Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some Thoughts on Reseach Blogging

I've been asked to compare and contrast conventional research writing with the research blog writing I've done over the course of this term.  While I don't think there's a much better feeling than finally being able to print and staple a well-done, tangible research paper, I've learned that the process of documenting my research on a blog has a great deal of advantages.

To begin with, research blogging gave me the chance to explore issues and concepts that in a conventional paper would seem tangential.  My favorite part of the whole blogging experience was being able to embed and hyperlink to my sources.  Instead of having to explain the background behind a source I was using, I could just SHOW the readers what it was all about and focus more fully on analysis. I was able to formulate a full-bodied thesis statement and to explore as much as I wanted to within it.  The more complex my ideas were, I learned, the more discussion I fostered and the more I was helped in reaching a conclusion.  Several of my most meaningful blog posts (here, here, here,and here) were totally the result of the comments my classmates gave me, namely Heather, Ben, Neal, and James.  The element of camaraderie that developed between my classmates and I as we all worked together to create solid research blogs for each other was something I haven't experienced in a writing class before, and I think it was essential to my success.

It was also exciting to be working on a project that was not only for my classmates to read and comment on, but for the online learning community as a whole.  I feel like, through this blog, I've been able to make an actual contribution for actual people, instead of just an ink and paper end product that will inevitably end up in a garbage can.  This is research that I can share with others and that I can easily re-access for the rest of my college career.  I feel like this very neatly falls into the third institutional objective of Brigham Young University- to "extend the blessings of learning to members of the Church in all parts of the world."  By openly communicating what I've learned, other students will be able to reap the benefits of it, and not just at BYU, and not just those that are members of the Church.  I feel more accomplished as my research blog nears its conclusion than I would if I had just turned in a freshly printed research paper.  And that's saying something.

Because my research blog has given me the opportunity to so fully delve into my topic, at times I felt completely overwhelmed.  There was so much content for me to use, and with the perks of being able to embed and hyperlink sources, I was at times at a total loss for what to do.  Even as this project is concluding, I'm still thinking back to all of the things I didn't get to fully analyze, all the avenues I wasn't able to explore, and all of the posts I didn't get to write.  I guess that there is a certain element of this in every research project, but with the online world literally at my fingertips, its especially overwhelming.  The biggest disadvantage of a research blog is that the line between process and product is blurred in a confusing and often frustrating way.    

Analyzing "Katherine Writes"

As part of the final for my English 295 class, I've been assigned to analyze my classmate Katherine's blog based on the criteria our professor Gideon Burton will be grading our research blogs on.  Katherine's blog addresses the topic of the digital sublime and whether or not "access to limitless knowledge via the internet removes the sense of wonder for the world".  

Strong Points
Katherine's topic was interesting and her ideas were well-researched.  She did an excellent job of fulfilling the Analysis criterion by effectively summarizing, appropriately quoting, and properly evaluating a variety of sources.  She used poems by several different Romantic authors that tied into her theories on the digital sublime, and she also analyzed books(American Technological Sublime, On The Sublime and Beautiful), current events (BP oil spill), online tools (, and events that related to her topic.  For this reason, she also did well meeting the Currency/History, Links, and Sources criteria.  She made a good faith effort to engage others who are researching similar topics (as she narrated in this post), and to avoid isolated expression.  I believe she was able to make a genuine contribution to the learning community.   
Something I was impressed by as I read Katherine's blog was her writing style.  Her blog posts were informal enough that I enjoyed reading them, but scholarly enough to sound legitimate.  She did well communicating her personality through her blog, both through the design and layout of her blog and through her writing as she communicated her interest in and love for the environment.  She did a wonderful job of narrating what the research process was like for her, and wasn't afraid to communicate when she was overwhelmed or frustrated by her project.  I could see how her research developed very clearly.  She also met the Media criterion by effectively employing images to complement her posts and using video footage of the BP oil spill to illustrate a powerful point.

Although Katherine excelled at narrating the research process, I found myself wishing that she had written more conclusive, expository blog posts.  I felt like, at times, her posts seemed unrelated to each other and to her thesis overall.  This probably would have been eliminated if she had used the hub post/spokes model of blogging, where a central blog post in which she thoroughly explains her thesis statement is linked to blog posts which directly support it. 

Overall, however, I think that Katherine's blog exemplifies what the goal of this class was.  She found a topic that was rooted in literature and used it to analyze the way technology affects our world.  Her posts were well-written and interesting to read.  I appreciated how candid she was in her writing and how thorough she was in her research.     

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Textual Analysis: Twin Compasses (Conclusions)

Throughout the course of this blog, I've been trying to prove that technology has made the metaphysical become physical, using the example of John Donne's poem, "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" and comparing it to modern relationships.  So, it is very timely that today, as this blog is reaching its end and I'm finishing up my textual analysis of the poem, I'm analyzing the last few stanzas, in which Donne compares a long-distance relationship to a draftsman's compass. They read as follows:

"If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.
And though it in the centre sit, 
Yet, when the other far doth roam, 
It leans, and hearkens after it, 
And grows erect, as that comes home. 
Such wilt thou be to me, who must, 
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just, 
And makes me end where I begun."

Donne is asserting that even though he and his wife are separated, their metaphysical and spiritual connection allows them to still be a constant presence in the other's life.  Not only will they be present, though, but he writes that they also will "lean" and "hearken" after each other, and have an actual effect on each other.  This is because, like the feet of a compass, they are linked together.  

Fast forward four hundred years, and we have technology like text messaging, email, Skype, FaceTime, and Facebook to link people together in ways that were formerly only conceptual.  People still lean and hearken after each other, just like Donne did, but now they can effectively and conveniently communicate while they do it.  I've been analyzing whether or not this makes our relationships more or less meaningful, and I've concluded that, if they have a physical and realistic basis, our relationships are greatly enriched by technology.

Ultimately, though, there is an element of romantic connection that can never be replicated by technology, no matter how advanced it gets.  This is where transcendence comes into play.   I'm certain John Donne would agree that regardless of circumstance or physical location, love can thrive if both people are unselfish, genuine, and honest.  Despite how far we've come in making the metaphysical become physical, our spiritual natures as human beings will continue to yearn for a connection that transcends distance, obstacles, and even technology.  Social media, although beneficial, won't make our "circles just", or encourage us to "come home".  Only the "refined" love John Donne writes about can do this.  Only love will be able to do this, no matter how well technology succeeds in reducing the distances we "roam".                  

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Jack Donne vs. Dr. Donne

John Donne's poetry shows that he was clearly a master of paradox.  We know that he exemplified the metaphysical conceit, in which tenuous comparisons are made to create stylistic and conceptual metaphors.  So it is especially interesting that he not only wrote about paradoxes, but also lived them.  In fact, his life and work can be divided into two very contradictory periods.  As a youth, he was Jack Donne, a womanizer and writer of bawdy poetry, but in his later years, he adopted the persona of Dr. Donne, a reputable and surprisingly serious metaphysical poet who wrote about his fidelity to his wife and his spiritual conviction.  This paradox is effectively summed up in an essay I found that says, "he retrospectively divided his life into two roles: a youthful Jack Donne whose "Mistresse" was poetry and now a mature Dr. Donne whose "wyfe" is divinity."

So, since we're dealing with the man who best "expressed the human tendency to make creative comparisons", I'd like to extend the paradox he lived in his life to the paradox presented by new media.

Jack Donne
Jack Donne used his talent at creating brilliant metaphors to write poetry that was often a little bit sexually explicit and definitely irreverent.  He wrote entertaining and bawdy poems that, while explicit, were so thoroughly couched in metaphor that he never got in serious trouble.  There is an undeniably large amount of content on the internet which is, at best, "bawdy" and which also veils its true explicitness.  Take, for example, chatroulette, a website notorious for inappropriate content that downplays it by emphasizing how fascinating it is to be able to make random connections with people all across the world.

This weird, exhibitionist phenomenon has effected the nature of online communication in an interesting yet undeniably perverse way, as documented in this article.  There are definitely parallels between the darker, sexual aspects of new media and Jack Donne's explicit poetry, and there are critics for both that would argue that the sexual explicitness isn't as harmful as it may seem.  But the truth remains that sites like chatroulette only serve to delegitimize the capacity technology has to uplfit us.  The same is true of Donne's poetry.  Some of it is inappropriate and maybe just plain icky, but a far more notable amount is beautiful and inspiring.  It is a good thing Donne recognized this later in his life.

Dr. Donne
Later in life, John Donne rejected his playboy ways, embraced religion,  and adopted the pseudonym of Dr. Donne.  He used his talent at creating unexpected metaphors to characterize love and spirituality in ways that people had never done before.  For instance, in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning", the text I'm studying for this class, he compares two people in love to the feet on a draftsman's compass, saying that they'll "lean and hearken" after each other.  I think it is perfectly valid to say that he revolutionized the way people look at relationships, at least from a rhetorical point of view.

Now, on my last post I shared the commercial for the new Apple iPhone feature called FaceTime.  The jury's still out on whether or not it has really revolutionized communication like it is hyped up to do, but it is undeniable that the technology will profound affect the way we discuss relationships and social media in the future. There are a great deal of parallels between the ways in which Dr. Donne's poetry affected the way relationships are percieved in literature and the ways in which advances like FaceTime affect how relationships are discussed scientifically.

Ultimately, the take away from studying this paradox is this.  Technology undeniably plays a role in how we communicate with the people we love.  If we only take advantage of the superficial, inappropriate parts of it, our relationships will be damaged.  But if we utilize the best that new media tools have to offer, and separate ourselves from the "sublunary" stuff, technology has the capacity to enrich and entirely revolutionize how we show our love to each other.  

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Textual Analysis: Gold to Aery Thinness Beat (What it Means to be Plugged In)

This is part three of my textual analysis of John Donne's poem "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning".  Today, I'm focusing just on one stanza (my favorite) to prove that, when used appropriately, new media tools can greatly enrich our relationships with loved ones.  The stanza reads,

 "Our two souls therefore, which are one, 
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion
Like gold to aery thinness beat."

John Donne was really fascinated with alchemy, so it makes sense that he used gold as a metaphor here.  If we keep in mind that he viewed gold as incredibly precious and valuable, this metaphor becomes even more powerful.  Beaten-out gold never breaks or separates, no matter how far it is stretched.  The same, Donne insists, is true of couples that are truly spiritually connected.  Love that is "refined" is able to endure no matter the distance between two people.  

Now, check out this video.

How's that for an "expansion" of "two souls, which are one"?  It is hard to deny the incredible capacity new media has to keep us connected to the people we love.  And, as this video shows, that doesn't necessarily mean that our ability for person-to-person communication is hindered.  In fact, I'd argue that, barring the extremes (thanks, Ben) I talked about in my last post, new media facilitates real human contact in an unprecedented way.  

I talked about this in an earlier post when I addressed the concept of ambient awareness.  The more I've researched, the more confident I've become in my conclusion that "the ability lovers have in today's society to be not just emotionally and metaphorically but literally connected to their partner through text messages and other communication tools is an exemplification of Donne's metaphysical ideal of what a long-distance relationship should be".  Being spiritually and more or less literally "plugged in" to the lives of the people we love, not matter the circumstances, profoundly deepens our capacity to love them.

New media makes it so that our relationships can actually be like "gold to aery thinness beat".  Being plugged in makes it so that we never have to be apart from the people we love, regardless of physical distance.  This is in very much the same way that Donne wrote about never being truly apart from his wife.  And this is one of many ways in which technology has made the metaphysical become physical.        

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Textual Analysis: Sublunary Lover's Love (The Importance of "Things as They Really Are")

Continuing with my textual analysis of John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning", I'm using the poem to further prove that technology has made the metaphysical become physical by helping us to understand the value of reality.  The stanzas I'm focusing on today say,

"Dull sublunary lovers' love  
 —Whose soul is sense—cannot admit  
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove                                     
The thing which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,  
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss."

Donne's point was that relationships that are contingent upon physical closeness-"elemented" by it"-are inferior to relationships that are "so much refined" that they are transcendent of the need for physical proximity.  This, of course, is a pretty popular theme in metaphysical poetry.  It's also a concept that's widely idealized in our society.  

But I'm going to argue that this need to transcend physical closeness in relationships is no longer necessary, or even ideal.  I've blogged about this before, and what I concluded is that every relationship is now transcendent of physical constraints, thanks to technology.  This doesn't mean that all of our relationships are beautiful, metaphysical love-fests, but it means that we need to redefine what makes our relationships legitimate. 

Elder David A. Bednar, an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke last year in a talk entitled "Things as They Really Are" about the danger of new media in preventing us from separating the virtuality from reality.  He says,

 "If the adversary cannot entice us to misuse our physical bodies, then one of his most potent tactics is to beguile you and me as embodied spirits to disconnect gradually and physically from things as they really are. In essence, he encourages us to think and act as if we were in our premortal, unembodied state. And, if we let him, he can cunningly employ some aspects of modern technology to accomplish his purposes. Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, ear buds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication. Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience."

I touched on this in my last post when I mentioned the type of couple that's constantly plugged in and self-disclosing, but I want to emphasize that while the self-awareness new media tools offer us can be beneficial to our relationships, the capacity they have to disconnect us from reality in a way that is ultimately very harmful is a great cause of concern.  In a comment on the post, my friend Becca made a good point when she said, "I agree with you, that we can get to know ourselves better through little status updates, but I think Donne's point is well taken too. Is it particularly good for the *relationship*? There's a difference between what's good for "me" and what's good for "us"..."

That's definitely true, but the difference that is even more important is between what is detrimental for "me" and what is detrimental for "us".  Excessive reliance upon technology, either by the individual or by the couple, diminishes our capacity for person-to-person communication to the extent that our reality cannot extend upon the confines of our computer screen.  This extends to our real-life relationships.  This is the type of sublunary relationship Donne condemned.  Even though technology may be the realization of the metaphysical ideals John Donne prophesied about, too much "transcendence" of physical proximity deadens our spirituality, which is the antithesis of what transcendence is supposed to be about.  

So, Mr. Donne had a point.  But in today's technology-ridden society, his point has been flipped.  The couples with a "refined" love aren't the couples that can exist without any kind of physical closeness, but the ones that recognize the importance of it, of "things as they really are".   

Textual Analysis: Profanation of Our Joys (Living in a Post-Facebook Culture)

Continuing in my series about how technology has made the metaphysical become physical, I'm analyzing the first few stanzas of John Donne's poem "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning", and comparing the relationship he has with his wife to relationships in a "post-Facebook" society.

S virtuous men pass mildly away,  
    And whisper to their souls to go,  
Whilst some of their sad friends do say, 
    "Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."                     
So let us melt, and make no noise,                                       
    No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move; 
'Twere profanation of our joys  
    To tell the laity our love. 
Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears; 
Men reckon what it did, and meant:
But trepidation of the spheres;
Though greater far, is innocent"

The interpretation of this is that Donne believed it would discount the deepness of his relationship with his wife if they were overly public or obvious about their sadness in being separated physically.  Because their love was so strong, spiritual, and transcendent in nature, he believed that it would be a "profanation" and a debasement to allow it to to be open to public scrutiny.

It's probably safe to say, then, that Donne would be harshly critical of the couple that changes their relationship status weekly or resolves their arguments on the public forum of Facebook.  And how would he feel about the couple that is constantly texting-even when they're with each other? (My friend Neal linked me to a great/shocking example of this in a comment on an earlier post of mine.)

The unfortunate fact is that these couples are becoming the norm in our society.  This is because technology has created a huge cultural shift in what is acceptable and what is normal to broadcast to the public.  Our culture has become preoccupied with self-disclosure, especially online.  This has been explored in multiple studies, including this one by the Open University, and what's surprising is that most of them are finding that self-disclosure is good for us.  An article in the New York Times entitled "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy" says, "It is easy to become unsettled by privacy-eroding aspects of awareness tools. But there is another — quite different — result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves."

So, although John Donne saw the act of being constantly public about your behavior as a negative thing, technological advances have shown that it is good for us.  A little bit of self-disclosure (couples disclosure?) can make us happier and more aware in our relationships.  Of course, the couples that give a little TMI on the WWW are missing the point, and in the "Valediction" would be the "laity".  But the couple that effectively uses their social network and the new media tools available to them to enhance their emotional bond have the capacity to transcend physical distance and other obstacles to become as deeply connected as John Donne was with his wife.  And there is nothing profane about that.