I know what paleophidiothermometry means because of scholarly blogging

Way back when we first started talking about talking about peer review, Kate made a point that has stuck with me ever since – that we talk being accessible a lot in libraries but we usually talk about it in one sense of the word. To be fair, it is the first sense listed by the OED:

1. Capable of being used as an access; affording entrance; open, practicable. Const. to.

This meaning gets at access to information – our ability to physically get our hands (or our eyes) on the information we want or need, our ability to get past technical barriers, bad interfaces, or paywalls.  It also gets at our accessiblity in terms of open hours, our availability to answer questions and maybe even a little bit our openness in terms of friendliness.

What Kate pointed out that for our students, actually for a lot of us, the scholarly or scientific discourse is inaccessible in another way (OED’s 3rd)

c. Able to be (readily) understood or appreciated. Freq. applied to academic or creative work.

How many times do we teach students how to find scholarly articles by showing them the physical access points – the databases (or results limiting options) that will bring back articles that have been peer-reviewed, that will meet their professor’s requirement that for one, three or five “scholarly articles? while all the time we know that they will struggle with reading, understanding, and really USING these articles in their work?

How often do all of us begin poking around on a new topic to find scholarly articles that are too narrowly focused, assume too much about what we know about context and significance, full of technical terms, and just plain inaccessible to us, at least early on in our investigation?

And it’s not the articles’ fault.  The authors of peer reviewed articles have an audience to consider, and it’s not us.  Which is why I love the idea of these same authors writing for a different audience – and academic or science blogging is a great way to do that.  I know I’ve made this point here before, and I’ll probably do it again, but I thought this post today at Dracovenator (by Adam Yates, an Australian palaeontologist) was such a great example of it that I wanted to put it out there.

I only clicked on the link today (out of ResearchBlogging’s Twitter feed) because the title of the post was SO inaccessible to me.  I was just delighted by the post though – look how accessible it is, on every level.  Quick explanations of technical terms, a short summary of the research, an explanation of the context.  That context piece is one of my favorite parts, actually.  But then also a critique of the research.

And you can tell from the first line of the post that this isn’t a dumbed-down explanation written for the uninformed – the author assumes we’ve all heard about the study. I think there is so much positive potential in scholars and experts simply showing how they interact with the work in their field, how they understand it, how they read it, and how they talk about it.

words that mean pretty

This blog will never die.  It will never die because of this post.  Written in, I think, in about 15 minutes this post was just a quick thing to share a new tool that I was (and still am) really excited about.  And I’m not the only one.

So I never expected that this post would have more legs than any other post I’ve ever made – it doesn’t have the highest hit count, but of all of the posts on this blog it is the tortoise-est one.  Every day it picks up one or two or three views.

Unfortunately, those views come from people who are looking for something else.  Well, I shouldn’t say “unfortunately.”  I suspect a decent number of those people have never seen Wordle, and think it’s pretty cool.  So it’s cool by extension that they see that post here.  But they come here looking for (and this is almost always the exact wording of the search, it’s weird) – “words that mean pretty.” So, they want synonyms for the word pretty.  I’m thinking that they know what pretty means, and that they want some other words that mean that same thing.

So there are a couple of information literacy issues here, right?  The first, and probably most obvious, is that entering keywords into a search engine is not the best way to answer this particular question.  There are better tools out there.

Information Literacy issue #1

Using Google, the Wordle post comes up #8 on the result list for the words that mean pretty search right now.  So I assume that this is where most of the hits are coming from.  It doesn’t appear on Yahoo  (though there is a result about “how do I increase my dog’s understanding of words” which I find really intriguing).  Anyway, sometimes it’s a little higher on the Google list, sometimes a little lower.  Always on the first page.  The reason why people click on it is clear – most of the other results are obviously not relevant.  We have:

#1 – this one seems like it might be relevant, but it is actually a dictionary page for the word perhaps, not the word pretty.

#2 – this is a Yelp San Francisco query looking for non-english words that mean pretty.

#3-5 are random blog posts that use phrases like ‘words fail me” coupled with “pretty boring,” or “pretty words mean nothing.”

#6 is a link to the lyrics to Dirty Pretty Words.

#7 – we finally get a result that might work.  It’s a WikiAnswers question that just says -  “words that have pretty much the same meaning.”  But the description says “other words for pretty, same meaning as pretty” and so forth.  But when you click through to the page, you don’t see those questions. Instead, you find out that the initial question was looking for a definition of the word “synonym.”  Still, asking the question on WikiAnswers would probably work.

And then my post at #8.  Not that I really have to convince anyone who reads this blog that a search engine isn’t the place to find synonyms and antonyms.  So the first information literacy issue is a tool issue – there are things called thesauri and they can be really useful!  Check them out.

Information Literacy issue the second

Which connects to the more subtle information literacy issue here.  Which goes beyond how search engines aren’t a great starting point when you’re trying to find or generate synonyms – to finding and generating synonyms is a pretty fundamental part of effective keyword searching in search engines.  If you understand how keyword searching works, you know that the search  words that mean pretty will bring back anything with the disconnected terms words, mean and pretty. Which as the result list above indicates, is a whole lot of stuff you’re not interested in, including a random blog post about Wordle.   So when you get that result list, if you know how keyword searching works, you can troubleshoot that search and say “hey, I think I need a more specific term to get at the concept words that mean.”  If you’re really savvy at that point you might get the word “synonyms” from the WikiAnswers result and re-search using the terms synonyms and pretty.  That search works – you get result after result listing other words that mean the same thing as “pretty” does.

But here’s the thing – a lot of people don’t know how keyword searching works, in search engines or elsewhere.  Or they maybe kind of know, but they don’t really think about it.  And they don’t know how to troubleshoot that first failed search, or to find synonyms that will work better.  So I went looking – what would work better?  Because, as it happens, I’m working on a new keyword assignment – that I started talking about a few days ago, and that Sara talked about here – for beginning composition that will try to get at some of these issues about keywords and how they connect to critical reading, writing, thinking, as well as searching.

So, if you are wondering where you can find some information about other words that mean pretty – check these out:

Lexipedia: Where Words Have Meaning:  This one is interesting – it is based on the WordNet project at Princeton, and it creates, fairly quickly, cool webs of related words –  synonyms, antonyms,  fuzzynyms and more.   The webs are color coded so that you can glance at them and know that synonyms are olive green and antonyms are dark red.   The site looks a little bit messy, and it is hard to find.  While it has the domain “lexipedia.com” – a search on “lexipedia” brings back a lot of references to another project, about Wikipedia and handhelds.  Still, this one works pretty fast, provides a lot of terms that might be useful, and I like the glanceability of it.

Similar to this is Visuwords – an online graphical dictionary.  This one is prettier, but the resulting display isn’t as complete, and I’m not sure as a tool for finding additional terms and synonyms it would be more useful

And for the more textually oriented, there’s Definr, that also uses the WordNet project data.  Interestingly, it’s main selling point seems to be speed.  And it does define words really, really fast.  Not surprisingly, given the source data, it also provides some synonyms and related terms.

Both definr and lexipedia are user interfaces on top of the data generated by WordNet at Princeton.  This project, which groups words into “sets of cognitive synonyms” has about a million related projects listed on its website.  And the idea of cognitive synonyms is interesting, right?  For thinking about connecting terms to concepts and troubleshooting searches?

And now, as a bonus librarian answer – according to the OED, the first definition of the word pretty (adj.) is “cunning,” “crafty” (originally), and “clever,” “skillful” or “able” (later).  It was first used in this way in 1450.  “Aesthetically pleasing” is the second meaning, and it was first used this way about 10 years earlier.

“Sitting pretty” dates back to 1915, in Lincoln, Nebraska and “pretty please” dates back to 1891.

I keep remembering this one day in the library…

… because I just read that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died.

I was in high school, I went up to the Portland State University library to do some work and really couldn’t get into/ didn’t want to do the work I had gone there to do.  Instead of doing the obvious thing, which would have been leaving the library and going into the city since I was from Canby and it was a school day and I was not at school but in Portland, I picked One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich up off a reshelving cart and started to look through it.  Two and a half hours later, I was done and you know even though I still had the work to do, and even though I could have read that book in Canby, I never felt like I wasted that day

So this is a library experience that’s not about me being a librarian, and it’s not about how I think libraries should be.  Plus it’s a library experience that might not resonate in its specifics to people younger than me. It was the 80′s, there was a Cold War, reading Solzhenitsyn probably doesn’t feel the same now as it did then.

It’s a library experience that’s just about libraries – that they are and that these spaces that put people together with ideas exist.

what do comics and documentary filmmaking have to do with libraries?

Nothing, really? Except maybe…

I spent the weekend working on a project Shaun is just starting – a documentary that takes a geographic look at why Portland has become such a central place for comics creators and publishers. He’s had to push his production schedule way up because the Stumptown Comics Fest, which has been in September, moved to April. So he doesn’t have the student crew he is planning to have yet (if you know a talented student filmmaker at OSU or WOU who would like some independent study credit – email me) and none of his volunteer crew was available on short notice to spend the weekend in Portland.

So it was just him and me filming 24-Hour-Comics-Day. That really means it was just him, with me to do the stuff that required more than 2 hands – holding the mike was a big part of my day. The 24 hours in question extended from 10 am Saturday morning to 10 am Sunday morning, and the artists and writers who participated spent this time around a table at Cosmic Monkey comics in northeast Portland. Their task was to produce a 24-page comic in 24 hours from start to finish.

Around 20 people signed up for the event, about 20 showed up and about 20 were there much of the time — but as Leigh Walton (who liveblogged the whole event – check it out) said, they weren’t always the same 20 people. When we walked back in on Sunday morning there weren’t 20 people there, but there were more than 10 and some of the people who were gone were gone because they were done already.

(No, we didn’t stay the whole night. The camera did.)

The people there ranged from first-timers who may or may not have ever put together a comic of this length, to established names like Jim Valentino (creator of Normalman), Neal Skorpen (doing his fifth 24 hour event) and David Chelsea (participating in his TENTH 24 hour event). And people were doing the event for all kinds of reasons – which is one of the more interesting things about these timed, creative contests I think.

When we do things like the 48 hour film project or the IDC, it’s usually to see how good of a film we can make in that period of time, yes. And when we talk to people about how we’ve just done a short film in 2 days or a documentary in 5, that marathon-like aspect of it is what people focus on — the idea that you do these things like people run a marathon, to see if you CAN do these things. If you have what it takes, the strength, the speed the stamina, or whatever. And there’s a “best time” variation on that — even if you know you CAN create a comic in 24 hours or make a movie in 48, there’s still – how good of a thing can you make in that time?

But with these creative contests – there are so many more reasons why people do these things. When we do the film contests part of it is pulling a community together in our smallish part of the state that’s interested in this kind of creativity – the Willamette Valley Film Collective idea. And that community aspect also came through loud and clear this past weekend — Shaun was thinking about how doing film as his scholarship is interesting because unlike writing books or articles, you can’t make a movie all by yourself. At the very least, you need your wife to hold the mike. And the artists and writers in the room were on the opposite side of things – what they do, they do by themselves a lot and having the chance to do it in a room with other people was part of the draw.

But another reason why people do these things – has nothing to do with marathons at all. Some people sign up for NaNoWriMo, 48 Hour Film, Script Frenzy, International Documentary Challenge or Madison’s Mercury Theater Blitz not to see if they can create a play or novel or movie in that time period – but to see if they can create a play or comic or movie or novel at all. Whether because they need the deadline, or the community of people doing the same thing fuels the competitive drive, or because they haven’t been able to manage doing it a little at a time and they need the excuse to just drop everything and put some sustained effort towards creating — they think “this is how I can finally get it done.”

So what has this to do with libraries? Well, probably nothing. But after I went to Picture Poetry to read the live blog of the event, I stuck around a bit reading Leigh Walton’s posts about Portland and comics and publishing — and I was struck by this older entry which starts off with the observation that “the distribution and retail network for comics is broken like whoa.”

The post itself is mainly a long excerpt from another person who is explaining why he shops online for comics instead of supporting his local shops — and if you read it, doesn’t it sound a lot like people talking about libraries? I mean, there’s the overwhelming difference that if you choose between an online shop and a brick and mortar shop you’re choosing where to spend your money, while if you choose Amazon over your library you’re choosing TO spend money — but other than that, a lot of what they’re saying sounds exactly like what we say in libraries — even down to the “let’s put a coffee shop in to be more welcoming.”

Which gets me thinking about the community aspect of things – and the role that the community plays in supporting people who just want to see if they can do stuff, produce stuff, create stuff, and more that the 24 hour comics drawpocalypse represented. In other words, I think I’m saying if we’re just a place to consume information, whether that information takes the form of comic books or academic books, I’m not sure we can compete with the Amazons and what have you. I mean, I’d rather do the consuming part at home on my couch, all things being equal. But all things aren’t equal, because we’re about more than consumption. One of the reasons that people get out and go to their local yarn store is for Stitch and Bitch night, one of the reasons people go out to the comic store is to draw a comic in 24 hours — libraries are also spaces where people don’t just consume, but also create, and create together with other creators — how can we build more into that aspect of what we are.

Again about reading

This isn’t really a continuation of the Caleb Crain post, more like something you might find on the shelf nearby.

Going through my feeds this morning I came across a couple of different things that got me thinking about reading, reading online, and reading in new ways –

First there’s this project, kind of like social reading — Book Glutton. They are operating on the premise that the time when you want to take notes about a book, or talk about a book, is while you are actually reading it. So it’s part online book reading thingy, part book-related social networking site.

You can read public domain books about Sherlock Holmes or Jeeves and Wooster, online — here’s what the reader looks like when you first launch it:

Book Glutton reader (closed)

But there’s more to the reader than that. Picking up on the “you want to annotate while you’re reading” idea – if you click on that little blue strip to the right of the text, an annotation panel opens up:

Book Glutton reader (annotation panel)

You can read alone, or you can join a group reading a book together. What I find kind of interesting though, is that they’re taking “reading together” a lot more seriously than “join a group of people reading the same thing.” Which anyone already can do in a lot of places online.

Within the reader, if you click on the blue strip to the left, there’s also a chat panel:

Book Glutton reader (chat)

And that’s what I actually find interesting about this site – that the basic premise is that people would rather read books together. I think this goes against a lot of our notions about curling up with a good book, in solitude and silence except for the rain drumming on the roof. Or the idea of “losing yourself” in a book – that doesn’t seem to have a lot of room for other people in it. But maybe that kind of reading only appeals to some, or only appeals in the abstract.

As the Stumbing Funsters, currently reading Alice in Wonderland, say — Rock on. We read, bub. We read. Mostly in the evenings, when we’re feeling social, btw.

So maybe there are a lot of people who would rather do their reading like this? On laptops, in coffeehouses, together? Or maybe this is a different kind of reading?

Then there’s this project, which is very different. Really, there’s nothing tying these together except in my head.

Where Book Glutton is largely replicating the physical act of book-reading, the “digital art publisher” tontonium goes somewhere else. The digital fiction, The Reprover was mentioned on the if:book blog today, and it looks like a fascinating re-visioning of one thing “reading online” might mean.

It’s something that you have to buy, and I haven’t yet. But I’m thinking that if I can convince myself that it will help me with my French, I might be able to justify the purchase.

Meanwhile, you can get a sense of what it is like on this page here, with one exception. if:book says that the fiction includes:

a witty text in French and elaborate English which expands and contracts – the same sentence blooming different additional clauses each time you pass a mouse across it. This is a deeply disconcerting effect at first, but once you’ve got used to it, a whole new kind of three dimensional reading emerges. It’s a fascinating idea which could only work on the web.

I think I’m going to have to justify buying it, just to see that.

reading, thinking & Caleb Crain

I don’t often envy my friend Matt his Harvard education, except for on days like today.  After skimming through my RSS feeds and finding not one, not two, but three links to the same New Yorker article – I remembered why occasionally I think Harvard wouldn’t have sucked.  Because Matt went to school with Caleb Crain.

And if you want to know why, just read Caleb Crain’s latest article in the New Yorker – Twilight of the books: What will life be like if people stop reading?

I’ve read enough apocalyptic, end-of-knowledge type discussions of how the kids today, they just don’t read that as soon as I hear there’s another article on the topic I get twitchy.  And since the NEH report (To Read or Not to Read) hit the airwaves the number of simplistic mass media treatments of the topic have about made me crazy.  When I read this morning on Cliopatria that Caleb Crain had written about reading my spirits — they noticeably lifted.  Noticeably!

And he doesn’t disappoint –

He considers history.  So many critics worry so much about losing the habits of now that they forget that the now is a relatively short blip on the epistemological radar screen.  While the ideas of text, of authority, or single authorship hold a lot of power over us now it wasn’t that long ago that that’s just not how we knew things. 

"Taking the long view, it’s not the neglect of reading that has to be
explained but the fact that we read at all."

I just can’t take criticism seriously, no matter how serious it is, when it has no historical perspective.  And those who don’t recognize that ideas like the author’s voice, or even intellectual property itself are historically and culturally situated — no matter how insightful or intelligent their criticism is, I can’t treat it as such.  While I do think that we have something to lose if we stop reading, if we stop arguing, and if we stop communicating as we do now – I don’t necessarily think that we also have nothing to gain if those things go away. 

History is change – but the changes are the result of real people making real choices and at any point things could go a lot of ways.  Now isn’t inherently better than then, and tomorrow won’t be inherently better than now.  Just as a step away from now isn’t a step away from progress, the right path, the best way.  I don’t know what it is that we might gain, but I do know that we just don’t know.

Looking at Walter Ong and especially Maryanne Wolf, Crain looks seriously at what we knew pre-reading – how those brains differed from our post-reading brains.  When he says that if the movement away from reading continues in our culture "the world will feel different, even to those who still read" you believe that by "different," he means "different" — not "way worse OMG".  Western reading, western epistemology aren’t just the result of some inevitable progressive march towards perfection – it’s what happened, it’s not what obviously had to happen.  And that means if it changes, then the impact of those changes aren’t inherently good or inherently bad – they just are.

Which isn’t to say that they’re value-neutral or that there’s nothing there to value.  But this kind of examination is a necessary first step to any real, meaningful reflection on what it is we might want to preserve about what is.  What we might want to fight for.  Because we can’t pull out the act of reading itself and assign it inherent value and bemoan its lack — it’s not the number of words or pages that we read that we need to think about – it’s something else.  In higher ed, a lot of the people I know have come to call it "critical reading" — by which I think they’re getting at our students’ ability (or inability) to learn from what they read. 

Citing Wolf, Crain talks about how fluent readers have enough free brain time while they are reading — during the process of reading — that they can think about what they read.  They can reflect, synthesize, anaylze, criticize and evaluate. 

"The efficient reading brain, quite literally has more
time to think."

– and –

"The secret at the heart of reading, is "the
time it
frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came
before."

This resonates because I think we’ve all felt sometimes that some of our students are so focused on the act of reading that they forget about the thinking.  Or worse, that they’ve never really been taught that thinking is part of the process.  One of my colleagues in graduate school used to tell her students that "you can’t read without a pen in your hand."  Reading with thinking is an interactive process – the reader and writer both engaged, both creating, both thinking.   That’s the piece that we want to preserve — or to create — students who can engage with a text and learn from it.  That’s far more important than their page counts.

Crain talks at length, in part because Wolf talks at length, about television and other visual media.  The overarching theme is that exposure to visual media threatens out ability to think, to understand.  We lose grade levels if we watch too much tv.  But even here, Crain’s treatment shows that the picture is more complex than "tv makes us dumber."  Some tv for younger children is good, Sesame Street raises grade levels, older teens can’t watch much without damage…

When I read these types of arguments I wonder a couple of things.  One relates to what I was talking about above – is it really fair to use the ability to read and engage with text as our only or primary measure of the impact of our students’ engagement with visual media?  Or is that focusing on what’s lost, without considering what might be gained?  Beyond this, but still connected, is the idea of creativity.  Does it change the equation if our students are engaging with media interactively, if they are creating, if they are thinking while they do it.  Is there a media fluency that can free the brain up to think and read and consider and analyze and evaluate?  I don’t think that all kids today are doing this, because I’m not crazy.  But I’d love to see someone examine the question of is there a difference – is there a difference between people actively engaged in the creative production on visual media and those who only consume?

Anyway, read this – pass it along – this is the kind of smart, complex criticism we need to really think about how we can help our students learn today.  Reifying the past without criticism means we won’t get there – articles like this one make me think we can.

Note: Karen Munro points out another good article on the reading question.