Friday, February 10, 2012

Orality and Online Writing

So, one of the many things that I've been up to lately is teaching an online course for the first time, and it's certainly been a learning experience.  Now, you may recall that this past summer I offered some opinions about online education here on Blog Time Passing, in posts entitled Reflective and Critical Thoughts on Online Education, and Further Thoughts on Online Education, and you might expect me  to continue on in that vein, but that's not what I'm going to do.  I'm going to reserve judgment until the semester is over, and hold off on any evaluation of the experience until then.

So why bring it up, you may ask?  And I'm glad you did.  Well, the course is Writing for Online Media, a course I first developed and taught in a regular classroom setting, well actually in the Walsh Media Lab over at Fordham University's Rose Hill campus, but what I mean is that it was taught as a real, live, face-to-face course. I also taught it under similar circumstances on the MA level over at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Metropolitan campus.  The emphasis in the course is blogging, I should mention.  

One of the things that I would do over the course of the course would be to give a lecture providing an overview of the history of writing, in order to put online writing into a larger historical, and media ecological context.

So, the question I had to deal with was, how to do the equivalent of an in-class lecture for an online class.  And as I explain below, I decided to write up my comments.  I tried to write them up in much the same way that I'd just talk about the subject in class, so this isn't an essay, it's more like lecture notes, although everything is all written out, so they're not really notes.  But they're written kind of the way I'd talk it, which is very much to the point of what's being said here (you'll know what I mean when you start reading).  And I emphasize kind of the way I'd talk, because some editing was inevitable.  And you don't have to put up with all my ums and ahs.

So, this is just a summary for an undergraduate class, but I figured that this was still worth sharing here, as someone somewhere might find this useful, perhaps in getting some ideas about the topic, or about how I teach it.

As I was writing this up, which is more difficult and time-consuming than if I had just give the lecture orally, I found myself breaking off quite naturally at several points, so these notes were produced in four parts, and in this post I'll share the first part, and provide the other three in subsequent posts.  Okay, ready now?  Class is now in sesssion!

Comments on the History of Writing 
Part I: The Spoken Word 

 I wanted to make some comments about the history of writing, and being new to teaching online, I had to think about how I would do that. If we were meeting in a classroom, I'd just talk for a bit. And for an online course, I could do a webcam video of me talking, that would be the easiest for me to do, but I don't think it would make for particularly good video watching. I could provide the audio and capture screen images, but this is mainly about my words, so it seems that the best thing for me to do is write it up. And I suppose that's fitting for a course on writing. 

 Our course is oriented towards professional practice, so I will just touch on some philosophical and historical points, and not go into depth in the way that I would say in a course I've taught at Fordham called Orality and Literacy

 So let's start with the fact that writing is hard. I bet you knew that already. But why is writing hard? Because it is unnatural. It is so unnatural that we have to send children to school for years and years to learn how to write, and read, and that begins with getting them to behave in a way that goes counter to children's most basic instinct, that is, getting them to sit still. 

 Writing is unnatural because it is a human invention, one that was introduced about 5500 years ago. That may seem like a long time to you, but consider the fact that human beings have been speaking for tens of thousands of years, possibly hundreds of thousands of years. Compared to that, writing is a relatively recent development. 

 We don't know exactly when spoken language first appeared because speech has not bones, sound leaves no fossil or archeological evidence. Our species is almost 99% identical from chimpanzees, but one thing that set us apart is the well developed larynx we have, which allows us to make a wide variety of sounds. Another is a couple of special areas in the brain that serve as centers for language and symbolic communication. So maybe language appeared at the same time as our species, around 200,000 years ago, or maybe it evolved gradually, taking form only about 100,000 years ago. Richard Leaky estimated it at 70,000 years ago, and that works for me. 

 So for most of human history, we depended on word of mouth for communication, and oral tradition for the preservation of knowledge and culture. Without a means to store information outside of ourselves, we were dependent on collective memory, which always took the form of a performance. Speech is a performance, stories are told before an audience, and they are composed as they are performed, each time somewhat different, just as when you tell a story over and over again, the wording, pauses, etc., change from one time to a next. So repetition was important, speech was characterized by redundancy, to this day oratory typically uses a degree of redundancy that's much greater than literature, for example when Martin Luther King repeated the line "I have a dream" over and over again, or you get the parallel structure like John F. Kennedy's, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." 

 The main task in oral cultures, cultures without writing, is, as Walter Ong puts it, to think memorable thoughts. What helps is to tell stories, narrative structure, with agents performing actions, and especially with prominent agents (gods, heroes, and the like) performing dramatic actions (conflict, combat, quests). What also helps are the techniques associated with poetry and song, rhythm and meter especially, as can be found in sayings (a stitch in time saves nine, haste makes waste, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, slow and steady wins the race) all the way up to epic poetry. Note today how slogans and jingles are very effective mnemonically, and how songs can linger in memory, even against our will. Oral tradition also relied heavily on formulas and clichés. Rather than trying to compose entirely original compositions word by word, oral poets or singers of tales stitched together larger chunks of language, formulaic expressions (and the metaphor of stitching or weaving tales was a common one). 

 If you think about it, just about everything we're told to avoid in order to write well is what is valued in oral composition. And while electronic writing is not oral, not speech, media ecology scholars such as Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan have suggested that online writing brings back some elements of oral communication. So here are some suggestions: 

  •   In thinking about blogging and online writing, you might consider using a bit more redundancy than you would in writing for print media. People have trouble listening in speech situations, so repetition is helpful, and attention is also less focused and sustained online, so some redundancy isn't a bad idea.

  •   I also suggest it's useful to think about online writing as a performance. The singer of tales acts out the story, taking on the role of the hero, a form of mimesis, and it's useful to think about blogging in particular as creating a character and bringing him or her to life through your words. And the character is typically yourself, or an aspect of yourself, and what is often valued is a sense that the persona we encounter is genuine. But even if you believe it to be nothing more than your true self, that self needs to be presented to your audience, and that requires a form of performance. 

  •   In traditional oral communication, there is always a person present, so there is always some sense of personality involved. In writing, the person is typically absent, and writing easily becomes impersonal. That's one of the complaints that Socrates voices about writing, according to Plato, in the Phaedrus. Online, and especially in blogging, it is easier for your personality to peek through, even if you're not trying to reveal it. Readers seem to look for it more so than when reading print media, and to appreciate a sense of person and personality. I'm not saying that it's best to turn a blog into a personal diary, but what work is a sense of personal connection. Writers talk about finding their voice, an interesting metaphor for a medium in which there is no voice, where words become silent. Voice is just a metaphor for personal style, and you don't have to have just one voice, but developing a voice in this sense goes hand in hand with putting on an effective performance through blogging. 

  •   Narrative elements have always been memorable, and are often compelling. While blogging and other forms of topic-driven online writing will often take the form of exposition, a variation on the tradition of essay writing that can be traced back to Montaigne, putting on a performance means taking part in a drama (in the most general sense), and drama is closely akin to narrative. Performance requires taking on a character, so just consider the possibility of adding some element of a plot. Stories, anecdotes, always make for good reading. 

  The techniques of poetry and song are our oldest forms, rhythm comes naturally to us. After writing was introduced, it took over two thousand years before the idea of prose was developed, stripping out the poetic elements from discourse. And maybe we don't go in much for poetry these days, but consider poetic elements of rhythm, parallel structure, alliteration and assonances, saying and slogans. They work better online than in print. And while clichés are an anathema in writing, I personally do not believe that they are to be avoided at all costs. I think they are more acceptable online, and especially if used in a knowing, playful, or even ironic manner. 

  •  Above all else, in whatever writing you do, online, for print publication, private correspondence, or to be read out loud, the best advice I can give you is to write for the ear. If it sounds good read out loud, it will read well when read silently. Reading out loud is the best test, and not a bad way to proofread either (but not sufficient for that purpose I hasten to add). If you write for the ear, you avoid long, convoluted sentences, sentences where the subject isn't clear or the point is confusing. A great example of writing that is for the eye rather than the ear is the use of the former and the latter. Those terms only work if you can go back and reread the previous sentence. They are terrible to use in public speaking. But even for a reader, they break the flow, the rhythm of the words. Writing was invented as a means to represent spoken language, and up until the last few centuries almost all writing was meant to be read out loud. St. Augustine in the Confessions relates how he met a man once with the remarkable ability to read silently. It was all but unknown until after the invention of printing in the 15th century. Carrels in libraries are desks with little walls surrounding them, and this goes back to the medieval monasteries where the intent was to contain and limit the sound of all of the monks reading aloud to themselves. One possible origin of the word carrel is that it is a variation on carol and choral. 

The bottom line is that writing that sounds good is good writing.

1 comment:

Larry said...

I've never thought this way actually and you kind of opened my eyes to writing in general. To write well one should probably speak from heart first and then write the thoughts down. However it may take longer time than usual writing.
I guess talented authors are just able to write their thoughts down immediately.