Presenting at the PNWCA Conference

I have just been notified that I am a presenter at the 3rd Annual Regional Conference of the Pacific Northwest Writing Center Association being held at Oregon State University in Corvallis April 29th. There’s a free session on the 28th that I am likely to try to get to, since it pertains to my presentation topic. I’ll post a bit more later after I’ve finished doing what I was about to do before I wrote this (yeah, and I’m presenting with that kind of sentence structure? Seesh…)

Building Reputations Online

I’m currently a member of LinkedIn, a social networking service for professionals that targets executive-level professionals primarily but is open to anybody. I’m also (in passing) a member of OpenBC — a more internationally focused version of the LinkedIn concept. Between the two, my time is most definitely spent on LinkedIn, primarily because I have no real international connections. I’m also a member of Facebook and MySpace, though I don’t use either of those seriously either.

On the non-social networking side, I’m also a member of eBay. What do these five sites have in common? They all provide tools to network with other people (though eBay is really more about commercial transactions, it is still fundamentally networking). In addition, they also all provide a method to build an online reputation. eBay is the most obvious of these, since it provides its users with the ability to rate a transaction as positive, neutral, or negative – the more positive-rated transactions you have, the better off you are when you attempt to purchase or sell. The second most obvious one is LinkedIn, which, in a way, measures reputation by how many connections you maintain.

But is that really what LinkedIn connections mean? Not necessarily – in fact, in my case, that’s not really true at all. My strategy on LinkedIn is precisely this: connect with as many people as possible when I feel that having that connection would be beneficial to my work and future goals. Along the way, this has provided me with an opportunity to converse with several interesting people and to engage in conversations that were personally enriching. But none of this was based on my reputation – instead, it was based on my interest for their field of work and my desire to ask questions.

So what is an online reputation, really? I’m buidling one right now by typing this, and I will certainly be judged by my past posts, some of which are not always professional (this is a personal blog, after all). My tentative answer is this: your online reputation is definitely an extension of your real-world reputation, but only insofar as people know about your online work. I have a good reputation with a number of people offline who know nothing about my work online and cannot be influenced by it because of that, so the two are separate entities. This is certainly an open question, and one I’m considering as I utilize LinkedIn to grow a network.

Poetry Exercise of the Day

In case people are bored and want to do some writing, here’s the exercise I did during the Writing Center’s staff meeting this morning. Grab a literary journal (any one of sufficient length will suffice) and use the lines from random parts of that journal to create a new poem, called a cento. A cento is essentially a poem constructed using the words of other authors (our boss called it a “plagarized poem”, which is accurate enough, except that it’s cut from multiple authors). This is a very interesting exercise, and some of the other people that tried it came up with pretty good results. Another way to do sort of the same thing is to take a very old copy of a book, take a page out of that book, and randomly paint on the page so that some words are painted over and some aren’t. The words that aren’t construct a poem. It’s best not to read the page before you do this and just semi-randomly take out words. I suggest doing this with really old, run-down paperbacks – it reduces the shock of tearing pages out of books.

The Writing Center director is a poet, hence all the poetic exercises that she throws at us tutors from time to time!

Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine

It can be quite interesting to look at past work that you’ve done as a web designer, even when you don’t actually expect to run into that content.  I recently discovered the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (yeah, I know, where have I been all these years), which allows me to bring you the following nuggets of only partially-complete archive sites.  Some of this stuff does actually show more than just some broken links:

    This web site, which has had various incarnations in the past.  It started off as the domain for my web design company Dark Fusion Internet before I changed the name to naturalaxis.
    I would be remiss not to link to my own company.
    My really, really bad attempt at a SatireWire-like site – imitation being the best form of flattery.
    Way back when I was a teenager, I participated in a series of software companies, none of which were any good, but they did provide me some experience and a playground of sorts.  This was one of those sorts of projects.
    One of my bigger learning experiences in high school was creating and running a UNIX web server so that students could create web sites and host them on one of the school’s own servers.  The project died shortly after I graduated since nobody else there knew UNIX, but while it was up, people found it useful.
    Another one of those really old software company projects.  One of my first web page hosts that I had, but not the first.
    My first subdomain, hosted by what used to be Simple|Net (now Yahoo’s Web Hosting services).

My work has definitely evolved since I created some of these sites, but it’s still interesting to look back at the progression of the work.  The only exception to this was, where not all the work was done by me (the later leaf logo was my work, and some other students did the main layout work for a couple of those incarnations).

The Importance of Copyediting

It may be interesting to see a headline for a $5 civil lawsuit, but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that this is actually a $5 million dollar lawsuit regarding the wrongful death of a prominent political leader. Normally, this would not be something I would bother to highlight on my blog, except for the fact that the topic really has nothing to do with what this triggered in my head: what does it mean when people are so quick to get things out the door that they fail to completely proof their documents?

There’s really two ways for me to approach this question: as a web site designer and as a writing tutor. Really, the answer here is much the same, but the perspectives on the issue are different.

Commentary from Both Roles: Being hurried in your writing is never a good thing, whether that’s for the web or for any other purpose (professional, academic, and so forth). Grammatical mistakes have cost people lots of time and money (and, in some cases, jobs), and factual mistakes can almost be far worse. In today’s world, though, it’s highly acceptable to shove out content before it’s anywhere near ready for public consumption. The New York Times used to (and still does occasionally) publish articles on their web site rife with grammatical errors and signs of bad copyediting.

This is a cultural phenomenon and a symptom of our high-paced society where, if we don’t get instant gratification, we’ll go elsewhere. The ones that win at the professional game of copyediting chess are those that are careful and don’t put information out there until it’s polished to a soft sheen.

Web Designer/Developer: This can be death to a web site depending upon whether it’s a major site (like our ongoing example of the New York Times) or a small one, such as the ones maintained by many of my past and current clients. There is, of course, a range of copyediting: the completely rough draft to the obviously polished, well-articulated statement. But carelessness when your web site shines in other places can really stick out like a sore thumb. Making sure that the text you put online is free of grammatical errors is to your benefit, since it not only strengthens your message, but also ensures that the reader keeps reading.

That said, please don’t forget to copyedit not only text, but images. I’ve seen many an image on the Web where it’s a beautiful piece of work, but its beauty is completely marred by one glaring grammatical error that should have been corrected before the image was completed.

Writing Tutor: I see a lot of students come in with grammatical errors (in fact, in my three years of working at the Writing Center, I’ve only ever had one paper come in the door that was literally perfect and needed absolutely no changes whatsoever). Since this is an academic environment, those grammatical errors don’t matter so much and don’t have as much of an impact on life. It is to the benefit of these students to understand how to properly use commas, dependent clauses, and modifiers, but it’s rarely as important that all the details be absolutely perfect before a paper is handed in. This is a very different approach to copyediting than in the professional world. This is a learning environment, so you are expected to learn something about how to properly write a paper, which includes grammar.

Yet, still, grammar is one of those things that literally nobody gets right 100% of the time. Especially in English, there are niggling, obscure grammatical rules that only apply a very small percentage of the time that can come back and bite you later (assuming that someone who actually knows that rule notices the error and points it out). That doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands and scream out to the Heavens for mercy on your poor, grammar-impaired soul; in all these situations, it merely means being cautious and observant about how a document is written. The example of the image I linked to above was an obvious, glaring error that could have been fixed if they had bothered to read their headlines before they hit the “Submit” button. Copyediting is as important as ever, and it’s important to remember this.

Ruminations on Separating Work and Work

It’s been a long, hectic quarter this time around – I’m not complaining when I say that, though I admit that there are some aspects of this class that make me wonder why I’m bothering with it. The bulk of my work is being focused upon our yearlong project, which, for me, consists of creating a new appointment system for the Writing Center.

Creating an application for a place that you yourself work is an interesting experience because it requires two hats. The first is the hat of the know-it-all business user: the one who knows how things are typically run, knows that certain procedures are executed in order A and not order B, that certain business rules are never enforced properly, that certain parts of our work are highly dependent upon the smooth operation of one part of the Center, and so on and so forth. The second is the hat of the non-expert applications developer: the one who questions every business rule and tests for its validity, the one that, when faced with a choice between efficiency and practicality, is forced to consult with the client to get their opinions properly registered, the one who needs to maintain some distance in order to keep an objective view of the work involved.

The whole “two hats” thing is both beneficial and a curse. It means that I can quickly answer business questions posed by my project partner (who is in no way connected to the Center and is the blissfully oblivious, inquisitive half of this team), but it also means that I always must be certain that the answers I give are framed in such a way that they are reflective of the operations of the Center rather than my opinion, whether that is an opinion of how the Center does or should operate. It means that clarifying logistics with our project sponsor is much easier because I work for her and can translate into her language, but it denies me the objectivity that my project partner has.

Frankly, it also means that I must be extremely careful not to let the wires cross, for fear that it will compromise my ability to effectively work in either environment; yet, for whatever reason, that has been unavoidable. Even if I’m not working on the system, I’m working on the system – in my head, I’m processing what goes on in terms of appointment scheduling and considering logistics. But here again, I must be careful: my visualization of what goes on and the snippets that I catch are not necessarily reflective of reality. I sit on the periphery of the appointment scheduling process that goes on daily because I am unable to participate in it – my hearing impairment bars me from effectively fulfilling a vital part of that duty.

So, in our process of peppering people with questions, convening focus groups, meeting weekly with both project sponsors and program faculty, I find myself now listless. It’s as if I have all the information in front of me, but because of the sheer concentration of the last several weeks, that information has transformed itself into a language I can no longer understand. I have not lost momentum; instead, I have lost my ability to sequentially address issues as they arise. It is not that I will simply stop. We are at the point where we cannot stop – we are close to a first-cut implementation of this program, and stopping now would mean severe delays further along.

How do you navigate with a foreign map in familiar territory? Intuition and memory. That’s what I must now rely on.