Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 28, 2011

life skills for the Technium

I have sometimes, in these pages of pixels, expressed frustration with Kevin Kelly, but his post on “Techno Life Skills” is just fantastic. My favorite point:

You will be newbie forever. Get good at the beginner mode, learning new programs, asking dumb questions, making stupid mistakes, soliciting help, and helping others with what you learn (the best way to learn yourself).

I’m going to give this to all my students for the foreseeable future.

the end of typewriting

Now that the making of typewriters has come to an end, nostalgia is setting in. I am not wholly immune to it. I still have warm memories of the Smith-Corona Slient I used throughout college and most of graduate school — in fact, it’s safely stored in my basement, in its original case. I used it happily, looking with scorn on those who had moved to electric machines, until it was time for me to write a dissertation, at which point I made a clear-eyted assessment of the work involved, took out a loan, and bought the original Macintosh.

But I’m not feeling the nostalgia as much as I might have expected, I think because, if I’m going to go old-school, I might as well go all the way and return to pen and notebook. Perhaps it’s life with an iPad that has weakened my affection, but I keep thinking that a typewriter ties me to one place, like a desktop computer — I can’t exactly bring it to the local coffee shop and start banging away. (Though I wonder what would happen if I did. . . .) It’s true that I could type something out, scan it to PDF, and use OCR software to turn it to digital text, whereas it’s unlikely that any OCR program will ever be able to read my handwriting; but that options isn't enough to sway me. If I’m going to be a hipster manqué, I’ll do it with a Moleskine rather than the old Smith-Corona.

So I’m accepting offers for the typewriter on which I wrote so much. I’d part with it — not without a tear, I suspect — for the right price.

P.S. It seems the making of typewriters has not come to an end.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

about Tumblr

“This Is Why Your Tumblr’s Down” — because, if I read the piece rightly, David Karp doesn’t want to spend the money to hire more engineers to keep the backend functioning smoothly.

Well, whatever. I started my tumblelog more than four years ago, and for a long time it was a great place for me to store and present quotations and images that caught my attention. At one point I decided to shut it down, but only because I was trying to simplify my online life; I missed posting things to it, and a number of people said they missed my posts, so I resumed.

But then last year the site started to go down more and more frequently. Days would go by without my being able to get to it. In frustration I moved everything over to Posterous, but that required me to spend too much time fiddling with formatting, and the site, while always up, was really slow. Back to Tumblr.

Which meant, back to not knowing whether the site would be up at any given time. Eventually I got tired of the uncertainty and just stopped trying to post to the site. I stopped trying to visit the Dashboard to see what others were posting. I didn’t make a conscious decision to do this; I just stopped bothering. For nearly four years I posted stuff to my tumblelog because I didn’t doubt what would happen if I did so; but when I went through an extended period when I couldn’t guess whether the site would be up or not, it just got to be too much trouble. Instead of posting things to Tumblr or Posterous for everyone to see, I just posted things to Pinboard for me to see. I am reading as much as ever and recording my reading, but I’ve just drifted out of the habit of using Tumblr.

This is what unreliability does: it changes your habits, even if you don’t make a conscious decision to abandon a service.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

yet another post about making distinctions

This proposal for a conference panel on lo-tech teaching seems to be focused on the teaching of writing, but it prompts me to record my thoughts about the literature classroom instead.

In my (admittedly odd) mind there's a clear distinction between the technologies that are appropriate inside the classroom and those that are appropriate outside it. When my students are not in the room with me, I want them to be taking advantage of as many electronic technologies as possible: I want them to participate in the class blog, to learn how to do effective searches for secondary sources across a range of databases, to search intelligently within the sources (primary and secondary alike) they find via Google Books, Amazon, Project Gutenberg, Scribd, and the like. I want to do more to get them to practice drafts of papers as collaborative projects with me on Google Docs or similar technologies. Class wikis are a possibility for the future, as are various implementations of CommentPress. I have to move slowly with some of these things, because by and large my students mistrust and are deeply uncomfortable with such technologies. But all of them are, at least in potentia, pedagogically fruitful.

In the classroom, though, it’s all codexes all the time. I think the best service I can provide my students in the classroom is to help them to learn to get better at navigating books: finding key passages, showing how they’re related to other, moving back and forth between them — all of which requires having a system for marking and finding, a system which, in my judgment, should ideally be within the book itself, not on a separate piece of paper or digital file. (Or rather, the separate piece of paper or digital file should be backup versions.)

From all this you may be able to guess that I get deeply frustrated with conversations about technology in the classroom that are either “for” or “against.” We can’t afford such simplistic distinctions. All technologies are context-sensitive and context-variable: what might be useless, or worse than useless, in one circumstance might be invaluable in another. Constant discernment — the testing of technologies and self-testing — is required. Even my recent awkward attempt to teach from the Kindle was a usefully instuctive experience.

By the way, I think that notes on texts should be deeply connected to the texts themselves in the digital world as well, so I’ll be very glad when e-readers get better at making that happen.

I find that many of my students want to use the classroom to type notes on their laptops, and are reluctant to explore the digital options for research and reflection that are best employed when they’re on their own. That is to say, their instincts lead them in precisely the wrong directions. It’s one of my jobs to fix that.

Monday, April 25, 2011


Kevin Kelly:

My friend had a young daughter under 5 years old. Like many other families these days, they have no tv in their house, but do have has lots of computers. With his daughter he was visiting another family who had a tv, which was on in another room. The daughter went up to the tv, hunting around it, and looked behind the tv. "Where's the mouse?" she asked. 

Another friend had a barely-speaking toddler take over his iPad. She could paint and handle complicated tasks on apps with ease and grace almost before she could walk. It is now sort of her iPad. One day he printed out a high resolution image on photo paper and left it on the coffee table. He noticed his toddler come up to up and try to unpinch the photo to make it larger, like you do on an iPad. She tried it a few times, without success, and looked over to him and said "broken." 

Another acquaintance told me this story. He has a son about 8 years old. They were talking about the old days, and the fact that when my friend was growing up they did not have computers. This fact was perplexing news to his son. His son asks, "But how did you get onto the internet before computers?"

Kelly says he draws two lessons from these stories: “if something is not interactive, with mouse or gestures, it is broken. And, the internet is not about computers or devices; it is something mythic, something much larger; it is about humanity.” I have no idea what that second sentence means, but as to the first one, I wonder: is Picasso’s “Guernica” broken? Is an old leather-bound copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets broken?

Cute and interesting stories, but what they mainly tell is that children are amazing generalizers: they make a wide range of assumptions based on their experiential history. Some of those turn out to be true, some not so true.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Week, visualized

My former student Stephen Smith made this remarkable timeline for Holy Week. See his explanation of how he did it here. Trust me, the closer you look the better it'll be, so click through to the larger version.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

listen to Tom

Monday, April 18, 2011

teaching from the Kindle

So, I did something dumb a couple of weeks ago: when packing up some books to sell at a nearby Half-Price Books, I accidentally added, and then sold, my annotated copy of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Imagine my surprise when I took a copy off the shelf in preparation for class only to discover that it was pristine and unmarked.

Now, as it happens, the last time I was preparing to teach these books I had been traveling, and decided while on the road to buy the Kindle versions, which I read, and annotated — or at least underlined key passages in — before returning home and taking up the good old paper version. So, this time, I decided to teach the books straight from the Kindle, rather than try to prepare an unmarked, untouched paper copy.

And let me tell you, friends, teaching a book from a Kindle stinks. Big time. My entire teaching method involves going back and forth in a book, from key passage to key passage, comparing, elucidating. Here is a an account of the prophecies concerning Lyra; here is another one; here's what the witches think about her: let's look at these and see if they tell a coherent story. Turn to page 71; okay, keep a finger at that place and now turn to page 243; now let's go back to 71. I scarcely ever have the book out of my hand during a class period, and I encourage my students to keep their copies open and active also.

Everything I habitually do in class is incredibly laborious with a Kindle, especially if my students have codex versions, and radically so if the Kindle edition doesn't have page numbers. And it's even worse if the Kindle edition doesn't have the chapter breaks coded in: with encoded chapter breaks I can at least use the left button on the five-way controller to go back and see what chapter I'm in, but if the chapter breaks aren't coded, then I can only click back a page at a time until I find the chapter number, and then click forward until get back where I was. And even then I won't know how far I am into the chapter. All of this makes it very hard for me to know how to get my students looking at the same portion of the text that I'm looking at.

And then, what happens when I want to look at another passage? (1) Click the "Menu" button; (2) click "View Notes and Marks"; (3) look for the passage you have in mind, which may require clicking the "Next Page" button once or twice; (4) click the "Down" button on the controller until you get to the passage you want; (5) click the central "Select" button on the controller.

Or, if you happen to have written the location on a piece of paper or the inside of your palm, the procedure is: (1) Click the "Menu" button; (2) click "Go to..."; (3) click on the "Symbol" button to reveal numerals; (4) use the five-way controller to navigate from numeral to numeral until you get the combination you want, which can take in some cases a dozen clicks; (5) click the "Symbol" button again to dismiss that screen; (6) use the five-way controller to navigate to "Location" and click it.

That's just not workable — not for the way I teach. All of these movements are faster and smoother on the iPad Kindle app, by the way, but still unwieldy. In my judgment, there's only one way to make e-readers usable in the classroom: voice commands. I need to be able to click a button and say to the machine, "Go to page 243." When that's possible, but probably not before that's possible, I'll use e-readers in class. (Well, except for this summer, when I'll be teaching in England, and will put up with the unwieldiness of e-readers in order to avoid carrying a backpack full of books all over the country. Been there, done that — many times. Not again.)

P.S. I am hoping some of my readers will be able to point to some tricks I've missed.

Friday, April 15, 2011

pleasant surprises in the archives

Earlier this week I was at the Harvard University Archives, reading some letters from W. H. Auden to Theodore Spencer, a rather interesting fellow who taught English at Harvard from the mid-1930s until his death, from a heart attack, in 1949, when he was just 46 years old. Throughout the Forties Auden relied on the advice of Spencer, whom he referred to as his "literary confessor" — though he could be rather condescending about the poetry that Spencer sent him for evaluation. ("I'm afraid it won't do.") 

I had gone through one box of Spencer's papers in the Archives and was waiting for another — the one I really needed, of course — to be fetched from storage, and I passed the time by idly looking through the folders in the box that had nothing to do with Auden. One thick folder caught my attention: it was labeled "War Correspondence," and was full of letters from soldiers, most of them (perhaps all) former students of Spencer's whom he had written to as, it seems, his contribution to the war effort. There were letters from dozens of people in the folder, so apparently Spencer had been faithful in writing to them.

I could only look over them briefly, but even so I was struck by the variety of tone and mood they represented. Some correspondents were in training in various remote regions of the U.S.; one was doing some variety of intelligence work in England; others were in Europe in varying degrees of proximity to the front. Some confessed boredom, some anxiety; the one in England seemed quite pleased with his situation. One began his letter by reminding Spencer that his previous correspondence had expressed considerable anger at the foolish people he had to deal with in the Army; he then insisted that he had in the intervening period acquired even more reasons for anger. 

It strikes me that there must be some interesting stories here for the historian; I wish I had time to explore the correspondence more fully myself. The letters strike me as a fascinating and possibly quite useful record of the ways that men from an elite level of American society — Harvard men — adjusted to the demands of serving their country in the great inchoate bureaucracies of the Armed Forces. Maybe one of my readers will pursue these materials some day. The people at the Archive are quite helpful. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Sorry for the light posting, folks: I've been traveling and have come back to a world of work. Also, my old MacBook died, which means that until the shiny new MacBook Air just ordered arrives through the Byzantine channels of Wheaton's purchasing system — they won't let me drive four miles to the Apple Store and put it on my college credit card — I'll be trying to post via the iPad, which doesn't play perfectly nicely with Blogger's CMS. So please bear with me.

Friday, April 8, 2011

honoring Olivetti

More here

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

a people of one book

I’ve recently been reading and enjoying my friend Tim Larsen’s A People of One Book: the Bible and the Victorians. Tim’s thesis is that in major and often unexpected ways, Victorian culture is built around knowledge of and regular reading of the Bible — and this is true across the theological and atheological spectrum. Even when it would appear that the uses of the Bible are ironic — as when Annie Besant says that discovering her vocation as a public proponent of atheism was like Isaiah’s taking up the task of prophesying to Israel — they are rarely as ironic as they might seem to us: Besant really did feel that she didn't choose her role but was somehow, if mysteriously and explicably, called to it. Similarly, Thomas Henry Huxley was being utterly straightforward when he said that “men of science . . . have our full share of original sin.”

But even if you don't buy Tim’s argument (which could only be explained by your not having read the book, but never mind that) there’s something fascinating to me about a vast cultural discourse, stretching across social divides and encompassing people of widely varying educational levels, based on knowledge of one book. A big and diverse book, yes, but one book, capable of providing — through names of persons, place-names, phrases, and what have you — reference that could quickly illustrate, and illuminate, almost anyone’s response to almost anything. Just consider Huxley’s remark when, in his famous debate with Samuel Wilberforce, he realized that the Bishop had inadvertently given him the best possible rhetorical advantage: “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands.” There’s a world of meaning in that.

Today, it seems to me, there is no such truly common cultural currency. Instead, there is currency shared among small groups of initiates into certain mysteries, often meant to exclude others as much as to include the like-minded. This is what song lyrics and South Park quotes are for, after all.

Monday, April 4, 2011

comparisons are odorous

The problem with Bill James’s recent reflection on talent and how we develop it is that he’s got the numbers wrong. His concern is that we do a better job of producing athletes than artists and intellectuals — a legitimate worry! — and in thinking of how we might address this concern he writes,

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good — among the best in the world — and then we'll give them a little bit of recognition.

So every ten or fifteen years Topeka produces (or can be expected to produce) one major league player. Note that James doesn't say that it produces a star, but just a player — so let’s assume that he’s an average player, likely to have a career of less than six years. At any given time there are 750 players in the major leagues — 30 teams, 25 players per team (up to September 1, when rosters expand to 40) — and with injuries, cuts, call-ups, and the like, during the average season more than 2000 different players will be on major league rosters. Some of those will be in the league during the whole of our average-player-from-Topeka’s six-year career, but many will be in the Show only briefly. So over six years we can safely say that there will be a few thousand people matching, at least temporarily, the achievement of our designated Topekan.

And we’re supposed to compare this guy to Shakespeare, who, among millions of poets and writers over thousands of years, is universally considered to be one of the top three? Given that baseball is only about 150 years old, the only semi-plausible figures to which one might compare Shakespeare are the titans of the sport: Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, and the like. Not an average major-leaguer from Topeka.

Dickens? One of the half-dozen greatest English novelists? The comparison is scarcely more plausible.

Graham Greene, then? I don't think so. Greene is one of the major English novelists of the twentieth century. No one would call him the best, but he had a long and distinguished career with many memorable (and still read and taught) novels. Greene you might compare to, say, George Brett.

So what would be an appropriate literary comparison for our imaginary player from Topeka? I’d say that if every ten or fifteen years Topeka produced a writer good enough to get an MFA from a strong institution, to publish a number of short stories and a novel or two, and get tenure at a solid research university. And you know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if Topeka manages that.