Yesterday’s session of SI658: Information Architecture was dedicated to the teachings of Richard Saul Wurman (author, architect, founder of TED, and all around badass). We not only got to talk about him, we got to talk to him. Well, in a round-a-bout way, as our professor Dan Klyn was the one who did the talking over speakerphone, and we mostly did the listening and the laughing.

I will say, first, that the man has presence. Some of that may have been the fact that his voice was broadcast throughout the room, but I’d guess that he comes across larger than life no matter what circumstances you meet him under. I felt awe-struck listening to him, despite the fact that my understanding of his work was rather limited before last night.

In lecture, we learned that RSW’s method of IA can be structured like this:

An adaptation of Jesse James Garrett’s “The Elements of User Experience

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It’s the bottom three layers that really struck me, because they are principles by which I try to live my life, and I was surprised to see them come up as the foundational tools set down by the father of IA. It was incredibly validating to hear someone as accomplished and successful as RSW say that this, too, is how he structures his life.

1. Innocence and Ignorance

Also known as “beginner’s mind,” this is effectively the state of entering something with humble curiosity. “What is this thing?,” you ask yourself, “Why is it here and what is it made of? Where can I learn more?” The philosophy of Ignorance and Innocence means knowing that not understanding something does not mean you’re stupid, it doesn’t mean you’ve fallen behind, it doesn’t mean you’re missing out. It means that there is so much in the world to know. And here you are, at the beginning of something, with that knowledge at your fingertips. It means you have the opportunity to learn. Learning is at the very core of living, and the Ignorance/Innocence model means more learning, and hence more living.

2. The Importance of Failure and The Opposite Paradigm

Lesson one: Failure is just a part of success. Lesson two: Always look at the opposite side of what you’re trying to do. The point, here, is that we learn and create and succeed from the things we don’t expect to learn and create and succeed from. I also think of this as: Don’t get stuck. There’s always another way to do something as long as we don’t let ourselves get in our own way. As with Ignorance and Innocence, these principles urge you to enter into things with a certain level of humility. To accept failure as unavoidable and necessary, and to be willing to look at things outside of your expectations, means being okay with the fact that you don’t have all of the answers. Or rather, it means embracing the fact that you don’t have all of the answers.

3. Confidence and Terror

My favorite quote from RSW’s digivisit is the following:

“The balance of [terror and confidence] … are the two emotions that dominate my life … they’re the two you’re not supposed to have.”

He said this, and I could not nod my head enough. My road map through life, especially with school and with my career, has generally consisted of: “I am terrified of this thing I want but damn it I’m going to do it!” So far it’s worked out pretty well. I absolutely agree with RSW that this mix of fear and ego is a taboo. We’re not supposed to admit that we’re afraid. We’re not supposed to admit that we think we’re awesome. And to admit that we’re both unsure of ourselves and  sure that we will succeed in the end? For shame! We’re not supposed to say these things, and yet most people that I know feel exactly this way. We are scared, but we push ourselves because we believe we will succeed. And then we do. Because how else would anyone ever get anything done?

The last Nugget of Awesome that I’ll share from yesterday evening was when Professor Klyn asked RSW how he felt about getting permission, to which he replied:

“I give myself permission whenever the hell I want.”

RSW is not a man who needs other people’s endorsements on the things he does. He does them for himself. He will tell you that he didn’t mean to invent Information Architecture, he was just doing something that made sense for him, something he wanted to do. And yet, a field was born. He doesn’t ask whether other people agree with what he’s doing or think his ideas have merit, he just does them and hopes for the best. What a simple yet brilliant lesson: we can’t wait for people to give us permission. We can’t wait for someone to come along and push us into what we’re supposed to do. We have to build those things for ourselves, create our own path, live our own truth. It’s not about waiting, it’s about doing.

a new chapter

September 17, 2011

Two weeks ago, I started my first semester at the University of Michigan School of Information (SI).

It has been a hell of a ride so far.

I am taking four classes: 501 Contextual Inquiry and Project Management, 502 Networked Computing, 658 Information Architecture, and 688 Fundamentals of Human Behavior. All four classes are great so far. Although the adjustment to full-time masters student is a big one, at twelve days in I have already leaned more than I expected or hoped for. And not just in class material, either.

The lessons I am gaining from networking and collaborating with peers, faculty, and various other people connected to SI are invaluable. 501 is a required class for our first semester, and is essentially a semester-long consultation job working for a real client. There are five of us in our group, and we are already learning how to work together and solve problems before we’ve even met with the organization with whom we’re working. SI also offers so many workshops, lectures, and events that there is something exciting to attend every time I turn around. The ones I’ve been able to go to have been fantastic. The staff and faculty provide a level of support and connection that I could not have made up; they listen to students and strive to give us exactly what we’re looking for from the program.

Too, the insights I am gaining about who I am and who I can become are invigorating. My brain has been spinning in a hundred different directions about where I could go with my career. At our Welcome Back picnic yesterday, Dean Mackie-Mason gave a short and inspiring speech. He reminded us that we are the information leaders of the future, and emphasized that SI is the best school around for learning to use our skills for social good. I am an idealist at heart and, to be perfectly honest, his speech made me tear up a bit. My greater goal in life has always been to make the world a better place, and I truly believe that SI is the place to help me achieve that.

This program is, so far, exactly what I have been wanting for a long time. My intuition tells me it’s only going to get better.

today is a good day

July 12, 2011

This is an experiment.

It is a thesis, a research project, a survey of Digital Humanities.

Also: a blog, a digital archive of thoughts.

It will be a printed PDF, and a bound book.

What happens when you take something meant to be traditional, something that fits neatly inside of the Academic Box, and execute it on a different platform? What happens when you smash together old-school and new media? Where do you end up when you play with the limitations and possibilities of bound forms of scholarship and unbound mediums of production?

Because I am writing on a field that is intersectional – digital + humanities – it seemed only fitting to work the digital into my humanities project. Working within a medium that we are studying allows us to understand it better, to get a deeper feel for how things play out in practical application. Blogging is only one small aspect of the digital world, but it can shed insight into what differences exist between writing a conventional essay versus writing piecemeal for the public eye.

For ENGL328 last year, where the seeds of this project were born, we read Anne Frances Wysocki’s awaywithwords: On the possibilities in unavailable designs (2005)*. She starts her essay by asking: “Under what conditions would you accept a [graduate research] paper handwritten in crayon on colored construction paper?” (I rendered a part of the subsequent assignment for that class in crayon, of course.) Wysocki ends, in part, with the following:

As we analyze and produce communications, we need to be asking not only what is expected by a particular audience in a particular context but also what they might not expect, what they might not be prepared to see. It is in the apparently unavailable designs … that we can see what beliefs and constraints are held within readily available, conventional design. (59)

Blogging, of course, has constraints – every method of authorship does. But these constraints are different from a traditional essay. The reading experience, too, is different when we choose alternate platforms. Different is something I’ve sought to highlight throughout the project. Our expectations of a word like “thesis” come apart when we choose these unavailable designs, when we try something new. It is with these ideas in mind that I have presented my thesis on my blog, in hopes that doing something different may lead us to question what we’ve been doing all along.

Enjoy.

*Wysocki’s lack of spacing in her title is intentional and meant to get her reader to question the constraint of word spacing and what effect it has on our reading experience. When I typed this out the first time, I accidentally put the spaces in – apparently my reading of it is “away with words.”

April 1, 2011

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Here is the typical method of publishing: research, research, research, write, edit, write, edit, write, edit, publish, full stop.

Here is the blog version: research/write/edit, publish, research/write/edit, publish, research/write/edit, publish, ad infinitum.

Over the last few months I’ve written a number of posts that have been published quickly upon finishing. Some I wrote over the course of a week, some in a few hours. Some contain higher volumes of outside content, some contain no links at all. Some I read numerous and varied sources to formulate, some came strictly from my own thoughts.

My writing and reading have been distributed over the course of months, as opposed to compartmentalizing them neatly into beginning – middle – end. Because this is a blog, it would make no sense to do all of my research at the start of the project, spend a month or two writing and editing, and then publish all of the posts in rapid succession at the end. That’s just not how the medium works.

Too, there are expectations of readers here that are different from an academic paper. A blog is a place from which people expect consistent content production. Whether that consistency is daily, weekly, monthly, or something more loosely defined, what is not expected is a one-shot deal, a blog that is written all at once and never updated again. Constant content (say that three times fast), not final product, is the game here.

What that also means, in regards to a project that must be turned in, is that there exists an ellipsis at the end of my thesis – a place where it “ends,” except, not really.

I am wrapping this project up because I have to – because deadlines exist – not because it is ending. It might be more appropriate to say that I’m “wrapping it up.” My future work in this space and my future investigation of / participation in the Digital Humanities will not be classified under a CRN number, but it will exist, and in the very same format as my project thus far. This is yet another thing that the muddling of publishing models achieves: a tension in value status of “complete” vs. “ongoing.”

When we complete undergraduate papers, they get turned in, graded, and handed back. They exist to be read by one and only one person: our professor. If we’re working on an especially large project, perhaps other professors or advisors will read them. Maybe if we’re proud of something we’ll send it to a friend or family member. That gives us a grand total audience count of, what? Six? Maybe eight, if we’re ambitious? I’d say that’s generous, even for our bigger papers. The more standard audience count is exactly 1, plus whatever filing cabinet or trash bin they end up in once the semester is over.

This blog, in contrast, will likely (and hopefully) be read by many people, over many years. Its digital form will last as long as I want it to, and its content will show up in any number of different Google searches or ping-backs on other sites. The ellipsis at the end of my thesis and its digital nature ensure that five or ten years from now, someone may read this very entry. Or they may read future entries, and scroll through the archives to see what I’ve said in the past. The point is that blogs are not linear or constrained to a certain timeline and a certain audience, at least in comparison to academic publications.

Which leaves me wondering: what’s the value in that?

What I mean specifically is: to what end is the ellipsis at the end of my project a  valuable part of my project? What is the value of continued and unaffiliated exploration after a grade has been given? In most cases of undergraduate work, our research ends when our classes end. We put things down and forget about them – publish, full stop. But when we explore new arenas of publishing models, ones that a) are read by people outside of our classroom, and b) lend themselves to continued production, our work never really ends. It shouldn’t, at least, if we’re committed to the form.

So the ellipsis dangles. It begs of me: “You’re not finished. You can’t be.” And I’m glad it’s there, because I’m pretty sure I’ll have plenty more to say…

potential academia

March 30, 2011

What is this, anyway?

Is this thesis of mine an essay? Is it a blog? What genre does it fall under? What happens when, in a couple of weeks, I use Blurb to turn it into a book? Can it be categorized at all?

One thing that this project has accomplished is the muddling of publishing models, of what we think of when we think “academic research paper.” This was intentional from the beginning, but the process has made clearer the difficulty in moving from something traditional to something digital. Or, rather, in defining that something. There are clear differences in how I write here, in this online space, than how I have written research papers in the past.

I wouldn’t, for instance, say “y’all” in a paper, but I say it here all the time.

I probably wouldn’t cite Google results or Urban Dictionary, but I’ve done that here, too.

There are no chapter headings, necessarily, and it can be read in any order.

Some parts of this project could be skipped entirely, if you were so inclined.

In the coming paragraphs I will cite two books, and in both cases I will link to their respective Google Book entries, instead of giving you a citation in MLA format.

When we move between genres of writing, our writing styles change. Our intentions in writing in different spaces lead to different outcomes, to different types of work. When I write a paper for class, I am writing in a very clear voice for a very specific purpose. When I write something on Twitter, my voice changes, because the point of that platform is not the same. Through his Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau demonstrates just how changeable voice really is – how you can say the same thing over and over again and sound entirely different. I could have written my thesis in the form of a hard-copy, start-at-the-beginning, 12-point-font, 5-paragraph format essay. The same information that I’ve included in my blog posts over the last few months would have become a very different creature had they been presented in a traditional genre. Then, too, I probably wouldn’t be writing this paragraph at all, as research papers don’t generally lend themselves to reflective entries.

In his essay Brief History of the Oulipo, Jean Lescure writes: “What the Oulipo intended to demonstrate was that these constraints [of literary form] are felicitous, generous, and are in fact literature itself. What it proposed was to discover new ones, under the name of structures” (173). They explored the possibilities of literature through new forms and new genres.

The Oulipo wrote “potential literature,” literature whose form existed only in the imagination.

To borrow from their ideas, I suggest this project as potential academia.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not the first person to write academically in an online space, nor am I the first person to present an academic project in digital form. However, as a part of a traditional English program, what I’m doing exists outside of the norm. When we open academia up to its own potentiality, new things happen. Here, in my blog/thesis/experiment, something new happened. An exercise in style, of sorts, a blending of mediums that has resulted in something of which the academic value remains to be seen, since I haven’t actually turned it in yet (ah yes, value. “value.” more on this next time.). Value aside, however, the point is that classification doesn’t always work the way we think it should. Our preconceived notions of form are bendable, and it is, quite frankly, exciting to bend them.

Heretofore, a thing that was published was a very specific thing. Our day and age, and the potential for different publishing models that come with it, has created a new set of possibilities that weren’t previously available to us. Again, as I’ve said before, when we let ourselves try new things, new things happen. When we drop our ideas of what something like a thesis should be, we discover what something can be. “Should,” ladies and gentleman, is an ugly word. It is a word that I think the Oulipo probably disapproved of, a word that holds us to defined expectations and a narrow belief system.

The world can be our shellfish, y’all, if we let it.

and how!

March 24, 2011

As a follow-up to my last post, some quick thoughts on a few ways that programs can incorporate the digital world into their curriculum:

Collaborative Sites: Wikis, Google Docs, etc.

+ : brings new value and ease to the dreaded group work; displays real-time results; better tracking for profs.

Text Analysis: Wordle, etc.

+ : greater understanding of work; adds a new dimension of connection with the material; fun with visualization!

Online Presence: blogs, microblogs, website-building, etc.

+ : students will need a web presence in the future; drive to produce better work when it’s public; potential conversations with people outside of class about coursework.

Social Networking: Facebook, Twitter, etc.

+ : students already know how to use these sites; exploration of different potential for a familiar form; keeping in touch outside of class may spark more connection in class.

- : more time will have to be spent teaching and learning the tools; students may resist putting their work out for the world to see; higher levels of creativity needed by both students and professors when working with new methods.

(then again, these could go in the + column, too.)

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