Sunday, July 27, 2008


The headline of an article in today’s New York Times by Motoko Rich, “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?,” may be missing a question more important than the one it asks—more important, at least, to educators. That is, can online reading be merged with more traditional reading forms and methods to develop a new (and more culturally and technologically appropriate) form of reading? Fortunately, the piece does finally address the question.

In his Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong explores the shift to the book—and its implications—from the development of moveable type. By the time he died, he had recognized that we were (and are) going through another shift, one encompassing something that he called (for lack of a better term) “secondary orality”—and that I call “neteracy.”

To me, neteracy encompasses orality, literacy, and much more. It’s a way of looking at words that shifts them from the static page and that incorporates image (including moving images) and sound. It does not move away from the page, exactly, but incorporates it into an activity of myriad aspect.

Unless we understand that what we are facing is development of a new model for reading, we will set up battle lines, Internet against books, as is implied in this passage from the article:

Critics of reading on the Internet say they see no evidence that increased Web activity improves reading achievement. “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” said Mr. [Dana] Gioia of the N.E.A [National Endowment for the Arts]. “I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.”

It may be that the type of focus Gioia speaks of will prove irrelevant within a neteracy context. But it is also possible that it will only lose its central place, that it will become only one way of reading, a single arrow in an extensive quiver. Whichever, it does us no good to complain or to worry about tests that focus on literacy, not neteracy. We need to find ways, if we think the “old” skills will retain importance, of merging the skills students are developing on their own with those we think they should master. And, if we insist on testing, we must develop tests that incorporate the new as well as the old.

The article explains:

A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books. The only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which predicted better grades in English class and higher overall grade point averages.
Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study, said novel reading was similar to what schools demand already. But on the Internet, she said, students are developing new reading skills that are neither taught nor evaluated in school.

One of my major concerns with reliance on the Internet for student research is also touched upon within the piece:

Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy. In one study, Donald J. Leu, who researches literacy and technology at the University of Connecticut, asked 48 students to look at a spoof Web site ( about a mythical species known as the “Pacific Northwest tree octopus.” Nearly 90 percent of them missed the joke and deemed the site a reliable source.

Real neteracy will require an understanding of both methods and dangers of research on the Web. I’m trying to incorporate that as a goal in my classes, just as I am trying to meld literacy into the newer forms of reading—and, clearly, I am not alone. The academic group Computers & Writing, whose annual conferences I have attended for the last three years, has been at the forefront of exploring new ways of combining not only computers and writing, but computers and reading as well.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Babbling at Babel

I was standing on the sidewalk, had a noise in my head.
There were loudspeakers babbling, but nothing was said. – Richard Farina

See, here’s what “they” don’t get: It’s not that we of the great unwashed are unruly, rude, and unlettered—but that “they,” the people who (in their own minds) have earned the right to speak to us, do nothing but babble.

No, “babble” doesn’t seem to have originated with “Babel” in Genesis 11, but a connection exists nonetheless. It’s worth looking at the relevant passage in relation to the current state of information and its communication:

4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

Why? Because these are the “they” I’m talking about above.

In verse 4, in my interpretation of this within a news-media context, what we are seeing is an elite speaking for all, wanting to consolidate knowledge and knowledge dissemination. There’s a subtext of control: if “we be scattered abroad,” we cannot be controlled. We have seen this in the centralization of media ownership and are seeing it now in the attempts to “tame” the Internet.

The God of verse 6 is certainly something of a subversive—to human activity (or that of its elite), anyway. God does not want humankind operating as a block for two reasons: First, people might begin to feel they can challenge God as a group. Impossible as that might be, the attempt would do no one any good. Second, It is up to the individual to find and accept God, and that can’t been done through the sort of groupthink Babel may have symbolized to Him.

When we listened to the centralized and controlling media, information is filtered and we haven’t the ability to analyze on our own (how can we, without access to the full story?). Thus, God, in verse 7, decides to “confound their language.” This makes for diffuse conversation and information exchange.

Let me quote one more thing, from my own Blogging America: The New Public Sphere:

In 2000, the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information Management and Systems released a study estimating that the “world produces between 1 and 2 exabytes of unique information per year, which is roughly 250 megabytes for every man, woman, and child on earth.” The report goes on to say: “It is clear that we are all drowning in a sea of information. The challenge is to learn to swim in that sea, rather than drown in it. Better understanding and better tools are desperately needed if we are to take full advantage of the ever-increasing supply of information described in this report.” A new study just three years later concluded that “Print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002.” This is more than a doubling of information production between 1999 and 2002. If we were drowning in information then, what is our situation now? (134)

One of the arguments against the “anarchy” of the Internet (there isn’t any, really—but that’s for another time) is that this huge information store needs sorting and straining if anyone is going to make any sense of it. And that is true, to an extent. However, all of the information needs to be available to anyone (another topic for another time). Without access, each of us is forced to rely on the “expert.” We can never really make the decision (whatever it is) on our own.

The “experts,” of course, don’t much like the idea of just anyone having access to the information that their years of training and experience have enabled them to use deftly. Today, they point to the “babble” on the Internet as justification for their attitude, as Lee Siegel (whose expertise, beyond a certain facility with words, escapes me) does in his recent book, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.

As we, faced with so much information, so many choices, do have to make choices (there just isn’t time to look at, let alone read, everything), I have chosen not to read Siegel’s book. Its title along keeps it from passing through my personal filter: The implication is that the “mob” isn’t human, and that only the elite (such as Siegel) is. I just don’t care for that, and don’t wish to spend even an hour reading an author with such an attitude. Call me small minded if you will, but I won’t read books by holocaust deniers either, or Intelligent Design advocates, or books arguing that someone other than Shakespeare wrote those plays. There’s too much else out there that might prove useful.

I’m not the only one bothered by Siegel’s use of “mob.” In a review of Siegel’s book last January on Salon, Louis Bayard wrote:

The subtitle of Siegel's book is "Being Human in the Age of the Mob," and it's worth noting the Burkean scowl of that "mob." Siegel may have liberal credentials, but he is making, at bottom, a conservative argument: in favor of gatekeepers and cultural elites, against the cacophony of untrammeled opinion.

Me, I want “the cacophony of untrammeled opinion.” God was doing a good thing, when He “decentralized” human language in response to the tower of Babel. “They” have been trying to undo it for centuries, finding new ways of consolidating power and knowledge (what’s an empire, after all, but just such an attempt?). For a time, it looked like “they” would succeed, and we would all be looking to Washington and its pundits when in need of information on current events. The Internet has changed that, at least for the time being, much to the chagrin of people like Siegel, who see their lucrative career path challenged. Who are finding that "we" are seeing "them" as the babbling classes, not us. They have controlled the loudspeakers for so long that they've forgotten that it isn't enough to keep sound coming from them; you have to say something as well, not just babble.

Unfortunately, the attempts to tame and control the Internet continue, and they may very well succeed. So, instead of reading Siegel, I will read the blogs, work through links, and learn (rather than be told). And, as He wishes, I will make my own way to Him. I’ve had enough of priests.

[If you care about keeping the Internet “free” in the future, be sure to support the Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as groups like ePluribus Media—the former for its actions as advocate in the political arena, the latter because of its participation in the widespread attempt to find a new way for the news media, on that relies on people and not on pundits.]

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Major Response

In a response to the Jerry Nelms criticisms (that I quoted on this blog yesterday) of his piece on, William Major writes:

I simply offer a number of theories as to why writing instruction often has second-class status in the university, especially within English departments.

Moreover, professor Nelms:

1. I make no assumptions that all English professors are the same. I wonder—perhaps naively—why English profs (rather than rhet/comp) avoid writing instruction like the plague;

2. Grunt work: Indeed, it is. Just ask your local adjunct or five and five English prof. Check out the teaching schedule for both full and part-time English instructors at your local community college.

3. Composition theory: Where did I suggest or imply that there is no past and present history of rhetoric/comp theory and criticism? Foucault/Bakhtin/Kristeva? Please. I worked my way through them and decided that getting my students to understand the art of the semicolon was more important.

4. English profs and interpretive reading: I think I made this very point in my article.

5. Grammar: Ah! the rub! I’m afraid that I can never be convinced that grammar is *not* one of the more important features of good writing. It’s not the only one. Duh. Since when does talk of grammar/mechanics, etc. turn one into an ogre? What are we afraid of? Success?

6. Transfer-based question: Here I am in complete agreement with professor Nelms. I’m not sure where I addressed this issue in my article, however.

7. Language is changing: Did I suggest or imply otherwise?

8. Undergrads and writing: I teach enough basic composition courses to know that, yes, there is a problem. To argue otherwise tells me that we are winning the war in Iraq, too.

I obviously value rhet/comp and its long history. I did not imply—or mean to imply—that depts. of writing are not doing their jobs. On the other hand, I haven’t seen enough evidence to suggest that a more catholic approach to writing instruction might not be a bad thing. After all, if we value writing across the curriculum (and most of us do), we might wish to get the English (lit) professors off the bench and into the game.

Nelms, of course, can probably respond to these better than I, and likely will, but I do have a few comments.

Before beginning, however, I would like to point out that I come to this debate as one with an interest in the problems of teaching Develomental Writing (or Basic Writing). I am not a rhetorician or composition specialist. As my interest does relate, however, I am aware of the larger discussions going on within the fields of Rhetoric and Composition—and appreciate the frustrations that appear when one jumps into the debate without having spent the time examining past workings and reworkings. There is a great deal behind Nelms' original response, much of which has already dealt with the points Major raises. However, bringing this discussion up once more hurts no one and might do all of us some good, somehow, sometime. So, even though I disagree deeply with Professor Major, and feel he has not properly grounded himself in this field, I do appreciate his willingness to jump into the discussion.

1. Most English professors avoid composition classes for the same reason I should hesitate to teach Sociology: it’s not their field. The study of literature is not the study of composition.

2. Grunt work? It is that only because of exploitation and overload, not because of the nature of the subject.

3. “The art of the semicolon”? Please explain the semicolon as art, and how it is more important than the act of communication itself.

4. If so, why do you continue to conflate the fields of literature and composition?

5. Success? What “success” are you talking about? A flawless page? I think most of us who write accept that errors are a part of life and rely quite heavily on an editorial process that brings ours to light and assists in correction. I suspect you may be demanding more of students, here, than we demand of ourselves. Real success in writing depends on the accuracy of the communication, not on care in the wielding of the comma.

6. You may not address transfer directly, but it is implied in your article—by not addressing the problems of transfer, you assume that there are none (or so it might appear).

7. Because language changes, grammar must be seen as descriptive, not prescriptive. When language changes, rules change.

8. But your solution seems to be to throw more untrained (though senior, though expert in other fields) teachers into the writing classroom!

I’ll close with a few (almost random) passages from the books I was carrying to my office this morning, part of my small collection on Developmental Writing:

most of the sentence-level errors that are salient for the teacher are not salient for the student. The student doesn’t notice most of the errors that the teacher detected and diagnosed and labeled so automatically, and he isn’t aware that he has corrected others. Unlike the teacher, he doesn’t operate upon the text by means of a well-honed set of rules for written language conventions. – David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts, 208

most college teachers have little tolerance for the kinds of errors BW [Basic Writing] students make, and they perceive certain types of errors as indicators of ineducability… -- Mina Shaughnessey, Errors and Expectations, 8

People can’t agree on a definition or specification of what goodness in writing consists of. Whenever anyone has a promising theory, it always leaves out some pieces of writing that most people agree are good, and includes some others they admit are bad. – Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers, 133

I believe that teachers of written composition must work from at least four major, interconnected sets of theories: (1) composing processes, 92) written discourse, (3) invention or inquiry, and (4) learning and teaching. These theories will necessarily be the basis for the content and organization of students’ experiences in any program intended for helping people learn to write. – George Hillocks, Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, 28

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Errors in Expectation

Today, at, William Major, who teaches English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford, offers a piece called “Teaching Composition: A Reconsideration.” It's an odd article, considering what we know about the teaching of writing.

The best comments on the article come from Gerald Nelms, who teaches at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Look for “Assumptions and Misrepresentations.” Nelms states on a listserv that he wrote quickly, but I think he gets to the heart of the problem with Major's piece:

The following are wrong assumptions and misrepresentations that I find in this article:

—That all English professors are educated in the same disciplines when, in fact, many (most?) are not educated in Rhetoric and Composition, which is a discipline dedicated to, among other things, how to teach writing....

—That teaching composition is “grunt work” that no real English scholar would want to do, when, in fact, there is a whole discipline of Rhetoric and Composition... whose membership is committed to teaching writing, not eager to teach literature courses.

—That Composition has no theoretical basis but is simply how-to knowledge, when, in fact, Rhetoric and Composition has a long history of theoretical discussion....

—That all English professors, simply because they are interested in language use and texts, have adequate knowledge and training to teach writing, when, in fact, literature professors tend to be trained in interpretive reading, which is not the same thing as rhetorical writing.

—That the “noviate” (graduate student or part-time instructor, although some of each group may well not be novice at writing instruction) is less trained in teaching rhetorical writing than the tenured English professor....

—That grammar is one of the most important features of good writing, when, in fact, 50 years at least of scholarship tell us that what matters most in all communication is its rhetorical effectiveness, of which absolutely “correct” grammar is only a minor part....

—That the problem with teaching writing in a way that is relevant to writing across the curriculum is content-based (what is taught in the composition course, say) when, in fact, recent research suggests that the problem is actually transfer-based. Writing program assessments tell us that students are learning what they are being taught in composition courses. Recent research, however, suggests that students are not applying what they’ve learning in composition courses to writing situations beyond the composition course.... Research on knowledge transfer tells us that such transfer is NOT automatic, no matter how much we think it should be and wish it were. It could also be that some faculty in other disciplines are judging student writing based on criteria that is dramatically different from that used in composition instruction. A typical example is when a faculty member assumes that all it takes to produce good writing is to produce absolutely correct grammar.... More important is the writer’s ability to clearly define her or his purpose; to “read” her or his audience; to develop a certain level of expertise in the subject matter of the text; and to develop an appropriate ethos for the discourse community which the writer is addressing.

—That undergraduates actually are unable to adequately communicate in writing, and that we need to blame someone for it, when in fact, we have research strongly suggesting that students today are actually better writers than they were in past decades.

Thank you Jerry. Not only have you encapsulated the problems with Major's article, but you have, in a nutshell, illustrated one problem that all of us who seriously consider the situation of the writing teacher. That is, we have more trouble with the people who think they know something about the teaching of writing (and this includes more than simply those whose real interest is in literature, extending to other professors in other fields who have not taken the time to study the pedagogy of writing instruction, administrators, parents, and—of course—politicians) than we do with our students.

The means of teaching effective writing in a democratic (that is, non-elitist) environment have been available to us at least since the days of David Bartholomae's 'Pittsburgh Model' of twenty years ago, extending (really) back to the seventies and Mina Shaughnessey and the early work of Peter Elbow. The problem is that we have never been able to convince the broader academic community of the validity of what we are doing or to provide the support necessary for real skills transfer into arenas beyond the writing classroom.

Until we do that, people like Professor Major will continue to pontificate on a field they don't really know and bemoan results they don't understand.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It's a Joke?

If there is irony in the cover to this week’s The New Yorker, it’s not in the drawing itself. The incongruity lies in seeing the cartoon on the cover of that particular magazine.

If there is satire in the cover this week’s The New Yorker, it is towards the magazine itself. Certainly, it makes no supporter or detractor of the Obamas look ridiculous.

If there is parody in the cover this week’s The New Yorker, it is (again) towards the magazine itself. Nothing in the cartoon has anything to do with the Obamas, so it certainly doesn’t parody them.

If there is a joke in the cover this week’s The New Yorker, it is on the people who actually found it funny, for the cartoon speaks only to prejudice.

On this last, there’s someone who writes for The Los Angeles Times named James Rainey who seems to think the joke is on Obama haters:

It seemed fairly obvious to me, my 8-year-old and, likely, the majority of readers of one of America's finest magazines that the cover drawing by Barry Blitt was a parody. In other words (for those still struggling with the concept), the joke was not on the Obamas but on the knuckle-walkers who would do them harm by trying to turn a couple of fresh-scrubbed Harvard Law grads into something foreign and scary.

According to elitist Rainey, it seems, no one in America but he, his kid, and readers of The New Yorker have the sophistication to “get” the joke. Anyone else is either dumber than an 8-year-old or a “knuckle-walker.” Or has absolutely no sense of humor.

What would have been needed, to make Rainey's defense appropriate, would be some sort of contextualization. Karl Rove dreaming the scene, for example. Or showing a group of plotters creating that image.

A funnier vision of Barack and Michele Obama might have been the two of them in the oval office watching Leave It to Beaver re-runs while surrounded by the most boring American accouterments possible... a response to John McLaughlin's oreo comment.

Well, there’s one thing about irony, satire, parody, and jokes in general: they need to be funny to work. However, defending something by saying it is “supposed” to be funny doesn’t work. “A Modest Proposal” this is not though, perhaps, showing the Obamas sitting down to a meal of Irish babies might have been closer.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Seeding on Top of the Unseen

There's an article in today's The New York Times that has me seeing red. It's entitled "Restless Pioneers, Seeding Brooklyn" and was written by Donald G. McNeil, Jr.

Now, before I get to just what so upset me on reading the piece, I should point out that my store and cafe, Shakespeare's Sister, is often credited for "starting it all" in Cobble Hill, with being the first upscale hangout in what is now one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. And I have lived in Brooklyn for about twenty of the last forty years, primarily in places that had not yet been "discovered." I know something about urban change, having seen it happen. And I know something about the people the change "happens to."

One of the things that, for decades, has bothered me most about self-styled "urban pioneers" is that they (like the early settlers of American, who similarly didn't "see" the Native Americans) imagine they are moving into areas where "nobody" is living.

It's happening in my neighborhood, finally. There are more white faces than ever before, and a new feeling in the area. That's fine, for things do change. However, the people who are being pushed out also should be recognized... and their needs maybe even considered.

But does that happen?


What do we get instead? Statements like this (from the article):

Café Enduro, a Mexican cantina he opened two years ago in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, east of the park, is beloved by locals.



What "locals" does McNeil mean? Most of the people in the neighborhood have never been in Enduro, and will never go there. Certainly not the immigrants from Trinidad and Jamaica who have populated the blocks around Enduro (just three blocks from my house) for the past decades. Certainly not the Haitians who first came to Lefferts Gardens in the 1950s, fleeing Papa Doc Duvalier (many of that first wave were the doctors, lawyers, and teachers who are still at the heart of Brooklyn's thriving Haitian community). Certainly not the Asians like the man who used to repair my father's shoes in a little shop across the street from where Enduro sits, who was killed in a robbery after putting at least one daughter through Cornell. Certainly not the African Americans, who first came to the area when real-estate sharks collapsed property values by whispering that "they" were moving in.

It's not that I have anything against the food at Enduro. But I won't be eating there again. I can't, now; the food will taste of the ashes of neighborhoods pushed aside.

I am going to be happy when Culpepper's, the Barbados restaurant two blocks in the other direction from my house, is back in full operation (they had a fire, and are now doing only take-out).

Culpepper's, like Allan's Bakery, the Jamaican bakery across the street and a block down (where the line almost always snakes out the door), is a place really beloved by the locals here--like Toomey's Diner, the laconic spot where the Dodgers ate their breakfasts, when Ebbets Field still dominated the neighborhood. But you won't find McNeil there, or any of the people he "sees." Just the communities that have been here for years.

Communities whose passing he, and his new "locals," will never even notice.

And that, as I said, makes me see red. And makes me incredibly sad.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Brooklyn, a Bridge, and the Other Side

Friday, I went down to watch the fireworks. Sat on a stone retaining wall in the new park to the east of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The crowd included Japanese holding balloons from the Nathan's hot-dog eating contest at Coney Island. Presumably, they'd been cheering on Takeru Kobayashi's unsuccessful effort to regain his title, only to lose once more (in an "eat off") to Joey Chestnut. Languages aplenty surrounded us, making the celebration a real New York Fourth.

I took the pictures here long ago, 25 years ago, the first from close to the spot where I watched the fireworks this year, an area now a park, then not much of anything. The top and bottom ones come from the same negative. The one with the graffiti comes from the other side of the base of the bridge, as does the next. The final one, of course, was taken on the walkway taking one across to Manhattan.

I made a joke to the man next to me, who turned out to be Griff Palmer, a reporter for The New York Times, that the bridge is so photographed that soon we'd no longer be able to see it, its image now sealed away in little black boxes. He chuckled politely.

The fireworks flew up on both sides, from near the Brooklyn Heights promenade on the further side of the Brooklyn Bridge and, in the other direction, from up the East River beyond the Manhattan Bridge. I focused on those from behind the Brooklyn Bridge, watching the near tower (the one pictured--but from the other side) as much as the extravaganza beyond.

No matter how often I try to leave it, I always seem to end up back in Brooklyn. Once again, I am abandoning my outpost (this time, one in Pennsylvania) and retreating to the base--as I have done, now, at least six times over 40 years, ending up spending half that time elsewhere.

Though I can't help doing so, I really shouldn't look at the consolidation of my life as a retreat. Instead, I should see it as a necessary return to focus. Getting rid of my house in Belleville, almost five hours from Brooklyn, goes along with closing my store. Together, these will allow me to spend more time on what I want to be doing now, teaching and writing.

However, to me, New York has never been home (that's Western North Carolina), simply where I end up. But Brooklyn has become special to me. I know more of it than anywhere else in the world and am as comfortable on its streets as I am in the piney woods of home--I couldn't get permanently lost in either place. Turned around and confused, yes, but not lost.