Gloss & (we)blink

by Paul Maharg on 23/02/2012

Idle thought for a seminar: describe glossed literature, show examples + gloss tools.  Issue folio or better still A1 sized sheets, and ask folk to begin to design textura and gloss, in small groups.  Then the pages are passed around, and others add to the glosses.  Go online: do the same with a wiki: compare the experience of doing this with the experience of writing out the page.

I wrote the passage below in Transforming Legal Education, about five years ago, so about 50 years ago in internet time, and I still think it’s true.  In fact I think things have got a lot better — social software — and a lot worse — top-down LMSs etc.

Glossed literature, as we have seen, sprang from a recognition of an emerging community of texts and of authors who wished to comment upon the texts. Balanced between the stasis of the textura and the kinetic energy of the glossa, the manuscripts were powerful learning and teaching tools. But contemporary universities are only now coming to terms with the social software revolution and its consequences for learning theory and practice. As a number of researchers have noted, social software promotes connectivist models of learning and teaching, which are in direct opposition to transmissive modes of teaching.  It also promotes a learner-centred view of a curriculum, rather than a teacher- or administrator-centred view. Many of our current learning management systems (LMSs) in use in universities, for instance are built around an institutional view of learning: web sites are organised in a drill-down structure into course or programme pages organised centrally, by faculty or department, which in turn subdivide into class or module pages, with resources posted by academics who lead the module, with forums managed by the institution/academics; and where students have minimal ability to alter or interact with the online resources. To be sure, the ability to read and download such resources at a distance from campus contributes to flexibility of learning; but the structure of the LMS is still highly institutional. A learner-centred view of resources, knowledge, tasks and assessments would involve much more interaction and the ability of students to design their own learning environments, in much the same way as they can design MySpace, or Google’s personalised home page, or their own blogs and wikis.

What’s changed is the rate of change.  Blink and you miss the last stage, it seems, of our contemporary comms revolution, compared to the glacial pace of the development of glossed literature, with its span measured not in internet cycles but in generations.  Tempo of change profoundly matters.  The earliest books, called ‘incunabula’ from the Latin for swaddling bands, were later defined as those published between Gutenberg and 1500.  So about two generations, in late-ish medieval life-span.  Probably around 28,000 separate editions.  Eisenstein has estimated the printing of around 20 million books in this period.  The publishing patterns aren’t modern in any sense of the word, nor would you expect them to be; but what’s astonishing is the swiftness of the plunge into Renaissance textuality.

With us, now, it took two breakneck decades to reach — well, it’s a distributed body of data in a state of constant expansion, and figures like Eric Schmidt’s 5M terabytes of data, back in 2005, are still tossed around.  The definitional problems are almost as big as the data.  What’s depressingly bulky, too, is our inability to free ourselves from thinking about data and data structures in ways that mimic the last revolution, or the conventional way we’ve grown to think about information.

A good example at a meeting today.  We were discussing survey data from students on our iLEGALL (iPads in Legal Learning) project, and creating OER out of the resources, particularly the sim-resources, we used and wanted to create in the future.  But how would we structure and present those resources, and how best to bring together users and content?  My mind jumped to something like Simshare: so I described how we might create a community site, with upload/download functions and much else.  No, said Joel Mills, one of our team members: better leverage the existing content and structure of Simshare, and add to it, by creating an app that’s the front end of it on the iPad.  As soon as he said it I knew it was the right way to go (though how to do it is another matter).  But I caught myself thinking of websites like texts, instead of aggregated containers of content.  In a blink I was back to the object book (however networked its content is, intellectually, culturally, economically); and in dragging myself away from that mentally, I found myself thinking of aggregation as the social media of our students’ nested lives, a genealogy of knowledge where there is textura and the development around it of comment, debate, renewal: the glossa, which would alter with the community, where the shaping argument shifts and reforms, but the tools of argument remain, at their core, the same for thirteenth century scribes as they are for us now.

Or are they the same?  Does the technology that conveys it and envelopes it fundamentally transform the core of a discipline’s argument?  Or is there always an implicitly agreed template or agenda of analysis that ensures institutional closure through the survival of forms of argument regardless of the technological platform and context?  Perhaps; but surely what breaks up such closure and gives hope for change is that interpretation is also a matter of not seeing  as well as seeing, and if we can bring to light the ways we do not see, and not blink them away, we may come to change interpretive practices themselves.

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