December 18th, 2009
In the New York Times last week, Michelle Slatalla wrote a reflection about reading and the loss of attentional focus possibly caused by technology. Her reading experience echoes Nick Carr’s description in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Basically, with so much information available online, she has a hard time focusing on reading a novel…so many questions and ideas compete for her attention that she finds herself putting the novel down in favor of pursuing answers to other tangential questions. About a month ago, another article in the New York Times, “Stop Your Search Engines” by Peggy Orenstein likened this online information seeking to the Sirens’ song: alluring, but ultimately destructive.
Orenstein makes an interesting case for not pursuing the information trail. With so much available, when is it enough? When is information-seeking focused on endless searching rather than finding?
In Slatalla’s article, she challenges herself to read a book and, upon the advice of a friend, re-reads Gilead. I decided to take up the challenge and read it, too. I blocked out a few hours and decided that during that time, I wouldn’t check e-mail or go online. Then, I came across a word that I knew, but just wanted to double-check, insouciant. I could have grabbed my dictionary, but I decided the temptation was too great to go online, so I skipped it. Then, a few sentences later, effulgence. Again, a word whose definition I’m nearly sure of and could certainly glean meaning from the context, but would have liked to look up…online. A few paragraphs later, begats appeared, which I immediately figured out, but found it charming, and wanted to know more. When I was a kid, I always read with a dictionary beside me (very cool, I know) and I was again tempted to grab it. A few pages later, I stopped at susurrus, feeling that surely the author was showing off or at least taunting me. Looking up words to learn or confirm their definitions isn’t pursuing a Siren Song, is it? If I looked them up in the dictionary, I might linger over their etymology or read the definitions of surrounding words, but it likely wouldn’t interfere much with my attentional focus on the novel’s text. However, looking up definitions online would likely mean also checking e-mail, a trip to Facebook, and then, who knows.
I suspect Nick Carr is right. When I came across the vocabulary words in Gilead, I automatically pictured how I would look them up in Google (define: susurrus). I also started wondering what Wikipedia would have to say about the term. Gilead is interesting, but slow. Oddly, Internet searching feels a bit more gratifying…instantly finding information, solving problems…and then, of course, its interactivity makes it seem more entertaining. Is it wrong to be thinking like a Google search? Google was developed to mimic how academics evaluate information, so technically, maybe Google makes our thinking more focused and organized.
When is information just noise? I wonder how much information clutter I subject myself to in my daily searches. I also wonder if all of this searching eventually leads to finding, or just more searching. I guess the insouciant searcher isn’t concerned with the results, but what about those of us really trying to learn something?
Regarding Gilead, it is such a beautifully written book, that I’m glad I took up the challenge to read it. That said, after spending so much time on Facebook, reading a book seems, well, lonely. To be honest, I tried to give Gilead away to an ill friend the other day and she wouldn’t take it, which made me decide to renew my commitment to finishing it, this time in shorter bits. So, now it’s your turn: pick a novel and block out an afternoon or evening for reading and let me know if you’re more successful… Unlike Coke and Pepsi, I think the difference between reading online and reading a novel will be more pronounced. That said, I remember reading a piece by Malcolm Gladwell that said that people preferred Pepsi in taste tests, but if they had to drink a full glass, Coke was the winner….so enjoy your novel.
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December 13th, 2009
I came across an interesting discussion on John Sowash’s blog this morning about Google-proofing essay questions. Sowash provides instructions for making questions Google-proof, using Bloom’s Taxonomy. I have mixed thoughts about this approach.
In defense of Google
First, in defense of Google, I think that educators should not discourage Google use, but instead provide guidelines for informed use. If a teacher notices that students immediately type an assigned question or essay prompt into Google’s search, take advantage of a teachable moment. Discuss, say, how different search terms yield different results. Ask students how they choose which sites to read and then discuss strategies for evaluating credibility. Compare sites that provide informative, documented resources with those that are based on opinion, or not thoroughly developed. Draw upon the findings of Leu’s (2007) study of seventh graders and the endangered tree octopus — ask how believable pictures and images make websites.
AP Photo/Herald Press Joel Phillippsen
Instead of creating walled gardens or entirely banning websites from students use, especially in a research context, educators should empower students to be informed users.
I like Sowash’s suggestions to use questions that require responses beyond copy/paste or fill in the blank. He suggests asking questions that can begin with a Google search, but then require students to make connections between the materials they find, or draw some sort of conclusion, or move beyond the simple answers in some way. In this scenario, Google search complements students’ learning processes, rather than detracting from it.
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December 7th, 2009
Do you remember the prescient flash piece about Googlezon? If you haven’t viewed it, set aside a few minutes and check it out.
Created in 2004, it rather accurately describes customized content, crowdsourcing, and social networks. It also predicts the future of media, the fall of newspapers in favor of infotainment, the rise of bloggers. What really interests me in thinking about it today, though, is its prediction that Google, a seemingly benign search engine, would take over the world. True, there were already signs, for example, Google’s creation of their own mail service, but really, Google didn’t seem set for world domination yet. Since the Googlezon piece was created, Google has invested in too many services to name, including Blogger and Youtube, and just last week partnered with Tivo.
Google’s motto “don’t be evil” is puzzling. If a giant corporation says it’s not evil, does that make it true? I only wonder because they recently took over EtherPad, an amazing collaborative tool that most of you probably haven’t heard about. To be honest, I was excited to find a cool writing tool that wasn’t part of the Google franchise. I wanted to support the little guys I guess, and I didn’t want to be served adwords or have my behavior tracked in a not so transparent way. I have no reason to believe I was safer with Etherpad, but I’m beginning to wonder what price I’m paying for my free Internet.
Savvy Internet users should know that their behavior is being tracked on the Internet, but do they act accordingly? Does it bother you that Google serves Adwords related to the content of your e-mails when you’re reading your Gmail inbox? Sure, they’re just pulling text, they don’t really know you. In fact, some of the ads they serve are downright funny. But now I use Google calendar — I have a personal and work calendar. I also use Google docs for work, where I also manage two blogs on Blogger. Any Internet search I do is through Google. Why use AltaVista or another search engine when I like the way Google functions?
In the Googlezon world, magazine subscribers receive a magazine with a picture of their house on the cover, taken by satellite, and content served according to the preferences of each resident. Eerily possible?
I feel like a pretty savvy user–I study how people conduct research on the Internet, after all–but I’m not censoring myself on Gmail. The thing is, I don’t really know what information Google is collecting on me. Sometimes I care, but to be honest, I’m pretty complacent. I mean, their motto is “don’t be evil” and they were started by two grad students at Stanford…I feel like they’re like me…(mostly) normal, well-intentioned people. But I have to remember that Google is a company, a company that is quickly snatching up anything independent that competes with them and offering services that directly compete with mega-corporate Microsoft.
Why don’t I, a savvy Internet user, know what information Google is collecting on me and how they’re using it? Why isn’t Google more transparent? Am I a lazy, uninformed user, or is the company who does no evil being secretive and perhaps downright sneaky with my information? What price am I paying for Google’s free services? I find it interesting that a company that pushes for open source and general openness on their phone is so opaque when it comes to us, our information. Where is Google’s worth, after all? Is it in free searches, book previews, streaming video, news? I think its value lies in us.
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December 2nd, 2009
I’ve been teaching graduate communications courses for the past year. Evolved from a standard writing course, I teach students to think of communication beyond the page. The texts for the course are Duarte’s (2008) slide:ology and Zander & Zander’s (2000) The Art of Possibility. But, where’s the writing textbook, you may ask? It’s a controversial choice and initially a hard sell to both students and writing colleagues, but slide:ology is my choice for a graduate communications textbook. Like most Ph.Ds, I spent 4 years in undergrad and 6+ in graduate school writing many, many papers and no one ever told me to prioritize my message. As students, we get so caught up in demonstrating proficiency and competence and as teachers, we get so mired in correctness of method and form, that we often forget to consider audience need and our main communication purpose.
My students, of course, take it for granted because no matter what the lesson topic, my first questions for them are:
who is your audience?
what is your message?
A simple and obvious concept once it’s made explicit, but one that’s often forgotten in graduate and undergraduate writing. I know many students who desperately wish their advisors/committee members would comment on their ideas, rather than their grammar. Writing is such a challenging skill to cultivate and often the reviewers have their own hang-ups, which end up as feedback (or no feedback) on graduate papers. Duarte’s (2008) book inspired me to pay attention to the ideas in student work first and then focus on writing/presentation choices as a way to clearly convey these ideas.
During the first class, I talk about the importance of a main message, and then we discuss their target audience. I use an audience needs map from the Duarte Design slide:ology Workshop (which I highly recommend!) which prompts students to answer a series of questions about their audience. In graduate school, I had a vague sense of my audience–professors, people with more experience in the field–but I never really asked myself, why are they attending my presentation? or why are they reading my paper/article? As undergraduates, we often write for an audience of 1, the teacher, who we assume is familiar with the material and is reading because he or she has to. We’re not trying to interest them, we’re not trying to compel them to keep reading. Thus, our writing is often dead.
So, I started thinking about my audience. Why do they sacrifice their lunch hour to attend my brownbag talk? Why do they sacrifice weekends and vacation times to read my writing? What are they looking for? What are they hoping to find? Maybe the answer is still partially because they have to, but I think our readers are expecting more. At the graduate level, professors and other colleagues read our work because they are interested in the topic and maybe because they’re looking for something new…a twist on an old idea, a unique approach…whatever it is, they’re spending time on our writing in the midst of many demands on their time. They’re looking for our message, right? Oftentimes, student writing is lacking just that.
I tell my Environmental Science graduate students to write for a tired executive reading on a plane. The executive is deciding between reading the policy brief, completing more pressing work, sleeping, or watching an in-flight movie. Within a couple minutes, maybe even seconds, he or she is going to decide to skip the reading or turn to the next page. I don’t encourage my students to be sensational, but simply compelling.
Duarte’s book is an ideal resource for a graduate communications course because it guides audience analysis and offers strategies for engagement. I believe it’s possible, with practice, to learn to be compelling. My second text, Zander & Zander’s (2000) The Art of Possibility further complements the unusual focus of this course. I’m teaching my students to represent their data beyond graphs and charts, to communicate their message in beautifully connected paragraphs instead of following a formula, so I need a text that opens them up and makes them feel, well, possible.
My students affectionately call it “the little yellow book” and the day we talk about the assigned reading from it, I can usually tell who has read it, because they’re grinning. This past quarter, we discussed it mid-way through the course and I noticed a marked shift in our interaction: everyone was talking! Zander and Zander’s “lead from any chair” concept had certainly resonated with them. They seemed to finally get why I ask each of them to lead a discussion, post to our course blog, and share their writing materials…because they have a valuable and necessary contribution to make to our learning process. After this class, students become dependably more participative.
Of course, with any course, there’s missteps and material that doesn’t quite catch on, but for the most part, I find the course fulfilling to teach and receive overwhelmingly positive feedback from the students. University-level writing instruction needs to provide more than static writing assignments — we need to provide students with a strong understanding of their responsibilities as communicators and guide them in developing a toolkit that will allow them to be flexible in response to communication tasks in the workplace and life generally.
To view our course blog, visit:
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