Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Dying Digital Communities

Teaching colleagues, especially those in "New Media" and the "Digital Humanities," might find the pattern below interesting. The image is the report for activity on an academic mailing list from 1999 to present. Similar patterns are visible when I check other mailing lists. It's like the USENET statistics. Where are people going to discuss academic topics? 

I left the WPA-L and other lists, because they were too often off-topic and/or not about scholarship and pedagogy. I didn't enjoy the mailing lists anymore. The fun was gone, though a core set of users remained active on other issues. Maybe that's the problem for all online spaces: they become insular. 

The loss of RSS from some sites also reduced my connection to academic discussion. I really miss having easy access to RSS, and don't like Twitter or Facebook as my news feeds.

From 2002 through 2010 was an active, exciting time for online communities. That's eight or nine years, which is a long time on the Internet. Still, the loss of these communities disappoints me. 

I'm using my phone more than my computer, and I'm reading fewer sources with almost no "community" content. Slashdot and MacRumors are about the only communities left that I check daily. 

Even the theater and film communities I used to love are on life support. They tried podcasts, but that's not community — it's top-down from the organizations, not the membership.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Loyal, but Frustrated Apple Fan

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...
English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Apple Inc.. The design of the logo started in 1977 designed by Rob Janoff with the rainbow color theme used until 1999 when Apple stopped using the rainbow color theme and used a few different color themes for the same design. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Apple needs a revamp. It has turned into a big phone maker, with little side hobbies in computing, software, and television. Sure, by any metric, the computing and software side is huge, but these feel like afterthoughts at the current Apple Inc.

Apple Computer is no more, I realize, and the computer world today is nothing like the 1980s or even 2000, when a desktop computer was necessary for basic work. But, someone has to code and create content. To create content requires a big, powerful, computer.

I have some suggestions for Apple, which are unlikely to be read.

Spin off the software so it becomes the primary focus of a stand-alone company or two companies. In fact, two is better: business apps and content creation apps. Filemaker is out there making money. Turn the business suite apps over to Filemaker - the old Claris Works reborn.

A creative professional company could revive Aperture (maybe), give new life to Final Cut Pro, and keep Logic on track. Do something… instead of letting software rot with age. Creative professionals stood by Apple when few other users did. Give us back that focus!

Revive the Mac Pro as a tower with expansion slots. Lots of slots, cages for drives, and stop thinking "pros" want a mix of cables and adapters tucked around a desk. I want an internal disc (Blu-ray writing is a must), and I want Dolby 5.1 sound from a Mac Pro without external audio devices.

Make a real, serious, MacBook Pro that has real ports and slots. I can accept that I'll need an external Blu-ray/DVD disc drive, but give me a huge, fast, 2TB internal SSD, 32GB of RAM, and USB 3.1 with both major USB connectors (C isn't there yet). And for many of us it is too early to dump HDMI and DisplayPort - we use those on the road for presenting. SD card is a must for video and audio work. And please, don't take away my audio ports!

We need a real, USB 3 / Thunderbolt 3 Cinema Display.

Clean up the product line, overall. I want a machine for content creation, and that content sells your iPhones and iPads. Prove you care about the professional market, or at least spin-off those product lines.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Certified Final Cut Pro Professional... Why?

Fourteen units into my MFA in Film and Digital Technology, I passed the Apple certification exam for Final Cut Pro X 10.2 (Post-Production). As a believer in digital composition and new media, having the skills to edit audio and video — and the ability to teach those skills — was important to me.

But, as a colleague noted, credentialism is fading quickly in the technology industry. Finally, people have realized passing an exam is not indicative of having essential job skills. When I was in college, Novell NetWare certification was the golden ticket to many jobs. Networking was a mix of hardware and software, with little standardization. Testing assured a minimal level of knowledge.

Today we have the return of the Builder/Maker culture that started the PC revolution. People learn to build Raspberry Pi contraptions, with Arduino controllers and Java or C code. Networks are easy, relatively speaking, compared to building a home robot.

The reason to take any exam today is to prove you have those minimum skills that hundreds of thousands without the certification also possess. It is a resume thing, especially in education. That's about all a certification is today, especially when compared to the NetWare days.

Apple has slowly ended many (most) of its exams. Few people in tech have renewed their Microsoft certifications. Does anyone obtain a Linux/Unix certification anymore? Credentialing has faded, quickly.

When will the same occur in education? When will we start to question the value of a degree that emphasizes vocational skills that can be learned and mastered outside the classroom? If credentialing starts to fade away in more fields, schools will need to prove their added value.

I have certifications, which are more important to schools where I might teach than they are to any technical employer. What does that reveal about the nature of credentials? (I've long doubted the value of teaching credentials compared to mentoring and team-teaching experience.)

I'm glad to have the Final Cut Pro credential, though I realize it is not that important compared to what I can demonstrate in a portfolio.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Digital Media Future

By May, I'll be half-way through an MFA in Film and Digital Technology. People ask why a Ph.D in rhetoric would need an MFA. My explanation follows.

Rhetoric (and composition, since they are often lumped together in academic settings) has struggled between the tension to teach traditional rhetoric and a need to update our courses and field to reflect new technologies and trends in communication.

Other departments expect us to teach how to format academic papers (MLA, APA) and write traditional genres: the five-paragraph (yuck) "essay" (which isn't an essay at all), the term paper, the journal article, the "book review" (again, which isn't a review at all), the thesis, and so on. We know these forms and many of us want to resist them. Yet, our classroom work is often relegated to the "service" of other academic fields.

Shifting away from composition seems necessary for me to explore rhetoric where it is now most effective at reaching broad audiences. It isn't that we can't define "composition" itself broadly, but that to be a "composition" teacher is too often to be a (resistant) advocate of forms and writing styles I dislike.

I do not like dense academic language. I don't like the strict formatting rules, meant to emphasize the words when so many other ways to communicate should be permitted and encouraged. I don't like a lot of what I have had to teach in writing courses, and I have often reminded students that we use academic writing to reach a narrow, specific, and powerful audience. (Power is contextual, right? Power over grades is real power over students, even as academics have less influence in public policy today.)

Enrolling in an MFA in Film and Digital Technology allows me to resist the "rhet/comp" quicksand, while I hope to continue to speak out and advocate for changes in writing across the disciplines.

Persuasion today occurs on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and a dozen other social media outlets. Media clips live on, with links being passed along in a "viral" spread among friends of friends. The old days of an academic appearing on "Meet the Press" changing news coverage and influencing the public are fading away.

Digital media are not really "new media." Though they offer new potentials for creation and distribution, a creative video embodies the old idea of a public square, an "agora" with people trying to influence each other.

And so, I will return to the academic job market later this year (2016) with a focus on the digital, the multimedia content of today and whatever is to come. Academic papers? Those have always been a rarified niche, and that niche is shrinking (ironically, due in part to the wild expansion of academic journals with smaller and smaller audiences).

I'm glad to be moving forward, seeking to cross a bridge between the past and future of public discourse.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Blogging and Audience

Should we teach our digital composition students the "tricks of the trade" for bloggers and other new media publishers?

The ancient texts on rhetoric discuss proper attire, gestures, and tone of voice to appeal to audiences. Aren't these almost as shallow as writing the best headline to drive traffic to an online post? Clearly our Greek and Roman ancestors understood that the superficial (nice robes, deep voice) was part of the persuasive art.

We tell our students to focus on the quality of their arguments, while blogging, reporting, and scholarly writing fades fast on the Web of today. The great World Wide Web that was going to bring information to everyone is one giant magazine rack, thanks to Facebook and Twitter.

Short headlines, ideally implying something sexual in nature, drive traffic. Shocking. Horrible. You won't believe your eyes. From the Huffington Post to old-stalwarts like The Atlantic, clickbait headlines dominate the flow of information (as opposed to knowledge or wisdom, because those are lacking).

Yes, online reflects the physical world. Magazine racks always had a little space for the fine arts, music, poetry, and philosophy. But it was (and is) Cosmopolitan, Sports Illustrated, and Playboy that ruled the stands. Their digital cousins rule the Web.

Clickbait isn't my specialty as a blogger and my websites don't scream "You'll never guess what happened!" For years, that was okay, but I continue to see declining traffic to my websites and blogs. The loss in readership means I'm not giving audiences what they want, which is interesting.

The Web was supposed to allow niches a space to flourish. When millions or even billions are online, then it should be easy to maintain a few thousand readers. Online, barriers of geography and class were supposed to fall. A website on almost anything was going to find an audience.

People have always been more interested in stories about sex, relationships, and sports than public policy. However, the Web was supposed to help us find our little communities of special interests.

That leads to the question, what do readers expect? Know your audience, we tell our students. What does an online audience want? What does it take to even get that online audience?

Search engine optimization (SEO) used to work. But it turns out that people are shifting away from search. At first, I thought that was impossible, but then I started to think about how I find news.

Yes, I use Google, but I use Google News, not Google Search. I read my Facebook feed and (admittedly) click on stories of interest. I have dedicated apps on my phone for the Washington Post, New York Times, RealClearPolitics, Politico, and a handful of other media sources.

I cannot recall the last time I used my RSS reader. I have Apple's News app on my phone, but I forget to check that, too. The dedicated apps are where I go for information, including some searches. That means I'm searching only within the sources I've already favored. I'm not exploring, like I might have explored in the late 1990s or even ten years ago.

What do we tell students in media courses? What do we tell our composition and rhetoric students? Has the nature of public discourse changed in this brave new world of app-based reading? Stumbling upon stories of interest isn't easy when you stay in the apps from major newspapers or magazines.

How do you teach about obtaining and keeping an audience? Or, do you hope that great content will somehow always find readers? How does that great site find readers without the Google searches of the past?

I don't have answers, but I am trying to decide how I should approach this topic of audience in coming years as a professor and speaker. Tossing things out onto the Web and hoping simply isn't enough. Neither are the old tricks of SEO, from good keywords to proper use of HTML tags.

When there was Yahoo, the curated director of websites, you could find some pretty great content. When we used RSS, you could skim headlines and the first paragraphs from hundreds of online posts. Today? We're buried in an avalanche of purposefully titillating tweets, many with attractive models. Even the images and content that isn't sexual is called "porn" for a reason: food porn and fashion porn posted to Pinterest.

Digital media and public rhetoric. The dream has come up against reality. Our best media inventions always end up being used for base entertainment, but somehow deep discourse survived and thrived on the fringes. Is that changing?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What are the "Digital Humanities" Anyway?

When I read academic job listing for "Digital Humanities" the skills range from HTML coding to video editing. Some list audio editing. The jobs are so varied that you cannot pinpoint what the phrase means. Is my doctorate in rhetoric, scientific and technical communication sufficient? Often it is not. Some posts suggest an MFA or Ph.D. in media production.

Starting January 2016, I am going to be working towards completion of my MFA in Film and Digital Technology. This feels like a last-ditch effort to revive my academic career, while also giving me more credentials to support my creative writing. With or without an academic revival, I'll benefit greatly from the courses and the exercise of creating and editing digital works.

One of the frustrations I've had on the job market is that nobody seems to know what the "Digital Humanities" are or how to prove you have the skills to teach the courses.

My age and my experiences are a serious obstacle on this job market.

When I completed my undergraduate degrees, I had been working at the USC Computing Services on what was the BITNET and ARPANET. I was using USENET newsgroups and performing online searches with WAIS and Gopher. (See

As someone who grew up in the PC era, the time of Apple, Atari, and Commodore (and Sinclair, Tandy, and TI), I was programming at a time when there were few programming degrees (computer science is not programming, generally). My wife and I launched a dial-up Internet service in the early 1990s. Think about that. We were among the pioneers who had multi-line BBS servers. By the time classes on HTML and Web development were offered, I had been using markup languages for a decade.

I can set up database servers and write SQL fairly well. I can crunch data with SAS, SPSS, and JMP. I know scripting languages like PHP and Perl (ouch), though those are a bit out of style. Not to whine too much, but I certainly consider myself a "digital" person.

When I apply for jobs, I'm competing against people with degrees that did not exist when I was doing the work. I'm competing against transcripts that list courses and skills I have taught or could teach. That's a lousy situation, so I turn to portfolios and other ways to demonstrate my skills.

Online, I maintain these Blogger accounts (old tech) because I'd hate to lose all the old posts and the loyal readers I have. However, I also develop new sites using newer technologies to prove my skills are current. That's what you have to do, right?

My passion is the rhetoric of narrative, sometimes called the "rhetoric of fiction" or the "rhetoric of story" — though none of these names really captures what my interests are. I want to use digital media (online distribution) to tell stories to wide audiences. I also want to study how others share their stories, both fiction and non-fiction.

I am a playwright and screenwriter. Several of my plays have been produced regionally and I've helped with screenplays that have been sold. (Admittedly, my screenplays by me and for me have not been produced.) As a writer, I seek to reach as many people as possible, which means I do have a bias for "creative" writing over academic writing.

I hope yet more credentials help on the academic market. If not, I'll write some great plays and keep chasing the screenplay dream, too.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Edutainment: Move Beyond Entertaining, to Learning

Randomly clicking on letters, the young boy I was watching play an educational game "won" each level. He paid no attention to the letters themselves. His focus was on the dancing aliens at the end of each alphabet invasion.

Situations like this occur in classrooms and homes every day. Technology appeals to parents, politicians and some educators as a path towards more effective teaching. We often bring technology into our schools and homes, imagining the latest gadgets and software will magically transfer skills and information to our children.

This school year, I left teaching business communications to return to my doctoral specialty in education, technology and language development. As a board member of an autism-related charity, I speak to groups on how technology both helps and hinders special education. Business students will always have the best professors. Special needs students deserve more attention.

Like many educational technologists, I have visions of technology enabling more access to education and better results for all students. Idealism tends to meet classroom reality. Our schools are victims of the best intentions, forced by the public and politicians to embrace the latest trendy theories with the slightest evidence. Technology companies have been selling their magical elixirs to schools since the 1970s, with mixed results.

Unfortunately, most educational technology embodies little more than "edutainment" that might transfer some factual knowledge through repetition, but primarily entertains the player-learner.

The young boy I observed was playing a top-selling educational game. He was learning little or nothing because the game did nothing to discourage guessing. Researchers know that failure is a part of learning, as is some frustration. The game, however, didn't frustrate the player who was merely guessing. The player always "won" the game and received the reward.

The next youngster I watched was playing Super Why! The game, based on a popular PBS series, had the same flaw as the first edutainment title. The girl playing would click and click, until "winning" each level. The game had no time limits, no consequences for guessing or offering incorrect answers.

Don't misunderstand, "educational game" is not an oxymoron.

The classic game The Oregon Trail has both deaths and a final score for players. With nearly 100 million versions sold since the game was first released in the 1970s, Oregon Trail has won praise from educators and researchers for helping students understand the Westward Migration. Students tend to replay the game, trying to improve their scores by reaching the West faster and with more survivors in the wagon train. Today's versions of the game look better, yet the basics of the game remain unchanged.

Parents, teachers and school districts looking to buy effective educational games need to consider how the game challenges players and rewards right answers. Research suggests games that decrease the time allowed to complete levels or increase the difficulty of problems also help retain knowledge.

At best, games and activities reinforce what a teacher or parent has taught a child. Younger students still need teachers, because they haven't learned how to teach themselves through reading and research. Some of the apps and games I have evaluated this year are good for reinforcing knowledge, but most seem to be advertisements for popular characters.

Reinforcement is part of learning. That's why children repeat favorite songs and love to hear the same stories over and over again. If games use familiar character for reinforcement of basic skills, then the games are useful. But, the popular titles generally fall short of what is possible.

Maybe it is my age, but I find that nothing beats the standard "newsprint" paper with blue solid and dotted lines for learning to write. Observing students use LeapFrog Scribble and Writer toys, which teach basic lettering through tracing, I noticed the students don't always transfer what they did on screen to paper. For young children, it can be difficult to recognize that the screen and paper are similar.

LeapFrog's LeapReader, which is an electronic activity book device, does seem to work for young children. You can add books to the set, which work with the LeapReader pen. The pen is impressive technology. It can be too complex for some youngsters to operate without an adult around to help.

I'd like to see more research on the LeapReader's effectiveness versus paper pads, especially with the cost of the device and several books easily surpassing $50. I buy the newsprint pads at various dollar stores for $1 each, along with 50 cent crayon boxes. It's hard to beat the price of crayons and paper.

The most educational applications are not games or glorified activity books. Analysis, evaluation and creation represent the highest levels of cognitive development. I encourage parents and teachers to seek out technology that fosters creative play and creative expression.

Kid Pix, KidsPainter and other simple illustration apps are ideal for children. TuxPaint, originally for the Linux OS, is a free painting program for children. Drawing with a computer improves spatial skills and awareness of geometry. Best of all, students go from drawing copies of what they see to creating new imaginary worlds. The reward for learning to use the drawing app is intrinsic, an image that belongs to its creator.

Likely the best option for allowing a child to type on your computer is the WordPad or TextEdit applications included with Windows and OS X. You'll be surprised at how quickly young children who know simple words master a basic word processor. Show a child how to change fonts and colors, and you've just introduced a new favorite computer activity.

Tablets, with touch interfaces, are easier than a mouse for children. A LeapPad is inexpensive and rugged, but the games are overpriced. The games vary in their effectiveness, so you need to read online reviews before spending $15 or $20 for a game. I'd consider an inexpensive Android tablet with a case, instead. As an Apple user, I'd only suggest an iPad if you are passing one along to the child; they simply aren't a good buy for the minimal needs of a child. An iPad is better suited to preteens and older users, though, with some great content available.

Focus on a child's learning, not only on how entertaining an app or gadget might be.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Dictating as Writing

Speaking is composing, but is it writing?

I have long used dictation software to quickly compose drafts of short stories, plays, essays, and magazine columns. The results tend to read more naturally than when I type directly into a word processor. I am pondering whether or not the dictated documents are "better" because they are more approachable for many readers.

When I type, I aggressively attempt to avoid forms of "to be" and a list of "weak" words and phrases lacking precision. For this reason, I have considered my typed documents superior to dictated documents. After all, we tell our students that writing should be more refined and precise than the spoken word.

Yet, when I read student papers, their attempts to sound "educated" produce jarring prose. In their eagerness to demonstrate vocabulary skills, they instead expose a lack of reading and true word comprehension. Overly complex sentences also reflect internalized models students have developed based on past teacher expectations.

Our students have learned that big words and long sentences are associated with higher grades on writing assignments. Overworked teachers with too many papers to grade skim for these indicators of academic skill and implied intelligence. This is precisely why automated grading often parallels human grading. Computer models based on analyzing teacher graded samples easily mimic the models are students have developed, often without the students realizing they have accomplished this impressive task.

Many writing instructors, including myself, encourage students to read their papers aloud to classmates. Even better, asking another individual to read the paper allowed quickly reveals how artificial and affected attempts at academic writing can be.

By asking my students to dictate short assignments, those not requiring complex formatting, I was able to reveal how their spoken language differs from their typed assignments. The students argued that the dictated papers sounded "casual" – yet they also said the papers were more enjoyable to read. Notice the criticism students are offering of academic writing, without realizing how insightful this critique is. Class discussion led some students to conclude that dictating could be used for first drafts, and then revised for a more "academic" final papers.

Dictation software has improved greatly since I first purchased Dragon NaturallySpeaking more than a decade ago. Early software required speaking slowly and artificially, yet today I can dictate this blog post at a natural speaking speed. The only complications, for me, are attempts to format text while speaking. However, I would rather focus on the words first and the formatting after a document is drafted.

Creative writing is not the same as academic discourse. My characters speak like "normal people" and I do not need to use the language, the jargon, of academia. The more natural my writing, the more appealing it might be to its intended audience.

I encourage instructors of writing, both academic and creative, to experiment with dictation software and consider the lessons learned by students and by us, their professors.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Call for Papers: Rhetoric of Typography and Letterforms

Call for proposals for an edited collection:
Type Matters: the Rhetoricity of Letterforms
Edited by C.S. Wyatt and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss

Stephen Bernhardt warned us almost 30 years ago that our "preoccupation with conventional essay format" excludes the rhetorical rigor of typographic elements. Later, John Trimbur extended this argument, noting that "one of the main obstacles to seeing the materiality of writing has been the essayist tradition and its notion of a transparent text." Many visual rhetoric scholars have interrogated the ways in which meaning-making happens iconographically, photographically, and via other visual means. Few, however (save for Anne Frances Wysocki), have paid much attention to the rhetorical work that typography does.

Although always part of any text's argument, the choice of typeface is an under-articulated and under-studied aspect of textual production within composition and rhetoric. Today, even as there are thousands of font face options available to us, composers and rhetoricians often take the power of  letterforms for granted or—worse yet, we would argue—situate typography as ideally invisible, meant only to convey thought and ideas and not as itself contributing to rhetorical meaning. Typographic choices convey meaning.

Design scholars—including Robert Bringhurst, Steven Heller, Ellen Lupton, Alex White, and Edward  Tufte—have emphasized that the layout of a page affects the reading and interpretation of the text. Type Matters seeks to bridge the scholarship of typography and design with the field of rhetoric.

We thus invite authors to situate "texts" broadly; to think rhetorically, technologically, and culturally; to draw from scholarship ranging from rhetoric and writing studies to graphic design theory and beyond; and to explore the ways in which the visual and tactile shapes of letters convey persuasive information to audiences.

We seek chapters in which authors articulate the ways in which and places where typography rubs up against rhetorical principles. Specific questions we ask proposal authors to consider include but are not limited to:
  • How does text design function rhetorically? In what ways are letterforms persuasive?
  • What have been some perhaps common trends and intersection points in the history of rhetoric and typography?
  • In what ways can we—rhetoric and composition studies scholars—better attend to the work of typography in our teaching and our scholarship?
  • Where and in what ways do typefaces and culture intersect? To what end?
  • What are the interconnections and/or implications of typefaces and dis/different abilities?
  • How have decorative fonts and even emoji fonts changed the concept of "writing?"
The deadline for 500-word proposals is September 30, 2015 (with notification to authors by October 30, 2015, and draft chapters due by January 15, 2016).

Queries are welcome and encouraged. Direct proposals and queries to C. S. Wyatt (wyatt050 -at- umn -dot- edu) and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss (devossda -at- msu -dot- edu).

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Google Docs and Writing

My students like to use Google Docs for collaborative drafts of projects. They like the "Suggesting" mode for editing, though it takes time to get used to this approach compared to Microsoft Word, and they really like the "Chat" mode for working together remotely.

I'm not as comfortable with Google's "Suggesting" edit mode. I like the "Track Changes" approach of Word, but that might be out of familiarity.

The "Revision History" is also little clunky in Google Docs. Students have rolled back edits by accident, especially on tablets. Maybe the location of the "Editing Mode" and "History" (the upper right) makes them prone to accidental "palm clicks" when holding the devices.

I've not used the JavaScript-based macro features, but I am glad there is a way to automate editing tasks. One of the reasons I love Word is the ease of Visual Basic for Applications. JavaScript ("GScript") macros might enable me to add similar editing tools to Docs I have created for Word.

The extensions and add-ons for Docs range from lousy to okay. I've not seen many that are "WOW!" and my students don't seem to be curious about the add-on library.

Writing always changes with technology. I'm not sure Google Docs is a step forward, but it is a step towards greater convenience.