Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Age of aquarius

It was a lovely day here in the Emerald City. It was warm (looks like we hit 69 degrees) and the skies were blue and sunny all day - quite a treat. I took advantage of the beautiful weather to do some grading out in the airyway, and that spurred a thought not unrelated to some musings from a few weeks ago about student writing.

I have to say that whether or not the form is relevant in the information age, there is something aesthetically satisfying about reading student papers that are actually on paper. Most of the composition assignments I grade are submitted electronically, as Word documents in a digital dropbox. I read them on my office computer or laptop, make my responses in-text with the Comment feature and as a separate e-note, and send the back to the student accounts the same way they came. The system sure cuts down on paper and maintains a complete developmental portfolio of a student's work, and I think it makes me provide fuller and longer comments (and certainly more legible ones), but on the whole, I feel like there's something missing.

Dennis Baron has said "Writing is first and foremost a technology, a way of shaping materials to an end." This truth was apparent in early cuneiform writing on clay and inscription in stone, and it is no less obvious in ink on sheepskin, graphite on paper, or inkjet fluid on eighty-pound bond. A typed - or more accurately, a word-processed and printed - paper is an artifact as well as an act of communication. It is shaped materials, and although the clarity and weight of its end may vary from writer to writer, as a package it fulfills its charge elegantly. A paper reveals its message without the need for any other intervening technology - unless you count my eyeglasses - and is relatively permanent and easy to store.

What are the shaped materials of a .doc file? Where does it actually exist? Where is the final draft? How do we call it writing, then? These are perhaps non-critical questions, since we cannot deny that the nature of textual communication is changing and that these considerations may have already been mooted. Yet the practical consideration of that need for an intermediary technology maintains some significance to the distinction: I could read old-style papers anywhere. And in the affective domain, the difference is profound: it is a pleasure to hold a sheaf of stapled sheets in my hand and move my pen slowly down the margin. I can't do that with a Microsoft product.

In the end, I need to prepare my students to do the kind of writing they will be doing with the kind of tools they will be using for the kind of audiences they will be reaching. But on a sunny spring afternoon, there's nothing like reading a stack of papers, on paper, regardless.

3 comments:

ChrisB said...

Hmmm... I think there is a lot more technology involved in that paper you are reading outside than you are acknowledging. Even if it is just consisting of marks made by a pen on pieces of paper that are stapled together, that artifact owes its existence to sophisticated technology. No technology in the moment, with the possible exception of eyeglasses, seems to me to be an arbitrary time scale. What’s your opinion on e-ink which promises a newspaper-like feel?

---Dr. Burn

Walaka said...

It's not the need for technology to create the writing that gives me pause - you are correct, of course, in that seemingly simple acts are often balanced on the apex of complex technology - but rather that there is no tangible product of that creation, with an existence apart from other technology.

E-ink would bring us closer to an approximation of the sense experience I describe - and even as I wrote the piece, I realized I was cheating because tablet PCs can move us a bit closer as well - but the fact remains that a paper-paper could be read after the apocalypse and the others could not. (Presuming I didn't lose my glasses.)

That may seem arbitrary but I think it does signify.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Good "Time Enough At Last" reference.

On April Fool's Day, All Things Considered had a tease that went: "Coming up, Kindle owners are suing for eye-injuries caused by on-line pop-up books...."