The Medium is the Process; The Process is the Message

Aaron Barlow
Original Publication Date

When I first started publishing, I was advised never to look at my work in print: whatever the problems I would spot (and I would spot them), there was nothing I could do about them, I was told. The piece of paper, the artifact, was final. All hail the printed page, for it is final, glorious and sacrosanct! And I bowed with the rest.

Need I tell you that things have changed?

Thought not.

What follows started out as two talks at the 2007 Computers and Writing conference at Wayne State University in Detroit. They became two entries on my blog. Now, they are becoming something else again--and may evolve beyond that.

The point?

The cost of publication (in many more venues than one might think--even print is much cheaper due to computer technology) is so low today that we can speak, publish, republish, revise... that we can keep our work in process for as long as we wish.

And I may just do so with the following:

It's hard to find a place to start these days: What can I assume about you, my audience? That you are completely tech saavy--or that you (like me) just want to be?

And what does that mean?

Last year at Computers and Writing in Lubbock, keynote speaker Mark Follman, a reporter and editor for Salon, tried to make a joke about how he was in the perfect place if his laptop crashed. He, at least, actually believed we who were attending the conference were techies.

We were not, of course, not all of us (at least)--and Follman's joke fell flat. Neither are today's students all techies (not all of them), though the myth of youthful comfort with technology weighs heavily upon them. If we, and they, are anything at all in the new world of the Web, we are simply "neterate," able to negotiate the virtual world.

But what does that mean?

Certainly not that we can physically construct--or deconstruct--hardware, and not that we are comfortable writing code. Right now, it really means little more than that we are comfortable with the idea that, one way or another, we can handle most anything we find on our screens. We can judge data and websites at the flick of an eye, picking up subliminal clues that tell us the level of expertise involved. We can tell at a glance what links to follow, whether we are being lured into a commercial morass or might be heading towards a new gem.

"Neteracy" is much more than that, but it is also process... and in process of becoming and of being defined.

Which brings me right back to "Where do we start?" What do we do? We teachers need to start somewhere close to our students--should we ask them and work from there? Should we imagine they are more "neterate" than we? Should we believe they know what they say they know?

Yeah, right.

The problem with using the Web for the teaching of composition is that Web conversation--no, Web conversations--is/are already in progress. Sure, we can start our own little conversations through technology, using a proprietary system such as Blackboard or even with private, restricted blogs. But, if we do so, we aren't taking advantage of either the dynamic or the wealth that the Web offers. If we do, we are leading our students to "neteracy" through the equivalent of teaching literacy via only controlled, edited (bowdlerized) texts. A meager literacy? Yes. A meager "neteracy," too.

At their best, and as you know, Web pages are never static. Each one carries the past in its present manifestation--through links and older entries. Even that past is ever-changing. "Permalink" is something of a fiction, though they do say that nothing ever disappears completely on the Web--though the White House doesn't seem quite so sure (about its email messages, at least). Knowing how to deal effectively with pages that change is also part of "neteracy."

Along with carrying the past, most Web pages today invite the future--through comments and the page's inherent plasticity (in terms of inner workings), a plasticity that builds (and has built--and will build) the expectation of change into its very design. An understanding of the role of the comment (of the viewer/user) and the future possibilities of a page are also part of "neteracy."

On the Web, as anyone who has started a blog knows, it's hard to gain traction. What do you do, shout, "Hey, look at me! I'm here and I've got something to say"? No, you ease your way into the conversation--by listening to what other bloggers are saying, by reading, and even by researching. You lurk; you explore. What you learn through this is another aspect of "neteracy."

That is, you do so unless your goal is simply development of a social network on MySpace or Facebook. But that's a somewhat different topic, perhaps the Web equivalent of the personal essay. What I want to discuss here grows out of the research paper and our perceptions of what it means to be able to join the greater intellectual discussions of our society.

Anyway... there is a dynamic on the Web, and we can use it in our writing classes if we can break into it. If we do manage to break in, there's treasure to be found there, more than any of us--including me--can imagine. Only when everyone is comfortably "neterate" will we be able to count our fortune.

Which brings me back to Blackboard or, really, to why I don't care for Blackboard.

Blackboard builds for our students what is, at best, a little playpen. It's like teaching astronomy through a tiny, simplified planetarium--when there's a huge night sky right outside. And we teachers don't even get to choose how the sky's been reduced! Someone else has done that for us already. What's worse is that our students have already been outside and seen the real sky. And they've figured out that's where the real fun begins.

Did you notice? Sure you did. I changed the subject, following my own little link, one inside my head. I can't even keep this one simple essay on track!

There's just too much out there to consider, to talk about, and to listen to others on. It's almost as though, inundated by information, I can no longer focus. There's an unfolding going on, and I want to be part of it all! I had a friend named Don once, seriously bi-polar. He stood by a door in our house for three hours, one day, trying to decide whether to go into the kitchen. Later, he told me that the information bombarding him as he stood there had been deafening; too many choices, too many possibilities, each with too many ramifications. It stunned him into something like catatonia. But, unlike Don, I have not been stunned that way. Instead, I have been goaded into action, into "neteracy." Instead of fleeing infinite possibility, I am lucky: I can sing "Pastures of Plenty" (but don't get me started on Woody Guthrie--or you'll have to follow me down another link).

Back to the night, to the hours before dawn when the sun, 'just a morning star,' brings a different world!

Not only is it a bright sky out there, full of stars, but it is growing as we watch. And not only do we get to watch--we get to be part of it!

We get to participate!

But you know all that. It's old hat. We've been participating since Tim Berners-Lee unleashed the Web on a sleepy night world.

That Web, contrary to much belief, contrary to those who imagine a "cyberspace" removed from what we know, is not a special place, nor is it a new world divorced from our quotidian reality. But it does expand our reality--something Blackboard, with its artificial limits, does not do.

But there I go again, bringing up Blackboard again.

Forget I mentioned it.

Back to my point:

What I am trying to do right now is both step into your conversations and invite you into mine. I'm flying blind, however, for I don't really know your conversations--not yet, at least. I have yet to have any way to link into them--though I hope I will, through email and through other responses on the Web. But, for now, I'm simply jumping in--completely at sea in terms of what most of you may know, may have said, may have done. I know as little about you as I do about my students, the first day of the term.

Today, more than every before, that needn't be the case--in writing, that is. In a few years (it could actually be done now--and something like it is, in a few online conferences such as Computers and Writing Online), it will be possible to indicate on conference registration, for example, which panels we just might attend. Those presenting could then find out who their audiences might be, seeing who has published what and where, who is teaching what and where, and who is studying what and where. We'll soon be able to know as much about our students beforehand, too.

Nice. Then I'd know where to start.

But that's not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is getting our students to start. To head them towards "neteracy."

Though maybe it's the same thing.

There are ways of using technology as an aid to student writing that I can just touch on here--leaving that exploration to others. I just don't have the ability to concentrate on those, not right now. Taking text messaging and using it as a basis for moving students to other forms of written expression is one. Maybe in a later version....

No, What I want to talk about is not these, but is the finding of ways for students to join the conversations that are already going on--and to do so without feeling like my friend Don, or like a pigeon caught in a jet engine's air intake. Without being that pigeon. Doing so safely, that is--as Blackboard professes to do (dang! There's that Blackboard rearing its ugly head again!), but without Blackboard's limitations.

A lot of what the student needs, in approaching writing through the Web, is a sense of confidence, of being a part of the conversation--for that's what it is that's going on in cyberspace--and that's what I have been describing, of course. That's the heart of "neteracy."

Writing for the Web can't simply be concentration on the screen as a replacement for the page. We don't dare judge the screen in the ways we've judged the static object that is the page. The screen exists as "Text," in the sense presented by Roland Barthes in " From Work to Text," and less "work." In fact, the work itself become subsumed in the Text.

That's where the dynamic of the Web comes from, a give-and-take surrounding each work and drifting into the next, a continuing example of stimulus, response, and reinforcement in much the way B.F. Skinner describes language in Verbal Behavior.

If we can get our students involved in the greater and more energetic conversations going on right now on the Web, we'll be a long way towards making them strong writers. Towards, also, making them "neterate."

Fortunately, we've a wealth of assistance in doing so, for the conversations on the Web are myriad, and they dip into even older conversations through the active links they provide, through the growing body of linkable material just waiting for the alert researcher to bring it into the conversation. Or another conversation. Or another.

But there is so much information out there!

Which brings us back once again to the question: "Where do we start?"

One place, I suggest, might be Citizen Journalism and the places where our students live.

When our students conduct research, they tend to take what they find as static. Not a sign of "neteracy," that. They may be enthusiasts for technology, but few of them have crossed to a place of understanding where Wikipedia, for example, is a discussion in progress and not a provider of answers. Unfortunately, our students still too often take what they find on the Web as truth, not as the simple invitation to conversation that really it is. Not simply as process.

More than most Web movements (though much of the Web does strive for openness), Citizen Journalism is deliberately open to examination of its own processes. Watching, one sees knowledge in development. On Citizen Journalism sites focusing on specific communities, one finds exploration and growth and not just things--especially now, when most such sites are still relatively young. In those Citizen Journalism sites not based on a locality, one sees calls for information, public dissection of "information" provided by government and scholars, and a scrambling to discover something at least approximating "truth." One finds, in other words, research in progress.

And it's going on in a number of ways and places, all open to the student in the writing classroom. "Neteracy" in action.

Again: by focusing on Citizen Journalism in the teaching of research as an aspect of writing, we can show process, bringing writing and research to life for our students.

Let me give an example: In terms of developing the methodology of tomorrow's journalism, I see great weakness in Assignment Zero and its parent, New Assignment--though I think they are worthy and important experiments. In terms of finding tools for the writing classroom, however, I see little downside. Through Assignment Zero, our students can get involved in a project that even contains a safety net, one resulting from creator Jay Rosen's "pro-am" model, where the amateur herd is guided by a group of hyper-active border collies--young journalists with professional skills and background but lacking investment in older styles of journalism.

The value, as I see it, of Citizen Journalism for the writing classroom is that it provides a place where students can lurk a bit, exploring, looking for the opening that will allow them to jump in--to start. Because these are group projects, the outsider is always welcome. Because the enthusiasm is generated by the topic or the place, people rarely arrive by chance, but by desire, setting an attitude of "let's do this!" behind everything.

As one of our greatest challenges is developing enthusiasm on the part of our students, we can take advantage of enthusiasm already there, when we ask our students to find Citizen Journalism sites working on topics that already interest them. We can show our students how to enter the ongoing discussions by first listening and reading, then by commenting, and finally by posting their own full pieces and learning even more from the responses posted to their work. Through Citizen Journalism, we can help them become "neterate."

Because of the openness of their processes, Citizen Journalism projects offer an entry into the conversation of research and discovery that can make our students feel a part of it, not simply as outsiders looking in and reporting back on what's been found--as most of the research done by undergraduates actually is.

Ultimately, and most usefully, the student can finally learn something of the dynamic of research--that it, too, is a conversation.

Now, as I said, where shall we start?

How about with virtual urbanism? Let's use "neteracy" to bust down that wall.

No, not Geoffrey Sirc's walls. His "actual humans" are already doing that through a "virtual urbanism" different from the one I'm imagining right now. No. For I am talking about the wall between the "urban" and the "virtual" that exists in a completely different place.

At Wayne State, filled with enthusiasm from Richard Doyle's talk "The Wiki Is the Message," I browsed a bit in the book that inspired the next morning's roundtable, my colleagues' Juanita But and Mark Noonan's anthology The Place Where We Dwell: Reading and Writing About New York City. I landed almost immediately on the poet we in Brooklyn insist is our own--though he would have insisted he belongs to everyone--Walt Whitman. As I usually do, I skimmed the poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," that had attracted me--I know it well--and then looked next door, at the poem on the previous page. It was another Whitman, but one that we in Brooklyn see as something of a betrayal, for it is called "Mannahatta." Its first lines struck me as perfect for the short talk I would give in the morning:

I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city.

Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient.

Now that's what we're all about, isn't it, when we teach composition? Getting our students "to see what there is in a name, a word"? Isn't that the essence of much research in the humanities?

Thing is, we often try to do this by emasculating the word, taking away from it all that is "liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient," creating a virtual world where every word stays put on command (its liquidity frozen), obeys all our commands (surely a sign of insanity--only in imagination is the world so obedient), marches only to our martial beat ('thump, thump, thump... viva l'emperor'), and has become dependent upon us. That doesn't lead us to "neteracy," only to Blackboard (dang it! There it is again!).

Sometimes, when I look out from the window of a classroom, from that artificial, virtual world, I can think only of e.e. cummings and his "there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go" and realize that such a universe is only a few feet away.

Which brings me back to Whitman.

And to links.

I adore links. They are, I believe, one the building blocks of "neteracy."

When I first started using the Web for research, I was scared to death I would lose the serendipity I had depended on for so long in library stacks--like Doyle, who harped on this in his talk, I have long cherished the connectivity of everything, and I spend way too much time ferreting it out. Until the blogs and personal Web pages, indeed, I often felt I was working in blinders, for the searches were so narrow (perforce) and the links so pedestrian, so expected. Now, however, personality expressed through websites has added that wonderful element of surprise.

Anyhow, I said I was getting back to Whitman, not following my own random links, here. So let me do that.

Before I unaccountably spiraled out of its orbit, I was a moon of the planet Literature, circling around, trying to pull random comets and asteroids--also known as 'students'--into that orbit. As I wanted them to see that this planet I circled was real and not simply the artificial, virtual world of my words, I would turn to Whitman's words, letting him build the vision of that night sky I mentioned earlier:

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Now, I've done this myself: I wandered away from academia in 1988--until I did, to my surprise, accidentally stumble back inside thirteen years later. The barrier I had seen or imagined or invented (or had stolen from Whitman)--magically had disappeared.

I had become "neterate." And I had already entered Brad DeLong's "invisible university." Entering the visible one, surprisingly, proved no step at all.

Town and gown: it's a myth we need to continue to work to break down, for it does none of us any good. All it does is help keep the image of the university virtual and not real.

But that's not the only mythological barrier real enough to need tearing down.

In the May, 2007 Harper's is an article by Gideon Lewis-Kraus entitled "A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the Post-Digital Library" on a couple of rogue librarians, Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger. They believe that "the conflict between a so-called digital culture and a so-called print culture is fake; they think we should stop celebrating or lamenting the discontinuous story of how the circuits will displace the shelves, and start telling a continuous story about how the two might fit together."

"A continuous story about how the two might fit together." And not just that pair--almost any two. Doyle challenges his students to show there is no fit between two random links they have chosen. They can't.

Why, then, do we continue to work through divides, even accepting one by the very fact of our classrooms that are divorced from the life of our cities and towns? Why do we merely look out upon them, stare, and then put our misconceptions into words that we then call "scholarship"? Why don't we get out there and grapple? Most of us are "neterate." Let's act that way.

We are in danger of creating a new window, a new barrier between us and our subject matter. Assuming we are in the real world--hah!--we peek into the virtual world, wondering about all that sound and fury and deciding (not you and me, of course--those others) that it all signifies nothing. It takes you and me to change that.

The river of the world runs through the actual, by the academy, and even into the virtual. All are on the same bank. They are, in this sense, all one and the same.

We need to treat them this way, not isolating them either through interest or disdain. Our cities, our towns, our farms, and our forests are part and parcel of our Web pages--or the other way around. They are distinct, but not divided.

Only when we keep this in mind, only when we remember that "the place where we dwell" has many actual, many virtual aspects--and that none precludes the other but augments the other--do we really begin to provide the education we can. Only then can our students really start to become "neterate"--not to mention, literate.

Only when we realize that the walls we see are walls put up out of our own fears will we really start to educate ourselves, let alone our students.

So let's tear 'em down!

Now, can we start?

About the Author: Aaron Barlow teaches English at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn. He is the author of The Rise of the Blogosphere.

ePluribus Media Contributors: Avahome, cho, standingup and Roxy Caraway