The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Stories at the Edge of the Envelope

la beau sha shoo 1

In 1995 Métis author Maria Campbell published Stories of the Road Allowance People.  As Ron Marken relates in his Foreward to the book, it is a collection of stories “that have come a long journey to be with us from Mitchif[i] through literal translations through the Queen’s Imperial English and back to the earth in village English” (5).  Stories of the Road Allowance People challenges a host of conventions about such issues as purpose of print media, access to publication, language use, story ownership, and how text is read.  Although this is a traditionally printed work the debates it inspires extend to newer writing technologies in ways that may not be immediately obvious.

What is immediately apparent about Stories of the Road Allowance People is that it challenges accepted English usage for recognition as legitimate, and confronts the colonization of Native languages both in common use and (especially) in print.

Maria Campbell has not only used print to preserve the stories of her people but has also used the stories to challenge conventions of print, in order to reproduce and to privilege the authentic voices of the storytellers.  And – in a departure from mainstream print use – the reader is invited to become a listener and even a speaker in interaction with the text.  As Marken says, “we must do more than simply read [these stories] . . . it is essential that we read them with our ears first. Say them aloud.  Listen to them . . . light a fire and speak them to the children and grandchildren” (5).   While turning a modern literary form to serve the forms of a traditionally oral people, Campbell also brings Western print back in touch with its own early history when reading aloud was the norm[ii].

Many writers, not all recent, have departed from formal English to give verisimilitude to portrayals of characters and dialogue from various classes and places.  Of late the practice has prompted discussion – and controversy – about such topics as the motivation for, and the ethics and propriety of, presentation of language in idiosyncratic forms that may historically have been used to belittle or ridicule (dialects, pidgins, accents, etc.); whether using such elements of voice is a privilege restricted to members of the community that is “speaking”; and the effects and desirability of changes in language through adoption of idiom and vocabulary from other languages and from communities outside the mainstream.

But while academics debate, a multitude of ‘writers from the gaps’[iii] have been addressing these and many more questions through their work.  Even a very brief survey of significant titles from the past one hundred years or so shows a steady progression toward deliberate representation of idiomatic speech as an assertion of authentic voice – both characters’ and authors’.  This shift results from an increase both in interest among mainstream writers (and readers) in marginalized cultures, and in participation by traditionally marginalized people in published literature.

And although such discussions may seem to belong in the fields of comparative literature and anthropology, they in fact also need to encompass technology.  Personal computing has brought about many changes in writing technologies – or at least put a variety of such changes in the hands of a large and varied enough mass of users to make them take root and wing.  As a result, many voices that have hitherto been marginalized are gaining expression in the dominant and privileged form – published text – even as they find ways to challenge its traditional claims to supremacy.  Stories of the Road Allowance People provides an example of how this can be done, and its impact and implications are technological as well as literary and social – and show that all three are in fact closely entwined.

Increasingly as text and communications technologies are embraced by users whose needs, intents, and imaginations differ from those of the technologies’ originators, the technologies themselves must be – and are – revisited, reimagined, and reshaped.  In the process the very idea of the user –the ‘audience invoked’ – is reshaped.  Boundaries of common practice and ‘proper usage’ are thus continually changing.  And users become – individually or collectively – designers, thus contributing to changes in design norms – either directly by breaking into mainstream design and production (of software, etc.), or indirectly by creating and/or supporting alternatives that by their grassroots popularity force commercial companies to respond in their own interest.

Some functional aspects of writing technologies affected include spell checking, grammar and style checking, auto-correct options, languages supported, document layout options, and methods of publication.  In a basic example, word processing dictionaries are expanded – to recognize words hitherto outside accepted usage and add new technical terms[iv], but also to include as elements of language such things as company and brand names; this aspect of change in writing technologies could alone sustain a lengthy inquiry and debate.  (A commercial gaze always follows the expansion of boundaries, calculating the potential gains that lie beyond.)

As well, writers in a wider variety of languages are acknowledged and served.  For example, MS Word™ supports (though often only to a limited extent) more languages at each release, having added just between the 2003 and 2007 versions: Alsatian, Amharic, Bashkir, Bosnian, Breton, Cherokee, Dari, Divehi, Edo, Fulfulde, Hausa, Hawaiian, Igbo, Inuktitut, Irish, Kanuri, Kinyarwanda, Luxembourgish, Maori, Mohawk, Oromo, Papiamentu, Pashto, Persian, Quechua, eight additional variants of Sami,  Setswana, Sinhala, Tigrigna, Uighur, Wolof, Yakut, Yiddish, and Yoruba, among others.  Features previously only available in specific language versions are now available across versions, enabling creation of documents not only in multiple languages but using multiple alphabets.  Authors (working singly or collegially) can write across cultural and linguistic boundaries[v].  Market research is one factor driving such advances, but they are also led, pushed, and augmented by users and by smaller software companies that have through successive versions produced add-ons in languages not yet supported.

Document layout options have changed dramatically in recent  years, both as a result of greater flexibility within print-oriented software, and through the rapid growth of alternative methods of publication – or disbursement – of both commercial and private work, print and non-print.  Print media are influenced by digital media in their use of space and image; digital media are increasingly flexible in this respect, carrying aesthetic experimentation skipping across gaps geographic, cultural, political, and ideological.  Fonts have proliferated wildly, responding to both linguistic diversity and artistic inspiration.  Just as voice and language no longer must conform, the very letter itself returns to its individualized and illustrative roots, ranging from undisciplined scrawl to brilliant artistry.

Stories of the Road Allowance People also anticipated a wave of renewed interest in aural aspects of literature, which digital technologies have both ridden and driven.  As video and audio media increasingly supplement traditional written forms in both formal and informal work, writing and writing technologies have increasingly taken on spontaneity, informality and immediacy hitherto denied them.

Peter Elbow – writing in 1985 – contrasts writing and speech:

Where the intention to speak usually results automatically in the act of speech, writing almost always involves delay and effort.  Writing forces us not only to form the letters, spell the words, and follow stricter rules of correctness (than speech); we must also get into the text itself all those cues that readers might need who are not present to us as we write, who don’t know the context for our words… (68).

Comparing the spontaneity and celebration of learning to speak with the travails of learning to write, Elbow observes that “[s]tudents can never feel writing as an activity they engage in as freely, frequently, or spontaneously as they do in speech” (69).

Works such as Stories of the Road Allowance People directly challenge many of these conditions of writing, and the conventions upon which they are based, in ways that anticipate new writing technologies soon to follow.  Media, forms and environments that create context, provide cues, combine forms, and flout strict rules subvert conventions of writing not only in their form, but in their spirit.  The writing that may result can be nearly as “free, frequent and spontaneous” as speech.

la beau sha shoo excerpt 2 no checks bright


[i] Mitchif, or Michif, is the language of the Métis. To hear a sample, visit the Louis Riel Institute’s website:

[ii] See!-1364924364!!20001!-1!292784358!!20001!-1

[iii] An oblique reference to Voices From the Gaps, an excellent though rather erratically maintained resource on women writers of colour.

[iv] An ironic example of a disconnect in this respect can be found in Jay David Boulter’s Writing Space, on page 74, in the heading to Table 4.1:  it is clear from the text that the table should be headed “Emoticons and Their Intended Meanings”… was this passed by a human or a digital editor?


[v] My thanks are due to Chris Pratley, General Manager, Microsoft Office Labs, for providing information on the progression of language support in Microsoft Office.


Boulter, Jay David. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001.

Campbell, Maria, trans. Stories of the Road Allowance People. Penticton: Theytus Books, 1995.

Elbow, Peter. The Shifting Relationships Between Speech and Writing. Composition in Four Keys: Inquiring into the Field.  Wiley, Mark, Barbara Gleason, and Louise Wetherbee Phelps, eds. Mountainview, CA: Mayfield P Co., 1996.

Marken, Ron. Foreward. Stories of the Road Allowance People. Penticton: Theytus Books, 1995.

Pratley, Chris. Personal email. 1 December, 2009.

Rubenstein, Dan. Big Brother is Spell-checking You.

December 3, 2009   No Comments



U-learning seems to be another interesting terminology in the field of education. I saw it first time when I was reading “The World Is Open” book. In that book, Bonk (2009) states that U-learning takes advantage of the capabilities of mobile and wireless technologies to support a seamless and pervasive connection to learning without explicit awareness of the technologies being relied upon. In fact, if you are using technology to learn without reflecting on it, you are likely experiencing u-learning. With the increasing mobility, connectivity, and versatility of educational technologies, there is the potential to devise environments where learning is taking place all the time and for anybody seeking it. And when options for learner participation (not just learning consumption) are added in, learning becomes a more personalized and customized 24/7 experience.

By considering that similar definitions can also be found in other on-line learning fields, in fact, is U-Learning another charming terminology for online education to beat the classroom? Or is it a really new terminology that we need? When I was thinking about these questions I just remembered Bolter saying “hypertextual writing can go further, because it can change for each reader and with each reading”. He also mentioned that technology transforms our social and cultural attitudes toward uses of technology. I think Bolter had predicted today’s learning technologies in 1991, at least in principles.

On the other hand Bolter emphasized that “in the late age of print, however, we are concerned not that there is too much in our minds to get down on paper, but rather that there is too much information held in electronic media for our minds to assimilate”.

Have internet and online technologies, with too much information, changed our minds to assimilate? I also feel that the massive amount of information available to us, from time to time, doesn’t permit us to even think critically to select or make a decision correctly. Maybe, due to lack of time and daily increase in information we have to trust to limited sources or as Bolter said, assimilate our minds. My search in this topic led me to one of the most interesting articles in this area by Salomon and Almog (1998). They started a  discussion about “Butterfly” defect.


Salomon and Almog believed that not all of the potential effects with and of learning by means of multimedia and hypermedia are likely to be positive. One of the outstanding attributes of typical hypermedia programs, as well, as the internet, is their nonlinear, association-based structure. One item just leads to another, and one is invited to wander from one item to another, lured by the visual appeal of the presentation. In fact, surfing the internet or hypermedia programs is a good example of a shallow exploratory behaviour, as distinguished from deeper search, a “butterfly-like” hovering from item to item without really touching.

11 years later, in “Lost in Cyburbia”, Harkin (2009) also notes that a problem in the online world is the quick nature of messaging and feedback on Web 2.0 sites. According to him the problem is that people pass on and respond quickly, often giving little time or attention to reflect on the information at hand. He furthers by commenting that users are often in a state of continuous partial attention.


Similar ideas considering a generation of multi taskers who lack focus, can be found in different literature. Bolter, in someway or other, responds to these types of questions by saying “the supporters of hypertext may even argue that hypertext reflects the nature of the human mind itself-that because we think associatively, not linearly, hypertext allows us to write as we think”. He added that “Writing technologies are never external agents that invade and occupy the minds of their users”. New studies by Jones and Khan (2010) supports Bolter that web-based technologies facilitate collaborative knowledge building, development of new ideas and constructs by bringing people with divergent views together.

It seems that learners, and especially young people, should be exposed to all the options they have, learn a bit about each one and from each other and then choose the fields they would like to spend more time perusing  in depth studies of. In addition to being pretty democratic, this will also increase their perceptions of learning and motivation to learn. Perhaps, sometimes instead of classic learning theories, a fun theory ! is more appropriate to follow by young generation.

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Bolter, J.D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Harkin, J. (2009). Lost in Cyburbia. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.

Jones, N., Khan, O. (2010). “Using Web-Based Technologies and Communities of Practice for Transformative Hybrid and Distance Education” in Web-Based Learning Solutions for Communities of Practice: Developing Virtual Environments for Social and Pedagogical Advancement. Information Science Reference. USA.

Salomon, J., Almog, T. (1998). Educational Psychology and Technology: A Matter of Reciprocal Relations, Teachers College Record, no.2, 222-41, Wint ’98.

December 3, 2009   No Comments