Quickly, Quickly

Spring Break begins tomorrow. No beach-side cabana and umbrella-garnished cocktails in my foreseeable future. Just life at a slightly altered (i.e., re-charging) pace until classes resume on March 8. I believe this is the earliest Spring Break I’ve ever had.

In classes, we wrapped up a three-week unit on wiki writing today. The assignment went something like this: for twenty-one days, assume various roles in the production of a wiki–facilitation, discussion, research, entry writing, editing, and coding. Last semester I set up groups. This semester I didn’t. My aim with the wiki assignment has always been to immerse in the mess, to dive in, or, for the more cautious, to wade through some quick compositional emergence, or distributed, self-paced, collaborative writing. All the while, we should keep in mind the question of what is stylistically available in wiki writing. There is no single answer to this, of course, but it seems like wiki writing often (I am tempted to say “always”) returns to an “average effect,” more studium than punctum.

I’m not sure we fully achieved the mess I had in mind. A snow day on February 10 threw off the early development of the project. Facilitation and early discussion was cut short. Twelve days into the project I brought graphs to class–a simple activity distribution curved, as you might have guessed, like a long tail. A few had done much work; many had done much less, just like on Wikipedia. Also, the graph reflected two data-sets, one for number of edits and one for frequency of logins. So that everyone processes the assignment by a distributed pace rather than a climactic pace, the prompt encouraged logging in and making identifiable contributions every other day or so. Halfway in, this wasn’t quite working. But the graph confronted us with the problem, and, consequently, it moved us collectively nearer to the quick-writing messiness I had in mind. For the remaining nine days, the wiki came alive–to the tune of 38 contributors, an impressive blur of edits, revisions, and rearrangement.

Certainly we gained some experience with wiki writing–wiki writing connected with our continuing inquiry into style and technology. And, for the most part, I stand by this approach (i.e., will try it again), even if it still has a few wrinkles to smooth out. I prefer it to a common alternative, which is something like wiki-as-showcase, where the wiki functions as a platform for sharing individually authored pieces, where collaboration is predefined, where discrete contributions carry over into some kind of portfolio or autonomous collection of best works (many variations on this, to be fair). The showcase approach to wiki writing is fine, but I want to continue to think through the near-aleatory, massively collaborative chaos available in wikis and to think through the this chaotic approach for a school assignment and for the question of what is stylistically available. How? I’ll begin by reading and commenting 36 or so reflective essays over the next couple of days.

Collabaret, cont.

With the recent collaborative go-round, I started thinking again about a
distributed authoring experiment CGB mentioned in passing a time or two before.
Imagine dialing up collaboration in such a way that a group of 6-8 scholars
would team-write articles on a series of issues (extraordinarily wide open,
this). A scholarship-producing cousin of the think tank. This author-organism
would set out with well-defined goals, structural principles, and so on.
It would meet occasionally as a collective to discuss the experiment, to
consider rules and roles, but it would also be receptive to redirection,
accidents, and abandonment. That is, a fair amount of the work might go to
waste, chopping room floor, etc. And in practice it would involve a lot of
chipping away at various aspects of the projects, inevitable redundancies and
microdebates, also a platform or apparatus for carrying out the work. Obviously
it’d need to be the right group of people; they would have to be smart,
agreeable, mature, invested, and flexible, among other things. But if it
succeeded, it might productively jostle the default scales of authorship. And if
it failed, perhaps it would be equally rewarding to pick through the rubble.

I haven’t given a whole lot of thought to who might participate or what such
a group might produce initially. And by now you are no doubt thinking that this model
is an old, long-ridden horse in the sciences, in information studies and tech comm, too.
If there has been much of it in rhet-comp, I’d be hard pressed to identify it
beyond the well-known tandems (e.g., Flower-Hayes, Lunsford-Ede, Selfe-Hawisher)
and the surprisingly high proportion of Braddock winners with multiple authors
(something like 14+ since 1985 have been co-written?). Yet these are not
quite fitting with the larger-group experiment.

Collabaret

This 1978
Joel Sternfeld photo
(via) stands
up nicely-analogous alongside the collaborative writing I’ve been working at
sporadically in recent weeks.

The unfamiliar process taught me a great deal about collaborative drafting
that I didn’t know before. Often it seemed like dabbling on the edges,
often like plunging in–designations that captures the uncertainty I felt
at times, the turn-taking, and the refreshing experience of opening a Google Doc
to find that someone else had poured an hour’s worth of smart work into the
manuscript since the last session. Sure, I’ve read a little bit about
collaboration, talked about it, even asked students to work together, but until
now I can’t honestly say that I’ve undertaken anything quite like this before.

When I first saw the above photograph turn up via TriangleTriangle’s RSS
feed, I was at a point when it cried out: There’s this raging fire to put out.
My colleague was intensely engaged in knocking out the flames while I was, like
the pumpkin shopper standing in the foreground, basically shitting around. So
many pumpkins! I’d flagged the photo for its commentary on collaborative
writing–something I was both doing and also thinking of blogging about–and its
significance shifted. Not an all reversal of studium and punctum
here, but an identity-urgency, an itch: I, too, sought a turn on the ladder.
Turn after turn came later, authorial identifications shifted as if caught in a
turn-style, and the chapter draft took shape, coming more or less solidly
together. This has left me thinking about collaborative writing as worth trying
a few more times for the way I now conceive of the process via something like a
post-dialogic dual occupancy, standing in the foreground (Which pumpkin?) and on
the ladder, happily and at once.

EtherPad

Over at ReadWriteWeb today, I
caught

this entry
about EtherPad, a
collaborative text-authoring web app. One conspicuous difference between
EtherPad and the other word processing web apps (Google
Docs
, Adobe Buzzword,
Zoho Writer, etc.) is that the changes to
the text are nearer to synchronous. Contributors see each other’s writing
almost immediately. Even better: EtherPad does not require an account; no
sign-up is necessary. The site provides
this demo.

It’s easy to imagine using EtherPad for drafting a conference
proposal or something, although Google Docs has proven adequate for that sort of
thing. Where I see EtherPad’s greatest immediate use (in my world, anyway)
is in the online consultation appointments we’ve been offering lately in the
Writing Center. Right now I use any number of chat clients (AIM, iChat,
and Google Talk), but EtherPad features a chat module. I log on to the
chat client, invite the student to a session, and we begin chatting about the
work at hand. Usually it takes five minutes to gain access to a draft.
Because the built-in file transfer processes get hung up far too often
(resulting in further delays), I also have the students email their drafts to
drop.io, where I can easily access the file. Even with all of this,
commenting the text in real time can be a pain. Absent voice options and
desktop sharing I still find it fairly difficult to identify the places in the
text where I am focusing. Why not copy/paste the document (or a portion of
it) into EtherPad and use the built-in chat module to discuss the passage?

EtherPad does not provide voice or video options, but it would serve as a
terrific complement to Adobe Connect Now, which does offer voice, video, chat,
and desktop sharing. For the WC technology audit I’m working on this semester,
I’ve been thinking a lot about recommending two-app mash-ups as a kind of
low-cost writing consultation-ware. EtherPad’s usability threshold is so
low (i.e., it’s free to use, requires no sign up, and presents its options in a
simple layout), it seems to me a strong choice for use alongside one of the
other audio-video-chat applications. I would think Writing Centers would
be all over this sort of web app for synchronous online consulting.

On the short list of drawbacks, there is the small matter of its ethereal
quality. You can save the text, but you need to keep track of the URL
because there is no other way to track down the saved file. As I was
checking out the save function, I found that the chat transcript is not logged.
When a saved version of the text is loaded, the chat transcript starts from
scratch. It would be nice, however, if there were options for saving (and,
thus, resuming) the chat transcript or for outputting the text file and the chat
transcript (for my purposes, I’d even like to see a one-click option for saving
these to a single file). Might also be nice to see a "scrub" option so that the
document and chat transcript are cleared from the server following a session. But these are relatively minor concerns for what
appears otherwise to be a promising new application.

Network Captives

I admire Jeff R. and
Will R., read their
blogs like clockwork; their exchange(s) over the last 24 hours have been worth
following, if you haven’t been keeping up.  I’m here giving nods to the
naming contentions as we slide between the print paradigm and electracy’s
futures.  In that slide, some folks pack heavy, others pack light.  I
suppose there’s a way of taking up the rift that contends, as Jeff often reminds
me, the new media/digital turn doesn’t need the lingo of literacy (or
even the name).  As necessary and tricky as it is to re-vocabularize
rhetorical agilities in a digital age, I wonder what–if anything
substantial–is at stake.  It is, of course, about more than the
terminology; it’s about what we do and what what we do does.  Jeff’s

assessment
of the high stakes are fair, clear:

In composition, I don’t think we are anywhere near tackling this issue
because it will undermine and reconfigure many of the truths we have accepted
and hold so dearly. If we are to recognize that literacy no longer exists,
what will become of composition studies which bases its identity on the ways
writing empowers individuals to be productive members of society (see Brandt,
Rose)? What will happen to topic sentences and Writing Centers, professional
writing, or the first year textbook? Serious damage.

I can imagine this angle–in retrospect–shedding light on the grand
transformation from orality to literacy.  Switch in and out a few
indications of oral traditions giving way to Guttenberg’s giant, and, perhaps
from some perspectives, you have "serious damage" or at least wreckage,
abandoned traditions, even widespread human cognitive re-patterning. 
Forgive me for jabbing in the dark here (since I’m not well studied on Ong, for
one), but one must preclude the other.  True?  Why must electracy
unravel literacy as literacy unraveled orality?  Is it because electracy is
meanwhile enfolding a textualism of all, braiding realities and programs
and tunes…"I don’t know why she swallowed the fly, perhaps she’ll…."  Maybe
I haven’t read closely enough; maybe effacement is inherent in these
revolutions.

[Long hesitation…reading list has grown by twenty or so titles (Ulmer,
Graff)…having Friday fun…blog decorum…where’s that coming from?]

I set out to make notes on Will’s
mention of
collaboration
.  My first thought is, Yes!, we are on collaborative
ground with weblogs and wikis.  Open texts, and so on, just as Jeff sets
them up as places where "writers and readers tap into, alter, appropriate,
confiscate, download, share, etc."  But then I keep thinking these few
thoughts about what I haven’t seen blogs do:  1. Blog entries are rarely
revised.  2.  Blog entries are rarely written collaboratively, perhaps
because most blogware doesn’t configure easily for partnering or group
authorship.

The tapping and commenting and fisking–linked, interested, etc.–seem more
prevalent than the sort of sharing and appropriating, which is to suggest that
blogging as spontaneous media doesn’t prefer to wait.  Entries are often
buried in a matter of days, comments with them, and the temporality machine
rolls, calendars overturn.  I get the feeling that blogs play the moment,
invite the rush; whereas collaborative efforts can be slow and laborious, blogs
thrive on freshness, vigor, never expiring. 

This is a jumble of (unfair, perhaps) assumptions.  I’ve been
thinking lately about the expenses of collaboration, the problem of
over-collaboration, of turning always to meetings about meetings, of everyone (including the ambivalent and disenchanted)
having a say and of feeling like that just takes toooo loooong for some matters. 
In part, I’m feeling jaded by the call for collaboration because I’m seeing it
done in a way that turns to wheel-spinning, indecisiveness, and gross, endless
shifts of leadership and agency to the (idle, vacationing, phone-message
ignoring) network.