Wednesday, October 22, 2014

#worthassigning: Mark Bernstein on Notetaking

Some of you will remember, or perhaps still use, Storyspace, software that EastGate released for creating hypertext fiction. Storyspace via Michael Joyce's _Afternoon, A Story_, were described in a 1992 NY Times Book Review piece called "The End of Books" by Robert Coover (

Bernstein's current project, which grew out of academics trying to use Storyspace for note taking and information organizing instead of post-modern fiction, is Tinderbox.  From chapter one of his book, The Tinderbox Way, which is both a user manual and a meditation on the value of systemic note taking, Bernstein describes the software this way:
Tinderbox is designed to help you write things down, find them, think about them, and share them. Tinderbox is an assistant. Its meant to help, to facilitate. Its not a methodology or a code. Its a way to write things down, link them up, and share them. Its a chisel, guided by your hand and your intelligence.
I pulled the quote above from Sources and Methods #5: Mark Bernstein, a fascinating podcast interview with Bernstein conducted by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Matt Trevithick. The interview runs about an hour, but below the podcast recording, you'll see a time line, indicating at what minutes in the discussion different topics arose. The full interview is worth a listen for context and continuity.

Here's an excerpt from that timeline to give you both a sense of the conversation, and how the timeline helps you to find key areas to return to:
8:54 - Idea: Discovering the structure information should take is the essence of what research is about.
13:14 - Idea: Agile software development has come into force more recently, rather than structuring all the rules first. Writing the software and then revising the software - where most of what you do is editing, rather than designing and debugging - has been extremely fruitful, and has gone in just 10-15 years gone from outlying heresy to the dominant paradigm of software development today. [Note: Bernstein goes on to describe how Agile software resembles writing prose.]
15:08 - Idea: When you’re writing, you’re talking to yourself, or rather to the page. When you write, you are meeting minds on the screen, and in fact one of those minds is a manifestation of ourselves.
20:38 - Idea: People don’t like to think about their process of writing. We have this essentially romantic conception of idea generation writing, that it’s essentially inspiration, and it should come to you in a flash, and that it’s mystical, and that it’s based in someway on your innate goodness, and therefore people don’t spend much time thinking about how to improve because you can’t improve on your own innate goodness.
There's a lot in the discussion that maps on to teaching writing, teaching research, teaching thinking, and faculty development for those professors who want to help students get better at writing, research, and thinking. 

The interview can be assigned in time points for students, or one might scroll to to a point and play a snippet as a way to launch a discussion. For students especially, this discussion focuses on the role of noting, of seeing and recording, and in the act of doing so, of thinking, organizing, and find order. 

In a way, it's about slowing down, of taking the time to start a system that will serve a learner as a writer, and over time, as they change as writers, learn more, know more, and will find it more and more useful to be able to go back into their reading and writing history to recall, reorganize, and rethink, note taking as a key element for revision.

Friday, October 17, 2014

#worthassigning -- 3 essays on rape and death threats against women in the age of #gamergate

Online violence against women scares and worries me. As it morphs from virtual threat, which is bad enough and still violent even if not overtly physical, into offline threats that drive women from their homes, offices, and families and into hiding, the damage and danger has become palpable enough to make news.

Writing in her Washington Post Blog, Act Four, Alyssa Rosenberg sums up the three high profile cases:
[Anita] Sarkeesian has had to leave her home because someone who threatened her claimed to have her address and that of her parents. Brianna Wu, who co-founded the video gaming company Giant Spacekat, also moved to avoid threats made in response not even to sustained criticism of video games, but to jokes she made about the Gamergate campaign. “Depression Quest” developer Zoe Quinn went into hiding after a vengeful ex-boyfriend published a long account of her alleged infidelities that seemed to imply she chose her partners for professional advancement.
These women's stories are in the news now, coming shortly after a spring and summer that brought much needed attention to campus sexual assaults and the lack of protections and justice most of its victims endure. It seems to me, then, a look at the issue of virtual assault having devastating consequences in physical world, can also increase understanding and shed light on campus sexual assault.

To that end, here are three pieces on virtual assault that I recommend and would assign. Note, these are frank discussions and long pieces. But they're compelling.

A Rape in Cyberspace

I'd start with Julian Dibbell's "A Rape in Cyberspace," available online at his

A version Dibbell's essay first appeared in the Village Voice in 1993. That's right, twenty years ago. Dibbell's piece focuses on how a violent virtual rape in LambdaMOO, a text based virtual world where rooms, characters, spaces and actions are all described in words that allowed players to enter, create avatars, and interact, shocked those LambdaMOO members into realizing they were a community. The article describes how the victim of the rape, though virtual, suffered physically -- fear, anxiety, tears. While the community recognized the rape as an assault, they realized there was nothing they could do to punish the perpetrator in real life, no way to bring charges, to get an arrest. And so they develop rules to try to deal with future actions virtually, by setting up guidelines for expelling offenders from the Moo.

I'd start with this piece for a few reason. It's one of the first, perhaps the first, documented case study of cyber rape and its affects. Unlike the underbelly of the contemporary accounts of virtual sexual assault under consideration in the next two pieces, the rapist didn't have recourse to comrades, drum up justification that blamed the woman he assaulted, or wage the assault in multiple sites and social networks. The rape happened in a relatively small and closed community, a community that became more formally formed in response to the rape, and because it was small, was able to adopt more quickly rules and policies to better protect members.

Why the Trolls Will Always Win

First published by Kathy Sierra at her own blog as "Trouble at the Koolaid Point," Wired Magazine republished her original post verbatim just days later with the title "Why the Trolls Will Always Win," and that's the version I link to here: I'm opting for Wired because Sierra indicates that she might at some point take her original post down.

But off the bat, a first question for students to consider -- how does the different title give by Wired shape their reading?

Sierra's piece marks the tenth year anniversary of her first online threat, of which, Sierra writes, "I thought it was a one-off, then. Just one angry guy. . . .  But looking back, it was the canary in the coal mine…". What's changed? Sierra's work picks up from the one angry guy, the kind of person the LambdaMOO community faced, to a world where social networking -- Twitter, especially in her personal experience -- amplifies and spreads the assault against a lone woman exponentially, as trolls amplify, get picked up, facts are ignored, lies are believed. She explains:
I now believe the most dangerous time for a woman with online visibility is the point at which others are seen to be listening, “following”, “liking”, “favoriting”, retweeting. In other words, the point at which her readers have (in the troll’s mind) “drunk the Koolaid”. Apparently, that just can’t be allowed.
[. . .]
But the Koolaid-Point-driven attacks are usually started by (speculating, educated guess here, not an actual psychologist, etc) sociopaths. They’re doing it out of pure malice, “for the lulz.” And those doing it for the lulz are masters at manipulating public perception. Master trolls can build an online army out of the well-intended, by appealing to The Cause (more on that later). The very best/worst trolls can even make the non-sociopaths believe “for the lulz” is itself a noble cause.
Sierra describes first what her experience tells her about the logic and motivation of trollers and then why and when she stepped back from online life -- how she was harrassed out, and why, with this post, she is stepping back in.

The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It's Gamergate

Written by Kyle Wagner in Deadspin, this piece (, published Tuesday, October 14, begins with the news that Brianna Wu fled her Boston home over the weekend, "after an online stalker vowed to rape and kill her."

Wagner does three very useful things.

  1. He explains the origin of #gamergate, a movement that claims to be about holding the press who cover the gaming industry to journalistic ethics, but that began with a deranged ex-lovers lies and rants about Wu Zoe Quinn, including the false claim that her romance with a journalist lead to a game she wrote being praised.
  2. He critiques the coverage of #gamergate in the traditional press, The New York Times and the like, noting that their instance on even handedness creates what press critics have called false equivalence, a logical fallacy. Such coverage lends undo legitimacy to those who committing the assaults.
  3. This is key, Wagner describes the mindset of the trollers and assaulters, why they feel aggrieved enough to do this, and he likens it the kind of motivations that drive certain segments of the Tea Party and other reactionary groups: change they don't like is coming. For some in the Tea Party, its the recognition, embodied in our first black President, that the nation's demographics are changing and that whites will become a minority.  For those in gamergate, its a reaction against the fact that more and more women play games, and that new games are emerging designed to appeal to those players. 

What Can One Learn From These?

Taken together these three essays move both historically and technologically. Dibbell's piece sets an early example, when the Web was young and new and a smaller place; Sierra's first person account gives voice to a victim of assault and violence in her own terms, introducing and explaining terms and techniques that show the role of social networks in turning the derangement of a lone actor into a a deranged and even more dangerous mob; and Wagner's work takes a step back, offering scathing attack on Wu's assailants and their motivations, and then tying it to a larger cultural trend.

Combined, these are long reads, but as I said, compelling. Each is written in Web vernacular, each is frank, each has its own truths to convey. I like them because they are one-sided, advocate for women and for a civil online social communities, even as the work by Sierra and Wagner show how difficult that goal is. I also think they bring forth the physical and psychological cost of assault, how the relentless nature of these kinds of attacks, have consequences in the offline world. This is not a painless crime, not just words.

And finally, they pieces shed light on the anger and entitlement mindsets of the attackers. So those insights, empathy for the attacked and anger and hate of the attackers, can provide some grounding for a discussion of campus sexual violence.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

#worthassigning: Daniel Waisberg on getting and presenting insights from data

More and more writing and other courses require students to do original research, to work with data they generate or find. For example, on October 7, TechRhet, an e-mail discussion list for writing teachers who focus on the nexus of writing and technology in their pedagogy, had a query from a colleague about assigning an infographic in first year composition courses.

It's with that kind of assignment, or assignments where research projects ask students to develop and/or work this data that this resource might be one #worthassigning. "From Data to Insights: The Blueprint for Your Business," by Daniel Waisberg, an analytics advocate at Google, looks at two processes: one on defining data and the other on presenting data, two processes that inform one another.

While Waisberg's title addresses the use of data to guide business decisions, the piece is really about using data for finding insights, insights that can lead to action. So where writing assignments invite students to use data to offer insight, to motivate people to one action or another, the advice by Waisberg will serve well.

Here's an excerpt that gives you a sense of how well this piece can serve any course or project where data plays a role, including for academics doing their own research, whether for scholarship, service or teaching purposes:
Defining the data
Gaining successful insights means figuring out what you want from your data—finding its value. Consider what you want to do with the actual data. In Thinking with Data, Max Shron offers a helpful framework for narrowing the scope of a project such as data analysis. Similar to a story, a project will always include exposition (the context), some conflict (the need), a resolution (the vision) and, hopefully, a happily-ever-after ending (the outcome).

Answering the following questions will help illuminate the best plan for using your data.
  • Context: What are you trying to achieve? Who is invested in the project’s results? Are there any larger goals or deadlines that can help prioritize the project?
  • Need: What specific needs could be addressed by intelligently using data? What will this project accomplish that was impossible before?
  • Vision: What will meeting the need with data look like? Is it possible to mock up the final result? What is the logic behind the solution?
  • Outcome: How and by whom will the result be used and integrated into the company? How will the success of the project be measured?
 As you can see, Waisberg makes recognizable textbook moves -- linking to and citing an authority, offering a heuristic for planning, one that maps easily onto the kinds of questions we ask students to consider about audience, purpose, and context.

The other value to Waisberg's piece for faculty is that he provides a framework and vocabulary for discussing with students data planning, gathering and visualizing/presenting. Waisberg draws inspiration for his steps to follow, questions to consider from "Michael Graves, emeritus professor of architecture at Princeton." Graves, reports Waisberg, sees architectural drawing "as much a process as it is an end product, and that while computers have their place, so does the human/emotional element. He deconstructs architectural drawing into three types: the 'referential sketch,' the 'preparatory study' and the 'definitive drawing.'"

I'll leave it to you to visit Waisberg's piece -- -- to see how well and how usefully he maps Graves's insights into practical steps students can be taught to follow and practical questions they can be taught to ask about their own and peers' projects.

You'll find it useful, and if, you're doing work on your own with data or teaching students how to work with data, a link #worthassigning.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

#worthassigning: Katy Waldman on how comics portray mental illness

In "Patterns and Panels: How comics portray psychological illness,"  Katy Waldman ( looks at how an array of comics and comic book art depict mental illness, arguing that the medium brings unique strengths to that endeavor.

The piece surveys a range of artists and styles, showing different techniques and approaches, and includes insights from some of the artists as well as academics who study the comic book form and/or mental disability. 

It's a good piece for students both as a possible model -- the writing and writerly moves are good  -- and as piece for discussion and leads to further research. 

Here's an excerpt, without the images that appear between the 2nd and 3rd graphs in the original:
Ellen Forney helped clarify my mess of questions and impressions when I spoke to her on the phone. “Comics can give presence to tone and feeling and emotion in a way that’s difficult to do in other media,” she explained. “What happens with mental illness is that while there’s a lot of the story that is very specific—like text, which says a precise thing—there’s also a lot that’s really difficult to put into words. That’s where the language of comics comes in, the reliance on visual aspects that are strong in presenting mood.” 
I asked for an example. “A comic that’s drawn dense and scribbly will come across as much darker in tone than something that is clean lines,” Forney said. “Those kinds of expressiveness are more visceral, like music.” Forney herself played with the abstract visual metaphor of the grid in Marbles. She used neat boxes to narrate her orderly therapy sessions, and loose, misshapen ones to convey the trapped feeling of a depressive episode. (The mania pages burst free of grids entirely.) 
As I talked to Forney, I realized that working through a comic book reminds me of working through a poem. There’s an initial sense of disorganization and unfamiliarity, but then intuition seems to kick in. The structure may not be linear, but it still makes itself felt. In his essay on Shakespeare and depression, Jonathan Farmer writes that a good poem doesn’t “run like an aqueduct”—it meanders like a river. “Doubt,” he concludes, “is essential to poetry,” just as questioning your perceptions is fundamental to writing about your madness. Yet both madness and poetry offer their own bizarre scaffolds for experience. Powell gets at that, in Swallow Me Whole, when he uses the emotional logic of images to unfold one of Ruthie’s schizophrenic transports: She is scared, bugs are scary, and suddenly there they are, massing out of an air vent. Or think of David B. puppeteering the reader’s movement through Epileptic by alternating small consecutive squares with full-page boxes. You may feel as though you’ve passed outside of authorial control, but the comic is still pacing you, opening and contracting its world, shaping your responses.

As a writing teacher, I like the passage because it uses lots of citation -- weaving in of quotes, references to works, experts -- in a way that doesn't obscure Waldman's voice. She's responding as a reader, as herself, and does so in a way that acknowledges sources naturally and effectively. Notice, for example, the first three sentences of the 3rd graph in the excerpt. "As I talked to Forney" is a form of citation, but it's also conversational, and sets up an insight -- that reading a comic reminded her of reading a poem, an insight that is then explained. Notice then how that insight leads to the citation, an apt citation, of Jonathan Framer.

Those kinds of moves may seem obvious, but for novice writers, they're not, and they're sometimes hard to do. Seeing writing that does this, asking writers to track and trace how sources are weaved into Waldman's argument, offers a good model for how those writers might do something similar in their own essays, especially if in a college writing course their essays will also include a works cited list and use more formal academic conventions in the text for sources cited. 

I also like the piece because it stands as readable and interesting work. It's visual, and is about a medium many students enjoy. But for me, what I like as reader, is that in her exploration of how comics explore mental disability, Waldman too sheds light on mental disability. Her exploration requires her to explain what the works reveal about mental disability and how the art tries to bring the reader more into the point of view of a person who may have the disability illustrated. 

To that extent the work does two important things: first, it provides a vocabulary and examples for understanding the techniques of comic art; and second, through that increased understanding, empathy.

So for me, this piece works on many levels, and it can fit into all kinds of courses: writing courses, pop culture courses, communication courses, visual arts courses, psychology courses, to name a few. It's also the kind of piece, given its insights, that might be useful for faculty professional development. Faculty work with colleagues and students who live with a range of mental disabilities, many, as Margaret Price notes in Mad at School, often invisible or misunderstood, but still present.