Reading and Writing in An Electronic Age

What happens when writing enters the electronic age? We turn to that question, and turn into a critical exploration of the problem as raised by Sven Birkerts and a range of other critical writers/thinkers we will be exploring over the remaining weeks of the term. Do we lose something that writing, particularly literary writing, has or should represent? Do we gain something in the process?

In her book Writing Machines, the critic Katherine Hayles, a scholar who studies writing and new forms of media, argues for something she calls “media specific analysis.”  She emphasizes a simple point: the medium matters in whatever text we are reading–and so recognizing and understanding the differences among media should matter as well. A book is not a film is not a website–though these days, all three may interact in significant ways, as we will see exploring examples of “hypertext” literature. You might look (if you haven’t already) at The Medium is the Massage, the text we will turn to shortly. Hayles writes of “material metaphors,” symbolic moments in a text when the image or idea in the text (in verbal or visual form) reflects something of the material basis of the text. In other words, the medium. In other words, the subject of our reading or viewing turns into the object of our reading/viewing as well.

This critical focus on thinking critically about a medium–be it writing, film, computer, etc–owes something to a well-known media theorist from the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan. For some useful background on McLuhan and one of his signature concepts, “the medium is the message,” browse this wikipedia entry. [by the way, as you may or may not realize, Wikipedia is a digital remediation of the print encyclopedia].

As an example of McLuhan’s assertion that the content of every medium is the medium itself–i.e., the real message lies in how any message is conveyed (its mediation) not what the content or message is–we could take this Wikipedia entry. MM would argue that the real effect on those who read this entry comes through the way the ideas (in this case, some background, initial description of ideas, further links and resources) are conveyed and not the ideas by themselves. There is no idea apart from its medium for MM. And so the nature of a wiki–its ways of conveying content, of linking, of the kinds of writing and reading experiences it emphasizes and enforces, is the message.

He also distinguishes two types of experiences we can have with a communication medium: hot (or high definition) such as film–where our attention needs to be focused, absorbed; and cool (or low definition) where the active participation of the viewer/participant is more crucial to the experience, such as with a book (turning the page, re-reading, etc).

The phrase ‘remediation’ comes from the authors Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin who build upon McLuhan to argue, further, that every new medium builds upon, repurposes and remediates an earlier and existing medium. Thus the medium is the message also implies that there is no new media apart from ‘old’ media. Bolter and Grusin take this even further (which is to say, take our new media all the way back to MM’s older view) in suggesting that the content of every new medium is the act of remediation itself: how the new medium relates to and reuses the old.

So film reinvents (or remediates) the writing of a book. But a book also reinvents the presentation of a film. When we will read (browse, play, view?) some literary texts developed for electronic environments, we will encounter both, and more. But the problem, the question we will continue to explore, is the one we forward from Birkerts: when books and reading enter into the electronic age, do we lose something in the process?


Reading Birkerts: the how as well as the what

In the opening pages of The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts focuses in on a way of thinking about reading (and as he points out, reading/writing, since the two go together) that we are going to explore and exploit throughout the course. Basically, what he does, and what we will do as we continue to read him and other authors, is foreground the process of reading and style of writing that he has in front of him. He pulls back the curtain, as I have suggested (to use the Oz image), on the mechanics and craft (for me, mechanics need not be a bad word; it might be for Birkerts, however) of the writing.

We see this vividly in the opening of his first chapter, in his focus on Virginia Woolf and her ‘stylistic verve’; on the ‘how’ of her writing rather than the ‘what.’ So, this is a useful starting point for us, since we are also interested in exploring the craft of writing (and its relation to the thinking that goes in to critical reading) and want, also, to develop the verve (vivacity, vitality) of our style. A basic definition of style in writing I would suggest is the how that informs the what; the method and mediation that shapes the message.  I wonder what your sense of style is: what the word means to you, in regard to writing and also to other acts and arts. I also wonder what your sense of your own style is.

And so, as we continue to read Birkerts, in addition to developing a grasp of his ‘message’ and pursuing a critical reading of this text, we also want to use him to think about his style and our style. We will often talk about the “how” of his writing in addition to the “what.” To use a famous phrase we will encounter later in the course, we will explore how the medium of his writing informs his message. We want to see what we can learn as writers,what we can borrow from his example.

To give you one example: in his introduction, Birkerts offers all of us (I include myself in this, a writer who still struggles at times in setting up a focus and thesis for a project–particularly larger ones) a useful, decent model for an introduction: declaring ‘straightforwardly’ his ‘premise’ and ‘focus’ and working towards a full statement of his thesis:

As the printed book, and the ways of the book–of writing and reading–are modified, as electronic communications assert dominance, the ‘feel’ of the literary engagement is altered. Reading and writing come to mean differently; they acquire new significations. (6)

We will work throughout the course on ways to develop our own introductions and how to set up our focus and thesis more effectively. So, consider this introduction as a useful example to get back to when you are working on your own essays. We will talk more in class and workshops about what is useful and what is effective in how Birkerts introduces his argument and the ways we can learn from his “how.” One thing we see right away that I would suggest is effective: Birkerts tells us at key points what he is arguing, highlighting key words that signal to us something important: premise, focus. He talks to us as readers of his writing–as though he is having a conversation with us.

Your initial writing in response to our reading, the blog (which can and should lead to stronger writing for your essay projects), can begin to notice and focus more on this ‘how’ in addition to providing some summary of what a particular author has said. Notice how an author like Birkerts uses words like ‘premise’ or ‘focus’ or talks to you as a reader.

And at the same time (of course) we are reading this book for the “what.” What interests me right away is to note the ways that this focus on how–and more generally on the “non-linear” style of writing/thinking that he appreciates in Woolf and wants to imitate in his own–sounds like a key characteristic of digital writing and the technological mediation of thought and language that he is trying to resist. He says in his opening paragraph: “All thinking is relative, relational, Einsteinian. Thinking is now something I partake in, not something I do” (11). At the end of the semester, when we get to electronic literature and digital writing, this quotation will seem very apt for how we “partake” in the thinking of “hypertext” and its Einsteinian relativitiy. So I suppose my question for Birkerts at this point: do you secretly wish, or perhaps by necessity, need to write (the how) in a way that contradicts the logic of your argument (the what: reading should not be relative, relational)?

By the way, Birkerts does–it may surprise you, sometimes post a blog. Here he is on “Resisting the Kindle.”

Final Project: Revision Portfolio

Final Project Portfolio

Putting it All Together: The Rhetoric of Creative Reading

Revision, as we have emphasized in each of the writing projects this term, is not so much “fixing” our writing and reading as taking it further. In that sense, writing represents a continual feedback loop of experimentation and recombination. There is more we can do, or might do, or should do, or would do–if only we had more time. The final project obliges you to take that time. This is your final exam. The components are:

  • Essay: You will write a 5-7 page (double-spaced, standard 12pt. font, etc) essay that revises and expands upon something you have already begun in one or more of your previous writing projects.
  • Learning Focal Point: Revision. Your task is to revise this essay: go back and go further with your reading, your thinking, your writing. The revision should reflect substantial development and change, not merely editing. Revision involves taking a risk with your thinking and writing.
  • Presentation: Further Reading. To guide your revision, you will update your to-do list and propose a revised abstract for the final project revision and identify a writer from the course who you select as a mentor. You will also identify one key rhetorical or logical element of your writing and one grammatical or stylistic element of writing that you will revise and improve. To conduct this further reading, consult resources such as Guide to Grammar and Writing, Purdue OWL, and others listed on right side of this blog. To identify these rhetorical, logical, and grammatical elements of composition, refer back to our Rubric and the Keywords from the course. You will post to your blog a proposal (250-500 words) that includes the following:
    • revised abstract of your argument + indication of which writer from the course (anyone we have read) you select as your writing mentor, and why: what aspects of writing do they demonstrate that you would like to develop?
    • rhetorical/logical element of your writing you will develop: with guidelines, examples to explain; provide a link/citation to the resource
    • grammatical/stylistic element of your writing you will improve: with guidelines, examples to explain; provide a link/citation to the resource
    • in a brief (5 minute) presentation in class, you will teach us what you have learned and how the rest of us might learn from your further reading
  • Publication: Portfolio. You will publish your final project on your blog, in a new post called “Portfolio.” This portfolio will include: your final revised essay, the earlier version of the writing project you are revising, plus a 2 page (approximately 500 word) Preface. You will also submit a final version of the project (along with the preface) to Canvas.
    • Preface: Your preface is an expanded abstract and self-reflection, serving as the introduction to your portfolio. After providing the abstract of the argument in a short paragraph (as you have done with each writing project), you will reflect on the work that went into the revision–what you have attempted to do with the essay, why and how you revised it, what you believe you have achieved with this writing. You should pinpoint 1 or more of the key aspects of the revision you have pursued.  The Self-Reflection should also reflect on your progress and achievement as a writer and reader this term overall–what you have worked on (that to-do list I keep talking about), what you have achieved, what you want to keep working on in the coming semesters at Washington College. In other words, what does this portfolio represent of the work you have done this semester and the writing and critical reading you plan to continue in the coming semesters?
  • As always, your final version of the essay should include proper citation format for any references and include the statement of the Honor Code.

This final project in revised reading and writing tests your progress with the three main objectives of this course (remember those?): developing critical reading; developing thoughtful writing; developing effective writing. Those objectives, of course, are ongoing; but your final project should demonstrate your development in those areas–in contrast, say, with the last ‘paper’ you wrote in high school or the first essay you wrote in this course.

The project also provides an opportunity for publication–what we do and want to do (in different forms and forums) as writers. For example, you might consider submitting this essay for consideration by one of the numerous publications on campus that highlight student work–and include critical writing, are not limited to fiction or poetry. Those publications include The MediumThe Collegian, and The Washington College Review. Here is a student’s final project, later published in The WCR, written by Alex Smythe, now the Asst. Director of the Writing Center [Smythe.WCR.iamreader]

The projects also provides an opportunity for you to put to work the rhetorical focal points we explored and practiced with each project. In a preface to a final project, a former student wrote this review of those focal points, informed by Joseph Harris’s terminology and our use of his book Rewriting:

When Coming to Terms with a text by another writer, I then make three moves:

  • Define the project of the writer in my own terms,
  • Note keywords or passages in the text,
  • Assess the uses and limits of this approach

In Forwarding a text, I begin to shift the focus of my readers away from what its author has to say and toward my own project:

  • Illustrating: When I look to other texts for examples of a point I want to make.
  • Authorizing: When I involve the expertise or status of another writer to support my thinking
  • Borrowing: When I draw on terms or ideas from other writers to use in thinking through my subject
  • Extending: When I put my own spin on the terms or concepts that you take from other texts.

Countering– Three main ways of creating a sort of critical distance:

  • Arguing the other side: showing the usefulness of a term or idea that a writer has criticized or noting problems with one that she or he has argues for.
  • Uncovering values: Surfacing a word or concept for analysis that a text has left undefined or unexamined.
  • Dissenting: Identifying a shared line of thought on an issue in order to note its limits

Revising-My aim is instead to describe revising as a knowledge practice, as a consistent set of questions you can ask of a draft of an essay that I am working on:

  • What’s your project? What do you want to accomplish in this essay? (Coming to Terms)
  • What works? How can you build on the strengths of your draft? (Forwarding)
  • What else might be said? How might you acknowledge other views and possibilities? (Countering)
  • What’s next? What are the implications of what you have to say? (Taking an Approach)”

Student Sample: For one example of how you might extend your revision work, and extend the medium of your writing (in the senses of Marshall McLuhan), consider this digital version of the project produced by Caitrin Doyle, a former student in the class. This digital project offers an extension of what the author submitted, which was itself an extension of her third writing project. One of the areas that the author extended in the revision focused on the forwarding and countering of critical perspective. Here is a sample of the extended discussion that allows the author to take her own approach, while clearly responding to and effectively building upon the work and ideas of others (in this case: Murray, Birkerts, Carr, and the hypertext poem “Faith”).

[…]Sadly, however, hypertext literature has been confronted with just as much skepticism as its conduit. According to people like Sven Birkerts, hypertext literature cannot be considered “true” literature and therefore cannot be worth reading because it lacks the depth present in classic literature; but that simply cannot be true. While beauty is in the eye of beholder, it is widely believed that art–and literature as a facet–are successful only if they evoke something in their audience; some emotion, a hard-to-describe feeling, anything. And the hypertext poem “Faith”, written by Robert Kendall, does exactly what Birkert’s claims it is incapable of: it inspires. Kendall’s poem garners its very meaning from the use of technology. With the use of coding and magic, Kendall guides and inspires his readers through a step-by-step journey of his own writing process. In fact, without the use of movement on the screen–entirely credited to his use of the tools that these new technologies have provided–the poem would not have been nearly as poignant. I got so much more out of this poem by physically watching it unfold word by sentence by thought then I would have had I simply read it in its entirety printed on a page. Kendall uses technology to take his readers on an adventure from the birth of his idea to the final executions of the language he uses to shape, flesh out, and express it. The problem with a lot of poetry is, after all, that the author’s meaning, what he or she actually set out to express, often gets lost in the muddied interpretations of its readers. With this multimedia poem, Kendall’s true meaning rings out loud and clear.  This poem is not read, it is experienced.  Multimedia literature–as made evident by this poem and by thousands of others like it–provokes as much thought, evokes as much emotion, and involves the audience as much if not more than any classic literature I have ever read. And by meeting those standards, set out by perhaps hypertext’s most vigilant critic himself, it proves itself worthy.

However, my personal experience with multimedia literature doesn’t do much in the way of convincing, and as Murray points out, “The birth of new medium of communication is both exhilarating and frightening. Any industrial technology that dramatically extends our capabilities also makes us uneasy by challenging our concept of humanity itself”, and that seems to ring especially true with the opponents of hypertext literature. But what everyone seems to be conveniently forgetting is that technology is what started it all, especially when it comes to literature. The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, decades before even the American continent was discovered. At the time, thousands of people were wary about the infusion of literature into the everyman’s experience, as literacy tended to breed uprisings and all kinds of problems for the ruling class. But what no one could have predicted, however, was the absolutely enormous influence the printing press would have. It changed every single aspect of life for the people of the world. All of the sudden, entire populations were learning how to read, expanding their minds, inventing, exploring, discovering, creating, and all in the active pursuit of knowledge brought on by easy accessibility to the printed word. The invention of the printing press sparked the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and led to so many countless new technologies, theories, and efficiencies that I couldn’t even begin to name them. This is the natural progression of our species; we sit and think on some problem for a great long while, we finally make some solution happen, nay-sayers and worshippers alike cry out, and then, often regardless of the public’s reaction, that new technology makes a shift in the world. Eventually, those changes have all proved to serve us and to improve our quality of life. The internet and hypertext, multimedia literature are simply in their “outcry” phase. I believe that once the dust settles, we will be left with a tool just as mighty and powerful as the printing press before it, we are simply following in the footsteps of our own ancestors before us.

All that being said, there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who are still unsettled by the shift occurring in our world right now. And to be entirely truthful, those concerns are not completely unfounded.  For example, Nicholas Carr, a kind of spokesperson for the healthily open-minded and skeptical, believes that if we make efficiency and immediacy our priorities with literature, we “may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace”. And he’s got a point; the types of long, verbose novels that have come out of the invention of the printing press are definitely getting a little tougher to swallow. But I think the cause of that problem is a lot simpler than it may at first appear: just like a child’s favorite toy will inevitably be passed up for a newer, shinier version, so will it always be harder for a reader to engage in a long, complex, linear story printed on a page when they have experienced other complex worlds–co-authored by both writer and technology–that allow them to experience the same story with more than just their imaginations. Technology has made way for a way new kind of story-telling: an experience of the senses. Anyone who has embraced these new technologies has become accustomed to being completely engrossed; eyes, ears, and minds, into the worlds that are being created for them by a medium that uses multiple forms of media. Over time those changes in the way we experience our content have reflected themselves as changes even in the way our brains process new things. It makes absolute sense that people would have a hard time concentrating on and engaging with novels, because they are simply not as engaging as the new types of literature readers have been experimenting with.

However, Carr is right when he points out that “never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives-or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts-as the Internet does today.” But I don’t think he’s really considering the reasons why that would be happening.  The internet is a tool that can make almost every single aspect of daily life go a little bit smoother. It’s a tool that can be used to do literally anything it is programmed to do. Could I sit in the library stacks, combing through text after text, running my finger and my eyes endlessly down the page searching for that perfect quote I read once in seventh grade? Absolutely.  But, do I have the time or the inclination to be doing that on a daily basis? Not at all. The internet gives us the opportunity to explore whole world if we have a few minutes to kill. I know that the argument that Carr is making here is that that all that time spent doing one thing–like reading an 800-page novel–is incredibly valuable, and I think he’s entirely right. But should that mean that people should not also spend their time finding meaning in short little poems that quite literally sing and dance their way across the page? I don’t believe so. Time spent experiencing literature is incredibly valuable, but what Carr is missing is that literature doesn’t have to be experienced solely on the printed page.

Readers who experience hypertext literature are connecting sensory memories; like sound, and sight, with their thoughts and memories. With novels, you can only have thought. If anything, these new forms of literature are opening us up to deeper levels of contemplation. Birkerts takes Carr’s argument a step further: “[Hypertext forms of literature] are not only extensions of the senses, they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others,” (224). He is concerned that the Internet’s ultimate goal is to forge connections between every person in the world, turning the individual perspective into a global one. He goes on to say “The end of it all…is a kind of amniotic environment of impulses, a condition of connectedness,” (224), but I really don’t see a problem with that. He uses the image of an amniotic environment, and I think, like Murray’s use of the word “bound” to describe the words printed on a page, that he’s chosen a really appropriate metaphor. The internet and its brain children are still so incredibly young. The symbol he’s provided for us is one of growth, and one of hope. Absolutely endless possibilities have come out of this new form of technology already, and I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that Birkerts wants to stomp it out before it has even had a chance to grow. What might be happening is a sort of social adaptation, a change that will yield a possibly better world. To give all of that hope and opportunity away to revert back to our old ways would only seem to me to be simply barbaric and cowardly. It’s in our blood to move forward, to keep ourselves rooted in the past would be to deny our always striving minds.


Birkerts: process over product

In his chapter “Hypertext,” Birkerts continues his exploration of the differences between print and electronic texts, between words on a page and words on a screen. In “Into the Electronic Millennium,” he emphasizes the difference as one between linearity (print) and association (electronic)–earlier in the book, this opposition was described as  depth versus shallowness. Here, turning his attention to a literary hypertext created for a digital environment (Moulthorp’s Victory Garden), he continues the opposition, focusing it on a difference between process and product. As he puts it succinctly,

Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. (158)

Moving forward from page to screen, he believes, we move backwards from the book as a product to the process of writing and producing it. Along with this “profound” and “consequential” shift from literature and product to writing as process, Birkerts argues, “provisionality” is promoted and the traditional goal of the writer (he mentions the French novelist Flaubert) is lost. Attending to this loss, the reader of the book, turned into “process” at best, at worst a “sophisticated Nintendo game,” loses his or her sense of the private self (164).

These are familiar  keywords Birkerts uses in his argument: process, product, privacy, provisionality, perfection, potential. My criticism and concern for the implications of his argument might best be focused by adding another ‘p’ word to his list: pedagogy. It seems to me that in worrying about the ways that writing’s process becomes, potentially, revealed in a digital or electronic environment, Birkerts really worries the potential that anyone might become a writer. Here, my disagreement with Birkerts sharpens most into focus. In my view–recall, I am a teacher of writing, and a writer still learning my trade, as every writer does–provisionality and process are necessary ingredients for learning. One learns by learning the process; one writes by producing writing, not by having written, by having a product. The reader is always ready to turn into a writer, as Walter Benjamin put it in his essay on the “Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” We thus participate in writing. And participation is yet another concern, and another ‘p’ word, that Birkerts discusses. Instead of that, he wants to return to a time when the author perfected his writing by creating books that, in Birkerts’ phrasing, overpowered the reader.

Perfect, that is to say, completely finished, books might exist–though I haven’t read one. But even if they do exist, the problem becomes, for the writer, for the learner, how to get there while being imperfect? For learners, perfect books are dreamed of and always never written. Isn’t that what happened to Birkerts? These are some of the thoughts and concerns I take into the final pages of his argument and our initial exploration of electronic and hypertext writing.

I used Google Books, by the way, to do some keyword searching–for example, in Gutenberg Elegies. Here is an example (the word process appears 45 times).

As we explore more directly hypertext fiction and poetry this week, consider some basic background for hypertext fiction of the sort that Birkerts encounters. It is from that massive hypertext encyclopedia you know well, Wikipedia. Consider that as both the problem and potential of hypertext literary reading: what if novels or poems read like entires in Wikipedia: in what ways does that change literature? Here is the entry for Hypertext Fiction. We can also think back to McLuhan’s argument, one that I think Birkerts clearly has in mind, though he doesn’t directly quote from: the medium is the message; all media work us over completely. Birkerts believes that the author, not the medium, should be working the reader over. Hypertext, for him, is too much medium, not enough message. I assume he would say the same about the electronic literature archive–where the process, not the product, is on view in the ways the texts are described and categorized.

Do you agree? I agree somewhat. This means that I find both uses and limits in his argument that help me to think about ways to develop my argument by forwarding elements that I agree with, but also ways to complicate my argument by addressing places where I don’t agree–where I can anticipate how he would object and provide a response.

For a view and vision of hypertext literature that can be said to disagree with the vision of Birkerts (and strongly) by way of agreeing, consider Shelley Jackson’s essay “Stitch Bitch.” There she argues favorably that hypertext is “what we learned to call bad writing.”

Andrew Piper, who takes a different view of the idea of playing literature as a game, refers to The Apostrophe Engine in his chapter “By the Numbers.”

Birkerts: countering, counterargument, conclusion

Sven Birkerts concludes The Gutenberg Elegies by focusing on an opposition between “the solitary self” and “the collective.” For Birkerts, a true self is solitary and a true sense of self exists only in solitude; this condition of selfhood is cultivated best through the pages and linear lines of books. Birkerts sets against this condition of solitary selfhood the “condition of connectedness” that he associates with what he terms “the ever-expanding electronic web.” “They are not only extensions of the senses,” he argues about the technological improvements of the electronic age in his “Coda,” “they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others.”  In other words, the problem is not so much that we are, in the age of overwhelming information, overloading our senses by extending their range and reach; more troubling for Birkerts, we are extending ourselves and our senses into and among the extended senses of others. “Others” is the real pejorative term here (224). Birkerts fears contamination through connection.

This is where I disagree most strongly with Birkerts’ understanding of the “amniotic environment of impulses,” to use his telling metaphor of the web. I think Birkerts aptly characterizes the effect of this environment of impulses. He gets the technology right; the uncited echo of Marshall McLuhan’s defintion of technology as the “extensions of man” brings that home. We have, as McLuhan shows, always used technology to extend our senses–long before the age of electronic communication. Birkerts could be more precise in recognizing that such “extensions” would include the technologies of writing and print and bookmaking that informs the books that thus inform the selfhood he fears we are loosing. Books are part of an earlier hive of information and communication network. But no matter; he elsewhere in this book admits that his beloved book is, of course, a form of technology–even if that view is kept to a minimum. Birkerts gets not the technology wrong nor its implications (the extension of senses); he misses the point in fearing the connection to others. That is to say, I am troubled most by the “condition of connectedness” that Birkerts, it seems, forbids the act of reading. Why is connectedness the problem and solitariness the goal of our selfhood or of the creativity of reading and writing that informs it? Why must we think of creation in solitude?

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, indicates that Birkerts’ problem is in seeing connection as the problem. Rather, in connecting to others, literary texts connect readers to writers and written words they create. And, when we consider an electronic text, we find in many cases, the connections are even stronger.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems lurking in connectivity. I would agree with Birkerts to the extent that he worries about the loss of authority in multiplicity. However, I think he goes too far in arguing that only the individual author, domineering over the individual and solitary reader, can count for what it means to be a reader (or writer). In my view, creativity can only come through connection that exists beyond the self. The result, I understand, may be a literary text that undermines what we think of as a traditional novel or poem. Consider, for example, “This is Not a Poem.” That title might remind us that this re-visioning of the traditional relation between reader and writer (the reader here becomes a writer, even rewrites the writing) or between artist and viewer has been going on for some time. For further reading consider On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, by Rick Prelinger: A recent article that takes up the problem of originality in the digital age, and proposes that we think instead of collage and patchwork. He speaks of orphaned works of creation and quilts: the echoes of Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl are noticeable–as are the concerns of Plato.

[The text above is my example of a critical application of Birkerts, stitching in, through paraphrase and direct quotation, a key idea from his conclusion to then set up the focus I will use to read Patchwork Girl: in effect, using Birkerts’ own terms and language (connectedness vs. solitariness) for my own thesis, though reversing his view, drawing distinctions. Also, entertaining counterargument from Birkerts.]

Countering Carr

As I hope you know by now, the sort of forwarding and countering of ideas and texts is not just something we (this includes you) academics do for the sake of an argument. It is that, but it is also how people participate in intellectual conversations more broadly. Carr is doing that in his original article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and in the book that he develops from that, The Shallows. And critical readers of that book participate in its conversation by doing the same.

Here is an example of a critic, Matthew Battles, who takes up Carr, forwards his argument and premise about reading (and the shift Carr asserts from deep to shallow), and then counters it: “Reading isn’t just a monkish pursuit.”

And, just to prove to you that in our exploration of this theme and these critical perspectives we are engaged in a very current and lively conversation, consider this posting: “What Do You Think Marshall McLuhan would have said about ebooks?” One of the respondents is Nicholas Carr.

For addition practice with counterargument, consider these resources from Harvard University’s first-year writing program. [1]An overview of the concept; [2]an example of a student essay in which counterargument is a key element of the dynamic of the essay, moving from the thesis through the conclusion.

The Message of the Medium

I mentioned on the first day of class that we would be focusing in this course on ways that we could develop and strengthen our writing by being more aware and making better use of the medium of writing. The glogs (reading logs) you are doing in response to reading and discussion (and on your way to the larger writing projects) are a good example. As you continue to use the blog in the coming weeks on the way to the writing project, focus on the medium of your message.

  • Provide a  focus for your response–both in terms of summary (what the reading says) and analysis (what you say, your critical thinking in response to the reading). Some simple ways to develop focus:
    • title: at the end, or while writing the blog (I suggest you save or publish the blog before finishing, and then update it once or twice while writing), use this to ask yourself: what am I getting at.
      • at the very least, don’t title it “blog #1”; start experimenting with some creative thinking–will need a good title for your essays.
    • summary (what you hear the reading say): think 2-4 sentences, an initial paragraph that summarizes in a way that will allow you to later dig in to a key point and elaborate further.
    • elaboration (what you notice; what you want to say about the reading): dig in by providing a  quotation; use the quotation tool (in toolbar) to highlight this.
    • basic paragraphing: though the posting need not be fully edited or as formally organized as an essay, consider some basic paragraph breaks to move from summary to analysis, to distinguish different main points; this will also allow you to do some practice with transitions.
    • tags: after finishing the draft, the tag function invites some reflection on what the focus has been, what some key ideas and keywords are; tags can also be effective later when working on an essay and looking for material–to remember or be surprised by some associations (two different posts that turn out to be related by a tag); tags can sometimes lead to interesting associations to other blogs. Some of the WordPress formats will actually suggest automatically other blogs out there that might relate to your post. For example, this artificial intelligence (AI) feature suggested a link in Tim’s blog (about ‘Hidden Intellectualism’) to another that also discussed Gerald Graff. Thus are associations made in the digital world.
  • Advance your focus by making a link
    • the basic links we will use (and mainly use in writing) are quotations and citations.
    • consider digital quotation: a link to a site that offers definition or explanation or example for your focus.
      • use the link function in the toolbar
    • consider linking/inserting an image or other media, if relevant and effective for your focus
  • Look ahead: to discussion in class, to the next section of the reading, to your next posting.
    • one way to conclude effectively (wrap up, but not entirely–since a blog by definition is not a finished product, should have more to say): ask a question.

By the way, the title of my blog is intertextual, an allusion (or reference) to a famous line by the media theorist and critic Marshall McLuhan–the one we are reading in the course. In arguing that the content of any medium is ultimately the medium itself (the how, not the what), he wrote “the medium is the message“–and in a related form (the title of one of his books), “the medium is the massage.” I encourage you with your blog postings to do some massaging of your thinking and reading, on their way to your writing projects.