Sunday, October 16, 2005

On writing, blogging, and podcasting

I’m in Boca Raton now on a stop to visit my mom for a day before heading up to Orlando for Educause. I rented a car in Orlando and drove down here yesterday afternoon. I’ll drive back tonight. On the flight to Orlando I had planned to nap because I was going to do more driving that afternoon but instead I read from my paperback. Normally I read turn pager fiction on flights like that, squished into my seat, uncomfortable and in need of distraction. But I found I had an entire row to myself so I could stretch out and get comfortable. And I had brought the complete short stories of Herman Melville, because I had already started it over the summer and because I had been a little disappointed with the last few page turners. I read a story called Cock-A-Doodle-Doo, one I had never heard of, but one that even in my drowsy state clearly was a masterly piece with glorious sentence construction, a compelling story, a parable with power and emotion, and a social criticism all bound up into one short work.

I’ve wanted to be a writer for some time now, but if Melville is the standard, there is no way; so I’ll content myself with being a blogger. The writer is a craftsman, an artist in the case of Melville. Everywhere in the writing there is evidence of the mastery - the word choice, the imagery that is conveyed, the feeling of uplift that is created in the reader. Bloggers don’t show such mastery. They are in the main reporters. They record what they see, they tie strands of other Web content together via hyperlinks, and they voice their opinion as commentary. To do those functions well, there need not be as much craft in the writing itself. Timeliness of the post matters a lot. Some novelty in perspective is also helpful.

When blogging is truly news reporting it amounts to taking something witnessed over here, perhaps capturing that with photos, audio recording, or video recording and then transferring it back over there to the blog in a way that others can digest. In my blog there is much less news and much more analysis and commentary. For me, generating the prose is not so much a matter of transfer as it is of refining the argument and getting the pieces to fit. It is a good thing for me that sentences have periods and come to an end. The conclusion of a sentence is a chance to do a little check. Am I on track? Can I keep going or do I have to go back and make changes? Further, oftentimes the ideas I have in advance, while certainly necessary to get started are far from complete. The writing forces me to see the argument through to completion. I learn something as a result. Occasionally I’m surprised with the conclusion. I believe the common term is “discovery” – writing to learn means writing is a process that aids the thinking and conversely thinking aids the writing.

Coming into writing this post I had thought the distinction might be that writing is formal while blogging is informal. But that is not it. Melville wrote his short stories for magazines to be read by subscribers during their leisure time. He did not write them to be amassed in some collection, to be studies by scholars a hundred years laters. Melville is definitely a writer but his stories are also informal, disarmingly so. Yet I very much doubt that he dashed one of his stories out in a couple of hours of passionate writing. I suspect he had to layer in his ideas and the writing process he followed somehow had to capture that layering to create an effect that is similar to oil paint on canvas, which can look thick with the layers of different colors and different strokes of the brush. For me, blogging is more of a blurting, a distribution of a first draft that doesn’t intend to get refined. It’s one coat of paint and that’s it.

Now let me skip to something else and then I’ll return to the blogging in a bit. Last night I watched a little bit of the Angels/White Sox game. The third man in the both was Lou Pinella, until recently the manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. When he gave his introductory remarks it was obvious that he was reading from a teleprompter. And it came across poorly because it was so stilted and unnatural. He was a little better during the game and made a few interesting points. But I think he was uncomfortable in that role.

On the same subject but from a different perspective, the last several years we’d have Norm Combs, emeritus professor of History from the Rochester Institute of Technology,
who speaks on the accessibility of online content and who himself is blind. Norm has told me he listens to a lot of books on tape. In his presentations he shows the audience how he uses Jaws, the screen reading program, to hear documents and to navigate around the screen. He has the Jaws program set at a pace that most of us would find incomprehensible. His point is that we read faster than we speak and he has Jaws set to read for him not to speak to him. In his last presentation for us, I was curious to hear Norm say that if people are doing voice recording for the computer they should just talk. They shouldn’t read. I suppose too many of us are like Lou Pinella. We’re not trained to read aloud in the mellifluous voice of the TV commentator (Joe Buck, the play by play guy, never sounds like he is reading from a teleprompter, even if he is.) The listener wants to hear something that sounds natural.

I’ve done a fair amount of voice recording sitting at my own office computer and narrating into the microphone. Mostly I’ve done lectures in microeconomics this way. I’ve found that quite difficult to do. It’s hard to be conscious of the speaking and be reflective at the same time, so the talking is mostly from memory. Unlike with writing there may be an interval of two or three minutes of talking – that is many sentences, perhaps a paragraph or two, where there is no time check whether the argument is on track or not. In the old days when I did this narration to accompany PowerPoint slides I had made, there would be one .wav file for each slide. One could catch a breath and recollect between slides. But during a slide this was almost pure blurting.

So it would seem there are two possibilities with podcasting of lectures and discussions. Either this represents a reading of what was initially a document as text. Or it represents an off the top of the head discussion without much reflection in it. Those who do podcasting as interviews with a dialog and Q&A may be able to get the best of both. One can have a sense of learning when in a dialog that one does not have when delivering a monolog. And yet the speech can sound natural and unlike reading aloud. So podcasting dialog seems like an interesting thing to me.

But I think we’ll be seeing mostly podcasting monolog – either recording of live lecture or recording in the office in front of the computer screen. What do we hope to achieve by that?

I understand the argument for mobility and that giving students access to content on their iPods can be empowering for them. In today’s local paper there is an article about the renewal of inflation and it disproportionately affecting the younger workers. Students on commuting campuses, in particular, may be switching from driving to taking public transportation, as a way to economize on fuel costs. What do those students do while commuting? Giving these students academic content for their iPods would seem to be a real boon. But note that either they have to listent to that content over the din of the bus or training rumbling, or they wear sound cancellation headphones that may be ideal in such an environment but make the students too unaware of their surroundings when riding a bike or walking across a busy street. And let’s not lose sight of the thinking and craft in construction that one will find in such content. Finally, let’s remember that good teaching is mostly not about content delivery.

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