My research (which relies heavily on Lave & Wenger’s Community of Practice, less so on Kress’s Multimodality, throw in some mobility theory) has me thinking in terms of mediation and transformation. Essentially, everything we interact with also interacts on us. This process is generally quite subtle and ubiquitous to the point of being barely detectable, but it is a highly significant aspect of learning anywhere. Each individual, culture, tool, or ‘thing’ we interact with allows us to perceive meaning in different ways. We use language to present meaning, but by learning language (new ways of saying new things, or new ways of saying old things) we utterly change our capacity for understanding. The language itself opens up new possibilities for not only expression, but for understanding our worlds. It changes us, mediates us.
Writing Tools as Mediating Influences: Scrivener
Language is one of the most common choices for illustrating this type of mediation (see Vygotsky, Foucault, Deleuze, et al), but I wanted to focus briefly on a much more pragmatic example, namely a writing tool that I have fallen in love with. The tools I use when I write vary, but generally depend on the kind of writing I am doing. For this blog, I generally type right into the blog post and do some cursory edits and then post. WordPress is my word processor and my writing reflects the constraints and affordances that WordPress allows. Here is some (meta) evidence.
For work or for school, I used to use Google Docs/Drive, download a Word copy, and send it along to whomever needed/wanted to see it. I have pulled away from Google Docs and transitioned almost exclusively to Dropbox (as a storage mechanism), which in turn has me refocusing my energies on Microsoft Word (and I use a Mac). I don’t mind Word (not that adamant about many of these tools, really) and have been using it for my PhD thesis to date (roughly 60-70 pages so far). I notice an explosion of activity when I first start writing, then a general lull as the sheer mass of the writing seems to overwhelm not only my structure (section breaks, title pages, etc.), but the structure of the tool itself. It begins to descend, by the sheer force of its own mass, into chaos. I tend to internalize this situation and say it is my shoddy writing or lack of organization (both possibly true), but this writing is being mediated through the tool itself and the tool itself (Word) is designed for shorter texts (as most writing is of the 1-2 page variety). The tool begins to define the work and the work in turn wants to define the tool (by pushing on its seams).
So, in a quest for structure and comprehension of what I have actually written, I turn to Scrivener, a tool available for both Mac and Windows as a standalone desktop application. It looks simple enough, indeed is simple enough, but it immediately mediates my writing and the structure begins to reveal itself. It is most useful for longer documents, when things naturally start breaking out into chapters, sections, and when structure itself (organization of the writing) is at a premium. So within minutes of porting the Word document to Scrivener, chapter breaks and supporting structures started to reveal themselves, I saw transitions that needed including or removed, supporting points (or the lack thereof) jumped out from the simple tree outline. A new tool, one designed to deal with larger texts, revealed possibilities that I wouldn’t have caught in Word. I would have missed them amid all the scrolling. In Scrivener, the structure is king and there it stays off to the left, always in view, always reminding you that these points are the key to making sense out of all this theory, data, and writing. So here is a peek:
Like I said, looks simple enough, but the changes to my writing were significant. The tool effects the knowledge, the writing, and the dissemination, so choose these tools well. Consider it almost an extension of information literacy; knowing which tools effect which modes of communication in which ways and choosing appropriately. There isn’t a knock against Microsoft Word; I could have ‘easily’ finished this completely using that tool. But there are taxes on that loyalty to a tool; your structure is greatly effected (or mediated).
Images as Inspiration
In the above screenshot, you might have noticed that image that has almost nothing to do with the text below it. This is an intentional inclusion, but it has little to do with the text. I intentionally inject images here and there, images that relate to the writing as a whole rather than the particular section I am working on. For this research, I have images scattered on almost every page (every chapter or section off to the left on the Scrivener screenshot) and they all more or less relate to the Humanities, Korea, or mobile technology. I scatter them throughout so I am reminded of my overall focus (simultaneously writing detail and focusing on a larger structure), so I don’t stray too far off-topic, and so I am inspired. Imagery in the text and audio from my laptop (Jonsi & Alex’s “Daniell in the Sea” on repeat right now) provide an inspiring canvas on which to port these ideas and concepts into a textual enterprise. This is a significant mediation, this process of perpetual transformation and recontextualization (my ideas into text, switching modes) all while being contextualized with this imagery and this music.
So, there they are, an image on every page. When I struggle to find words, I glance at them and their stark colors, their regal dress, their iconic positioning, and my writing structure is reinforced. The images themselves are supremely structured compositions and perhaps a bit of that structure transfers to my writing. Perhaps I am looking to present with such audacity as these images do. I could go on, but I thought it is a nice trick for anyone attempting to write a long paper. It never made much sense to me to stare absently at a page, a page that you will fill with text. Almost as if the text becomes the ‘thing’ under observation itself, it becomes its own reason. It also never made much sense to exclusively rely on text when your topic isn’t exclusively text. I am dealing with the Humanities, mobile technology, Korea, etc. and all of these things exist in visual form (among other forms). Why would I bother, especially at this writing and mode conversion stage (switching from idea to text), to not let images do some of the talking? Why would I not let their compositions inspire me? Especially as my subject is multimedia, visual mediums, and the like. So drop a few images in there to get the creative blood flowing; let them inspire you.