Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Student/professor email boundaries

An article yesterday in the NYT (via Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber) examines the effect of email "erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance" from professors. Professors are complaining about emails they get from students asking them inane questions, or else admitting to embarrassing things (like drinking too much = can't come to class). The upshot of such emailing, the article says, is that students aren't showing as much "deference" to professors as they used to.
Christopher J. Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied technology in education, said these e-mail messages showed how students no longer deferred to their professors, perhaps because they realized that professors' expertise could rapidly become outdated.

"The deference was probably driven more by the notion that professors were infallible sources of deep knowledge," Professor Dede said, and that notion has weakened.
This conclusion doesn't make complete sense, since one of the complaints is that students are asking professors for TOO much help, or for help on issues for which they aren't expecting to be drafted into counselor duty (like what kind of notebook to buy for class). I suggest that while it's probably true that email has fostered kids sharing or asking some things they normally wouldn't (as one [the only, actually] student quoted in the article said, it's easier to email than to walk across campus to an office), email is also probably a tool that's been found useful to forward a trend that was already taking place: the division between professors and students weakening (see Daniel Drezner for more on this). Something like where professors are your "friend." I think there's a general and gradual shift, here in the States anyway, away from formally enacted power dynamics, especially in situations like academia - is it because of technology? I doubt it, but it helps it along. Any thoughts on this?

The article also mentions a trend of students criticizing either the teacher or their fellow students in emails to professors; this, of course, can be perceived of a stepping over of students' allowed roles by telling the teacher what to do. From personal experience, email has probably made students more comfortable asking for things they used to view as a big deal: paper extensions, grade raises, re-writes. What's important seems that professors and students actually communicate IN CLASS about what the professor's email style is - and I've had professors do this: don't email me on the weekend, I don't like email at all, etc. And let's not forget that not every professor finds these kinds of emails (the ones mentioned in the article) annoying; some people enjoy hearing more from their students, regardless of the modality in which that occurs, and regardless of how off-topic it might seem.

For more blogosphere discussion this article from those within the academy, see Easily Distracted, xoom, Discourse.net, and Althouse. (The comments sections are often the most interesting parts of these posts.)

divorce and CMC

for all the SMS fans in the crowd:

in saudi, traditional law dictates that should a man desire to divorce his wife, he does so by telling her, thrice, that he divorces her. it's your prototypical performative. apparently there's been a string of men texting this divorce message to their wives, thrice, and the law has no idea whether to allow it.

i can't find any articles on the topic that aren't written in arabic, but malaysia and singapore, who have similar divorce procedures, have already had to consider this in the courts.

i don't want to belittle the issue by comparing it to dumping your girlfriend over myspace, so i won't.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

talking about online gaming, styleshifting, and bell's theory of audience design.

one of my big interests in computer-mediated discourse is the notion of styleswitching, so i was really excited when i checked the penny arcade blog this morning and saw a letter to one of the authors from the president of sony online entertainment. to put it into context - penny arcade has become a concrete authority on video games, especially for a good chunk of the online gaming community, and a bad review by them is likely going to drop sales on a title. the letter is a response to one such review:

Normally I like you guys a lot.. even when you dig on us.. but it felt like you went personal on our artists. Low blow IMO

We have some of the most talented artists in the business and EQ II is a gorgeous game. Certainly art style is a subjective thing.. and if you want to bag on the art then that’s certainly your right. But unless and until you’ve had any of your art in a game calling people robots just seems weak.

John Smedley
President, Sony Online Entertainment

just considering the author, i was expecting a letter with less CMD-specific features - you know, given his probable age, his position as president, the strong likelihood that he isn't sitting around on AIM with his buddies every afternoon, etc. despite that, he's overusing those ellipses, he's missing a period, he's got that little IMO acronym. i wasn't satisfied with the thought that maybe this was just the way he typed, so i looked him up and found a question and answer session via slashdot. this time he's talking with individual gamers who don't carry the weight to affect sony sales the way penny arcade might:

There are long threads that I've started myself on our forums, but we have community representatives that are answering questions diligently on our forums already, and I'm very involved in what's being said. I'm trying to get the word out in other venues and we know that Slashdot has a wide reach into the online gamer audience in general and the SWG community. Btw, I try to personally answer all of the emails from our players that are written to me and I get a fair number of them each day from our players.

this still has a slight CMD feel to it, especially with the way he dropped a BTW in there, which makes sense considering audience design - he's speaking to gamers on both accounts. but this example is in a noticeably different style than the letter above, and these differences aren't just in the more formal lexical choices he pulls out in the Q&A. i'm really interested in the punctuation differences between the two pieces of text, and i'm wondering if there's anything significant difference between the capitalization differences of 'IMO' in the first example and 'Btw' in the second - googling any kind of CMC acronym shows that they're much more likely to be either capitalized completely or not at all. it's worth considering how he's using CMD-specific variables to index closeness or distance (power or solidarity?) with his interlocutors.

Monday, February 13, 2006

presenting on CMC at berkeley (or: the boy who lived)

keeping alive the tradition of discussing academic conferences as maybe relevant to cyber linguists, i thought i would briefly post about presenting at the annual meeting of the berkelely linguistics society this past weekend.

my paper was on the use of the ellipsis in computer-mediated discourse. a good part of the paper was descriptive in nature, talking about traditional uses that have been adapted by speakers in CMD (e.g. representing silence or hesitation) and some innovative uses that have popped up (e.g. typing dot dot dots in place of periods, commas, semi-colons, lexical conjunctions, etc., and the different grammatical and social [both situational and metaphorical] contexts in which this feature is most likely to appear). a large portion of the paper also addressed the notion of whether CMC should be approached as more closely approximating standards of written text, spoken discourse, or as a mixed modality. rather than picking sides, i argued that this was not so much a constant designation for CMC, but more likely an ideology that speakers approached differently and which shaped their discourse appropriately, and that linguistic style in CMC could be dependent on this ideology. that's how i framed a majority of the variation of ellipsis use among the speakers from my corpus, anyway.

i wasn't sure how this paper would be received at the conference, which doesn't focus on sociolinguistics that strongly in the first place, and which surely hadn't been overrun by CMC studies in the past (though the 2003 meeting had a presentation on online communications in japanese which i'm going to try to get my hands on). i was thrown into the session on discourse and pragmatics, and due to being scheduled concurrently with a major parasession on argument structures, as well as in the later part of the last day of the conference, the audience was a bit sparse. it was also completely filled with graduate students rather than tenured scholars. that put me at ease some, since it was likely that all of them were at least somewhat familiar with talking on the internet.

the presentation was well-received considering what it was and where it was, and i actively engaged with three of the eighteen particpants. there wasn't nearly as much constructive criticism as there might have been at an internet-studies conference, or even one that focused solely on social interactions and more adored the notions of styleshifting and language ideologies, but it felt kind of validating for our subfield of a subfield to present on the language of CMC at a conference on linguistics. even if i did get some completely blank stares during the beginning of my talk.

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