13.0389 what's interesting about Web pages

From: Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Date: Wed Feb 09 2000 - 19:55:51 CUT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 389.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (74)
             Subject: what's interesting about Web pages?

       [2] From: "Price, Dan" <dprice@tui.edu> (138)
             Subject: RE: 13.0387 what's interesting about Web pages

             Date: Wed, 09 Feb 2000 19:49:00 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: what's interesting about Web pages?

    When I asked the question, "What's interesting about Web pages?", I had in
    mind the moving target of students' abilities and was wondering out loud
    toward what it was moving. In his long and helpful contribution, Patrick
    Rourke details several technical criteria, which are focused on emerging
    standards and robustness of code, and mentions some graphic design
    features. Francois Lachance pays attention to "the transactional nature of
    the encounter with cognitive artefacts", i.e. to genuine communication.
    (And when does THAT happen, even face-to-face???? Remember what Paul had to
    say on the subject....) Johanna Drucker speaks about the frontiers of the
    online archive.

    Understanding the trajectory of this moving target is important to me for
    immediate pedagogical reasons. Each year the average level of technological
    knowledge and ability of our incoming students increases. This year, for
    example, a number of them managed to get through some exercises in 1/4th of
    the allotted time -- and that allotment was based on the performance of the
    students from the year before. As a result the emphasis of instruction
    needs to shift from learning the basic ABCs, as it were, to the skills of
    putting the letters together -- and, yes, this means both the linguistic
    and the graphic skills. In consequence I am forced to ask, what are those
    skills, and how do I teach them?

    The technical. Merely writing any old HTML that produces some reasonable
    effect on screen clearly isn't good enough, and many of the students
    already know how to do that. If they don't, Microsoft Word or some other
    such tool will do it for them. Bad practice automatically! Thus Patrick
    Rourke's points about standards and other issues of robustness. The
    equivalent of Latin prose composition? There's also Javascript, though in
    our experience that is too demanding, i.e. demands too much of the year to
    get across successfully.

    Design. Basic principles of graphic design, layout, typography etc are not
    difficult to present. Symmetrical vs asymmetrical balance &c. Anything more
    ambitious begins to require talent and technical skills that are best left
    to those who are in professional training as page designers, I'd guess.
    Design also, however, verges on and overlaps with my next category.

    Rhetoric of communication. How does a page catch your attention AND
    persuade you to continue looking at it, taking in what it has to say? How
    is your attention shaped and managed? Partly this has to do with graphic
    design, but when that is kept at a simple level, what emerges most
    prominently are the issues of identity and navigation. By "identity" I mean
    how the page identifies itself as suitable for, attractive to a particular
    audience. By "navigation" I mean how the reader is orientated and how his
    or her attention is directed from one item to the next.

    Reference. This is a subdivision of rhetoric, I suppose, and particularly
    relevant to the academic audience. How does the page refer to supporting
    materials and evidence? We can and do mimic the footnote and the selected
    quotation, but when referenced data can be brought to screen (a.k.a. "live"
    data), then the situation changes fundamentally. The obvious danger is that
    the reader will get lost in the flood of evidence, either distracted or
    simply overwhelmed; when as author you want your reader to try other
    possibilities than those you present is a real question.

    Argument. Strictly speaking, the skills of argumentation are not our
    business in humanities computing, but we simply cannot depend on the
    schools to have taught these skills, and in many cases the students will
    only be beginning to learn some of them in other courses, if at all. So
    some elements we do have to get across, and it would be useful to know
    about a Strunk-and-White of basic argumentation. What is our business, it
    seems to me, is teaching those skills as they are modified by the amounts
    and kinds of evidence provided by online sources. Who knows what to do with
    sources of evidence too massive to read through, e.g. the Web? Many of our
    colleagues "solve" this problem by dismissing the Web altogether, but
    whatever value the contents may have -- many values, actually -- the Web
    does present us with a representative situation it seems to me the coming
    generations of students have to know how to cope with. Clearly, then, we
    also need to get into basic skills of doing online research -- following of
    clues, query-construction, the various kinds of search engines (e.g.
    Altavista vs Google), sampling.

    Perhaps other categories -- even before we get to the frontier that Johanna
    is exploring? Much of interest to humanities computing, that's for sure.

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
    voice: +44 (0)171 848 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 848 5081
    <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
    maui gratia

             Date: Wed, 09 Feb 2000 19:49:26 +0000
             From: "Price, Dan" <dprice@tui.edu>
             Subject: RE: 13.0387 what's interesting about Web pages

    What makes a web page interesting? Here are some musings.

    Well, it all depends. That seems pretty safe to start with. In this case,
    though, it is true. What is the assignment? How is the student trying to
    respond to the assignment.

    In the beginning, does the tutor in the subject matter realize that the
    assignment is to be presented as a web-page? The materials, presentation,
    and argument, it seems to me, can all be different in a web page format
    than in the more traditional typed (or today, of course, word-processed)
    term paper.

    The web presentation is different for a variety of reasons. First, because
    of the possible use of graphics--what kind of graphics to insert, what kind
    of background, what fonts, what size of type for different sections--each
    of these elements can aid and develop the argument or weaken it. And all
    of these are quite foreign to the traditional term papers on which most of
    us were nurtured.

    Above all, there is a substantial difference because of the ability to go
    back and forth within the posting itself. The reader can be invited into
    the middle of the posting and go back to the beginning OR be invited to
    skip ahead to a different section altogether.

    Actually when we read a journal article we sometimes do a bit of this--at
    least I do. I see a title that may be of interest. I may flip immediately
    to the back to see the conclusions that the person has drawn and see if in
    fact I want to follow the logic to get there. I may start at the front to
    see how the problem is framed. OR I may simply jump into the middle and
    then sort through either or both of the above.

    BUT I think the difference between the web posting and the print journal is
    in the physical format. When I flip to the end of the journal article, I
    am more conscious of going to the back of so many pages. When I start at
    the front of the journal article, I am more likely to be physically
    consciously of starting at the front. If I pull something from the
    Internet, I may in fact start at the middle and not immediately be aware of
    it. Or I can simply click to the end or to the beginning by the one same
    physical action --the click of the mouse. This to me is symbolic of the
    more circular thinking and less linear kind of thinking to which the web
    lends itself.

    What does this mean for humanities computing? I am not sure--that's why I
    am on the Listserver.

    But I suspect it has something to do with the manner of thinking of the
    new world that we are entering. So both the content specialist and the
    humanities have to be aware of the thought process that is going on for the
    interactive presentation. I don't think that we can automatically presume
    the same standards and objectives that we had used for print which by the
    way, wer are using for these e-mail discussions.

    Good question, again, Willard.

    Dan Price, Ph.D.
    Professor, Center for Distance Learning
    The Union Institute (800) 486 3116 ext.1222
    440 E McMillan St. (513) 861 6400 ext.1222
    Cincinnati OH 45206 FAX 513 861 9026


       -----Original Message-----
    From: Humanist Discussion Group
    Sent: Tuesday, February 08, 2000 3:58 PM
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                     Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 387.
             Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

               Date: Tue, 08 Feb 2000 20:46:56 +0000
               From: Johanna Drucker <jrd8e@virginia.edu>
               Subject: what's interesting about Web pages

    Interesting this question that you pose. Ed Ayers, in equally lucid (to
    your prose) remarks on a visit this fall posed the same conundrum, his face
    as he spoke expressing a scholar's puzzlement: What does it mean to write
    as a historian when all of the archive is available to the reader?

    A few preliminaries: I might make a substitution for "write as a historian"
    and say "write history" and pull apart the act of production from product.
    This is not just a nuance, and I think making the distinction is useful as
    part of answering the question since the shift of emphasis in the first
    example is to a "making" that is always understood as contingent and
    performative and the second presupposes some more fixed value in what is
    "made". But the two concepts, making and made, production and product,
    stand in a similar (though not the same) relation to the archive, so on to
    that more fundamental discussion (as long as the caveat stands that in a
    more detailed discussion I would want to examine the differences sketched

    The first line of a work of mine (that takes its title from the opening
    phrase) begins, "Figuring the word against the jealous ground [...]" This
    is the crux of the matter as I see it. The ground, that extensive archive
    with its inexhaustible seeming repleteness, will ALWAYS want to claim
    authority in its apparent-seeming primacy. As if IT IS ALREADY
    MEANING, and all meaning. Thus its "jealous" character, wanting to pull
    the figure that is produced as a meaningful trope, back INTO itself. Primal
    matter attempting to keep separation from occuring. I see this so vividly
    as an image -- the primordial swamp of the archive and the figure of
    interpretive meaning forming above (though this hierarchy isn't meant to
    carry moral valuation).

    Ultimately, it seems that the issue of meaning is always only resolved
    within finite limits -- that IS the lesson of structuralism, after all. So
    the archive, in some sense, has NO meaning. It awaits the act of
    "configuration" to be rendered useful. We will, I think, come to appreciate
    rhetoric more finely again as the task of constructing a persuasive,
    seductive, and engaging argument (the "figure") comes to be recognized as
    the scholarly act. The tasks of complete recovery of "evidence" (always
    accidental and incomplete) as a scholarly enterprise will be less valued,
    except in gazing towards those portions of antiquity that erode behind us
    into dust, the contours of old forms barely discernible as fragments,
    figments, of an unrecoverable totality. In Figuring the Word, one text
    "emerges" from a font of unproofed foundry type that is rearranged, a
    demonstration of this idea of the figure of a text coming out of the
    inexhaustible possibility of the archive of the type.

    So, my answer to your query comes in this form: In relation to the replete
    archive, the scholar's task is one of configuring meaning, producing an
    interpretation, as a conductor makes a performance from a score (or, as
    above, writing makes specific discourse out of the generality of the
    alphabet). It is what we have always been doing, only the claim to
    authority that the replete archive seems to presume must be qualified just
    as thoroughly as when the archive was incomplete. The interpretive act
    never attempted to replicate the essence of the archive, but to activate a
    dynamic relation among the discourse of figured meaning and the body of
    material from which it is written.

    Somehow I am NOT managing to reach closure here -- every point seems to
    open to other possibilities for understanding this dyanamic relation. I'll
    stop, but with the final suggestion that in the next generation a
    descriptive langauge for apprehending the *forms of dynamic metalanguage*
    that address the tropes of process will come to occupy us. An idea we could
    not have even grasped before being posed with this new condition.


    P.S. After a talk with Will Thomas of VCDH this morning, another more
    practical image also became clear. As the "archive" of The Valley of the
    Shadow exists, it has potential for a variety of constituencies, some of
    whom would be completely unable to use it without assistance. The
    "interface" becomes almost a custom tailored tool -- not for each person,
    but each kind of user. Thus, school teachers make "lesson plan" interfaces,
    scholars have their own search engines, and the lay public might actually
    want an "entertainment" interface to display material in a more passive
    way. The design of and conception of these interfaces will be a crucial
    part of the educational industry in forging useful connections between the
    online archives we create and the broader communities of users we wish to

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