Archive for March, 2008

Taking an online course: ‘The Uses of Silence’

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

March 30, 2008

Uses of Silence

I enrolled in an online continuing education course called “The Uses of Silence” taught by Maggie Ross (aka Martha Reeves) for the Center for Anglican Living and Learning at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

I’ve taken several courses through CDSP, most of them in the Anglican Studies category. I latched on to this program many years ago when I signed up to read Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk.

For the most part, my classes have been stimulating and rewarding. The idea of going through six weeks of study with people whose faces I never see is a bit disconcerting, but it has advantages, too. No one gets bogged down in fashion, as it were, and most people have to think before they communicate (mostly by Blackboard messages and e-mails). At any rate, I’m using the course as an excuse to write something for this blog.

I’ve always been convinced that most of us–especially those who spend their lives in the media–are challenged by silence; in fact, many are frightened and made anxious by it.

Certainly, Maggie Ross is not one of those. She recently placed “Silence” in the Museum of Curiosity, a clever, comical, and conspiratorial BBC radio program. I say it’s conspiratorial because under its guise of comedy and light-hearted banter, it weighs heavy in its considerations. Of course, it is restricted by the superficiality it presses into 30 or so minutes.

Speaking as Martha Reeves on the March 26 program, Ross raised some interesting ideas and challenges–not only regarding silence but also regarding her own theological stance on things such as the definition of God and whether or not she believes that Jesus was the “Son of God.”

Stop back here for further reflections.

Browsing and reading in the age of the hyperlink

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

March 27, 2008

Reading and the Internet:

Browsing and Reading in the Age of the Hyperlink


This column was originally posted on January 2, 2005, as part of a collection of columns at a now retired site.

ANNAPOLIS, MD — (January 2005) —
Remember the time you turned to the dictionary to look up a word and got sidetracked by another word or words along the way, eventually closing the book before finding the word you sought in the first place?

There’s a subtle pattern in this activity that’s important to understanding the modern mind of adolescence, and especially the mind of the adolescent reader.

That you are reading this column indicates, I suspect, that you are one of those persons who picks up a newspaper or goes online for leisure, sits, and relaxes by scanning some generally innocuous words. O.K., so you’re doing so now with a computer, but, admit it, you still like to read the newspaper.

Modern adolescents are far less likely to engage in such activity.

A study of young readers and where they get their news—a study now almost a decade old— indicates that young adult readers claim to read the newspaper about three times a week, and that’s the high reader group.

You’ve heard it from many quarters, no doubt, especially from educators, that today’s teens simply do not read. It’s wrong to call them illiterate, but they may be a-literate; that is, they know how to read but prefer not to.

That assertion, however, needs careful elaboration. High school students do not read the things they are assigned to read by teachers.

They are indifferent—notoriously indifferent—to reading anything that they are assigned to read or ordered to read by others.

They choose to go against most things intellectual that have an adult flavor, and that includes the adult habit of keeping up on the news through newspapers. Most teenagers, faced with the prospect of a fresh newspaper newly delivered and still encased in its plastic wrap, will pull out the comic section or the sports section–just as most adults did when they were learning to read the newspaper.

Nevertheless, the assertion that teenagers do not read is blatantly untrue!

Their reading, however, is more often than not in a form that many adults are only beginning to experience and understand. (As you are because you’ve come to this Web site to read what is basically an opinion column similar to many in the daily newspaper. To grasp what I’m arguing here, consider how you arrived at this Web site!)

When I say teenagers are reading in a different manner, I speak of a reading that depends heavily on hyperlinks, and hyperlinks are the basic stepping stones of reading on the Internet

Reading on the Internet is, I think, much like getting caught up in the exploration of words while looking up a specific word in the dictionary. One just never knows where the trail is leading, and while one has some control over which hyperlinks to follow, there is a path that becomes almost irretrievable once the first two or three links are opened.

In the old days of newspapering, the rigid principal of the inverted pyramid guided journalists, and while that principal is still at work in many news stories, its rigidity has been greatly relaxed. According to the inverted pyramid model, the most important elements of a story must appear in the first few paragraphs; in fact, the opening paragraph is to contain most of what is determined to be “new.” Second and third paragraphs become supporting or buttressing paragraphs of what was introduced in the lead. For many people confronting the daily newspaper, reading beyond the first few paragraphs is unnecessary.

By virtue of its physical presentation to readers, the Internet also demands a “lead” and supporting information below. Many of the popular search engines charge a premium for the upper echelons of their listings; thus, one sees “sponsored results” topping off many search listings. These essentially are nothing more than paid-for leads.

Similarly, most news sites on the World Wide Web provide simply a lead to the story, often with a headline that is a hyperlink. One reads the lead and clicks the hyperlink to get to the story in its fullness.

The point of the matter is this: What we have known as “browsing” a newspaper (or even the library shelves, for that matter) has been revolutionized by the Internet and the Web. Browsing is no longer a leisurely scan or a chance glance; instead, it has become a kind of electronic hopscotch, a multiple checker game jump on an unlimited board with no squares.

The reading skills of a newspaper reader and an Internet reader are essentially identical, but the dynamics are miles—and generations—apart.

Hyperlinks, virtually unknown two decades ago, have become commonplace, not only in advertising and popular literature such as magazines but in scholarly research. Look at a bibliography on a scholarly paper that’s been written in the past five years. There’s a good chance it has more hyperlinks than references to books.

Teenagers haven’t stopped reading; they’ve simply stopped reading the way most adults were taught to read. Once we grasp this, we may recognize that the hyperlink is as revolutionary as the double helix.

The other side—perhaps the frightening side—of this sort of reading, of course, is that it tends to randomness and disorganization; some might even say to chaos.

Nevertheless, there are those who argue that genuine learning emerges more from chaos than from organization! But that’s another avenue to explore, and I haven’t reached that hyperlink just yet.

So, you wanna be a writer!

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

March 4, 2007

(Editor’s Note: This article is adapted slightly from a column written in 2000 and published by “The American Reporter,” an online daily newspaper and reprinted in Connections, a publication of the Annapolis Area Christian School [Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 2003]. It was written before the writer began teaching at Annapolis Area Christian High School, and is a response to the authentic e-mail that begins the piece.)

So, you’re a writer wannabe!

Dear Editor:
I’m almost 14 and want to start a serious writing career. Can you please help me decide the best courses to take in High School to help me get a head start on my career? I would really appreciate it alot.
Thanks, 555.

Dear 555:

You ask a difficult question because “courses” are tough to choose to plan a specific career. Sometimes a course that seems least likely to help you turns out to be the best course for what you need or want. Even math courses can help a writer!

My advice has three steps (perhaps four):

Step 1: Read everything you can get hold of or are assigned to read at school.
Step 2: Read some more.
Step 3: Read even more. Don’t eliminate any area.

Read in science, literature, religion, computers, sports, geography, poetry (especially poetry), business, economics, political science, world history, journalism, romance (go easy on that one), science fiction, psychology, medicine. Read style books and grammar books (and don’t use words such as “alot”). Make the dictionary the most important book you own, after The Holy Bible, and learn how to truly read both books.

Read lots of magazines. Learn your way around your school library, the public library, and any college libraries close to where you live. Learn your way around the libraries with sites on the World Wide Web. Browse in every library. Read the magazines in the library. Become a friend of librarians; they may be the most valuable teachers you’ll have at school.

Read when you’re in the doctor’s office; read in the dentist’s or orthodontist’s office; read when you’re waiting to have your hair cut. Read in the bathroom. Occasionally, you can skip the shower and take a bath, just be sure to read when you’re in the bathtub.

Learn a foreign language (several, if you can), and read about the countries where that language is spoken. Don’t let anyone tell you there is such a thing as a “dead” language. Books keep languages such as Latin, New Testament Greek, Ancient Hebrew and Ugaritic alive. Learn other “languages” such as Morse code and American Sign Language. Study Native American languages, lots of them are hidden in the names and places you may travel to in the United States. Learn the languages of computers and especially the language of statistics.

You get the picture. Oh, yes, look at lots of pictures in books and magazines, too. Read books about photojournalism. Read books of cartoons, especially older ones. Don’t let “Calvin and Hobbes” or “Garfield” keep you from Thomas Nast or James Thurber. Did you know there is a Web site that gives access to every cartoon ever published in the New Yorker magazine, one of the most literary magazines ever published? []

At those tough times when you’ve got “nothin’ to do,” and you’re tempted to drop into a soft couch and watch TV — don’t! Read instead. Make it a habit that you read before watching television. Read cereal boxes; read junk mail; read billboards; read road signs; read CD and DVD cases; read movie credits. Reread books you read in grade school. If you have younger brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces or neighbors, read to them or read with them.

Read maps. Oh! Please read maps, and don’t just read them when you have to find directions to get somewhere. Study them, memorize them, and keep them close to other things you are reading so you can understand expressions such as “the road to Mandalay,” and “the snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “a shooting in Sarajevo.” You never know where maps may lead you.

Set aside a regular time to write. Keep a journal. Write for yourself not for anyone else (unless it’s an assignment). Share your writing with an older person you trust: a teacher, a parent, an older brother or sister, even a pastor or priest or another thinker or writer you may know. Ask them not only to read your stuff but also to edit it. Learn to trust good critics and not rely on people you know simply to say, “This is good,” or “I like it.”

Send your poems, short stories, essays, plays or news and feature articles to contests (you can find them listed in magazines such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer, or Poets & Writers) or to magazines that might publish them. Write for your school paper. Write for your school yearbook. Write for your school literary magazine. Write for your church or club or team.

Never, never, never pay to have someone read your writing or to publish your writing. Publications are supposed to pay you for your writing, even if they pay only in copies of what you write. At your stage, don’t write with an eye on getting paid. An old adage applies to writing careers: Do what you love to do, the money will come later.

Don’t worry about special courses. Concentrate on the courses you’re required to take and read everything you’re assigned. Write personal reactions in your journal to what you read. Go back over your reactions every so often and write later reactions to how you reacted the first time you wrote about a particular topic in your journal. Write poems and short stories based on your journal reactions. Take your journal everywhere you go and write in it about everything that happens to you or that you observe.

Make every conversation a kind of interview. Try to learn as much as you can about the people you meet. Make notes on what you see and hear and understand about them.

If you can afford it, take a summer writing workshop–one sponsored at a local college is best, I think–but don’t spend a lot of money on this and don’t worry if it’s filled with old people. You can interview them and write about them. Two books that were written as a result of chance conversations are Schindler’s List and The Life of Pi, last year’s winner of Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize.

When it’s time for you to go to college, don’t look only at writing programs. Get a good general liberal arts education in a subject field you love, and if you still want to be a writer, think about getting a master’s degree in writing.

Remember that a writer emerges from a group of people who write much more frequently than from a group of people who only study writing. Even if you don’t wind up becoming a professional writer, you’ll be better at what you do because you write carefully and well.

Pray! Not that you’ll become a writer, but that you’ll grow in wisdom and grace as you grow in years. Try writing prayers. Read others’ prayers.

Show this email to a teacher or some other mentor that you trust and find out if they agree with what I’m telling you. This is what I would do if I were about to turn 14 and wanted to become a writer.

Don’t stop thinking. Don’t stop writing. Most of all, don’t stop reading.

My best wishes to you and your future.