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The Care of Content: A Red-Pen-Wielder's Perspective

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In: Articles

By Daphne Blum

Published on August 9, 2000

What is the world (wide web) coming to when even us blue-haired English teachers have something to say about the Net? After all, we're supposed to be consumed with the past--a time long before the binary code when writers still used quills, and men, unfortunately, wore tights. (Sorry for the visual.) Well, in defense of red-pen-wielders everywhere, I have to say that just ain't so. Technology, particularly that which furthers education, is our concern. And the Internet (yes, I just started a sentence with the word "and") is a source of great conflict. On the one hand, it is a storehouse from which vast amounts of knowledge may be retrieved--it provides information that may otherwise be inaccessible. On the other hand, because of its nature as an abyss, it's an illimitable source for the plagiarist. So, ironically, something that should catalyze learning is actually, in a way, simply making it easier for students not to learn.

Of course if Johnny wants to cheat then he surely doesn't need the Internet to do so. "When there is a will," you could say, "there is a way." But, conversely, it sure helps to create a will, when there is a way. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for the e-this and the e-that. In fact, as editor of an engaging "www" myself, I see first hand all the good that's to be offered. Being the editor of Infinite Race, an online gallery for unknown artists and writers, renewed my faith in the ever-slippery word "content." However, it also furthers my point.

Writers and Artists who depend upon the arts for their livelihood--or who at least hope to buy Quake with a freelance check--are always skeptical of submitting their works because of copyright issues. I want to assure them, and yet, I've seen a veritable nightmare or two myself. Last semester, for example, one of the stories I assigned to my college students was "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Three of their papers were almost identical. Lucky for me, or unlucky for them, I found the site which posts student papers--often bad student papers--after about two clicks. I was less than amused.

This semester I've disallowed the use of the Internet. Without warning my conscience became a vociferous little one. It suddenly refused to sit in the back of my head and chat quietly with repressed childhood fears. I've tried to coax it, arguing that on-line sources can not properly be cited even by students with the best intentions since, every printer being different, there is no way to supply page numbers. I've tried to reason with it. Since the Internet is a Borgesian "Book of Sand," there is almost no way to cite a source that can exist one day and vanish Atlantis-like the next. My conscience, however, refuses to fly a white flag.

Part of the problem, of course, extends from the net-versus-printed-sources argument, which has much to do with the Foucauldian issue of tradition and power. Because paper texts are associated with convention, they are also associated with status and sagacity. "Real" writers are apparently published in print, not on the web. (That was sarcasm right there.) A library has only so many shelves, the Internet is limitless. Recognition, then, is linked to being graced as one selected for print.

The only way, then, for the Internet to truly compete with the printed word is by adapting the same principle. It is only through sites that weed out the good from the bad, from the horribly ugly, that the net can gain the status it deserves. First of all, reputable, printed journals need their equivalent on-line, and journals born on-line need to follow printed journals' lead. They need to sift, need to distill, need to filter, need to be exclusive, need to proof, need to be able to say: "Gosh darn it Bob, we may have more space than Space, but your work is still not going up." Second of all, sites must maintain posterity in order to serve educational purposes; they need to stick around. What is the point of having a disappearing-act of a source? If I cannot refer back to a site then it shouldn't have existed in the first place. What a tease! Third of all, and perhaps most obvious, sites need to be good. So, while rainbow-colored dancing balls may be entertaining for some, to put it like a true English teacher, content is key. Hence, a funky-fonted chromatic cover page may excite your fourth grade Science teacher to tears, but it will do little past your lunch box days.

So, until I can get my students to understand the nature of good content, I may have to do the leg-work myself. Perhaps next semester I will let them use the Net again. But perhaps they will need to choose from a list of sites I compile, or I will need to approve of their list. A list that should include, not only on-line University projects, but inspiring sites such as Born Magazine, The Fray, and Spark.

There is a classical term in inter-art criticism--paragone--which denotes the tension between the written and visual arts. My mantra is actually quite simple: Forestall this same type of competition between the printed and on-line arts, be they written or visual. One step is to find a way to eradicate the possibility of Internet theft, i.e., plagiarism. I'm still hammering out the details of the other eleven.

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Daphne Blum is currently a college instructor, freelance writer, and editor of Infinite Race

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