To write well be curious, be engaged, think hard, revise

That’s not all there is to writing well of course, but in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction William Zinsser argues that the best writers are those who remain curious about and interested in their subject, write in a manner that engages both the subject and the reader, think as hard and clearly as possible, and revise what they’ve written to weed out any muddiness of thought or clutter. Zinsser also has some pretty strong feelings about the ways clutter thwarts good writing.

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon…But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. – Zinsser, 6.

While I’m not sure I buy his argument that clutter and pompous language are problems particular to American writing, as a tenant of academia and member of a writing-based society I sympathize with Zinsser’s disdain for compositional clutter. How many misunderstandings could be avoided if we always took the time to rethink and revise each piece of writing we unleashed, from the briefest status update to the most serious e-mail? How much less rigid would the barrier between the so-called ivory tower and the rest of the world be if fewer writers mistook jargon for a sign of status and authority?

Zinsser’s merciless scrutiny of clutter parallels that of his mentor, E. B. White, in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (which I blogged about several weeks ago). Zinsser credits White for the development of his respect for the English language and the work of refining and expressing ideas through writing – out of which his crusade against clutter was also born. Although a handful of the chapters in On Writing Well are more useful to journalists or general nonfiction writers than historians, Zinsser manages to complement Strunk and White without replicating too much of their work. Below are some of Zinsser’s main arguments that I found most helpful.

  • Bad writing makes it harder for the reader to pay attention, let alone understand what you’re trying to say. Zinsser writes, “The man or woman snoozing in a chair with a magazine or a book is a person who was being given too much unnecessary trouble by the writer. It won’t do to say that the reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough” (Zinsser, 8). This isn’t to say that all readers who have trouble paying attention to or understanding what they’re reading are the victims of a bad writer. Everyone faces distractions and approaches reading with different levels of motivation. But it’s the writer’s responsibility to ensure that as little as possible obstructs the reader. Clear writing takes hard work, and Zinsser has no sympathy for writers who blame readers for their own failure to hone their craft and force clarity into their writing.
  • Clear, simple writing is a sign of hard work and intelligence. In other words, the quality of writing and thought does not increase in relation to the amount of jargon that accompanies it. “Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.” Furthermore, “If what you write is ornate, or pompous, or fuzzy, that’s how you’ll be perceived. The reader has no other choice” (Zinsser, 174).
  • Words are your greatest tools, so use them wisely. To improve your writing you must cultivate a respect for words that propels you to continually investigate the English language. Consult your dictionary often, learn the small differences in meaning between words, and pay attention to the rhythm and to the visual appearance of words in your writing.
  • To write well you must rewrite. Revision is “where the game is won or lost…clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering” (Zinsser, 83; 84). This can be a difficult reality to accept. Writing well is hard work, and forcing yourself to revise can almost seem like a punishment for getting it “wrong” the first time. But it takes time for thoughts to coalesce and crystallize and for you to find the best way to convey your ideas clearly – much more time than a single writing sessions allows. Try to think of revision as an opportunity to do your best work by undoing – or redoing – your mistakes. Try to think of rewriting as “the essence of writing” (Zinsser, xii).

Writing as meditation practice

The biggest struggle was not with the actual writing, but working out the fear of success, the fear of failure, and finally burning through to just pure activity. NATALIE GOLDBERG

Two ways to Zen, an e-doodle
Two ways to Zen, an e-doodle

When I was in grade school, my teachers would often tell me how well I wrote and how they just knew I was going to be a writer someday. My internal response to these assurances was always to wonder if my teachers were insane. I appreciated the compliment and always worked very hard to do well. (An example: upon being congratulated for receiving a near-perfect score on my third grade C.A.T., I was so disappointed that I’d missed two questions that I cried when I told my mother the news. Yes, I was that kid.) But in spite of the praise, I hated writing. Yes, I could write well when I needed to and I sometimes enjoyed the direction a particular story or report took me, but writing was so hard. I thought professional writers were people who enjoyed writing and found it easy. Why else would they choose to do it for a living? It wasn’t until my first year of graduate school that I recognized the hard truth about writing: composition is agony and it won’t get much easier with time. But that doesn’t mean the process of writing can’t be both a positive and valuable experience.

In Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within Natalie Goldberg discusses the ways meditation and writing can intersect. Goldberg, a dedicated Zen student and writer, views writing as an extension of her meditation practice. Although much of Writing Down the Bones is geared toward writers of creative fiction, Goldberg’s core argument that the lessons of meditation also apply to writing is one any writer can use. Depending on your perspective, however, it may take some time and effort to get used to Goldberg’s writing style.

I admit that for about a third of the book I was rather annoyed with Goldberg’s habit of using plain, staccato sentences. Whenever I see someone do that it makes me think they are trying to seem profound just by nature of putting things simply. Goldberg’s Zen-influenced language, too, can seem a bit odd and new-agey if you don’t consider its context. Still, Writing Down the Bones validates the experience of every writer: writing IS a perpetually difficult process. You are not alone in your struggles. What’s more, with time and effort you can train yourself to cut through the mental noise, focus on the process, and extend the value you find in writing into the rest of your life. Here are my favorite themes of Goldberg’s thesis:

  • Writing can be meditation practice because both activities require you to focus and gain control of your thoughts. As someone who practices both meditation and writing, I can attest to how excruciatingly difficult this can be within the context of either task. Yes, some days things will flow more easily than others and regular practice goes a long way, but ultimately you must accept that you are always going to have to work hard to calm and quiet your mind. The human brain will always have a little too much skittering around inside of it. But, as Goldberg notes, “Once you’re deep into [writing], you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk. Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing” (Goldberg, 14). And since all writers write for a reason, surely getting deep into writing is something you can look forward to and enjoy.
  • The key to good writing is clarity and the key to clarity is a commitment to read a lot, listen intently, develop relationships with other writers, and “shut up, sit down, and write.” That last part is Goldberg’s harsh way of saying “quiet your mind and practice your writing.” Sometimes you have to be a little blunt with yourself to recognize what’s preventing you from achieving your goals. But it’s not all bad – part of becoming a better writer also involves reading about other people’s ideas, figuring out what sort of writing you admire, and seeing what writers you’d most like to emulate. Learning to really listen just might be the trickiest part. Many of us, especially those of us in the competitive culture of academia, become overly obsessed with argument and with proving ourselves right. This can lead to a lot of halfhearted listening – listening for holes in logic, errors in method, sketchy evidence, or even just an opening to speak and let the other person know they’re wrong. Really make an effort to slow your thoughts and listen deeply to others. If you don’t, not only will you not be able to truly hear and consider what the other person is saying; you’ll also be missing an opportunity to improve your writing by becoming more open and receptive to the truths and perspectives of others.
  • Don’t get caught up in some ideal notion of your writing practice; instead, focus on the process of writing. Ah, if only life could be about the process and not the product. Oh wait, it can – IF you adopt a more Zen-like perspective. This is not to say the product doesn’t matter. We all know it does, particularly if you expect to reap benefits such as a paycheck from your work. It also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for your ideal – you should, but focus more on the process of writing. Goldberg asserts that “Ultimately, if the process is good, the end will be good. You will get good writing” (Goldberg, 16). You don’t need to convert to Buddhism or practice zazen four hours a day to see the logic in this argument. While it’s unsurprising that focusing as well as you can on precisely what you are doing leads to clarity, precision, and advancement, it is surprisingly difficult to fully give oneself over to focus. My mind has probably wandered 372 times since I ended the last sentence and began this one. Yet mindful, determined writing practice – what Goldberg calls “honesty of practice” – will yield the best results. And, if you get into it and start feeling really Zen, you might just try extending the best, most honest aspects of your writing practice into other areas of your daily life. But I’ll let Goldberg preach to you on that topic, in her own words:

What is important is not just what you do – “I am writing a book” – but how you do it, how you approach it, and what you come to value…Writing can teach us the dignity of speaking the truth, and it spreads out from the page into all of our life, and it should. Otherwise, there is too much of a schism between who we are as writers and how we live our daily lives. That is the challenge: to let writing teach us about life and life about writing. Let it flow back and forth (Goldberg, 151; 172).

Writing: “thinking as hard as you’ll ever think”

Writing is the most exact (and exacting) form of thinking…Good writing is the best kind of conversation you never heard. It’s talking tidied up. It’s speaking compressed, clarified, enriched and heightened by thought and art, and set down on paper. MARK TREDINNICK

I found myself doing a lot of underlining, flagging, and commenting while reading Mark Tredinnick’s Writing Well: The Essential Guide. Tredinnick, an award-winning poet, essayist, and teacher, makes some compelling arguments not only about how to write well, but also about why we must strive to write well. His core directive is nearly identical to that of Strunk and White (whose The Elements of Style I blogged about previously): write clearly and as simply as possible. Tredinnick’s repetition of this directive throughout the book makes Writing Well a bit circular in organization, but Tredinnick nonetheless delivers a guide that offers both practical advice and an explanation of how writing is a thoroughly social act.

Tredinnick’s practical advice on writing is very accessible. Writers of both fiction and non-fiction will discover useful tips, and Tredinnick’s many “Try this” sections could easily be broken down for strategic use in the classroom. He doesn’t offer much on grammar that I didn’t already know (or hadn’t recently encountered in my examination of Strunk and White), but Tredinnick’s insights into the experience and the meaning of writing often struck me as remarkably lucid.

Tredinnick is very sensitive to the many factors that can motivate and distract writers. He is more forthright than most in acknowledging the prevalence and the impact of anxiety and personal constraints among writers. (See his “Try this” tips on pages 26 and 30 for some useful exercises to cope with your own writing anxieties and constraints.) Aside from his core directive to write clearly and simply, which he ties closely to the rejection of opaque, “pompous” language, Tredinnick’s six central writing tips can be summarized as follows:

  • Favor a rough writing plan over a thorough and exact one.
  • Develop your thesis and know what you are going to argue before you begin writing.
  • State your main point upfront; don’t hold it back from your readers.
  • Focusing on the hard work of writing each sentence well will improve your coherence throughout your writing.
  • Perfecting your paragraphs is the next level in improving your overall coherence.
  • All parts of your writing should be linked together–don’t leave your readers with any confusion as to where you are taking them.

Tredinnick also pushes writers to consider the larger significance of the act of writing and connects all his writing tips to the concept of writing as a social act. Writing, Tredinnick asserts, is a deliberate undertaking and a powerful action. It’s a way of sharing ideas, of participating in and shaping democracy and civilization. Too often, he argues, “imperious language [is used] to hold onto knowledge and power” (Tredinnick, Writing Well, 41). Abstract, overly complex language runs counter to the very purpose of writing: the communication of ideas. Consider Tredinnick’s apt spoof of an academic attempt to encourage clear writing:

The fundamental principle for the efficacious elucidation of meaning in documentation is the minimization of abstraction of expression and the abandonment of convolution of construction and, instead, the utilization of quotidian diction and the employment of syntactical simplification (Tredinnick, 61).

Know anyone who writes like that? I do, and I appreciate Tredinnick’s careful efforts to link good writing to clear writing. While he vigorously discourages writers from falling into the habit of writing with detached, “unfamiliar and polysyllabic diction” (which he believes too many writers mistake for “a mark of rank or intelligence or expertise”), he doesn’t advocate the total abandonment of abstraction–merely its rationing (Tredinnick, 70). He recognizes that certain topics lend themselves to a degree of theoretical writing, and he encourages writers to constantly expand their vocabulary so that they may improve their ability to write with precision and dexterity. It’s just that, on the whole, he believes writers need to strive for greater fidelity to clarity and simplicity. “Make the abstract concrete. Make the general particular” (Tredinnick, 110). Write, in other words, the way you’d like to see society run. Aim to write in a way that will get your point across to the broadest spectrum of society possible. Write inclusively, with good manners, respect, and egalitarianism. Write clearly.

A historian’s experiment in creative fiction

For an interdisciplinary seminar I’m taking this semester on the bourgeoisie and the city in the nineteenth century I decided to compose a work of creative fiction as my first paper rather than a traditional research essay. It was probably the first time I’ve written fiction since elementary school. Somehow I thought it would not only be more fun than writing a research essay, but faster as well. I was wrong on the latter point and not entirely right on the former. It took much longer than I expected and actually required a good bit of research beyond the course materials and theoretical approaches we were required to utilize and engage with. For a research essay or book review, I generally write at a rate of about an hour per page. (That is after I’ve completed all of my reading and outlining.) For this work of fiction I’d say I more than doubled the amount of time spent on each page.

Some of this was due to the additional research I conducted in an effort to make the fiction more immersive and hence more believable, but I also wasted a lot of time worrying about whether or not what I was writing was any good. This happens, to a degree, with anything I write. My professors, critics, and colleagues are often in my head as I outline and while I consider how to phrase a particular idea or argument. Eventually, of course, I have to kick them out and follow my instincts. Plus some are just too darn chatty to allow me to get anything done. But I found this process a bit more difficult when writing fictional narrative. As a student of history, I was quite self-conscious about writing fiction. Was I doing it right? Was I committing all kinds of literary sins, the very names of which I would be incapable of comprehending? What, I wondered, would the english-lit folks in class think if they ever read it?

Concerns aside, I was rather surprised to experience that old familiar feeling of satisfaction at having written something that effectively communicated my thoughts–while writing fiction! Who knew? Enter the fun aspect. I remain convinced that what I’ve produced is useful to my goal of understanding the lived experience of a person in a particular historical setting. I’ll leave it up to others to determine whether or not it contains any actual literary value. Posted below for your reading pleasure (or displeasure) is what I concocted.

The Legacy of Maxwell Montclaire

Maxwell Montclaire dressed himself swiftly and quietly. He preferred not to wake the young woman sleeping amid the tangle of sheets in the bed behind him. She breathed steadily and heavily in the dim, humid air, seeming completely at peace in her slumber. Maxwell wondered for a moment at her ability to achieve a deep sleep even in the presence of a virtual stranger. He supposed that somehow, from one night to the next, this woman had accustomed herself to her situation and that it must be her ability to accept whatever circumstances she found herself in at the end of her day that enabled her to enter the tranquil state in which she now rested. He regarded it as a remarkable achievement, but not one that he fully comprehended. Maxwell was a man of little means but much ambition, and he intended to rise in the world. To him, circumstances were a reality to rise above rather than accept and make peace with.

He returned his attention to his dress. As his long, slender fingers worked the buttons of his fine white linen shirt, Maxwell considered the reflection in the mirror before him. In his thick black hair, dark eyes, and aqualine nose Maxwell saw the traces of what the Montclaires had once been and the promise of what he could make them again. His features greatly resembled those of his grandfather, Gerard Montclaire, once a savvy merchant and the proud patriarch of a great family. As he righted his collar and made minute adjustments to his French blue-grey silken cravat, Maxwell called to mind the few clear memories of his grandfather he possessed. They were all quite similar.

In his mind’s eye he saw his grandfather, seated upon a sturdy parlor chair composed of rich, dark mahogany. The chair’s seat and backing were covered in a blood-red brushed velvet. His grandfather leaned intently over a letter desk carved of the same fine mahogany and made entries in an oversized book with a worn leather binding. Now and then he paused, lips moving silently, and dipped his silver-tipped pen into an ornate inkwell wrought in the form of a lion. The carpet at his feet bore ornate Turkish patterns at its borders and seemed as thick and full as moss on a deep forest floor. The heavy smell of cigar smoke, cognac, and furniture polish hung in the air. Nearly all of Maxwell’s memories of his grandfather were set in the old family parlor, yet he could not recall a single instance of his grandfather truly at leisure in the domestic space. There were, to be true, a few sparse memories of his grandfather reading a heavy book in the parlor, his pale white hands gently fingering the luminously gilded edge of a page as he contemplated the text. Maxwell could even recall his grandfather savoring a luxuriant evening meal in the elegant dining room, glass of fragrant dark wine sparkling in his hand under the delicate glow of the crystal chandelier. But it seemed that Gerard Montclaire had always moved with the family firm somewhere in his mind. And although he was only a boy of eight at the time of his grandfather’s death, Maxwell’s memories of the man left him with the strong impression that his grandfather had been a man of the utmost seriousness, dignity, and dedication. Of course, in those days things had been quite different for the Montclaires.

The family had once been held in high regard in their native country. The Montclaires may not have been noblesse ancienne, but they were widely respected throughout France’s tightly-woven circles of commerce and exchange. The exploitation of military conflict was their specialty, and Gerard Montclaire in particular was known for his uncanny ability to predict the route the Montclaire wares would need to take in the event that hostilities erupted. He always seemed to know not only exactly what needed to be ready to move but also when the best time to move it was. He had been just a child during the Napoleonic Wars, but it was said that he cut his teeth in the arms business by selling to the révoltés in the weeks leading up to the Trois Glorieuses. In fact, this was Gerard Montclaire’s first great victory for the family and was celebrated as an assurance that his generation would not merely contribute to the family legacy but build upon it. By the time of the conquest of the Algerian territories, Gerard had ascended to brokering a large share of the nation’s weapons and matériel purchases. His dealings in the Revolutions of 1848 solidified his reputation as a man highly adept at foreign commerce and reliable as a source of essential goods in times of widespread chaos. But it was his timely shipment of guns and ammunition to the Allies on Brassey and Peto’s Grand Crimean Central Railway during the Siege of Sevastopol”s late November starving time that earned him the most fame—as well as record returns.

By then the situation of the family seemed so secure that none of them could imagine a future in which the Montclaires did not continue to rise. Their grand stone estate on the western edge of Le Marais, near Paris’ business district in the deuxième arrondissemont, regularly hosted esteemed guests from every corner of the nation. The family enjoyed sumptuous surroundings, the finest food, the latest fashions, and one of the best wine collections north of Burgundy. Although Maxwell’s father, Bernhard Montclaire, seemed to possess none of Gerard’s commercial savvy or instinctual attunement to the ebb and flow of nationalistic passions, it was assumed Bernhard would eventually find some niche of his own that would enable him to contribute to the Montclaire fortune. Yet, in spite of the many opportunities Gerard found for his son, Bernhard floundered.

Donning his doe brown tweed knee-length frock coat, Maxwell again regarded his visage. His heart quickened and he felt a flash of heat at the recognition of the dissonance between his features and those of his father. Bernhard Montclaire, genealogical aberration, omen of familial misfortune and ruin, had possessed a physicality entirely inconsistent with the Montclaire tradition. He had been a lean, almost gaunt man with thin, featherweight pale brown hair, a nervous temperament, and a delicate stomach. Maxwell’s mind conjured up the image of his father’s small, bluish hands being wrung. Those effete, overrefined hands contorting in discomfort and anxiety symbolized to Maxwell all his father had lacked. Bernhard had inherited none of the great patriarch’s élan vital; he was a disappointment in both appearance and intellect. And when, little more than three years after the triumph of Sevastopol Gerard Montclaire died in a fit of convulsions, young Maxwell beheld in his grandfather’s horrified expression what he now interpreted as the ghastly specter of the family’s future. The loss of grandfather Gerard heralded the ruin of the Montclaires; Bernhard’s desperate efforts to assume his father’s place resulted in the fast and steep decline of the family’s economic and social stock. Maxwell set out on his own as soon as he was able, though the incongruous circumstances of the intervening years significantly affected his psyche.

Maxwell turned back once more to ensure that the young woman slept on and, positioning his felt derby hat in place, moved carefully for the door. It eased open without a sound, leading him to wonder if its hinges were kept well-oiled for the express purpose of enabling silent departures such as his. He pulled his hat down lower on his forehead and made his way down the darkened hall. He averted the eyes of the few women he passed and offered only the briefest of glances to the men. Stepping out onto the street he confronted a host of odors that had yet to reach their peak in the morning air—the sticky ash of burned coal, vegetables rotting in the gutter, dried horse urine mixed with the cypress planks that lined the road, and the fried, salted catfish that constituted the breakfast of so many of the Acadians of the district. The glare of the rising sun struck his eyes sharply as looked up at the skyline of the city of Lafayette. Although it was late June the early hour and a cool breeze moving west off the Vermilion River meant that Maxwell would arrive at his destination without becoming too damp and disheveled. This was good, as appearances mattered a great deal where he was going.

He moved at a leisurely pace, allowing his hands to slip around the front of his coat and into the pockets of his green twill trousers. With slackened arms and relaxed shoulders, Maxwell studied the world around him as he made his way through it. The buildings that lined Pinhook Road consisted primarily of drab single or double-story tenement houses constructed of a combination of cypress, ash, and dogwood. There was little oak to be found in this part of the city. Flapping lines of laundry hung in patches from most of the porches, the dull color of the garments suggesting a grime that belied washing. What few windows there were appeared smoky with dirt. Most of the district’s inhabitants had either already set out for the morning to fish or were just beginning to stir; Maxwell only had to endure one or two harsh stares for his meticulous dress before he turned toward Johnston Street and left the Acadian district behind.

He knew it was perhaps unwise to move through the Cajun French areas of the city adorned as he was in the style of a gentleman, but the recreation was a release from the strictures his ambition imposed upon him. The clothing had taken much time and effort to acquire, but the sort of business he needed to conduct to rise in the world and create a legacy for himself demanded a wardrobe that was every bit as serious as he was. As Maxwell drew nearer to Johnston Street the scenery and atmosphere of the city began to shift. The air grew clearer and fresher. The ground was less marshy, the road tidier. The buildings became larger and taller and although cypress remained the dominant wood, splashes of oak and maple could be seen here and there. The homes were constructed in a consistent manner; many were lacquered with bright white paint. True architecture began to emerge in the form of ordered, decorative facades, rounded porches supported by thick columns, and rounded windows with shining panes of clear glass. Turning onto Johnston Street, even more impressive buildings of brick and stone began to appear. Maxwell’s destination could be seen just two blocks away: a stout rectangular hotel in the colonial style, rising up several stories from the ground. The sight elicited a feeling of relief in Maxwell that swelled the nearer he drew, but it was not until he entered the lobby that his relief gave way to an ease he had only known in childhood.

As he drew the smell of leather, cigar smoke, fresh-cut flowers, and perfume deep into his lungs, Maxwell’s past came up to meet him. In the midst of the hotel’s polished floors, stone columns, bright lights, elegant guests, and luxurious furnishings, he was again a Montclaire. Like his grandfather he was serious, dignified, and dedicated, his mind completely focused on achieving the task at hand. He experienced no anxiety as he glided across the marbled floor of the lobby’s standing area and onto the plush carpet that led to an arrangement of well-upholstered sofas and chairs. He opened his frock coat and seated himself in a rosewood armchair with lightly striped silk padding. Next to him was a lustrous pecan side table with scrolled edges and clawed feet. It was here that he would meet his client and complete the next link in a chain of transactions that would lead him toward redemption. Maxwell possessed the unadulterated commercial and instinctual faculties of his grandfather, and he meant to use them to restore the Montclaires to greatness.

Information infrastructures and future directions in digital scholarship

Any attempt to understand the impact of digital technologies and the digital medium must take into consideration the underlying processes that support, regulate, and structure computers and the Internet. Human interaction with technology is more than a simple reciprocal exchange between technology and the human mind; it is an interaction between the user and a series of systematic actions undertaken by the technology per the guidelines set forth by an array of programmers, developers, corporations, and governments. These guidelines, which form the layers of the informational infrastructure of the Internet, are the result of a desire for access to certain kinds of content and the business models that evolved in an attempt to control access to content. Every technology possesses a history, and the most recent studies of digital technology and the Internet increasingly acknowledge that the history of computers and the Internet constitute a vital component in understanding not only the impact of these technologies, but the long-term implications of them as well. In Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, and John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives each author approaches their subject with a keen awareness of the ways a historical examination of computers and the Internet can inform understanding of the processes and structures that frame human interaction with technology and the digital medium. This awareness brings a complexity and thoroughness to their analyses that many previous studies of the impact of technology lack.

Of all the authors, Wu is the most historically-oriented. In the book’s introduction he writes that he disagrees with technoutopian visions of the future as well as the “insistence that we are living in unprecedented times.” Instead, he asserts, “the place we find ourselves now is a place we have been before, albeit in different guise” (Wu, 14). He states that one of the goals of his work is to provide an account of the development of technologies in times past so that the future can be made better. This is particularly important, he argues, given the increasing significance of information in society, the role of the Internet in purveying information, and increasing societal reliance upon the Internet for access to information. Wu focuses on the relationship between content, content providers (especially as they relate to issues of access), and informational infrastructures. He examines this relationship via historical trends in the emergence and development of a variety of technologies, including radio, telephone, film, television, and the Internet. His thesis consists of two parts: first, that certain patterns exist within the development technologies and that these patterns offer useful insight into the future of the Internet and, second, that whatever the future of the Internet and information may be it depends “far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries” (Wu, 13).

Wu utilizes a concept he calls the Cycle as a framework for understanding the development and structuring of technology over time. It is highly derivative of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, which holds that innovation and economic growth reinforce one another and therefore the destruction of stagnant ideas is necessary for economic vitality. Wu only credits Schumpeter with “inspiring” the Cycle, arguing that Schumpeter’s theory does “not account for the power of law or the government to stave off industrial death” (Wu, 28). This is a key point for Wu and one of the more valuable aspects of his work. His history of twentieth century technologies reveals that the involvement of corporations and governments has been crucial to both the shaping and the success of radio, telephone, film, television, and the Internet. At the same time, however, corporations and governments have also restricted the development of technology, typically as a means of minimizing their economic risk and establishing control and dominance over the ways the public accesses and utilizes technologies. Wu provides many examples of this practice, but his explication of AOL Time Warner’s efforts to dominate the Internet offers a lesson digital humanists should bear in mind when creating for the Web.

As Wu explains, Time Warner attempted to build and purchase the means to control content and access to content on the Internet. Time Warner and other cable companies recognized the importance of the Internet as source of content and worked to buy up Internet companies so that they could also control the distribution of content. Time Warner united with AOL, which had already positioned itself as an Internet Service Provider and creator of content. But AOL expected its users not only to access the Internet via AOL but also to access only the content on the Internet AOL made available to them via its “walled garden,” a closed digital environment controlled and managed by AOL. AOL Time Warner’s attempt at vertical integration eventually failed because it utilized a business strategy that ignored the nature of the Web. The essential structure of the Web is open; therefore AOL Time Warner’s assumption that its users would be satisfied with access to only part of the Internet was both misguided and short-sighted. Companies such as Google have since created quite successful horizontal structures in keeping with the openness of the Web. The methods of the digital humanist must likewise be as horizontal and open as possible if digital scholarship is to garner recognition and be sustainable.

Zittrain’s work builds upon Wu’s emphasis on the significance of informational infrastructures and processes in influencing human interaction with the Internet. Zittrain focuses on a concept very similar to Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction: “generativity.” Generativity, Zittrain explains, refers to a system that enables users to create new content without relying upon assistance or input from the original creators of the system. Interaction with technology, in this sense, takes place on a two-way basis: users are free to both interact with content and create content without the intervention of the original creators of the technology. Zittrain asserts that generativity is the key to innovation and creativity on the Internet, and he worries that generativity may disappear in favor of minimized maintenance requirements for the personal computer and increased online security. Zittrain agrees that undesirable and criminal exploitation of the Internet’s flexibility and openness must be stemmed, particularly if generativity is to be preserved. He believes sentimentality about the Internet’s “intentional inaction…may be self-defeating:”users will continue to demand greater protections online and reduced maintenance requirements, therefore discussions about the future of the Internet and personal computers should focus on ways to meet these demands while simultaneously preserving and promoting as much openness and generativity as possible. Zittrain offers several suggestions for ways to solve this “generative dilemma” (Zittrain, 165; 36).

Zittrain rejects Internet appliances such as Kindles and gaming devices, as well as hosted environments such as Facebook and Google Maps, as too restrictive. One cannot program a Kindle, for instance, and the use of hosted environments such as Google Maps is bound by terms of service that the hosts can change at any given moment. Zittrain likewise rejects the idea that the Internet should contain a combination of closed and open appliances and services, as he believes this will lead to the restriction of generativity to a much smaller segment of the population (namely to professional developers). He argues: “We ought to see the possibilities and benefits of PC generativity made available to everyone, including the millions of people who give no thought to future uses when they obtain PCs, and end up delighted at the new uses to which they can put their machines” (Zittrain, 165). The more people with access to machines and services they can manipulate, experiment, and create with, the more innovation and diversity of innovation that will result. Zittrain cites two projects he is involved with, herdict and stopbadware.org, as examples of ways to combine a measure of regulation with popular online action to simultaneously promote greater online security and openness. Digital humanists must also consider security if their work is to be sustainable, and much can be achieved to this end through collaboration with individuals in the technical know, but Zittrain’s arguments regarding generativity hold the greatest value for the Digital Humanities. Digital scholarship that is created transparently and is interactive in nature is more likely to spur just the sort of innovation and experimentation that can support a healthy online environment while also encouraging greater engagement between scholars and the public. Palfrey and Gasser offer some observations on human interaction with technology that can similarly aid the efforts of digital humanists.

Palfrey and Gasser examine the habits of so-called “digital natives” in an attempt to determine how digital technologies and the Internet are changing human notions and standards of privacy, collaboration, and the consumption of information. They define digital natives only as persons born after 1980. Palfrey and Gasser’s failure to offer any qualifications in terms of the varying levels of access to and usage of digital technologies and the Internet constitutes a serious flaw in their conception of digital natives, yet their observations contain some value. Employing a tone that is often cautionary, Palfrey and Gasser not only assert that humans possess the ability to adapt to technology but also that adaptation is a positive rather than a negative response. They point to the jarring transformations that accompanied industrialization and urbanization as an example of a time when adaptation aided people’s abilities to cope with an emergent social order. This provides some useful historical context for their arguments. But the majority of their discussion is general in nature; each of the topics is examined in broad terms and far more observations are made than arguments.

Palfrey and Gasser raise the typical questions about younger generations’ more open definition of privacy, greater willingness to provide personal information without consideration of the long-term consequences, resistance to control of their online experiences, exposure to ever larger quantities of information, tendencies to view information and knowledge as equivalent, and inclination to skim and multi-task rather than concentrate on deep immersion on a single task or subject. Much of this contains nothing new or particularly groundbreaking. But the authors also acknowledge the emergence of large collaborative movements to create and share on a scale not seen in the offline environment. Digital technologies and the Internet promote creation, collaboration, and sharing in ways that engage the interests and talents of a wide variety of users. If digital scholarship is created in such a way that it takes advantage of the essential structure of the Web and the benefits of horizontal, open-source programs, coding, and platforms, it may be possible to build a form of scholarship that is not only interactive and sustainable but inspiring as well.

*This essay was written in the haze of finals week for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here.

Reflections on the challenges and opportunities of the digital medium

The digital medium presents unique opportunities and challenges for humanists. It offers new methods for research, analysis, and the communication of knowledge and scholarly argument. At the same time, interaction with and utilization of the digital medium and emergent digital technologies compels humanists to reflect critically upon the ways these new methodologies alter, contribute to, or challenge humanist efforts to study and understand the human experience. Hypertextuality calls linear narrative into question while simultaneously proffering literary forms that are more interactive, immersive, and complex. Computing technologies enable the collection of immense data sets, yet require acceptance of and commitment to experimentation and collaboration in order for patterns to be represented in manners both meaningful and accurate. Digital visualizations open new avenues for examining information, structure, and theory but can pose serious problems when equated with interpretation and analysis. The challenges presented by the digital medium should not discourage humanists from actively engaging with the processes of creating and refining new forms of scholarly discovery and expression. A new medium requires the use of new methods and the adaptation of old ones. While the core goals of the humanities are unlikely to change as a result of interaction with the digital environment, methods of research, analysis, and communication should change if humanists are to take full advantage of the opportunities the digital medium offers.

Franco Moretti’s insight into the ways literary historians can utilize visual versions of theoretical structures to expand their focus beyond the interpretation of individual texts has many applications to the digital humanities more broadly. In Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History Moretti does not specifically address the use of visualizations in the digital medium, but the ideas he sets forth are useful to any effort to examine a problem or question in a different light. In fact, most of his ideas are centered upon methodologies that produce new questions. He advocates “distant reading,” a manner of reading that encourages scholars to step back and take a broader view of their subject. Distant reading, Moretti argues, is deliberately reductive and abstract. It represents a “specific form of knowledge” that moves away from individual objects to reveal larger connections among collections of objects (Moretti, 1). Moretti advocates distant reading not as a replacement for the traditional, close reading of texts but rather as a supplement to literary historians’ current methodologies—one that can expand and enrich the discipline by shifting focus away from individual, extraordinary works of literature to “everyday,” ordinary works of literature and large masses of facts (Moretti, 3). He insists that although individual texts are the “real objects of literature…they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history” because the close reading of individual texts tends to blind scholars to the historical processes and devices that shape literary form over time. Distant reading is therefore a useful way to move beyond the interpretation of individual texts and into analysis of the patterns and general structures that influence the evolution of literary form.

Moretti concentrates on graphs, maps, and trees as examples of visualizations that literary historians can use to examine theoretical structures. But he is careful to note that such visualizations are not models: they display data and can elicit new questions and problems but they are not interpretations of data. Interpretation and analysis must come from the scholar. This point should not be lost on digital humanists attempting to utilize visualizations in their work. The digital medium and digital technologies offer many unique opportunities to represent large amounts of information and examine patterns, and although visualizations can lead to insight they do not constitute insight in and of themselves. In Graphs, Maps, Trees Moretti consistently pairs the visualizations he uses with a written analysis explaining what the visualizations reveal and suggest. The use of visualizations in the digital medium ought to follow a similar pattern, particularly if digital scholarship is to gain recognition and validation. Whether print or digital, the use of visualizations is only justified when it adds something of value that cannot be expressed or represented with the written word. And in the digital medium, visualizations have great potential for offfering meaningful ways to engage reader-users in narrative and in the process of learning.

Moretti refers to graphs, maps, and trees as ways to “prepare a text for analysis,”(Moretti, 53) but visualizations can also open new pathways for individual reader-users to explore ideas, patterns, and arguments. This is particularly true in the digital medium, where visualizations can be made interactive and immersive. The futures of narrative and authorship in the digital are examined by Mereille Rosello in “The Screener’s Maps: Michel de Certeau’s ‘Wandersmänner’ and Paul Auster’s Hypertextual Detective,” Espen Aarseth in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, and Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Each author discusses the opportunities they see and the changes they believe will take place as scholars and other authors create and communicate in the digital environment. Visualizations are just one of many tools they mention that can aid narrative and the exposition of argument. Like Moretti, Rosello, Aarseth, and Murray deal primarily with literary theory, but their perspectives are useful for all humanists interested in working in the digital medium. They assert that a willingness to experiment with digital technologies and embrace changes to the form narrative takes is central to the future of the humanities.

Rosello and Murray are particularly insistent upon the need for greater academic willingness to consider the value of narrative in the digital. They dismiss the notion that e-narrative is somehow intrinsically inferior to print narrative, and argue that the form of narrative ought to change if the best possible use is to be made of the digital medium. Different mediums offer different ways of communicating, representing, and interacting with information. If narrative and argument are simply transplanted into the digital medium, with no critical thought given to the impact and potential of the medium for both the creator and the reader-user, no real engagement with the medium has taken place. And if this is the case, why utilize the medium at all? Rosello, Murray, and Aarseth each point to hypertextuality as one of the primary aspects of the Web that offers new opportunities for creativity and experimentation with narrative.

Hypertextuality, also called nonlinearity, enables a different type of interaction with narrative. Contrary to popular assumptions, nonlinearity is nothing new. One can already read a printed book nonlinearly by simply flipping through the pages or skimming through the text. And most books are actually designed to encourage nonlinear reading. They contain tables of contents, chapters, subsections, and indexes—all aimed at helping the reader more easily locate the information they are most interested in. Nonlinearity via hypertext streamlines this process. Digital narrative and argument can be engineered in such a way as to allow individual reader-users to follow aspects of ideas, themes, and evidence that are of particular interest to them. It can also call upon reader-users to be actively involved in the process of reading and learning. In the digital medium visualizations represent just one tool authors can utilize to make narrative and argument more interactive and immersive.

Rosello, Aarseth, and Murray each discuss the potential simulations, games, and multi-user domains (MUDs) hold for drawing reader-users into a story or a set of arguments in ways not possible with the written word alone. Aarseth’s definition of nonlinear literature expresses quite well the primary point behind using different forms of media—and the digital medium in particular—to convey ideas. He writes, “A nonlinear text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (Aarseth, 41). In this sense, the digital medium is just one of many different mediums available to authors for the communication of knowledge and scholarly argument. And, as Moretti makes clear, visualizations in the digital present further opportunities for authors and scholars to examine, recognize, and represent patterns—both for their own research and for the interests and engagement of reader-users. The process of creating narrative and argument in the digital environment may be unfamiliar, but the lack of strictures, established conventions, and the freedom to experiment with form and medium has the potential to lead to a great deal of creativity, discovery, and innovation.

The digital medium is quickly changing the scholarly landscape. Humanists need to participate in the process of change and assume an active role in the digital space if they are to influence the outcome of the transformations taking place in the digital age. Interaction with the digital environment for the purposes of scholarship should be undertaken with a willingness to collaborate, experiment, and fail. Change can be jarring, but it need not be disruptive. The goals of the humanities disciplines will undoubtedly remain the same over time, although methods of research, analysis, and communication should change in order for authors and scholars to be able to fully engage with and take advantage of the digital medium. As new forms of narrative are created and new ways of examining information and visualizing patterns emerge, humanists must reflect upon the implications of these developments for the humanist endeavor. Narrative and argument in the digital should be subject to the same level of critical inquiry and academic rigor as all scholarship and scholarly methods, but it is unacceptable to reject new methods and forms simply on the basis of their newness. The challenges posed and opportunities offered by the digital medium must be confronted.

*This essay was written as a reading reflection for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here.

Thoughts on teaching the introductory history course, digitally

Historians have a responsibility to keep abreast of recent research in human learning and effective teaching techniques, and the digital age has played a large role in inspiring studies of cognition and neurobiology that can help historians become better teachers. In the article “Towards Teaching the Introductory History Course, Digitally,” Thomas Harbison and Luke Waltzer make a lot of excellent points about the need for innovation and collaboration in developing more interactive, immersive survey history courses. The introductory history course is key to generating student interest in and understanding of the study of history, which is why I find the experimentation described in this article so relevant to discussions of history in the digital age. Harbison and Waltzer list four pedagogical processes that they utilized to shape the course they developed: Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines, the Visual Knowledge Project, the Open Educational Resources Movement, and networked learning theory.

Each of these processes emphasizes exploration, collaboration, and primary source research as a means not only to help students work through the information in the course, but to examine how they think about, work through, and learn from that material as well. It’s about process, not product, and this is central to any successful learning experience. While it’s true that these processes and the emphasis on process rather than product could be utilized in a “traditional” (i.e. non-digital) introductory history course, I agree with the authors’ assertions that the digital medium and digital technologies and resources present unique opportunities to both teachers and students.

For one, historian-teachers have access to resources that make it possible for them to observe and actively participate in their students’ attempts to navigate through the course material and develop critical analysis skills. This makes it far easier to intervene and redirect students when they are having difficulty grasping key ideas or concepts and has the added advantage of clarifying student thought processes. As a teaching assistant I have learned that it is nearly impossible to predict the ways students from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences will interact with a given text, lecture theme, or primary source. Thus far, speaking with students is the only way I have found that I can gain sufficient insight into how a student is interacting with the material to understand what a particular problem is and offer appropriate advice and direction for rethinking the problem. It seems that the digitally-taught history course offers another, potentially more effective approach: observing the learning process itself. This could make it possible to reach students before they journey too far down the wrong path or become discouraged and give up.

A second obvious advantage of teaching history digitally is that it gives historians a viable platform for showing students the need for and potential of history in the digital medium. The introductory history course taught digitally will, as the authors discuss, require the use of both digital tools and digitized sources. By showing their students what is currently available online, historians can also discuss what is currently not online—as well as what this means for the discipline of history. Examples of digital scholarship can inspire students to imagine new ways of doing history, ways that are probably quite different from how they are used to thinking about history (generally in terms of names, dates, and “dusty old books”).  Digitally-taught history courses also provide a means to increase media literacy, not just in the sense of increasing student knowledge and abilities with regard to digital technologies and tools—as Harbison and Waltzer point out—but also in the sense of showing students how to critically evaluate historical sources and arguments in the digital medium. If historians don’t assume an active role in educating students about how to determine good history from bad—both in print and online—who will? Wouldn’t we rather it be us (trained professionals) educating students in our history courses than some amateur or demagogue on the Web? Of course critical evaluation of sources and argument ought to be discussed in any introductory level history course, by does not the digitally-taught history course offer a unique opportunity to impact the primary way the digital generation encounters history: on the Web?

I am also particularly encouraged and intrigued by the authors’ experimentation with open platform publishing. First, this medium seems bound to generate “more rigorous examination of visual resources,” as the authors argue, and it enables both students and historian-teachers to take full advantage of a wide variety of source material. When students write and publish in the digital medium, they are able to utilize not just visual sources, but audio, video, and born-digital sources as well. This is sure to please students of the digital generation, who already tend to be well-versed in interaction with multiple forms of media, but it also promises a process and a product that will be more interdisciplinary in nature than the traditional class essay tends to be. “Media richness,” as Harbison and Waltzer term it, offers a new path to increased interdisciplinarity within the teaching, study, and profession of history. (Although of course interdisciplinary methods require their own introduction and discussion of best practices if students are to use multiple media effectively and critically.)

Open platform publishing also offers a means for historian-teachers to get their students to practice and develop their writing skills more. I have been a teaching assistant for a few professors who have attempted to utilize in-class “mini-essays” as a practical opportunity to enhance students’ basic skills in forming critical arguments supported by evidence. And by practical I mean that they are brief enough to evaluate quickly—something that is key in large classes—and consume very little class time. Mini-essays are a good enough technique to start with, but they aren’t particularly useful as the semester goes on and one works to see improvement over time.  Mini-essays, by their very nature, don’t allow for much in-depth analysis and thought. The “micro-monographs” Harbison and Waltzer refer to seem a much more useful tool in the effort to achieve the same end, and the fact that these micro-monographs are developed and presented in an open, digital platform makes them all the more useful to historian-teachers’ efforts to find more effective ways to educate students. Writing as an iterative process holds great promise in getting students to improve both their writing skills and competency in making a historical argument. Harbison and Waltzer discuss having students write and publish a brief piece on a focused theme, then garner feedback via peer review and instructor intervention, gather more evidence, and rewrite. They state that their students wrote “more frequently and voluminously” over the course of the semester than in most other courses they previously taught. These short bursts of writing seem ideal for many of the goals of an introductory course, and they enable the historian-teacher to engage with their students in a more thorough, meaningful way than a typical large survey course allows.

Overall, the experiences shared by Harbison and Waltzer in this article are a good illustration of the positive results that can be achieved when one is willing to experiment with the digital and find ways to utilize its advantages for the specific purposes of historians. And if more historians begin to think of what they would like to do with and within the digital medium, we can also begin to ask for (and create) the digital tools and resources we need to create the kinds of history courses we can currently only imagine.

*This essay was written as a reading reflection for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here. The article, “Towards Teaching the Introductory History Course, Digitally,” was published on the site Writing History in the Digital Age, a born-digital, open review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotski.