'A Better Pencil'

In this electronic age, new writing technologies seem to proliferate and evolve with alarming speed -- but of course, people have been coming up with new ways to communicate their thoughts for as long as language has existed at all. Writing itself -- writes Dennis Baron -- was once the object of much suspicion; Plato wrote that it could attenuate human memory, since writing things down would obviate the need to memorize them.

September 18, 2009

In this electronic age, new writing technologies seem to proliferate and evolve with alarming speed -- but of course, people have been coming up with new ways to communicate their thoughts for as long as language has existed at all. Writing itself -- writes Dennis Baron -- was once the object of much suspicion; Plato wrote that it could attenuate human memory, since writing things down would obviate the need to memorize them. In his new book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford University Press), Baron looks at the history of writing implements and communication technologies, and explores the digital revolution's impact on how we write, how we learn, and how we connect with one another.

Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, responded via email to questions about his book and how its themes relate to higher education today.

Q: It seems that you’ve embraced -- or at least been relatively quick to accept -- new writing practices for decades: in A Better Pencil you describe your own initial encounters with automatic typewriters (in the early ‘70s) and personal computers (in the early ‘80s). Did you find that your research for the book changed your attitude toward the progression of writing technology?

A: I’ve always loved writing and its technologies. My earliest memories of writing include typing on an old Remington portable on the floor of the living room when I was 5 or 6. I can still see the ink-clogged e’s and o’s. I also remember my first fountain pen, a marbled-maroon Esterbrook that I got for my 8th birthday. I remember the smell of the ink when I filled the pen (no cartridge refills back then), tangy, metallic, kind of like blood. And my first ball point, a Paper Mate in two-tone green, the same colors as my parents’ 1955 Chevy (I later inherited that car, and while I always hated the colors on the car, on the pen they were magical).

But enough nostalgia. I think the book really came about when I realized the connection between technologies of writing and literacy, the subject that I had originally set out to write on. I was reading all sorts of treatments of literacy in psychology, anthropology, sociology, education, law, engineering and history. I found the last two areas most influential: Michael Clanchy’s story of the Norman introduction of writing into England as a way of doing business in the 11th and 12th centuries; William Harris’s book on ancient literacy; Adrian Johns on the history of the book in England; and Henry Petroski’s study of the pencil as a paradigm for engineering. Putting my own experiences with writing and its technologies together with these brilliant takes on literacy was the catalyst, and A Better Pencil is the result.

Q: You are deeply skeptical of claims that new communication technologies such as e-mail and text-messaging will do any lasting damage to the English language. Have you noticed any change -- for better or worse -- in your students' communicative styles and abilities as a result of such technologies?

A: Are students using the acronyms and emoticons we associate with txting in their academic work? No. In fact, they’re not even using them in their texts and IMs. By the time they get to college, most students -- certainly the English majors -- have put away such childish things, and many of them had already abandoned such signs of middle-school immaturity in high school. It’s kid stuff, plain and simple, and they’re mightily embarrassed when their parents send them texts beginning “wassup?” and signed “luv u.”

More to the point, though, writers learn to adapt their style to the demands of their audience and the conventions of the genre in which they’re writing. Some do it more successfully, or more quickly, but just as we speak differently to different audiences, we write differently too.

Which is not to say that technology has no impact on language. Writers love computers because the machine lets us shape our writing more easily than earlier tools did. Revision is less of a mental or physical strain; copy is always clean; and we can design the text by choosing fonts, colors, and styles, if we’ve a mind to do that. Of course there’s a down side to this: clean copy, text that looks like published prose, can lull us into thinking that what we’ve written is actually ready for publication.

As for how computers change writing behavior, I’ve started asking students to e-mail me their papers as attachments. I make marginal comments as I read them on the screen, then e-mail the paper back to the student. I find that I make a lot more comments this way, but I wonder, though, if students pay any more attention to those comments than they did to the comments I used to make in my illegible handwriting on their hard copies.

But I suppose the greatest impact of computers and the Net is that more people than ever are writing, creating text rather than just copying it. Some critics worry about giving the masses such unprecedented access to publication. Doomsayers accuse these hordes of semi-pro writers of threatening high culture, fomenting revolution, destroying the language, contributing to the information glut, stealing credit cards, selling us products we don’t need, purveying hate and filth, or simply taking up unnecessary bandwidth.

Of course the other innovations that promised to put an end to life as we know it -- movies, radio, television, rock ’n’ roll, Webster’s Third, even writing itself, all turned out to be pretty indispensable. Plato warned us in the Phaedrus that writing was dangerous because it weakened memory, and the written word was just a bare shadow of reality it stood for. We remember this, of course, because Plato wrote it down.

Q: And how have they changed the format and content of your own teaching?

A: I’ve begun teaching in classrooms with overhead computer projectors, a good sound system, and wi-fi connections. I bring my laptop, plug it in, and we’re ready to go. But my classes are mostly talk, supplemented by what’s on the screen. I’ve always showed lots of visuals when I teach, so it’s a snap to put up slides on a PowerPoint (pictures, charts, videos, news articles -- not my talking points -- students still have to listen to me and take notes, and they have to talk about the topics as well). Students do lots of presentations in my class, so they too take advantage of the hook-ups, either using my laptop or their own for their talks. And lots of students sit in class taking notes on their laptops, or checking their Facebook pages.

Q: You describe in detail a class exercise in which you assign students to write on a tablet of modeling clay. What inspired you to create this assignment, and what do you hope your students will take away from it?

A: I took that assignment from an exercise that a graduate student did in a class I taught many years ago. I can’t remember which student did this -- maybe she’ll read the book, or this interview, and come forward so I can give her the credit she deserves.

A few years later, when I began teaching courses in technology and literacy, I adapted that exercise, because writing with an unfamiliar technology -- one that used be mainstream -- forces us to pay attention to many aspects of the physical act of writing that have become automatic for us. We’re not used to having to prepare our own writing surface before we write. We’re not used to carving our text -- that’s something which makes us retool our already shaky handwriting skills in the interests of readability. Clay’s got no real cut-and-paste, so we have to figure out how to correct or revise the clay text when we find a mistake or think of a better way to say something. We’re not used to estimating how many of our words might fit on a small writing surface. Or figuring out how to preserve or transport our “clay tablets” when we’re done with them (you can’t easily put your clay “composition” on your refrigerator at home, one student discovered).

I find that writing on clay also brings out the artist in many of the students. They take pains to shape the writing surface into something resembling a rectangle of paper, or into something more three-dimensional, a stele, a cylinder (one student even “wrote” a clay version of “The Scream”). Many students decorate the text with little clay flourishes when they’re done writing. Some students do their task individually, while others form a team, assigning parts of the task to each participant, fusing their texts together to form a larger tablet or a scroll when they’re done.

In the end, in addition to this great intellectual exercise, what the students take home with them is a hunk of clay to play with, and the conviction that, back in the day, clay writers had it really, really tough.

Q: While A Better Pencil doesn’t really tackle online education, you do express your belief that “computers won’t take the place of conventional, face-to-face lessons in American schools any more than earlier technologies did.” Do you include postsecondary schools in this assessment?

A: The telephone was supposed to revolutionize education, bringing lectures, concerts, and current events into our homes so we didn’t have to go to an auditorium, or a classroom, or even read the papers. Then there was radio, beaming knowledge to our set tops. And TV: remember “Sunrise Semester”? As a child I occasionally watched bleary-eyed at 6 a.m. while someone from the state university gave a series of canned lectures on algebra or the water cycle or French on network TV (it was the 1950s, there were still programming slots to fill). Adults could get college credit for this. Most didn’t. Phones, radio, and TV all remain essential elements in our culture; they’re just not particularly good at schooling us.

Now it’s the computer’s turn. Yes, I interact with students via e-mail and the Web. And computers can be great for teaching when it’s difficult or impossible for students to get to a brick-and-mortar classroom. But for me, teaching involves f2f (there, you see, I’ve gone and used a computer term in a sentence). I want to listen to students talking to me, to one another, having a spontaneous conversation about the subject. It’s fun. It’s energizing. Online, I just don’t feel that kind of electricity. It’s probably just a personal preference.

But I do see some significant downsides to distance education. It’s touted for all the wrong reasons. It’s cheap: yes, perhaps, if you discount the price of the technology (it turns out that computers cost more than people, that computer techs cost more than entry-level instructors, and that software costs more, not less, than textbooks, and it must be constantly upgraded).

Computers are interactive, or at least they can be, but is the student at home interacting with and getting feedback from an expert instructor or assembly-line workers being paid by the piece and being evaluated by how many dollars they bring in?

Distance education lets students “work at their own pace.” But face it, how many students are motivated enough to sit down at the computer to do their lessons when there are so many other distractions at home; or when they come home after a hard day (or night) working and have to take care of family needs before sitting down at the laptop? I fear that completion rates for many online courses are still disappointingly low, that the quality of much of the education is also lower than what happens in the classroom -- of course I’m thinking about the kinds of courses that I am my colleagues teach, ones which don’t require memorization of a body of knowledge but instead call for analysis, speculation, exploration. Courses where reading is intensive, where group discussion produces many insights, and where evaluation can’t be done by machine.

As for computers in secondary schools, there’s a lot of variation in how they get used: everything from a couple of machines at the back of the classroom that students are allowed to play on when they’re do with their work, to intensive group projects involving computer research, collaborative writing, graphics, sound and video. A lot depends on how creative and flexible the instructor can be, and whether the school system puts too many obstacles in the way of students getting on line. I’ve found in working with the secondary schools that they set up firewalls because they’re afraid students will look at bad stuff, or to keep them safe from predators. But such obstacles really shut down much of what computers can do for students, and of course, once the kids get home and use computers there, the firewalls tend to disappear, which reinforces the message that what happens in school has very little to do with what happens in life.

Q: You sound relatively lukewarm about Google’s controversial books project; are there other recent developments in educational technology that you find particularly intriguing?

A: Here’s my objection to the Google book project. First, I think it’s great to digitize as much nondigital text as possible. I take advantage of many of the online databases with digitized newspapers, early printed books, and manuscripts. What I don’t like is that Google is poised to monopolize text. No one entity should have that kind of power over the word. Not only does Google intend to profit from this kind of control (it answers to its stockholders, not to the public), it would have the power to manipulate the text under its control, deciding who can and cannot see it, what can be displayed, what can be erased.

When Amazon reached into readers’ Kindles recently and wiped bootleg copies of 1984 many readers screamed. But I read a lot of the online comments about the Amazon fiasco, and while Amazon eventually apologized for its behavior, many commenters were convinced that the company was well within its rights to take back text that it had merely “leased” to users under a digital rights management agreement.

Libraries “lease” books to us when we borrow them, but libraries are different from Google and Amazon. Plus, they’re all not-for-profit. The goal of the library is to spread the word, not control it. And libraries are not in the repo business: when you have an overdue book, the librarian doesn’t break down your door and swipe it from the kitchen table or from your nightstand.

Many if not most libraries are government-run, and the financial books of public libraries are as open to the public as their novels, their reference collection, and their how-to books. But even in the current political climate, I don’t hear conservatives yelling that public libraries represent “socialized literacy.” Google, on the other hand, is both private and secretive. You won’t need top-level security clearance to get into the library, but good luck getting past the metal detector at the Googleplex, and even if you do, its corporate secrets will always remain a closed book to most of us.

The sorts of operations that Google and Amazon represent are important to how we use computers, and they make a vital contribution to our economy. But while they have been important in shaping our literacy practices, they should not get to dictate them.

So far as the next great app goes, I can’t predict what it will be, but I’m pretty sure that we’re never going to come to the end of communications technology road. Maybe we’ll get to the point in the next decade or two where speech to text will eliminate the keyboard – now that’s something that will revolutionize the composition process, bringing us full circle to the days when authors dictated their texts to scribes.

But I suspect that even so, writers won’t go back to the days of Homer’s oral composition, or the dictations of Milton or Wordsworth. Instead they’ll find a way to spin the new technology in some unforeseen direction, one that will bring howls of anger from their critics, and shouts of wonder from their fans, while most everybody else will do what they’ve always done, which is to sit on the sidelines and wait to see whether this next-big-thing pans out or not.


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