A Digital Phenom: Increased Presence of the Past in our Lives

In the Music section of The New York Times, music critic Simon Reynolds explored how and why The Songs of Now Sound a Lot Like Then. Right in the middle of this column, Reynolds takes a stab at the larger vintage chic pop culture phenomenon and its relation to the digital age. Just something that made me go hmmmmm….

The fading of newness and nowness from pop music is mystifying. But in the last couple of years a concept has emerged that at least identifies the syndrome, even if it doesn’t completely explain it. Coined by the co-founders of cyberpunk fiction William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, “atemporality” is a term for the disconcerting absence of contemporaneity from so much current pop culture. This curious quality can be detected not just in pop music but in everything from fashion to graphic design to vintage chic.

A prime example of atemporality is the fad for photography apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, which digitally simulate the period atmosphere of pictures taken in the ’70s or ’80s, using the cameras and film stock of the time. Instant-nostalgia snapshots are part of a culture-wide fascination with outmoded technology and “dead media” (Mr. Sterling’s term) that encompasses everything from the cults for manual typewriters and cassettes to the steampunk movement’s fetish for Victoriana to the recent movie “Super 8.”

Mr. Sterling sees the time-out-of-joint nature of today’s pop as a side effect of digiculture. One of the curiosities of the futuristic-seeming information technology that we now enjoy is that it has dramatically increased the presence of the past in our lives. From YouTube to iTunes, from file-sharing blogs to Netflix, the sheer volume and range of back catalogue music, film, TV and so forth that is available for consumption is astounding.

We can access all this stuff with incredible speed and convenience, share it and store it with minimal effort.

Speaking of access to music of the past with incredible speed and shared with minimal effort…


Imposters and Doppelgangers: Plagiarism Remixed

Mural with De La Vega’s Signature Fish on 104th Street and Lexington

This post comes again from running in NYC’s Central Park. If you are one of the thousands of runners who frequent the park, you already know of street artist De La Vega’s recent increased running path messages. If you are not in NYC, here’s an intro and here’s an article about the one-part controversial/one-part mainstream artist. De La Vega pushes the envelope of art and the idea of artists’ statements. Sometimes his pieces are just quotes–often they’re social commentary, statements of witness to the social milieu of historically underserved parts of NYC, such as Spanish Harlem and the Bronx.

104th and Lexington (working on license)

Most often, the De La Vega pieces I see are sidewalk messages. And most often these messages involve fish, a fishbowl and the message: “Become Your Dream.” The sidewalk pieces in Central Park are unfailingly similar to his Spanish Harlem and the Bronx sidewalk chalk messages of hope and encouragement, De La Vega’s work is recognizable without a signature–just as a Monet or a Miro is unmistakably their own.

Imposter De La Vega’s close but not quite print and fish

Two week’s ago, however, a few chalked images appeared that I immediately questioned as De La Vega. They used the fish, but not exactly the same fish. And they said, “Become Your Dream” but not exactly  the same print. I then noticed between these drawings were sometimes signed, “Imposter De La Vega #4” or “Doppelganger De La Vega Strikes Again.”

The sidewalk sketches then morphed and the fish were then engaging with each other in ways I haven’t seen De La Vega do. The lines of the art then also shifted–more angular and graphically pronounced. I imagine this is the “imposter’s” aesthetic when he or she is not playing this game of artistic identity. It’s even possible that this all was De La Vega, himself, at play with style.


How do we understand what “Doppelganger De La Vega” was doing? Is it plagiarism of form and style? This month’s English Journal theme is all about ethics in the English classroom. Obviously there were multiple articles about plagiarism in the digital age. The articles hinted at the ways that plagiarism is “easier” now that we have the Internet–and not just with words, but with multiple modes. However, in the end, most of the articles concluded that we need is to have better conversations with students about how plagiarism is wrong. But is it? Is it in all it’s forms?

One of the Imposter’s quotes read something like: “Stealing can sometimes be good–when it’s a De La Vega.” The artist was cognizant of the act–even intentional. Is that the difference between “stealing” and “tribute”? Down the street and around the corner is a piece by De La Vega himself, which is obviously a “copy” of Picasso’s Guernica. It is signed “De La Vega Homage to Picasso.” What makes this a not a “copy” of another artists’ work? The last five photos in this blog post were taken by me on my phone. What part of that is “copying” these artist’s pieces? Is just transferring media enough to ethically appropriate an image as mine? What about those shirts and magnets and  key chains with images stretched across? What about transducing to another mode? Can I set De La Vega’s quotes to music and call them my own? Can I interpret them into image–and then is this finally not “stealing”? It would be silly to pretend that now that we are in “the digital age” we are suddenly new to repurposing, remixing and regurgitating others’ works. This practice is not new–and it may not even necessarily be “easier.” These artists did it with chalk and sidewalk.

The bigger question is: How else do we make new ideas, if we don’t have another’s ideas to start from? The discussion of “plagiarism” must move past “it’s wrong” and how to make it “right” by incorporating references, understanding digital licensing, and copyright checks. Further still, perhaps we need to fundamentally reconsider what we imagine an individual does when he or she creates.

De La Vega’s Homage to Picasso on 110th and Lexington (taken on my cell phone)

From Positive/Negative to Affordances/Constraints

Yesterday, the International Business Times reported on a couple of studies regarding the relationship between memory and the Internet. Like many titles, the purposefully evocative title of this article, “Google Effect: Changes to our Brains,” was misleading. Instead of “changes to the brain,” the article reported some of the new ways people use their memory capacity and use digital devices as external memory. One of the studies conducted by a team at Columbia University found that people remembered where they saved things rather than the items themselves. The researchers dramatically described the ways the Internet is being used currently:

We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers — and lose if they are out of touch.

Again, the use of the digital devices hasn’t changed our brain; rather, we use computers much like our friends and coworkers with whom we chat, the notes we jot, the diaries we fill. We have another external memory device, and since we load so much on these devices, we often refer to them when thinking.

Regarding this article, Carol Jago, past-president of the National Council of Teachers of English, recently quipped in a tweet:

I like Carol’s response. Yes, all the tools we use and all activities in which we often engage definitely affect how we think and approach our lives. Recently, my friend and colleague Tim purchased a 1938 manual typewriter. Not only did it look stylish, it worked. I demanded that he help me find my own. On a bright Saturday afternoon he and I went to a flea market in Brooklyn, we made our way to a booth that specializes in reviving the classic composition tool. I walked away with my very own ROYAL Signet portable manual machine–complete with a carrying case lid.

Tim’s 1938 ROYAL Model O Series and Anna’s 1960s ROYAL Portable Signet

Like riding a bike, it didn’t take me long to remember how to press the keys with intention, if I wanted a letter to be left on the page. I tried, first, to revise a piece I have been working on in my writing group, Harlem Writers’ Circle, and immediately I found that I could not compose as I had. If I wanted to change a word, I backspaced several times and XXXXX-ed out the previous word, and then I continued. [Sidenote: The piece soon looked like the cards my grandmother used to send typed each birthday.] In the time it took between XXXXXX-ing the offending word and typing the new one, I often considered new directions for the story. If I went in one of those directions, I found myself typing the entire piece from the beginning, and in that act, found myself–again–entertaining new directions. Neither with a computer nor with pen and paper did I do either of these acts. Because of the speed with which I could change direction with these composition tools, I would have never considered the options for the piece that I found myself considering when using a manual typewriter. The typewriter was changing my brain.

Obviously, it didn’t actually change my brain. I just have another tool for composing that affords and constrains different composing practices. Most technological changes (i.e. from ink to pencil, and typewriter to computer, and now to digital networked communication) have been framed as a issue of the “ruin” of previous forms of communication. Rarely, if ever, has the new compositional tool completely supplanted previous forms and ways of composing. Instead it has been a “both/and” experience—old practices remain, are influenced by new forms of composing. Instead of positive and negative effects to existing ways of thinking, I’ve found it generative to frame the question as affordances and constraints. Instead of worrying about the effects of new tools, what if we asked questions such as:

  • What kinds of compositional decisions, practices and challenges do digital, networked communication afford a developing writer?
  • What are the constraints of composing with networked and/or digital devices (not necessarily the same thing)?
  • At the same time, what are the affordances/constraints of composing with a pen and paper?

Each of these affordances and constraints has implications for the rhetorical, compositional and framing decisions we make as we compose. Conversations about the affordances and constraints, as well as conversations about the implications for compositional decisions are generative for both teachers and their students to investigate.

What affordances and constraints have you noticed when using particular digital tools? How have you found these to relate to your compositional practices?

Composing as Making: 21st Century Bricolage

I paused mid-step. A red-bellied bird had just hopped in front of me and she too had suddenly frozen in her tracks. In her beak hung a long, droopy piece of grass and a short, thin stick. We eyed each other. A cool April breeze whipped around the busy street corner. She took another hop forward balancing the items she had gathered for her nest. I reached for my phone to take a picture. I already had my 140-character tweet in mind. And she was gone.

It may seem like a stretch at first, but my thought in that moment was a comment Sid Dobrin casually made in a presidential session at CCCC 2011: “Writing is making stuff.”

Here on a fresh Spring morning a bird was composing.

CC licensed by DRB62

Her tools? Her beak and ingenuity. Her medium? This piece of grass and a yellowed stick. Birds, like writers, are bricoleurs (or if you’re hip to the scene, writers are DIY warriors—prime examples deviantART and CC). When we “make stuff” via writing, we aren’t making from scratch. We have been collecting bits and scraps from language, experience and idea. Blogger Mark Kerstetter poses the following:

Writing as Bricolage
Cutting and pasting, the use of found text, the willingness to use any type of discourse whatsoever, a complete disregard for genre and a love of the hybrid text—these are some of the features of the bricloeur as writer. She will read any kind of text or listen in on any conversation for no other reason than love of language.

And in addition to language, the 21st Century writer/composer/bricoleur has access wider range of media  and modes of communication (e.g. image, text, video, sound, color) than ever before, and the digital tools that make the act of bricolage (the collection, mixing, revising, repurposing) with that media easier and more accessible than we have yet known. Just in this one blog post, I have copied and pasted links and text, resized and edited images, searched and gained access to over 19 different websites, IMed with a colleague who then did an index search of her digitized notes—all of which I have drawn from to compose this post.

Unlike the birds, as 21st Century bricoleurs, we don’t just have our beaks and ingenuity as tools, and our media is not just limited to that which we can spot and then carry in a short flight from our nests.

How have you digitally bricolaged today?

In our forthcoming book, Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in Digital Age, Richard Andrews and I explore the affordances of 21st Century composition the modes, media, tools and sociality of communication in a digital age, and what these affordances mean for the teaching and learning of composition.

We suggest that in addition to linguistic elements of writing, developing writers grow in their experiences using and navigating multiple modes, and that our schooling assessment, policy and curriculum must adapt and encompass the these aspects of growth. Below is a list (from our book) of some of these areas not yet addressed in most curricula:

  • understanding the affordances, and the communicative and interpretive possibilities of various modes, e.g. writing, video, sound, diagram, artistic rendering;
  • facility with and adaptability to tools for creating multiple modes;
  • telescoping in to compose within a single mode and expanding out to compose, position and layer several modes together;
  • drawing on modes other than linguistic to complement in a variety of positions in relation to the written word;
  • transduction – engaging in decisive changes from one mode to another;
  • remixing and appropriating existing communicative messages in multiple modes, i.e. using an image within a film or a section of speech in a song.

As always, I apologize that WordPress has begun to force ads on each post. Please ignore any ad that follows. I have not vetted and do not support whatever is advertised below.

Seeing the Writer

Guest Post from Matthew Hall, teacher, teacher educator, and educational researcher at New York University.

As a teacher, what do you see when you look at student writing? We all have our inclinations, things our eyes are immediately drawn to when looking at student work.  Early in my teaching career, I relied on my own school experience to shape what I see. As a result, my first inclination when looking at student writing was to see grammar and spelling. More specifically, my first inclination was to see grammar and spelling errors. That’s what my teachers did for me. That’s what I did for my students. With years of practice under my belt it’s almost as if these errors light up on the page while everything else darkens and my hand instinctively moves toward the light as if it were holding a pen.

What is it for you?

What do you see when you look at student writing?

Like a trusty sidekick, my eyes are singling out misspelled words and punctuation errors. It came as a surprise to me when I found out that Abraham was in Kindergarten when he wrote this. Kindergarten! That changed things for me. Now I’m kind of impressed with the way he spelled ‘frisbee’ and ‘played’. I might push him to add another sentence. My thoughts rush to a recopied version of this piece–free of error–that can be hung up in the classroom or on the bulletin board in the hallway. Look at what a good writer this student is! He’s in Kindergarten!

But look what I did. I spoke only about the writing and I ignored the writer. What was it about this experience that motivated Abraham to write about it?    What kind of choices did he make when he drew the picture? How was he conforming or pushing back against what he’s been taught about writing? What does he think of what he wrote? What does his writing look like in other spaces?

Often, there’s an unspoken story about writing that runs in schools, that the end result of all writing should be error free compositions. It makes sense. That is what we see in the publishing world, error free publications. As teachers we don’t want to send work home that still contains errors because “the parents will think we’re not doing our job,” implying that catching errors is what teachers do when it comes to writing. All this is a symptom of what Anna Smith wrote about in her post “The Two-Faced Coin”:

Chronological time is the ultimate determiner of development in writing. Our benchmarks on this linear scale of time have been based on studies and curricula that are not based on how youth actually develop as writers, but rather how we can logically organize the products, practices and participation across a similar linear scale.

When I examine the surface “errors” of Abraham’s writing, I’m essentially making him invisible in his own education. By focusing solely on how his writing lines up with temporally clustered products and practices, I ignore HIS development and focus on the development of his PRODUCT. What would it look like if teachers felt they had the flexibility to see the writer? Well, I’m giving you permission to try it. Think beyond what your teacher eyes have been trained to see, take some of your students’ writing and see the writer. Then post a comment below and tell us all about your writers.

Duh, Duncan

Education is coursing through the veins of public media from Wisconsin’s attacks on unions (and Jon Stewart’s apropos responses) to Capital Hill’s review of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And what is the sound we are hearing?

Money Prop

Money. Money. Money. (And we aren’t talking  about this guy’s chump change.)

We’re talking about the business–the big business–of education.

Last week US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took an important stand regarding the necessity of revising No Child Left Behind, and though he was correct in his appeal to congress, he failed to make the link between the law’s impairments and the big business the law has generated. In Duncan’s report he shared with the US Congress his projection for next year’s No Child Left Behind school passing and failure rates.

Wait for it.

82% of US schools are expected to fail.

For those of you unfamiliar with the law, it may not be immediately obvious that this number is actually not a sign of the general failure of education in the United states.

Duncan explained:

“The law has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed. We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible and focused on the schools and students most at risk.” (emphasis added)

One of NCLB’s “dozens of ways” is that each year schools are required to have not only a higher percentage of students making passing (independently a nice goal), but passing at increasingly higher gains. Schools fail if a pre-determined percentage of students aren’t passing and then schools fail if they aren’t passing at a percentage higher than the years previous. Sam Dillon of The New York Times humorously, and astutely, made this comparison:

Critics of the law say it is a bit like requiring all city police forces to end certain crimes — like burglary and drug trafficking — by 2014.

He continued:

They have also long predicted that the law will, over time, determine that all but a handful of schools are failing — a label that would demoralize educators, lower property values and mislead parents about the instructional climates in their schools. (emphasis added)

One of the other “dozens of ways” that misleads parents (and all consumers of our educational system) is that students’ gains are not actually measured. Rather, averaged assessment results from one year are compared to results from the next year’s assessment results. And they call it “gain” or “loss.” This model has been and is used in US states to measure effectiveness at all levels of education. For a recent criticism of the issue when attempting to use this model with  rating teacher effectiveness, take a look at another NY Times article.

Let’s look at another “dozens of ways” that applies directly to focus of this website: writing development. How exactly are writing gains measured and these supposed gains and losses determined? In the US, this is relegated to be determined by each state. Jeffery (2009) analyzed the end-of-year writing assessments from 41 US states and reported that not only did the tests vary in terms of prompted genres, but also in terms of the ways the written products were assessed on the rubrics (see table from Jeffery’s article below for the variance). In other words, passing and failing writing in each state differs widely. It isn’t comparable. It doesn’t mean the same thing. A “failing” school using one writing measure could be “passing” if only it used a different measure.

And we aren’t done with all the reasons why the NCLB passing and failing rates are faulty in terms of writing assessment. Jessica Lussenhop of CityPages recently reported what was to some a shocking truth about the business of writing assessment–a $2.7 billion industry. Namely, writing assessments are assessed by inexperienced temporary workers with two day’s training who are paid by quantity of papers and 80% matching scores. Lussenhop’s article is quite a read; she tells the stories of three such scorers who worked quickly, quietly and admittedly, poorly and unethically. One scorer and supervisor summarized the issue as such:

“They get paid money to put scores on paper, not to put the right scores on papers,” he says. “They have a bottom line. Why anyone would expect anything else is beyond me.”

The NCLB formula is nearing the moment that for 82% of schools will not be able to pass. The methods of measurement are faulty–at best–for measuring student gain and teacher effectiveness. And the business of test assessment is a sweatshop-style, invalid and unreliable number cruncher. With states cutting funding for teachers and class size, now is not the time to continue to fund this assessment machine. For more reasons than Duncan pointed to this Wednesday, it is time to get out of the BIG business of failing schools.

Jeffery, J. (2009). Constructs of writing proficiency in US state and national writing assessments: Exploring variability. Assessing Writing, 14(1), 3-24.

The Two-Faced Coin (Part 2 of 2): Education’s Two-Face–Time

Flip a Coin

What do you think? Is it going to be heads or tails? At this moment, can you tell? What will determine on which side it will drop? A gust of wind? The momentum of the roll? (Someone with a physics degree chime in with a comment. I am sure we’d all love to know the actual factors that will contribute to the outcome.)

When it comes to the educational development/deficit coin though, we have only one factor to consider: Time. “Oh, no, no,” you might be saying, “it’s the quality of the product that determines whether a writer is developed or not.” Or you might argue that it’s the sophistication of the writer’s composing processes. You may even ask us to consider the resources he/she consider and draw from or the repertoire of genres with which he/she has facility.

I’d agree with you that each of these dimensions of a writer are important, but these characteristics aren’t what determine development in education. Let’s take a look at a piece of writing to see what we find.

How would you determine whether the writer is developed, developing or in deficit? Of course, as indicated above, you might ask if it is a draft or if it is considered good “for a poem.” But then let me ask you: What if I told you it was written by a second grader? Would your judgement change? What if I told you it was a college student? What if I told you it was the first time the person had tried this genre or if it was after five years of participating in a community of poets? At the heart of any of these approaches to deciding whether writing or a writer is developed are questions of time: how long? how old? what grade?

We should then ask: Where do we get those ideas of what is expected at certain ages and after certain lengths of time and at certain grades? One such source is a study by Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod and Rosen conducted in 1976. They studied the audiences and functions (to persuade, to entertain, to tell) of the written products and writing tasks from classes of students ages 11-17 from across the UK. From their results, they suggested a curriculum of increasing cognitive abstraction in written products from personal experiences, to argument, to tautological statements. This suggestion has been taken up and is pervasive in the educational field in both curricula (e.g. in the first version of the National Curriculum in England in English) and research studies (e.g. McKeough & Genereux, 2003).

Buried in their study report was the statement that the audiences and functions of students’ written products aligned closely with the writing tasks assigned to them in school. From this the researchers reasoned that the range of written products in schools was the result of teaching curriculum and methodology rather than students’ independent writing development or even current skill sets:

We are clear about one thing: the work we have classified cannot be taken as a sample of what young writers can do. It is a sample of what they have done under the constraints of a school situation, a curriculum, a teacher’s expectations, and a system of public examinations which itself may constrain both teacher and writer. (p. 108)

In essence, then, the developmental model offered by Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod and Rosen (1976) is a model of the development of school curriculum—how to characterize the sequence of tasks assigned to students in first, third, fifth and seventh years of secondary school in the UK. The implication is that writing development is intricately tied to the writing experiences that have been afforded; and a common denominator to young persons’ development is the experiences required in school. Britton et al.’s (1976) developmental scheme, however, is not an indication of students’ cognitive or writing capacity, nor reflective of the entire range of audiences of functions of students’ writing.

The point here is simply this:

Chronological time is the ultimate determiner of development in writing. Our benchmarks on this linear scale of time have been based on studies and curricula that are not based on how youth actually develop as writers, but rather how we organize the products, practices and participation across a linear scale. 

When schools determine one child is developed and another is at deficit, we are just at the mercy of units of time we have segmented and decided should correlate to a set of practices. We aren’t actually saying anything about the child’s abilities or capacities. Yet the consequences of being thus labeled are left to the child, and deficit always leaves a mark.

I know. Ouch.

[Flip a Coin by The Bartender 007 / © Some rights reserved. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license]
Britton, J., Burgess, T., Martin, N., McLeod, A. & Rosen, H. (1976). The development of writing abilities (11-18). London: Schools Council Publication.
McKeough, A., & Genereux, R. (2003). Transformation in narrative thought during adolescence: The structure and content of story compositions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), 537-552.

Anna Smith, PhD, educational researcher & teacher educator blogging about composition in the digital age, contexts for learning, theories of development, and global youth.

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