Jon Udell on Freshman Comp

EDITED VERSION FOLLOWS: changes made several hours later after much thought and further revelations.

When I first saw Jon Udell’s latest Infoworld weblog, I rubbed my eyes to make sure I was seeing straight: what he writes is so close to what I’ve been thinking and (intermittently) blogging about over the last few months that I thought I was seeing incontrovertible proof of telepathy. The new weblog leads to a recent Udell piece on the O’Reilly Network that fleshes out the argument in more detail. In both instances, Udell has synthesized and articulated matters of the highest importance for everyone in higher education–let’s make that for everyone in education, period, which would be, oh, everyone.

To take Udell’s analysis even further, two pieces need developing (thank goodness there’s still some work left for the rest of us!), both of them to my mind crucial elements of any comprehensive communication paradigm. One is metaphor. (I’m including analogy as a subset of metaphor.) I’d argue that the synaptic gap enacted by metaphor–and the leap-bridge enacted by understanding metaphor–is a vital part of the “getting it” Udell describes. There’s more here than the typical constructivist educational model can offer, in my view. Scaffolding is important, but new understanding must always be in terms of something already understood, and at some point that paradox yields metaphor. The other crucial element that needs developing is aesthetics. In fact, I’d call aesthetics the elephant in the room here. Ideas of elegance, even of beauty are implicit in Udell’s own prose: lovely parallelism, exquisitely timed syntax and punctuation, compelling paragraphing. Elegance is implicit in the idea of “iterative refinement,” too, just as it is in the kind of Occam’s Razor satisfaction inherent in a well-made solution to a logical problem. I suppose I’m reaching for another concept here, however, one that goes farther than precision and problem-solving. I’m looking for the elation that conveys joy, hope in living, and a moment’s respite from a broken world. I’m thinking about music, maybe even the music of the spheres. If engineering, engineering on the scale of the sublime. I don’t think of this quality as separate from precision or persuasiveness, but it’s more than just those things. (I don’t mean by “just” to downplay their critical role, either.)

All of that said, both of these Udell pieces are absolutely essential reading. Every time I read Udell’s work, I get my “favorite author” rush: you know, the kind where you think to yourself, “I must hunt up and read everything this person has written, and then read it again.” Cool. We must get this man to come speak at an EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative session. Note to self: invite this man to campus! Second note to self: make sure Udell meets Katherine Blake Yancey, whose recent CCC article on “Composition in a New Key” is also right on point in this regard. I wish Yancey’s article were online; I have the link-to urge and feel frustrated that I can’t.

Convergence. Synchronicity. To quote Yancey, “we have a moment.” Yes we do.

FURTHER EDIT: I’ve just discovered another reason for the convergence: Udell had actually read, discussed, and linked to the blog where I had initially discussed and linked back to his blog and podcast. Without a trackback, I couldn’t see that he had done so. In effect, I had been part of a conversation without knowing it. I’m used to that in the scholarly world, but the scale and pace are quite different in that world. The other wrinkle is that I need to be more diligent about tracking down all of Udell’s various writing outlets. He’s a prolific thinker and writer. Perhaps I should start thinking in terms of the Udellosphere. Favorite pull quote of the moment:

It’s exciting to live in a time when technical and cultural forces converge on a new synthesis of old themes. For networks of rich media, that time is now.

Amen, brother.

4 thoughts on “Jon Udell on Freshman Comp

  1. In his podcast the other day, Adam Curry was talking about some technical difficulties they were having and noted that years ago he originally planned to role out video on the web instead of just(!) audio. Are podcasts ready to be outdated already? Sure, they are in high demand and allow for the type of multimedia pointcasting that new tech advocates have been talking about for years. But perhaps we (including instructors, students, listeners/viewers) are ready for images to accompany what we hear (even before many of us have heard our first podcast). TiVo and other dvrs allow broadcast shows to be recorded to your laptop hard drive for alternative viewing. I wonder if that model (relying on broadcast content) will be able to keep up with video podcasts – is this the real threat to the old broadcast model? Think of the content that is already out there- ifilm already has a tremendous library, and more and more blogs/fansites/etc include video content. The time is right for individuals to provide high quality, interesting, serialized ‘vidcasts’.

    I was talking with my seven year old daughter the other day about a story that she was told by my fiance, Tamara. Tamara was a human rights lawyer in Ecuador, and told my daughter about the lawsuit she filed against Texaco on behalf of a group of indigenous Ecuadorans. My daughter was very interested, and wanted to see pictures of the rainforest and the people in the tribe. My daughter then told me that she would like to interview Tamara about her experience and film the interview to show to her friends. Then she told me how she visualized what would be shown- where Tamara would sit, how she would face the camera, and how the pictures would be shown (down to details like ‘the picture will come in from the left, and then we’ll just show Tamara.’ My daughter wanted to tell this story, and didnt limit herself to just the sketch book and crayons she takes with her everywhere she goes. Perhaps the best reason we need to reconceptualize the teaching of freshman comp (or public speaking, of course) is that our students, by virtue of their vast exposure to and experience with multimedia content over their short lives, already think in terms of more than just pen and paper. This is not a call to throw the composition book out with the bath water. But we should not be too afraid to upset the cart. This is value _added_ , I would argue, and not value lost.

    I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille. This revolution will be vidcast!

  2. All excellent points, Anand. We’re in complete agreement. My only refinement (of my initial postings) is that audio podcasting will typically be quicker and easier to produce, and will typically be more useful in mobile environments, especially if you’re doing the driving. (Or walking.) I suspect what we’ll see is a rich variety of approaches, many of them involving video, some of them audio-only, and some available both ways. For example, the McNeill-Lehrer News Hour (which now has another name, I know): I can watch in on TV, watch a vidcast, or listen to the audio in the car.

    The revolution will be multimedia and multidelivery. That’s what’s so exciting about the new paradigm: it’s not one mode replacing another, but multiple modes available to suit multiple needs. With the increasing sophistication of tools, we won’t be bound to earlier models of production, storage, or delivery. Let a thousand media bloom–and designate official channels for urgent announcements.

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  4. Pingback: “As We May Think,” Annotation, and Liberal Learning: a conversation with’ Jon Udell and Jeremy Dean | Gardner Writes

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