Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Glue and Rubber Bands of the Inter-Web

Recently, I was having breakfast in Chicago with my friend Jeff, who was bringing me up to speed on the plans of a mutual friend. He explained that our friend was busying himself with the composition of a text that investigates the effect technology has on the self, but that he was confining his text to his own musings and the words on one particular philosopher. Jeff lamented that our friend, who is brilliant and insightful, is choosing not to include himself in the ongoing conversation about current technology and subject positions, instead opting to shape his writing through his interpretation of this one text. That got me thinking—considering how this class is always on my mind these days—about how the writing our friend is doing is a lot like a blog post without hyperlinks. Smartly linking our text to other texts not only adds depth to the ideas we are trying to convey, but links have become such an integral part to “reading” on the internet that the blogger who doesn’t link is looked upon with some suspicion.

In fact, perhaps the most important reason to link to outside texts is to show that, perhaps unlike my friend, you are willing to acknowledge that you are taking part in a greater discussion. The more connection you can show between your ideas and outside texts, the more credence readers give your thoughts. To that end, links also serve as an immediate citation for the outside sources you bring to your work, sort of a documentation shortcut (although it is important not to rely on links alone when it comes to citing sources for hypertext essays). Connecting to other texts also gives readers the chance to continue their edification with additional resources, especially if the additional resources are more substantial in scope and research than the original. And sometimes links offer a deeper “showing” of a concept by connecting to a page with more detail or a visual or aural representation of that concept.

Linking is wonderful, but there are some caveats. First, linking doesn’t absolve us from quoting outside sources completely. We still should be prepared to offer short or even block quotes of important passages in the articles we refer to in our texts. We also need to remember not to go link-crazy. In “Link Theory: Keep it Simple, Pick Meaningful Words,” Steven Johnson quotes New York Times web site design director, Khoi Vinh, about a strong rule of the linking thumb:

"The important thing is to hyperlink meaningful text," says Vinh. "You're contributing to the overall semantic nature of the Web by linking meaningful text."

This rule—that is to say, the act of creating hyperlinks itself—requires that we writers be prepared to recognize what is “meaningful text” in what we compose. Welcome to the lifelong struggle. I mean, really, isn’t determining what is “meaningful text” what the practice of composition is all about?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

We’re Going Live in 5, 4, 3, . . .

We, the bloggers of Winter 2008 109N02 (we need a nickname, I think: “The Fighting Bloggers”? “The Blog Demons”? “The Blog-eyes”?) have emerged from a long weekend, a weekend during which we probably spent little time thinking about or tending to our blogs. Now we’ll be taking a step that might cause that to change ever so slightly. I am asking the class to register their blogs at Technorati.com, effectively adding them to a searchable database of online journals. By requiring this action, I am asking the students to go deeper in their sense of responsibility for the texts they post. They are further committing themselves to their writing by alerting list browsers to the existence of their online compositions. Of course, posting on Blogger is a public act in itself; however, this move is a moment of recognition of these blogs as honest-to-goodness blogs. Naturally, I can’t help but be a-twitter at the potential for surf-by chatter.

That said, I call upon my class (and myself) to temper any real hope for discovery with a heaping spoonful of realism. Blogs are strewn about the internet like glass in a liquor store parking lot. (Yipe, what a negative image. Let’s change that to “as prevalent as scratch-‘n’-sniff stickers on a twelve-year-old girl’s social studies folder in 1984.”) So it is unlikely that anyone will simply happen to bump into your blogs. Although they might. And that possibility alone should provide extra motivation for these emerging writers—not to mention the instructor who assigned all this craziness in the first place—to make these texts are strong as we possibly can.
Realism looks a lot like chocolate pudding. The taste, however, is chillingly different.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Quarter it.*

We have made our way through a quarter of the Winter quarter (which, if my math is correct,1 means we're a full sixteenth through the school year, give or take Daylight Saving Time), and look at how far the class blogs have come. With each passing week they get clearer in focus, fatter with ideas, and dressier with the pictures and lists of links and the like that lace the text. As a regular viewer of the blogs, I appreciate the lushness provided by the accoutrement of the blogosphere, although I can understand how some may be wary of too many frills. As with both putting together a winning ensemble in fashion and crafting a text online, we should rarely strive to sport flair for flair’s sake. However, if I’ve learned anything from those 5 minutes of House of Style that I watched back in November of 1994,2 it’s that sometimes the accessories bring additional meaning to the whole outfit.

And that’s the philosophy here. I hope that the choices that the students make when they trick out their blogs will add something to the texts as a whole. Surely, we find blogs with whimsical pictures and colors aesthetically pleasing, but these visuals also affect the way we view the text. A site with only words written in one of the standard Blogger templates will often be written off as “unserious,” and, depending upon the quality of the writing, “stark raving insane.” Those who humanize their blogs invite readers to put their feet up, sit with the blogs for a spell, indulge in the not-too-tart-not-too-sweet flavor of their prose. And the writers—I hope—achieve a stronger sense of ownership over their journals. If nothing else, perhaps they’ll be happy to fess up to the fact that they made that lemonade.

*With a wink and a nod to my high-school gambling buddies. You know who you are.
1 It isn’t.
2 I haven’t.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Word to the Whys

By now, those of you in the 109N02 class have probably spent some time wondering (and rightly so) why an instructor of an English Composition class would have his class write weekly blogs. Judging from the responses I received to the prompt where I asked you to comment on your online reading and writing experience, many of you recognize that the majority of immediate communication on the internet has a fairly informal feel to it. While it is true that blogs often play fast and loose with some classroom essay conventions, we will come to discover that, by and large, they are still beholden to many of the rules we ascribe to Standard Edited American English. So consider this a warning that while your language may be more informal in your posting of blog entries and comments to the entries of your classmates, grammar and style still matter.

But let’s return to the question of just why we’re focusing on blogs in class. I have a dual purpose, I suppose. We are utilizing the blogs as a tool that will assist us along the process of composition—the informality that we assign to the genre, I find, coaxes students to produce a higher volume of writing than even in-class freewriting assignments. Secondly, we must appreciate that blogs are playing an increasing role in the dissemination of information and opinion, so through our experience in keeping blogs, we are studying them as a form of communication. Plus, they enable for feedback outside of the insulation of the English classroom, an invaluable addition to a writer’s learning experience.

So there we are: a brief defense of just why we’re keeping and studying blogs in 109N02. I look forward watching the evolution of your blogs and your writing selves over the quarter. And if nothing else, with blogs on the writer's faith, being/becoming a parent, legalizing marijuana, turning cars into cash, joining the U.S. Marines, etc., I’ll have plenty an eclectic read.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Welcome Winter 08 109N02 class!

Take a look around my blog! I encourage you to check out the list of links to the blogs of the students from my class last spring, locatedin the left sidebar. They did a wonderful job with their blogs, and I'm sure they'll inspire you in your own work. I look forward to a wonderful quarter of writing and reading with you!