What is Real Conversation?

Can real conversation take place through digital mediation? Sherry Turkle argues that conversation needs to be reclaimed, that it has been diminished as a result of algorithmic thinking and an avoidance of ambiguity and even boredom that digital communication media trade upon. Conversation, much as Birkerts would say of reading, is in the age of digital information (and attention) always elsewhere.

McLuhan, writing at the beginnings of the electronic age of information, focuses our attention somewhat differently. He offers something of a counter to Turkle and Birkerts, though one could argue as well that his historical view also provides evidence for their concerns. He helps us see where we seem to be going, even from a vantage point of 5o years ago. For McLuhan, electronic media extend and amplify our desire, and our ability, to have conversation. But rather than seeing that as a distraction to be avoided, McLuhan celebrates the ways this mediation  returns us to a collaborative and participatory conversation with others. For McLuhan–and this is where he would counter Birkerts–that conversation prominent in oral culture was fundamentally changed by print literacy, the technology of the alphabet.

I am still working through my answer to this question: Can conversation (and its extensions of relevance to education: reading, learning, presentation, writing), can real conversation take place through digital mediation? I, too, am sorting through whose critical perspectives I will forward and counter, on the way to developing my answer.

I had a recent encounter with a highly mediated, digital conversation about a book and an author who was, among other things, intensely suspicious of our tendency to let communication technology (more than 150 years ago) take the place of meaningful communication. I participated as a guest scholar in a live streaming webcast on the media site HuffPost Live discussing the question “Does Henry David Thoreau Really Matter?” I discussed my perspectives on Thoreau and his famous book Walden, a book I have taught often in my environmental writing classes. In the discussion, I countered a recent article that asserted that Thoreau’s book was not worth reading.

The experience was mediated and the conversation was virtual. But this mediated conversation extended a desire I had to respond to this article, to articulate my thoughts and concerns on its limitations, and be informed by others, by what I didn’t understand. That is the purpose of a conversation. This one worked well because of the occasion, the motivation. We did, in fact, have something to say–and the distances between the people having the conversation mattered not, what mattered was the rhetorical purpose. And it also worked, I believe, because the mediated experience was further guided by the care for time, rather than speed. The conversation was given time to unfold, to take place, even if that place was in several places at the same time.

Some things for me to keep thinking about as we continue to work through what it means to read and write in the digital world.



Reading as Playing as Counting?

Some insights for us to forward from Murray and Piper as we consider reading, rather, or also, as playing a game or counting numbers.

A key idea from Murray’s introduction to Hamlet on the Holodeck:

The computer is not the enemy of the book. It is the child of print culture…. I find myself anticipating a new kind of storyteller, one who is half hacker, half bard” (8-9).

A key idea from Piper’s argument in “By the Numbers”:

When we read a digital text we are not reading a static object. We are reading one that has been generated through a set of procedural conditions that depend on our interaction with them. Digital texts are never just there. They are called forth through computation and interaction, whether by a human or a machine. This is what makes them dynamic, not static objects. It is this freature that marks the single strongest dividing line between the nature of books and that of their electronic counterparts. (Book Was There, 132)

Some electronic and computational or algorithmic texts to consider, in response to Janet Murray and Andrew Piper.

Piper argues that “playing with texts has always been at the heart of reading” (140).  Has playing been at the heart of some of your reading experiences? If not, could you argue that reading texts is at the heart of gaming? What does it mean to game? How is that similar to, and different from, reading or interpreting?

Extra Credit

There are many events on campus that focus on what we are focusing on in class: the intellectual conversation of writing, reading, critical thinking and creative expression. A successful student at Washington College will explore these events and experiences, and do so right away, not wait until she or he is a senior. With that in mind, as a way to encourage you to attend at least one event this semester, I will offer extra credit to your final participation grade if you attend one of several events or readings or workshops and then write a 1-2 page review of it (describe the focus of the event, your reflections, anything you might apply to your own writing, reading, thinking that you encountered during the event).

In order to receive the credit, you must post the review to your blog and then link that post to this page  (copy the link of the post into the comment/reply box below).

Here are some of the many events.

Sophie Kerr Lecture Series

Rose O’Neill Literary House

Writing Center Workshops

Project 1 follow up: critical reflection

Our focal point in the first project was critical reflection. There are two places you can see this critical reflection emerge in an essay and think about, going into the next project, how you can continue to develop it: a strong thesis (the critical focus that will help you develop the reflection); strong development in your body paragraphs (in this assignment, thoroughly exploring/supporting your definition of reading/writing from your own experience).

Some examples to consider from writers in the class.


  • Notice the way Alex effectively sets up her thesis in response to what others might think (naysayers) and in response to her own earlier views. This simply, but effectively, provides context for her conversation (why is she talking to us about reading and writing? the basic tension provides a reason, a problem she is exploring) and focus for her thesis: her response will focus on writing having a greater creative purpose.
    • Some people may balk at the idea of writing being an enjoyable experience. Those naysayers may figure that it is a waste of time that could be spent elsewhere, and an activity reserved only for people who have nothing better to do with their free time. I am simply not one of those people; I love to write whenever I possibly can. Writing has always been such a large part of most of my eighteen years of life that I simply do not understand when one believes that it has served no greater purpose to them besides the occasional assigned academic essay. Writing can be cathartic, it can be creative, and it can allow people to express themselves in ways they would never have dreamed of. However, despite my current love of writing and defining myself as a writer, I was not always that way.


  • Notice the way Emily develops her reflection (across several paragraphs) by combining a detailed narrative of an earlier writing experience with critical reflection (returning to her thesis) that distinguishes her view from Birkerts.
    • And no one else had any clue what was happening or why, either. My middle-school self had only understood it because the details of the story originated in her head, and all she had to do was read them there. She connected with Elizabeth because Elizabeth washer, and the parts that weren’t drawn directly from her life were things that she wished she could have. To further demonstrate how closely Elizabeth and that past version of myself were intertwined I need only to point out that this novel was written in first person.
    • This is where I question Birkerts’ notion of writing as a process of “treating our experience as a text.” (111) I feel that experiences, memories, and values can guide your depictions, but the overall story has to be based on something bigger than yourself. By using only my own hopes and dreams as a model I completely neglected huge parts of Elizabeth’s world and thus limited people’s ability to connect with it, because their experiences aren’t the same as mine. This convinces me that writing should be a reading of the world, an interpretation and transmission of myriad aspects of life and multiple experiences, not simply my own. Thus, writing becomes in some ways an interactive activity, where you purposefully extend yourself (in the form of your values and world views) outward rather than retreating inside yourself as Birkerts’ phrasing suggests.

Introductions: Chris offers a good example of the way a strong introduction can both engage in its opening as well as work towards laying out a clear thesis, what the focus of the argument will be. A good introduction works well by starting the kind of thinking that the essay will be getting into.

  • My favorite quote in the Harry Potter series is one from Albus Dumbledore.  He is talking to Harry after Harry has been hit with the killing curse in the forest.  Harry questions if what is happening is real or in his head; Dumbledore looks at Harry and says, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” This quote is essentially how I define reading.  While some people see reading as words on a page, it is so much more to me. Reading is an active experience; it takes the imagination and past experiences to fully immerse oneself in a book.  When I read, I put myself in the middle of the story, allowing my mind to create scenes and visualize the events that are happening.  The book becomes as much a part of my thoughts and my life as any real life experience.  My past experiences help me to shape and fully immerse myself in what I am reading.  Birkerts shares these feelings, saying that to read a book we need to replace our reality with that of the characters, and use what we know to create their world.  This is where reading begins to become personal.  Our own experiences shape what we see within stories, but in the same sense this brings back the social aspect of novels too.  The reason a book becomes popular is because people can relate to it.  If a book is only applicable to a few people, it won’t be as popular as something everyone can share some experience with.  Contrary to Birkerts, I feel that along with being private, reading is very much a social experience, and without this dualism, one cannot fully experience reading.

Conclusions: Something we will work on throughout the semester. My suggestion is to experiment; try more than one (there is more than one way to do it). And think about raising larger implications at the end: what’s next, given this argument? where does this leave you, or the rest of us, if we accept this argument? Are there further complications you might want to pursue in a larger project that grow out of this?

Upcoming Event: Sherry Turkle

A world-renowned psychologist and writer who focuses on the effects of digital technology on the self will be visiting campus next Thursday, February 3. She will be lecturing in Litrenta lecture hall at 5 pm. Because her focus very much relates to the focus of Birkerts in Gutenberg Elegies, I highly recommend you attend the lecture. I am interested to know how her current work responds to, forwards, and/or counters the kind of argument that Birkerts makes in his book from almost 20 years ago.

This isn’t required, but worth checking out. This would be a great event to do for Extra Credit.

For more on the event and the author, link here.

Class Magazine: Final Projects


Fall 2010

A collection of final projects from Literature and Composition: Gutenberg Progenies

And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. [Mary Shelley]

To publish your final project  in this magazine, post the address of your portfolio (from your blog) in reply to this page. Include in the post the title of your essay.

Upcoming Literary Events

The Sophie Kerr Lecture series brings writers and scholars to campus to talk about their work and meet with students. The full listing is linked here. One of the events coming this September 28 mixes poetry and Project Runway–brings to life the question of style and rhetoric we started to talk about with reference to writing. Is there a better model in fashion for the essay than the old 5 paragraph model? Perhaps.

This and other events, along with Writing Center workshops, are eligible for my extra credit option.