14.0676 function follows form?

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Sat Feb 17 2001 - 01:27:35 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 676.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Sat, 17 Feb 2001 06:20:56 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: function follows form?

    About a week ago, in the run-up to submission of a major assignment in the
    form of a Web page, I gave an hour's lecture to my first-year students on
    essay writing. I concentrated on the difference between argument and
    narrative and spent some time on elaborating the structure of the former. I
    did this because in my experience first-year students have no idea of what
    an argument is: ask them for one and they give you the story of what they
    did, blow by blow. So I not only elaborated the point, I belaboured it. At
    the end of the lecture, a student came up to me and, clearly puzzled, asked
    if she really had to submit a "formal" essay, by which she meant a
    structured argument. Since it was to be in the form of a Web page, she
    asked, shouldn't the essay be just an account of what she did in
    researching the topic?

    The question was asked by a bright, attentive student in a class of
    intelligent people. So I think that she was listening but that what I said
    appeared to her to be utterly at variance with (indeed, irrelevant to) the
    nature of the medium in which she was being asked to work. Of course we all
    know that one can put old-fashioned essays online, indeed can compose
    prose arguments with HTML. I'd be inclined simply to think that her
    question came from her somewhat limited experience of the Web -- were it
    not for the fact that argumentation in a hypertextual medium is no simple
    matter. (As some will know better than I do, a growing body of scholarship
    has taken up the problem of how to conduct an argument in a medium in which
    the reader ultimately determines the sequence of presentation. It's not at
    all obvious that an effective argument is possible.) So I am left wondering
    if my student has not told me something important to us all. Are we trying
    to swim upstream?

    Please note the immediately previous metaphor. Our own conditioning is so
    strong that even we are apt to see determinisms where they do not exist
    outside our own heads. Of course one can swim upstream, but the subtle (or
    not so subtle) force of the flowing water is against the swimmer. Is the
    Web pushing us in another direction altogether? Is it a mistake to give
    students such an assignment? Should I in the future give that lecture in
    costume (and if so, what costume should I wear)?


    Dr Willard McCarty / Senior Lecturer /
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities / King's College London /
    Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. /
    +44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/

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