Full disclosure: while I feel I’ve always appreciated Wikipedia at face value, I’ve never considered that the process of writing the site was so rich and worthy of analysis. I didn’t know, for example, that not only does the site have such a thing called Task Forces, which binds anonymous users around a common area to “strengthen the content of the broader topic area” (Kennedy 147), but that those topics can be as mundane as Legos or as specifically mundane as the video game series Castlevania. Holy. Crap.
Such Task Forces are formed to address “curatorial tasks” – where likeminded users editors collaborate to bring together texts as communities. I’m not sure who exactly has time to curate a page on Castlevania or how the main page escapes the hot, angry fingers of deletionists, but according to the fourth chapter of Krista Kennedy’s dissertation, “Textal Curation,” the agency of these editors function in much the same way as former encyclopedia authors have: as curators of texts. As curators, they ideally amass “the best textual samples available, assessing their quality, arranging entries in the most effective order, and writing a variety of additional texts to transform the gathered elements into a cohesive whole” (123). I say “ideally” because what each corpus strives for is to have entries compile the very best sources (of course!). Anyone who’s read a stub in Wikipedia knows good sources can be hard to come by. But in this sense the thousands of authors who have collaboratively produced Wikipedia draw from the same authorship principles as someone like Chambers writing Cyclopaedia in 1728; by “knowing where to collect information; developing ways to manage it; filtering the collection for relevance and quality; composing concise, clear articles; and attending to or outsourcing the myriad small tasks of publishing” (123) the encyclopedia succeeds.
However, what’s different between Wikipedia and Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, Kennedy argues, is their revision processes. Whereas Chambers made scant revisions of old entries 10 years later and focused instead on developing new entries, Wikipedia’s distributed authorship makes it “truly impossible to point to a central composer” (159). The 21st century tools – the Web, cheap hardware, wikis themselves – engender entries that are “written by a swarm of people” (160). The other articles we read this week, Scott Jones’s “From Writers to Information Coordinators” (2005) and Shaun Slattery’s “Technical Writing As Technical Coordination” make similar arguments about how the actual IT tools change the process of writing into what seems to be more and more like textual “curation” (Kennedy),“coordination” ”(Slatterly), “genre ecologies” (Freedman and Smart and Spinuzzi and Zachary), “layering” (Geisler), or the awesomely futuristic-sounding “Comprehensive Collaborative Continuum (Jones) — and less and less plain old single-authored writing with pen and paper or a word processing and email program.
I’m taken with this concept of curation (hey, who wouldn’t want to curate their own art space or music fesitival?), but I wonder how far we can extend the term “textual curation.” Is it a metaphor or not? What textual juxposition of researched texts isn’t curation? Are my students in WRT 205 curating their research essays, since they should be pulling together the best possible sources to make an argument — or is that the difference between curation and synthesis? In other words, does the neutral point of view (nPOV) stance of the encyclopedia privilege that term in ways other texts cannot? Finally, what’s the difference, and how can that difference be taught to students in our professional and technical writing courses — or even in FYC?
According to Slattery, it sounds like we need to introduce our students to strategically chosen classes of tools and platforms that evoke a “meta-level awareness” so that when they learn one class of those tools (image-editing software is the example), they learn them all. But if you ask Jones, perhaps he’ll say that we need to teach them to collaborate within Content Management Systems so that they can author multiple genres at once. And I bet if you ask Krista Kennedy, she’ll show you how to teach with wikis and other neat-o collaborative sites like Google Sites (psych – that already happened). I’m not sure what the answer is here, or how to make room in a curriculum for all of these tools, but as I sit in workshop on WRT 307 and think more about the Aristotelian definition of rhetoric – “all available means of persuasion” – then I do think we need to get our students into these tools, constantly coordinating texts.
When I first got my HDTV a few years ago, a friend immediately remarked to me that once I experienced it, I’d never be able to go back. He was right. We subscribe to cable at my house mostly because of my depressing dedication to Buffalo sports. Yet, rare is the chance that I get to watch a Sabres game in real HD and each time I get the pixilated 4:3 ratio flowing through the coaxial, I’m reminded of how I pay too much for mediocre cable. I mention this because since I’ve found myself increasingly working within Web 2.0, I have also come to expect to see it wherever I go. If I visit a site that regularly updates content and doesn’t have an RSS now, I’m puzzled. If an add-on didn’t update for the newest version of Firefox, I’m crushed. If I can’t share an article or aggregate data across platforms with the click or two of the mouse, I’m peeved. For all the love Flickr gets these days, for example, I’m amazed at how difficult it is to integrate it with Facebook. And yet there’s such cheer in these four articles. Web 2.0 knows no bounds (O’Reilly), supports proactive mapping in communities (Diehl et al), allows workers to repurpose and collaborate (Stolley), and can help elect the president of the free world (Harfoush).
While each of these texts presented their own slight utopias, I was most interested in “Grassroots: Supporting the Knowledge Work of Everyday Life,” since it seemed to best represent the potential of how Web 2.0 can help everyday folks re-purpose the familiar (and hegemonic) to move from consumers of knowledge to producers of knowledge. Plus, I just love maps.
The authors explain how they exploited Google’s API in order to help communities in Lansing, MI map their community assets – buildings, people, historical spaces, or eateries, etc. They choose maps specifically, it seems, because of their ability to present themselves as neutral entities. To those outside of geography departments, maps are usually not seen as arguments (i.e. “it’s just a bird’s eye view”), and so moving community members from readers of maps to producers of them feels like a revolutionary rhetorical enterprise. Before they make that move, however, they explore what current mapping tools exists for communities.
Specifically, they explore Public Participation Geographic Information Systems (PPGIS) tools, which, they argue, are limited because of “public participation may still be stifled by expert-centered interface designs” (419). A good example of such a PPGIS in Syracuse is this site: http://www.mapsonline.net/syracuse/. From what I can gather, it was created by folks at the Maxwell School using open source code from PeopleGIS, a company in Massachusetts. It allows users to visually interact with a sea of data within Onondaga County. Users can plot certain services (child care centers and schools), designated sites (Superfund or food pantries) bus routes, public spaces, but also certain demographic data, such as population, age, income, etc. While the site is a little overwhelming and counterintuitive, it can be powerful to those who (a) know it exists and (b) can navigate its interface and (c) can use the information in specific ways (as knowledge workers).
I’m not sure what went into planning this site, but I see echoes here of what Diehl, et al. reported finding in Lansing. There, the authors identify a site supported by local and federal governments called ArcMIS, which community members found difficult to navigate and use. And while this map in Syracuse doesn’t highlight deficits (crime, for example, isn’t map-able), it doesn’t allow citizens to really participate, to remix it, in any way. Plus, judging from the site’s dead links, it’s outdated and hardly used. I think this is one of the fundamental problems with Web 1.0 – maintenance. I imagine Maxwell received a hefty grant to launch this site and now it sits dormant.
While I realize Web 2.0 doesn’t entirely solve the maintenance problem (I’m thinking of how moderators had to tenaciously monitor posts on MyBo sites), I love that Grassroots provides users with a writing tool – not a read-only site like ArcMIS or the Onondaga County site. By encouraging users to build their own maps using an interface with which they might already be familiar – Google Maps – Grassroots develops a sustainable process that has users creating texts “that can be easily syndicated, repurposed, or added upon” (424). I’ll be curious to see where Grassroots heads in the future. The site is still in Beta test mode, but it has me wanting to do a little walking tour of my own neighborhood soon.
Before the service economy/information age 2.0, I imagine that life as a “document designer” was more or less straightforward. I picture a garden-variety computer geek using Pagemaker or Quark to layout product manuals for telephones or lawnmowers with more or less fixed deadlines, formats, and boundaries.
At least two of the texts we’re reading for 760 this week on information design, however, emphasize the need for technical communicators to consider function over form because of the sheer expansion of information available. As Albers puts it “People simply cannot efficiently sort through and process the amount of information they have access to” (1); similarly Salvo and Rosinski note that “Search and retrieval – or findability – as well as navigability become increasingly important as the information age produces more documents than ever before” (103). As obvious of a problem as this is, I dig Salvo and Rosinski’s call for real digital literacy, an attempt at understanding what this saturation means for writers. When I think about this saturation, I think about how much it’s impacted authorship beyond the technical writer. As Salvo and Rosinski note, “Attention to design most recently has focused on the placement and articulation of information (data) within documents as well as on finding, contextualizing, and placing any document within larger conversations and collections (metadata)” (105; emphasis mine). The spatial metaphors become essential, as Salvo and Rosinski make clear, to placing documents in a context that communicates scale, navigation, locatability, etc. (110). This applies to researchers in graduate courses as well as zinesters.
Alright. While editing, writing, and laying out two fanzines hardly qualifies me as an “information designer” – or maybe the zine’s ethos actually precludes me from weighing in here — these chapters had me thinking back to those DIY days, especially since my two zines were designed in different mediums (print/web), in different decades (1990s/2000s), and in different subjects (music/creative NF). Mud, my print zine from the 90s, were released as separate issues (twice a year, maybe?) whereas The Onanist, my webzine from the 00s, eventually became an ongoing, weekly endeavor. In fact, by the end of its two-year run, we were microblogging daily on side frame while rolling out new content – stand-alone stories, interviews, art – weekly.
Thinking back, though, I had trouble with the transfer from print to digital – the same trouble that Salvo and Rosinski mention technical communicators had in the late 90s: “At that time, designers of new Web site construction ignored effective design principles, even at times asserting that effective document design developed for the page did not and could not apply online” (106). Despite having purchased Dreamweaver and Photoshop how-to manuals, I initially started The Onanist by rolling out separate “issues” (see Issue 2 right there) and changing the masthead each week. These were print decisions in hindsight – leftover principles from Mud.
After a while I figured out that the best set-up would be something more fluid, a model that worked with the boundlessness of the web. After two years we actually produced so much content that management became a major issue and transferring the architecture or look of the zine was a major hassle. CSS? XML? CMS? Whatsa what? The only acronym I knew was PITA. And now that the project is defunct (died the day I left my MA program, sadly), the zine exists only as a chopped-up relic on my hard drive with files scattered and links broken. At least I still have every copy of Mud, right through to the last issue (above, left).
While I have no intentions of starting another webzine soon, the major lesson here seems to be that when it comes to information design, it’s important to think about broader contexts for which individual documents will be designed into (“the sponsors,” as Carliner put it). As the Writing Center considers building a stronger, more expansive resources page, for example, it’ll be important to think through the designs of those pages within the larger context of the institution, the WP, and the WC sites. In fact, as I think back to last week’s discussion on CM and the WC, I wonder how much of that conversation would fit into our discussion tomorrow. Are other folks seeing some strong overlap between CM and ID? I have a feeling there will be more when we get to usability after break.
“You can be a creative writer using nothing but your imagination. But you can’t be a technical or proposal writer if you don’t have information — hard cold facts and data to write about.”
–Rob in FL
Let’s just get this out of the way: anyone who references The Flaming Lips in an academic text deserves major props. Seriously though, Johndan Johnson-Eiloa’s Datacloud is reminiscent of Jeff Rice, another scholar who uses the hip-hop-as-pomo-writing argument to talk about how postmodern texts are inherently produced through contingent, experimental, and playful means – it’s “whatever.” And what was persuasive in Rice’s “The 1963 Hip-Hop Machine” is just as persuasive to me in Datacloud. It’s the whatever part.
In a nutshell, Datacloud argues that we live in an information-saturated world – “a cloud of data” — that not only requires current writers, producers and authors to accept said density, but to actually see how their responses to it (i.e. learning and working) – their “inhabiting” information, leads to rich, meaning-making activity worthy of theorizing further (3). To take it further J-E employs Stuart Hall (vis-à-vis articulation theory) alongside labor theorist Robert Reich (vis-à-vis symbolic-analytic work) to post, in J-E’s terms, “a job ad for information age cultural workers” (19).
At its meatiest, Datacloud uses the aforementioned theories to analyze computer interfaces; J-E admits the book started with this premise and a third of the book is dedicated to this analysis. By historicizing the computer he finds that interfaces have increasingly flattened, emphasizing surface over depth as the computer developed (think of the difference between DOS and Windows or OSX). What’s problematic about this, argues J-E, is that while more learning/work has become increasing squeezed into a small window (screen, screens and more screens), our technologies (and theories?) have hardly kept up with the jobs of symbolic-analytic workers, who are increasingly expected to experiment, collaborate, analyze vast piles of data, and understand how problems change with different contexts. J-E extends this argument beyond the “interface,” questioning software that emphasizes time (like MS Word) as opposed to software that emphasizes space (like ProTools or maybe Dreamweaver).
I don’t know if I’m really a symbolic-analytic worker, but my hybridized role as admin/instructor/student/consultant allows me to bask in interfaces at least 10 hours a day. Because I frequently need to coordinate schedules and documents it’s not unusual for me to need to skim through Firefox, Word, Mail, iCal for one task. In other words, a 40” monitor probably wouldn’t keep me happy. But after talking to my friend Rob, I really see what J-E is getting at in Datacloud.
Rob, a CNY native, has been a tech writer for over 30 years, but recently migrated to a southern city to work for a company that writes proposals for other companies. While Rob says he has not time to learn DITA or XML, he does use “old technology” (his words) like MS Office, Sharepoint, Visio, VBasic, MS Project, Photoshop and a bunch of other programs to work through a sea of data, docs, forms and other info. He says: “I spend 90% of my time on technical fiddling to cobble together ways to cope with information, and 10% actually writing meaningful proposal text.” He gives an example of working with a guy in Europe who wrote macros in vBasic so that he is able to keyword metadata in hundreds of documents for a construction project. But he’s not only a database wrangler. He needs to work with teams to navigate boatloads of data in order to produce arguments that persuade specific audiences.
He writes: “All my jobs since I became a tech writer have been stressful because I’m required to somehow produce meaningful, factual proposal text that gives solid reasons why we should win a contract…but without many knowledge resources, historical data or technical information. So I’ve increasingly moved into building knowledge bases so I can have the facts and information I need to write winning proposals.”
One way he’s been successful in this way is rearticulating the data so it works for him – no matter who the audience or what the context. More than anything that he’s worked on in 9 years, Rob says he’s proud of designing “dashboard workspaces,”which rearrange awful, dense tables of info (often required by the Fed) into interactive, hyperlinked graphs. This helps his team “actually concentrate on writing, not searching for information,” though Rob himself argues that he’s “increasingly involved in information capture, information indexing, information classifying, and information retrieval design and programming, rather than merely doing ‘technical writing’.”
The implications for pedagogy in both J-E and Rice are important. I’ve tried to use contingency as a method in WRT 205 (play them Girl Talk!) just as much as I have in a peer-tutoring practicum. That said, I wondered how Rob might read the conclusions in this book, especially the five strategies on page 134. More specifically, what would a more “spatial environment” look like? Who develops them? Workers (as in Rob’s dashboard)? Companies? (Is open source the answer?) And four longish years after this book, are we seeing such trends with things like tagclouds and interactive graphics like this one?
Quite a few years ago, when I was starting out as a high school English teacher, I remember talking with a former teacher and mentor about how damned difficult it is was to design good assignments. Forms were the easy part, I said, but thinking through the purpose and audience — that was tricky. She agreed, adding that she thought that was so because the classroom was such an “artificial space.” That comment has stuck with me each time I’ve tried to design an assignment, whether it was for English 11, ENG 101, WRT 205, etc. I think: How can I make this assignment as engaging and authentic as possible? How can I design a task with real exigence for my students? Are these even worthwhile or realistic goals?
This anxiety returns to me as I think about how I’ll start piece together units and assignments for WRT 307 this fall. What curricula will best prepare my students for their future (and current?) workplaces? Which forms? Readings? Assignments? Technologies? These basic but vast (and vastly complicated) questions are addressed in Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts (1999). Dias et al ask, “[i]n what ways is writing in university preparation for writing at work?” More to the point, the authors investigate why it hardly ever has.
Claiming that “the contexts of writing not only influence it … but are integral to it,” the authors necessarily make use of social theories of situated learning, including genre studies (Miller), activity theory (Leont’ev), communities of practice (COP) (Lave and Wenger), distributed cognition (Hutchins), and semiotic theory (Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Kristeva) – theories not alien to writing centers, I might add (see The Everyday Writing Center for a fresh example).
In the chapters we read, the authors primarily drew from Miller’s work in genre studies to identify “the social motives” operating among genres at both the university (Part II) and in the workplace (Part III). With school genres, they found two motives. On one hand the genres grew from an epistemic tradition to teach students the languages of academic disciplines; one the other, they existed to “rank and sort” students. In the workplace, however, motives were often conflicting and competing. The authors’ example of such a genre is a written medical form within social service unit in a children’s hospital that was recently revised. As they interviewed various readers/writers of the form at the hospital, who overlap in their COPs, they found workers felt accountable to different, conflicting agencies – to themselves, to colleagues, to management and administration, other doctors, and to their clients.
So what conclusions can such a comparison offer? The primary outcome for teachers of workplace writing is that they need to stop kidding themselves and their students that exposure to and practice with workplace genres is an honest depiction of what is experienced in “the real world.” From the last paragraph of chapter 6:
The situatedness of workplace texts – their inextricable relationship to particular ideologies, settings, times, people, other texts, and activities – renders arhetorical (or under-rhetorical) any academic attempt to replicate them, no matter how sophisticated and elaborate the simulation, case study, or role play. Genre theory predicts, and our research confirms, the presence of highly structured textual rituals and patterns in the workplace, but those genres are inseparable from their context. So, although it might well be possible and even desirable to show students copies of workplace texts and to have practitioners talk to students about their participation in those texts, the lived experience of texts is impossible out of their enactment. (134)
I’m curious what other members of the class think about this argument and, if so, how far we need to take it. Does this imply we completely jettison courses like WRT 307, for example, or do we simply provide a caveat to students about this falseness that a professional/technical writing curriculum engenders? Other ideas?