sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘language’ Category

a poem John Ashbery wrote

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 11, 2010

Alcove

Is it possible that spring could be
once more approaching? We forget each time
what a mindless business it is, porous like sleep,
adrift on the horizon, refusing to take sides, “mugwump
of the final hour,” lest an agenda—horrors!—be imputed to it,
and the whole point of its being spring collapse
like a hole dug in sand. It’s breathy, though,
you have to say that for it.

And should further seasons coagulate
into years, like spilled, dried paint, why,
who’s to say we weren’t provident? We indeed
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it’s not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.



Lifted from Poetry Daily.

Posted in beauty, creativity, John Ashbery, joy, language, poetry, spring, writing | Leave a Comment »

"Math class is tough!" a few thoughts on a problematic metaphor for learning

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 21, 2010

Academics, and especially academics who think about culture (which is to say, more or less, all academics), seem to really like metaphors and similes. Here’s one that made me mad this week.

Jim Greeno: Learning how to participate is like being in a kitchen.
Situativity theorist Jim Greeno, in “Number Sense as Situated Knowing in a Conceptual Domain,” considers how people develop conceptual models for participating in disciplinary communities (what he calls “conceptual environments”). He explains that

knowing how to construct models in a domain is like knowing how to work in an environment that has resources for a kind of constructive activity, such as a woodworking shop or a kitchen.

A shop or a kitchen has objects, materials, and tools that can be used to make things. Knowing how to work in such an environment includes knowing what objects and materials are needed for various constructive activities, knowing where to find those objects and materials in the environment, knowing what implements and processes are useful for constructing various things, knowing how to find the implements, and knowing how to use the implements and operate the processes in making the things that can be made.

In constructing conceptual models, the ingredients are representations of specific examples of concepts…. We can think of the conceptual domain as an environment that has representations of concept-examples stored in various places. Knowing where to find these, knowing how to combine them into patterns that form models, and knowing how to operate on the patterns constitute knowledge of the conceptual domain. The representations of concept-examples have to be understood in a special way. They are not only objects that are drawn on paper or represented in the mind. They are objects in the stronger sense that their properties and relations interact in ways that are consistent with the constraints of the domain.

This example would be fine if everybody agreed on a.) where everything belongs in a kitchen; b.) what everything in the kitchen should be used for; c.) what activities afforded by the kitchen are most appropriate; and d.) whether the kitchen is appropriately and effectively designed.

Let’s say, just for kicks, that the cabinets are made for glass and have been installed at just the right height for someone who is, say, at least 5 feet 9.2 inches tall. I’m 5’3″. If I want to get to the materials I need to, I’m going to need to find something to stand on.

If there’s nothing to stand on (and if most people who use the kitchen stand around 5 feet 9 inches, there would be no reason to keep stepstools or the like around), I might try to climb up onto the counters. I might try to find some sort of utensil–a spatula, maybe, or a wooden spoon–to help me access the ingredients I need. If I’m really desperate, I might try to throw things in an effort to shatter the glass cabinet.

To an outside observor, none of the above activities would appear appropriate in the kitchen setting. The spatula is made for cooking, not for prying open cabinets. And shattering glass cabinets–that’s just destructive.

You see my point, I hope.

Then there’s the unavoidable issue of choice of metaphor. Greeno offers a kitchen or a woodworking shop, which we might say is a nice way to offer one example for each gender! But though it’s true that Greeno doesn’t take it a step farther to prescribe who gets to enter which type of space, the gendered nature of the examples is undeniable. These examples are not neutral, just as the practices that occur in the examples are not benign, at least not always, and not for everybody.

Metaphors do lots of good work for us; indeed, it may be that our entire culture rests on a bed of shared metaphors. As Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day write in their 2000 book Information ecologies: using technology with heart,

Metaphors are a useful form of shorthand…. But it is important to recognize that all metaphors channel and limit our thinking, as well as bring in useful associations from other contexts. That is the purpose of a metaphor, after all–to steer us to think about the topic this way rather than some other way.

What are you doing? Stop–stop throwing soup cans at the cabinets! You’re liable to break something!

To which you respond: I never liked tomato soup much anyway. And I sure as hell hate glass cabinets. Good riddance, you say, even as you’re being hustled out of the kitchen. Good–

And that’s when you realize they’ve shut the door behind you. Maybe even locked it. See what kind of trouble metaphors get us into?

Posted in academia, education, feminism, gender politics, language, learning sciences, social justice, teaching | Leave a Comment »

weighing in on the natives / immigrants metaphor

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 13, 2009

Just FYI, “digital” isn’t actually a language, no matter how badly Marc Prensky wants it to be.

Prensky’s notion of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” has gained cultural traction because it gives us a way to talk about the generational differences in approaches to technology. We get it when he writes that

[a]s Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today’s older folk were “socialized” differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

My mom prints emails that interest her and trusts the information delivered in print form to her front door, but not the information delivered digitally to her computer screen; the kids I work with don’t really bother with email and gather digital data like it’s Super Mario Brothers coins. Ha! we say. Digital immigrants! Digital natives!

Fine. Except “digital” is not a language.

“Digital” is a way of conveying information. “Digital” is a cultural tool for delivering language, not the language itself.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with the natives / immigrants metaphor. More troublesome is the question of who gets to decide which of us are the natives and which are the immigrants. We need to consider how this metaphor–taken up so widely in our cultural conversations–continues to reify a divide in participation based on gender, class, and ethnicity.

Even those who subscribe to the Prensky metaphor have to concede that not all young people can be considered “natives” by his definition, and not all old people can be considered “immigrants.” When we make the sweeping proclamation that kids these days are digital natives, what we’re really doing is identifying the type of kid whose practices and ways of being in the world have gone mainstream.

Had we but world enough, and time, this cultural approach, Prensky, were no crime. But what we actually have is a desperate divide: (largely middle and upper class, largely white) kids with excess time and access to resources and support for developing a technological fluency; and (largely lower class, often nonwhite) kids without the resources or support to develop the kinds of social competencies that will enable them to join the larger cultural conversation.

The digital natives / digital immigrants metaphor is yet another tool that gets used, intentionally or unintentionally, to support our culture’s dominant Discourse, dominated as it is by the same members of the privileged classes who have historically monopolized cultural conversations.

One of the most thrilling aspects of the social revolution is its potential to overthrow gender, class, and ethnic divides. So far, we haven’t come anywhere near realizing even a fraction of this potential, and sweeping terms like Prensky’s–steeped as they are in a long history smacking of hegemony–make the revolutionary potential of new media technologies increasingly difficult to realize.

Related posts by other writers:
Marc Prensky: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants–A New Way To Look At Ourselves and Our Kids
Marc Prensky: Overcoming Educators’ Digital Immigrant Accents: A Rebuttal
Henry Jenkins: Reconsidering digital immigrants…
John Palfrey: Born Digital
danah boyd:some thoughts on technophilia
Timothy VanSlyke: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants:Some Thoughts from the Generation Gap

Posted in danah boyd, education, language, new media, participatory culture, racism, social justice, social media, social revolution | 4 Comments »

RIP Ed Rondthaler, foenetic speler

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 30, 2009

Edward Rondthaler, who died August 19 at the age of 104, was a lifelong typophilic and a champion of the movement to simply the English language by simplifying, and phoneticizing, word spellings.

Posted in creativity, language | Leave a Comment »

stop saying ‘ATM machine,’ and other exhortations of a participatory culture theorist

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 21, 2009

I hate grammatical redundancy. Some of the best examples of this are:

  • ATM Machine (Automated Teller Machine Machine)
  • PIN Number (Personal Identification Number Number)
  • ISBN Number (International Standard Book Number Number)

There’s actually a term for this: RAS syndrome, or Redundant Acronym Syndrome syndrome.

“But,” said my buddy Dan, with a look of pure glee, “you say ATM Machine like everyone else, right?”

“I do not,” I answered. And I don’t.

“That’s a dilemma,” Dan said, still gleeful. “The English major part of you conflicting with the participatory culture theorist, who says that whatever the people decide is right.”

He was ribbing me, but in truth it’s a fair enough critique. After all, some of the most influential books on participatory culture and the social revolution include the following titles, all of which intentionally fly in the face of common attitudes toward morality, ethics, and human progress:

Here Comes Everybody (Clay Shirky)
The World is Flat (Thomas Friedman)
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (Don Tapscott)
Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (Seth Godin)

And, I’ll just admit it, my blog is absolutely peppered with sweeping declarations: Print journalism isn’t viable. Young people are leading the social revolution. The question isn’t ‘is it moral?’, but ‘is it popular?’

Why, after all, isn’t the question ‘is it moral?’ Simply put, most of the time when people ask that question about aspects of the social revolution, what they’re actually asking is more along the lines of ‘is this better or worse than the experiences and culture I’m used to?’ This is a matter of personal preference, and there’s no accounting for taste.

Some of my friends think wearing a wristwatch makes it easier for them to make it to their meetings on time; some of my friends think watches just make them more time-conscious and anxious. If suddenly a critical mass of people started wearing watches and pressuring the rest of their culture to wear watches too, some of my friends would be thrilled (everybody will have to be on time now!), some would be upset (we’re all going to start caring more about the time than about each other!), and some wouldn’t care at all (*shrug* it’s just another tool to help me get through my day.).

Some people think online social networks signal the decline of community. Some people think new, valuable community structures have emerged around these networks. And some people just think online Scrabble is a fun way to spice up a boring work day. All of these people are right, but arguing about whether we’re better or worse off (or the same) is pointless, because is a wristwatch-bearing culture better than one that uses sundials? Your answer depends on a lot of things, like: whether you make your living off of sundial manufacturing; whether you can personally afford a watch; whether you were someone who cared a lot about keeping track of the time in the first place; and whether you think a watch looks good on your wrist.

Please don’t accuse me of absolute moral relativism, though; even participatory culture theorists have their limits. It’s wrong to force everyone to wear wristwatches, for example, just as it’s wrong to ban sundials. If democracy, freedom of the press, or free speech falter when print journalism hits its death throes, I will be among the throngs calling for social change. Participatory media platforms tend, as all previous platforms have, to silence certain groups (nonwhites, nonstraights, older participants, less educated [formally or informally] participants); this is painful and wrong.

And RAS syndrome will always be wrong, no matter what percentage of the population adopts the phrase “ATM machine.”




Footnote upon the construction of the masses:
some people are young and nothing
else and
some people are old and nothing
else
and some people are in between and
just in between.

and if the flies wore clothes on their
backs
and all the buildings burned in
golden fire,
if heaven shook like a belly
dancer
and all the atom bombs began to
cry,
some people would be young and nothing
else and
some people old and nothing
else,
and the rest would be the same
the rest would be the same.

the few who are different
are eliminated quickly enough
by the police, by their mothers, their
brothers, others; by
themselves.

all that’s left is what you
see.

it’s
hard.

(Charles Bukowski, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills, 1969)




Posted in Clay Shirky, collective intelligence, cults, culture, journalism, language, participatory culture, social media, social revolution | Leave a Comment »