• Culture and Society,  Writing

    Best 404 Evah

    There’s something of an art to a proper 404 page. You want to let the user know that she’s taken a bad step, and you want to help her find the correct path again. There’s a bit of professional pride in doing that, and still making a statement. Here’s the 404 page for this site. It’s pretty basic, frankly, when there are 404 pages that will generate haiku as part of the error message. But this page is, hands down, the coolest I’ve ever seen.

    Buy me a Coffee! If you find this post or this site interesting, and would like to see more, buy me a coffee. While I may actually buy coffee, I’ll probably buy books to review.

  • Writing

    Eight Years Ago Today

    I began this blog as a way to learn about blogs and blogging for instruction and scholarly interaction and outreach. My first post is here, on blogging and what it is and what it might be good for.

    I began this blog using Blogger, which I quite liked, and still like, but thought I’d try using Radio, lured in part by the Categories option. Using Radio was pretty awful. The support was non existent, the only good documentation was written by a horribly treated user, and the Radio Mac UI was, I think, designed by someone who thought the Mac OS was Windows with prettier colors.

    I moved to MovableType, and liked it much better, for a while, but then Six Apart got very odd about pricing, and the updates kept breaking previous templates, so I moved to WordPress, and created lisaspangenberg.com as a “professional” site. I’ve also slightly changed the purpose of this blog; IT began out of my interest in Instructional Technology. I’d been the Instructional Technology Coordinator at UCLA’s Humanities Division for several years, working with LMSs (WebCT) and having determined that WebCT and Blackboard were both hideously awful, I wanted to try using open source CMS and blogging systems instead because they tend to have decent UIs, community support, and they actually worked.

    Since then, I’ve finished my Ph.D., I’ve used Blogger and LiveJournal and WordPress for teaching, and worked in a software production environment creating and managing the work flow for content-driven media-rich brain games for seniors. I’ve tech edited a stack of consumer Mac books, written several, and have been a volunteer moderator, sys admin and community manager for a very large and active writers’ forum (Absolute Write; if you write you should go there and look around). I’ve also been a paid blogger and writer  for a lot of different publishers and companies.

    My scope for this blog has consequently changed. So has the title. IT has become IT: Technology, Language and Culture.

    Thanks all you wonderful people writing about technology and language and culture and pedagogy, I’ve learned a lot from you. I’m looking forward to another eight years.

  • Culture and Society,  Pedagogy,  Writing

    On The Use of Sources, Citations, and Links

    An image of a set of bound encyclopediasAs educators, we spend a great deal of time trying to teach students how to research, how to use sources, and, perhaps most importantly of all, how to tell a good source from a bad one. I know how to help students do this in person, where we can work with lots of practical examples; I used to think it was possible to actively teach source evaluation online. I’ve created guides and handouts on source evaluation, as well as linked to other guides, like this one on “Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask” from UC Berkeley.

    Of late, I’ve grown less sure that it’s possible to teach resource evaluation remotely, and more sure that it’s a skill that many people desperately need.

    I’ve spent the last year working as a paid blogger. I’m writing about a variety of subjects in which I have some expertise, and I’m blogging much as I do on my own sites. I strive for accuracy and specificity, I provide citations, and I link to solid sources.

    Some of my peers are much less likely to link to sources, or provide citations; and when they do link to a source, more often than not, it’s one that I’d identify as a resource to avoid. I note that most, if not all, my blogging colleagues are college educated, and many have graduate degrees. But increasingly, I’m noticing not only my colleagues’ blog posts have citation problems, but others are problematic in terms of sources. I’m seeing blog posts, and articles by professional journalists (both on line and in print), and discussion forum posts that suggest that the writers can’t tell if a resource is decent, or utter crap.

    Here’s an example of a source a fellow paid blogger linked to in a post about Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The piece “Frankenstein: Themes, Images and Metaphor Birth, Biology and the Feminist Angle in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is from a Suite 101 site; pretty much anyone who is functionally literate in English can (and does) post on Suite 101. That’s generally true of most content sites, and I’m not meaning that as a slam; I think it’s a virtue. That said, there are problems with treating all content, from all sources, as equally valid. This piece opens with this sentences:

    In 1818 Shelley created a much loved Gothic novel, Frankenstein, which she would use as a medium to present her ideas and thoughts on birth, biology and feminism. Birth is, for most women, considered to be one of the most important, precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced. Mary Shelley, in her novel Frankenstein took this theme and distorted it in order to produce one of the most famous gothic novels ever written.

    There are some minor infelicities; much-loved needs a hyphen, Frankenstein isn’t the actual title of the novel, nor is it italicized as a title. But the real problem is that the ideas are trite, and that they are expressed as a string of prepositional phrases. There’s an ugly duplication in “ideas and thoughts,” and a fair amount of “hesitation” padding—“for most women,” “considered to be,” and then more synonym phrases—“precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced.”

    And there’s the paucity of thought inherent in the assertion itself—and the disconcerting agreement problem inherent in “considered to be one of the most” to modify “event,” in the singular.

    No one is perfect, and heaven knows, I can’t spell or proof my own prose. I make mistakes all the time. But those two sentences were bad enough, given the absence of content, that I read them and wondered “who wrote this?”

    The author is a grad student enrolled in a Comparative Literature M.A. program in London.

    In other words, if you don’t know enough about Mary Shelley or her novel to realize that the piece is stupid, if you aren’t a sophisticated enough reader to know that the English is less than acceptable in terms of basic grammar and syntax (never mind style), then the author appears to have legitimate “credentials.”

    I’m also noticing another issue related to an inability to evaluate a source; a phenomenon that researchers call the Dunning-Kruger Effect; that’s when “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it” (Kruger, Justin and David Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 77 no. 6 (1999): 1121–34).

    Essentially, as blogger Patrick Nielsen Hayden notes (quoting Kieran Healy):

    [A]s a famous paper by Kruger and Dunning showed, people who are bad at what they do are generally also incapable of understanding that they suck&hmdasand this directly contributes to inflated self-perception. So, incompetence tends to make people cocky and people prefer cocky judgements over demonstrated expertise, which is pretty much the worst of both worlds.

    On a community forum post recently, a mother explaining why she is against vaccination for her kids wrote:

    I’ve read over thousands of pages of actual studies that were conducted on the individual adjuvents and attenuated viruses and bacterials. History of vaccines, of disease, demographics with a medical jargon book at hand if I didn’t understand something. I’ve read all the inserts to the vaccines, I’ve watched the vaccine (aka drug companies) companies. I’ve come to my conclusion that vaccination is not for me or mine.

    This is someone who thinks Internet research—research she can’t understand without a specialized dictionary—gives her the same sort of qualifications as someone with an M.D. One reason I know that she isn’t an M.D. is that she gets basic science facts wrong, repeatedly, refers to outdated descriptions of how vaccinations are made, and thinks http://vran.org/ is a medically researched and scientifically valid site.

    I don’t really have a solution on an individual level. But I do think one of the things we can do, all of us, as writers and educators, is keep providing better sources, better links and as kindly and gently as possible, point out why a particular citation is less than respectable. At least that way, by linking to good sources, we’ll eventually drive the lesser citations down in search engine rankings.

  • Culture and Society,  Writing

    Yog on Online Moderation

    James D. Macdonald, SF author and exceedingly experienced online moderator (remember Yog Sysop? That’s him) offers some rules for moderation under the heading:

    Here’s what moderators need to know:

    • a) Sure, there’s freedom of speech. Anyone who wants it can go start their own blog. On Yog’s board, Yog’s whim is law.
    • b) Yog is an ancient ghod of chaos and evil. And he doesn’t like people very much.
    • c) Moderation is a subjective art, and the moderator is always right.
    • d) The moderator may have minions. They need to have a private area where they keep the buckets of Thorazine and the cold-frosty bottles of cow snot.
    • e) The minions speak with the voice of Yog. Yog backs his minions up.
    • f) There is always someone awake, and in charge, when Yog isn’t around in person. The minions know who the Duty Yog is.
    • g) If someone starts off as a spammer, troll, or flamer, he is a spammer, troll, or flamer forever and is liable to instant deletion/banning with no recourse and no appeal.
    • h) If the moderator ever needs inspiration, he can re-read Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and recall that the posters are sinners and he is Ghod.
    • i) Rules? In a knife fight? Yog and his minions have standards, but they don’t need to tell the posters, lest some of them attempt to game the system. Attempting to game the system is, all on its own, a deletable offense.
    • j) ALL CAPS posts are deleted on sight, unread. Mostly ALL CAPS POSTS are ALL CAPS.
    • k) Anyone who doesn’t space after punctuation marks is insane, and can be deleted/banned on sight.
    • l) Personal attacks against Yog and his minions are ignored. Personal attacks against anyone else are deletable on sight.

    See the original post at Making Light and be sure to read the comments, too.

  • Culture and Society,  Writing

    Blogging as Conversation

    Tor, my favorite fantasy/sf publisher, has just gone public with their new Web site, one that has been re-designed with community engagement with content as a core principle. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, an editor at Tor, and one of the founding bloggers at Making Light, has a fabulous essay on blogging.

    In the blog post Nielsen Hayden opens with this simple but elegant explanation of the core concept behind blogging and community content:

    Effective blogging is a combination of good personal writing and smart party hosting. A good blog post can be a sentence long, or three pages long; what matters is that it encourages further conversation.

    Go read the rest of his post; it’s one of the best meditations on blogging and digital communication I’ve ever read.

  • Pedagogy,  Writing

    How do we find excellent online teachers?

    I’ve copied the following, with permission, from a post on an online forum. The original poster is a professional educator and adminstrator in a graduate program which relies on online instruction. I think the post asks some good questions.

    It will come as no surprise to anyone here that the biggest challenge I face is not in finding excellent teachers who know their subject cold. Rather, it’s (you got it) finding people with all of that going for them who can write in the way that you have to in order to give of yourself, show yourself, online.

    My big hiring mistakes have all had the same thing in common — they all glide around classrooms like they’ve spent a lifetime in the theater (i.e., they’re great “performers” and know their stuff so cold that they can hold students spellbound for three hours)… but ask them to commit that to paper, and it’s just no go. We’ve always given our own graduate faculty first crack at writing these courses… usually disastrous, because they’re as bad at writing what they do as they are good at doing it!

    Asking for writing samples has been a waste of time… it’s just plain not the same genre, and there’s absolutely nothing to be gained from their last article in The Journal of American YouPickIts.

    The same thing happens from time to time with the folks who tend the discussions in the class… they don’t know how to show or give themselves to students in their writing… and that’s what it takes when teaching and learning relationships have to happen and develop in print.

    How can I “screen” those applicants with credentials and teaching success for their ability to function online, whose persona in print reflects an appreciation for the very specific art of being able to “talk” in black and white like they do in a classroom? Or am I doomed to a lifetime of having to endlessly edit the stuff of people who know something I need them to share, so that it doesn’t put my students into a coma?

    What suggestions can we offer about finding applicants who will excel at online instruction?

  • Writing

    Hello World . . . Again

    Yes, I’ve changed blogging tools.


    I began this blog in January of 2002, using Radio Userland; I eventually moved to MovableType, and now, I’m using WordPress.

    I’ve also changed the location; I was over here, at digitalmedievalist.com, but I’m finally realizing I need to distinguish the scholarly me from the geek me, because it’s awfully confusing to would-be employers.

    I still object to the way faculty seem to think technology and scholarship shouldn’t be companions, but it keeps coming up in interviews as a Bad Thing.

  • Software,  Writing

    Google Pages

    Google has a beta version of their new Web page creation tool, Google Pages. I gave it a look last Thursday and Friday. By Friday Google turned off new accounts temporarily; nonetheless, here are my general impressions.

    You need to have a GMail accout to use Google Pages, and right now the only supported browsers are Firefox and I.E. The rendered Web pages are stored on Google’s servers, with a 100 MB storage limit. Others have compared Google Pages to the old Geopages, but I think they’re selling Google short. The Templates are nicer, as is the interface; in fact Google Pages is so far the best browser-based Web page creation tool I’ve seen. You can choose a Layout (1/2/3 columns, side bar on left or right) as well as a Template. There’s a simple to use Page Manager (the first thing you see after you log in) that lets you create new pages and delete them. Publish and Save are separate procedures, there’s a Preview tool, and a notification tool to let people know your pages are ready.

    I think Google Pages is likely to be much easier for a naive user to figure out than other similar online tools. I note that the HTML is not standard (use View Source in your browser to see for yourself). Hard returns generate paragraph breaks. While you do have control over Font and Font style, (the fonts are as you’d expect, the Microsoft Six), and the color of text, the HTML generated by Google uses the deprecated Font tag. The font styles are limited to Bold and Italic, and the actual tags used are Em and Strong. I’d be grateful if they’d provide a Cite tag. I’m quite pleased that Google allows you to directly edit the HTML.

    You can use images; there’s an Image insert and upload tool, basic image resizing, and a Link tool. The Link tool uses an exceedingly simple form; you enter a name for the link then the URL for the link. You can link to e-mail addresses, URLs, local pages or uploaded files.

    There’s an odd error message and accompanying feature; I was just told “Another user has ended your editing session” with an option to “Break the lock.” Odd that; there shouldn’t be another user with my login. You can take a look at my test here.

  • Culture and Society,  Writing

    On “Serious” Blogging

    New Kid on the Hallway drew my attention to this article in Inside Higher Ed by Jeff Rice.

    Rice has two central points, I think, in his initial article. I say “I think” because the argument is less than coherent. Rice begins by referring to the “Ivan Tribble” articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, asserting that “Too many academic bloggers have taken Tribble and similar commentaries seriously.” Rice then makes an initial overture to his central point, his concern regarding “the general seriousness that has immediately encased a fairly novel form of writing.” He defines “seriousness” as “the over-hyped heaviness centered on this one particular type of writing.” This is his first point.

    Next Rice segues to a red herring: the issue of anonymous blogging (discussed by Tribble) by academics using pseudonyms like “La Lecturess.” Rice argues that

    these names re-enforce the burden of seriousness which has overtaken academic blogging. Writing a blog under a pseudonym is usually an argument that the only safe way for an academic to write publicly is to write anonymously.

    Rice laments that “Lost in this seriousness are a number of quite amazing things blogging has provided writers”—he lists specific aspects of blogging, both those that relate to writing on the Web in general, like linking, that blogging software simplifies, and those, like automatic archives, that are characteristic of blogs and blogging software. Rice asserts that this “seriousness” will lead to “stagnation.” He points to literary innovators Cervantes and Rousseau as models, and asserts that “finally academia has the opportunity to play with digital form, content, and genre in ways previously denied because of the difficulty of learning hypertext or setting up webspace on university servers.” This is his second point.

    Rice closes by giving examples of “provocative and exciting weblogs,” like BoingBoing, or Wonderland, and then points to his own blog, Yellow Dog as a model via a disingenuous occultatio.

    Rice seems unaware that blogs aren’t that novel; even the most parsimonious blog historian has to grant blogs a good six years of life—that’s an age on the Web. Moroever, it’s not like the weblog formats and features he finds novel exist as rhetorical oddities; blogs and blogging correspond with the traditional five divisions of rhetoric. Nor am I the only person to compare blogs and commonplace books or nineteenth century pamphlets.

    In Rice’s contention that we take Tribble’s warnings too seriously, I wonder if Rice actually read the pieces in question. I’m also not sure who Rice is referring to by “we.” With respect to anonymous blogging, while I am not anonymous, it’s because I know that it’s time consuming and laborious to be truly anonymous on the ’Net, and I’m too lazy. Familiarity with writing for the Web is part of my professional expertise in any case, and the drive for tenure is not likely to be part of my future. I’m lucky. Many of my blogging peers are less fortunate, and people have been fired for blogging. As Professor Nokes points out, there are anonymous bloggers that aren’t anonymous to me, but I take their decision to remain anonymous very seriously and consider their anonymity a matter of privacy and professional courtesy.

    Regarding the “seriousness” of other bloggers, which strikes me as a slightly self-serving assertion on Rice’s part, it’s a little difficult to be sure what, exactly, he means. For instance, he refers to “academic bloggers,” but doesn’t indicate what he means by “academic.” Does he mean any professor, graduate student or faculty member who blogs? Does he mean people who blog about scholarly subjects? The blogs I read in my scholarly field, Medieval studies, are often quite serious in tone and topic, but they are just as often humorous. Most of us are Medievalists because we fell in love with our field, with the music, the languages, the literatures, the art, and the peoples, and that joy is an important part of our lives, our scholarships, and our blogs. I note that a fair number of medievalist bloggers do blog about our field—but we also blog about our outside interests, and our lives, to varying extents. I know several, anonymous and not, who have decidedly non-academic blogs about their hobbies, or their families. I think too that Rice misses the value of scholarly community in his dismissal of “seriousness.” Take, for example, what began as a semi-frivolous aside about an imaginary sheep DNA project on Michael Drout’s blog. But the response encouraged Professor Drout to actually explore the project. That’s not anything like stagnation.

    Rice exhorts us to “play” with the opportunities blogging gives us—yet he seems unaware that that’s exactly one reason many bloggers are anonymous—the anonymity gives blogging academics a safer place to engage in serio ludere.

    Rice even more surprisingly doesn’t seem to realize that the content and the presentation of a blog are two very different things, and that the presentation is ultimately controlled by the reader’s Web browser (Hint: if you have a blog with a style sheet that uses tiny type, or oddly colored text against a text-hostile background, I’m subverting your style sheet with mine). Indeed, after his paragraph in praise of the features of blogs and blog software, the examples of innovative blogging Rice gives are all innovative in terms of content, not form. I also suspect he’s completely unaware of the often forgotten bastard child of blogging—the journal, perhaps best exemplified by LiveJournal; a fair number of “serious” and “academic” bloggers have a LiveJournal account for their less scholarly musings. In short, it seems to me that Rice is really saying not, “don’t take blogging so seriously,” but “why aren’t you all more like me?”

    In his follow up post, Rice renders his argument even more confusing. He asks, via hypophora, if anonymity is an issue with respect to academic writing, and then answers “no.” I’d argue that he’s answering too quickly; sometimes anonymity may be an academic writing issue, especially for the non-tenured and the graduate student (both exceedingly common statuses for bloggers). Rice then asserts that anonymity isn’t so much an issue as “access” is. Rice says that “Because academic writing is just not as accessible as blogging. Google changed the interface of interaction in ways other search engines failed.” Rice argues that in order for him to “access” a fellow academic’s work he has to pay expensive journal subscription fees, or be at a school where a library has a current subscription and back issues, and possibly actually go to the library in question.

    Rich has introduced yet another red herring. “Access” has always been a problem, it’s part of the history of writing (you try toting all the tablets that make up Gilgamesh), a history that includes chained libraries, unwieldy manuscripts that weigh twenty pounds, and closed stacks. It’s not a matter of access (though I note that Rice would do well to explore the issue of access in terms of his own blog). But it might be an issue of Rice attempting to label bloggers, to pigeon-hole them as “academic” or “innovative,” or exhorting them to be more like him.

  • Writing

    Weblog Usability

    Jakob Nielsen posted an article on the top ten web log design flaws. Most of his suggestions were things I’ve been doing from the start, but two of them were new to me. He suggests a list of the “top posts,” or most popular posts; I’ve added a category on the side for that purpose, linking to the posts that show up most frequently in my referral logs. He also suggests a picture; that one, I’m still thinking about. It seems inappropriate to me, though I understand his reasoning, and I’m not qute sure how to place it in terms of layout. Maybe later.