatively speaking, "general reader" publications.

Second, I'm hopefully going to have a short piece full of generalizaitons coming out in one of these things soon, and I'm hoping not to catch too much grief for it....

Don't worry. We will spread the grief equally!

Boolean operators can be quite complicated and powerful, particularly when they are nested and combined with other pattern matching syntax, and I do not think that most freshmen have a good command of them, particularly considering the different implementations they have to learn for commercial search engines, library catalogues, and electronic databases.

A research primer or handbook should have a detailed section on them.

Sure, Jonathan, but that does not mean teaching them easily translates into more powerful searching. That's the claim of this piece and many other essays or handouts which have names like "Google for Power Users."

Collin's parallel to the five-paragraph essay is particularly apt. The topic sentence and address to General Reader earned magic bullet status for the 5-PE. Boolean operators and "evaluating your sources" function that way for writing-oriented research. If we take the analogy forward, we can expect that focus on these skills or features will lead to the exclusion of others.

The instrument has its own logic withinin the body pedagogic. No one's denying this.

This does not mean that we should cast the booleans as magic beans.

I'd like to append: If you don't get social bookmarking, RSS/aggregation, and open source development, you're behind. I don't even think one has to *use* all these technologies, just have a basic understanding of the principles behind them.