The Craft of Writing

In Thoughts, Travels, Treasures on October 10, 2015 at 12:04 pm

I wanted to share a story that I experienced during the past summer holidays. We visited York (old, not New), and in the middle of the shopping high street sat a guy with a folding table and a mechanical typewriter. Now in this day and age, that is an unusual sight, so I had a closer look. And as my son (8 yrs old now) had never seen a typewriter, I took him over to have a look.

The poet/writer/printer in York

The poet/writer/printer in York

Turns out he was a writer/poet, who for a negotiable fee would write you a poem to take home. So I explained to him how my son did not have a clue what a typewriter was, or what it was for, so I would pay him a tenner for a poem about a typewriter. He looked a bit puzzled, asked what my son’s name was, looked at him a bit more, and then set to it, while we started a walk around the city.

Here is what he came up with, typed on brown paper and folded neatly into a likewise brown envelope:

The poem of York

The poem of York

I found this approach a very nice idea: to treat writing as a true craft as well as an art, working a handwritten draft in his notebook and then transferring the finished product into true print. And the poem with an embedded invitation to join the guild was well worth the money spent, I thought.

The freedom of learning

In Thoughts on June 9, 2015 at 7:16 am

I have just read an article in Wired UK, in which Jonathan Haber, Harvard faculty member and expert on MOOCs (also title of his dissertation/book) mounts a defence of open learning methods such as MOOCs. I wanted to second and expand this plea.
If you do not know what a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) is, it is a new form of teaching relying on materials presented online (multimedia, a lot of video lectures) that are discussed and processed through a mix of discussions, online quizzes, essays and discussions. The massive part relates to the enrolment figures, which frequently reach into the tens of thousands.
Necessary consequence of this format is, that obviously the staff cannot personally keep tabs on every student. So essays are graded by peer review, discussions are only loosely moderated, mostly to prevent trolls from wrecking the place, and a lot of the processes are automated.
Haber now detects, and he is much closer to the educational discussion on the subject than I am, a backlash mostly citing the very low graduation rates. But that is where I think the fallacy already starts. To illustrate this, I would like to share a bit of my personal MOOC history.
I have participated in a number of MOOCs ranging from Gamification over Writing and Archaeology to Counter-Terrorism. Yes, I have given up on MOOCs that I did not like, an easy option given the zero fee associated with this open form of learning. But at least the way I am using it, the efficiency of the platform is irrelevant. The courses I have seen feature academic experts, who teach their favourite subject and in the process draw on a global audience to build an at least transient community of practice. A professor from Colorado crowd-sourced an eclectic mix of people, not all of whom spoke Spanish, to read and transcribe antique Spanish church records to bring the mediaeval city and community of Plasencia back to life. A team from Zurich invited experts in different fields to explore how Viking sagas and artwork use space in their message, and how that explains their worldview.
Now I am an engineer by training, and as you can see, these subjects having nothing to do with continuing professional development. I am using MOOCs to explore subjects because they are interesting (or at least seem so at first glance). The relatively inexpensive teaching methods allows academics to teach what they love and experiment with method, content and ideas in the process. And they allow me to invest time and effort into developing my personality, rather than my career. This, even time 500, rather than 20000 is worth it, no matter how many “finished products” leave the process at the end.

PowerPoint and its place in the world

In Geek Alert, Thoughts on July 30, 2014 at 10:52 am

The knowledge management expert David Gurteen recently asked in his newsletter, whether PowerPoint was evil, or a strategic tool, based on a number of articles recently published on the subject. That prompted some thought on my side, especially as I have been collecting some articles on the subject for a while now and also keep thinking about effective ways of asymmetric face-to-face communication, both for private and professional reasons. Public speaking, visualization of ideas and concepts, new media &c are things that will keep people busy for a long time. And whoever calls the tune, the piper will get paid in the end 🙂 So here is the response to David’s article, as posted in his LinkedIn group:

I thought I should respond to the question asked in the last Gurteen newsletter regarding the evil or blessing of PowerPoint in modern business life. Lot has been said on how visual splendour covers intellectual void in modern presentations. My favourite on that subject is this article from the New York Times, dealing with the use of PowerPoint in the military (and I love the expression of the PowerPoint Ranger)


But I think what makes a better point is this piece (again in German, what is it with these Germans and presentations?)


about a game politely called buzzword bingo.

To lament the quality of contemporary presentations, the slide decks rushing by at a speed that makes the pictures moving and the cognitive laziness of today’s students working only with the provided slide decks is maybe justified, but blaming it on the medium does not seem fair to me.

What was before (i.e. when I was in school and uni in the 80ies and 90ies)? Blackboards. Professor starts writing while talking into a microphone suspended from his neck, starting top left and ending bottom right, followed by a pause for wiping and starting over. More advanced presenter would use actual transparent slides, either photographic from a magazine, or as a blackboard replacement on an overhead projector. That is why slides are still called slide, although they don’t. Students would trade in scripts, i. e. write-ups either hand-written and photocopied or, where there were enlightened and technologically savvy student unions or professors, typed and printed.

How has PowerPoint changed that? It has made the blackboard faster by having the presentation laid out beforehand. It also has made the presentation more colourful that the average four colours of chalk. It has retained the capability of the slide projector to introduce photographic material. And it has improved the capability of the overhead projector to present animated content through overlays. Technically more refined, but more or less the same.

Now the question that really matters: does it improve the content? No! A thirty minute talk about Introduction to BS will be still the same. Cognitively, providing the slide deck to participants might encourage them not to take notes, which will negatively affect the retention of the contents. On the other hand, a clear, simple picture will massively improve the understanding of a concept. For more on that, see Dan Roam, The Back of a Napkin.

I think what matters is rhetorical training combined with the inside that PowerPoint is your slave (or minion, if you want to stick with the evil theme), not the other way round.