The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Category — Research Paper

An overview of a remediation: From Scroll to Codex

An overview of a Remediation: From Scroll to Codex

Writing as a mode or method of human communication, has been in existence for a very long time and has been continuously evolving, progressing, regressing, moving forward, and changing (Botero et al 2000). These processes of change, these transitions or remediations of ways of writing, reading and of knowing are shaped by and acted upon complex socio/political and historical/cultural forces that continue to inform our ways of communicating today, at the cusp of the twenty first century (Bolter 2001).
A brief overview of the trajectory of a specific remediation, that of the transition from the primacy of the use of the Scroll as a way of storing and communicating written text and knowledge into that of the Codex will be the focus of the discussion to follow. Remediation here will specifically refer to the movement from one media or mode of written communication to another as described in Jay Bolter’s work about writing in the context of the advent of computers (Bolter, 2001). It should be noted that the outline of the cultural and political forces at play is limited here not only to a specific western and Eurocentric context but also to a specific chronological period or range, with a primary focus on the late Roman period extending to about the third century AD. This particular remediation traces a fascinating and complex path, weaving a trajectory through great cultural and historical shifts that occurred over a period of several hundred years.
Scroll to Codex: One of the First Bibles [1]
Writing in its many forms has always communicated the literal content of the text, however, the information contained within the text and the way and the format in which it is presented communicates much more (Edney, 1992). The Scroll and the Codex “speak” of or describe the extant power relations of the historical moment, and in many ways also of the specific culture from which it emerged. Writing delineates and reflects specific epistemological systems and communicates what a specific culture considered important enough to be considered Knowledge (Mokyr, 2002).
Moreover, the act and process of writing is not a neutral one; nor are compilations of writing, whether contained in Scroll or books, neutral artifacts. Where ever writing appears and in whatever technological form it manifests, it bears the very specific imprint of the cultural, political and economic influences that shaped and created it (Bolton ibid). This holds true for all forms of writing over the vast expanses of recorded history as they are all grounded in the specifics of their unique cultural and historical milieu. From the ancient hieroglyphics of Egyptian dynasties, to the letters on the papyrus Scrolls of the ancient Greeks or the illuminated manuscripts of medieval Europe, from the printed pages of industrial era texts to the digital traces of keystrokes in the email communications of modern societies; all reveal and reflect the culture and the power relations within that specific historical moment or epoch.
The act of Writing: framed by culture and by history [2]
This discussion will demonstrate that the remediation of writing on the Scroll as it reconfigured and resituated itself into the technology of the Codex was enabled by a unique set of cultural forces, and was framed by the socio-economic and political power relations of a specific historical context.
A brief introduction to the terminology used here and the historical and cultural contextual backdrop to this transition will begin the discussion, and an examination of the changes that occurred to transform the Scroll into the Codex will follow.


Remediation as used by Bolter is a process, it describes the transition from one media or mode to another, it is dynamic [not static] it has the potential to be and frequently is, evolutionary, but not necessarily logically progressive. It is a series of changes, but they are not simple or linear trajectories of change. The process of remediation may involve simultaneous progression and digression, and tangential leaps forward followed by regressive movements away from positive innovation. All of these changes involve a myriad of forces and or characteristics having nothing inherently to do with the actual media or medium itself (Bolton ibid). To sum up, the process of remediation of modes of communication is as complex as the historical and cultural forces that shaped those changes.
An example of Graffiti: late twentieth century writing [3]
A similar qualification must be placed upon the meaning of Codex. Although it evolved over time to have a specific meaning within legal contexts, in our examination here the term Codex will denote leaves of wood, papyrus, and more frequently, to parchment, bound together into the form of a modern volume, or what is commonly referred to as a book.
When referring to the term Scroll we are going to define it for the purpose of our discussion here as very simply a roll of paper [originally papyrus] or of parchment, usually, having writing on it.
The Process of the Remediation of Writing:
The remediation of writing is complicated because the process is not only driven by functional or rational requirements, that is, it is not just a series of what could be evolutionary or progressive innovations or improvements to a particular medium [employed as communication device] over time. Nor according to Bolton, is there a clear division or cut off between the use of one medium to the other.
Writing is Knowledge & Knowledge is Power:
Throughout history the use, access to and control of modes of writing, has been recognized by all cultures, as was noted above, not just for its inherent importance as a way of communicating, but also as an effective way of demonstrating and communicating power. Therefore, what is conveyed within a specific scroll or codex [or book] has always been something more than just its literal, surface or even just its cultural meanings. Writing and the information a civilization formulates into knowledge, as it manifests and is contained in scrolls and in books, issues out of a complex mixture of cultural and historical forces that frame and represent specific ways of perceiving and of interacting with the world (Lunsford 2006). These cultural and historical forces fuse with ways of knowing [systems of knowledge and knowledge acquisition or learning] that are specific to each unique context. All cultures in the western context from the very earliest of times, seem to have shared a recognition that being able to control the distribution, the storage and the access to knowledge [including what is left in and what is excluded from that corpus] that is incorporated within written texts, is both central to the control of societies [and its people] and is a secure gateway to power (Mokyr, 2002). Knowledge, so they say, is power.
Ancient Greek Library: Artists rendition [4]
Writing, as a mode of communication, has been a hallmark of human civilization since the beginning of what has become know as history. History as a compilation of the writing of those who were in power, tracks a series of social, cultural and political transitions, involving the rise and fall of human cultures and civilizations over time as seen through the lens of those political and historical power structures and institutions. Many of the same forces [power dynamics, economics, regional and geographical realities] that shaped these historical shifts also determined the shape of the transition from Scroll to Codex.
The Primacy of The Scroll:
An ancient writing technology evolves and then fades away
The Scroll in its many forms, was used over a period of over three thousand years and as a writing and communication device, was the first record keeping technology that allowed changes, revisions and/or edits to be made. Early scrolls were developed using papyrus, a reed native to ancient Egypt, found in abundance along the banks of the Nile River and in marshes throughout the region. The Egyptians perfected the use of papyrus and developed procedures and instructions on how to best prepare it. In an elaborate process, the reeds of the papyrus plant were cut, peeled, moistened and pounded out into layers. The layers were pressed together to form sheets, left to dry and then finished, by rubbing with stones or shells, into a smooth surface suitable for writing on (Szirmai, 1990).
An example of ancient Egyptian {light} papyrus [5]
A significant and early form of the scroll was the ancient Hebrew text contained within the Torah [3300 BCE]. However, traditionally the use of animal skins, treated in special ways, was employed for the surface of the “page” or viewing area of the Torah. The history of the Torah Scroll, along with its many fascinating and elaborate traditions [in terms of transcription practices and protocols] is a bit of an anomalie, in terms of forms of writing in the Scroll format.
TorahScrollImagesThe Torah Scroll [6]
The papyrus scroll was much more common. It was developed chiefly in its early forms by the Egyptians, then modified also by the Greeks and further developed later by the Romans. Over time it became more & more refined and somewhat more practical in its applications.
Papyrus Scrolls: the medium of choice for centuries
The inherent features or characteristics of papyrus determined certain features of the Scroll. For example, only specific areas of the plant could be used for the creation of papyrus, and the size of the both the width of the scroll and its length was limited. That is, beyond certain parameters the papyrus page would simply fall apart and of course there were limits to how big a scroll could be, just as there were very real limits to how much text could be viewed at one time, as it was unrolled for reading (Szirmai, 1990).
Early Greeks like the Egyptians, recognized how important the control and storage of knowledge was to the success of an empire. Unfortunately, many of the great libraries, such as those of the Babylonians and of the early Greeks, are known to us only through descriptions of their grandeur in the writings of ancient scholars. Much as been said for example, of the great scroll based libraries of ancient cultures, such as those of Solomon and of Alexandria (Gibbons, 1877). Early recognition of the esteem in which these receptacles of knowledge were held, is reflected in the prestige which attached to the leaders who deliberately acquired them in their conquests, and to the grand and impressive architecture that was created to house them.
A monument to Roman Knowledge & History:
Interior of Trajan Library Artist Concept [circa 53 -177 a.d] [7]
Roman Ingenuity improves the Scroll:
By the time that the Scroll was being used by the Romans, many auxiliary technologies for the viewing and storage of the scroll had evolved. Special tables and podiums were developed which allowed for maximum viewing of areas of the scroll, and for reading and for writing on the scroll, which improved the efficiency and practicality of their use (Szirmai, 1990).
Eventually, Roman scholars and officials specified optimum measurements for scrolls, standardized its manufacture and developed guidelines for its overall appearance. Best practices included standards for width, length, colour and smoothness as well as the overall appearance of top quality scrolls. It should be noted that papyrus, throughout its time as the most favored writing medium, was always an expensive item. Writing, reading, having access to knowledge and to the materials required for writing, was the privilege only of the elite ruling classes, and was never something that the average citizen would have had access to (Roberts, C.H., 1984).
The Message is the Problem: Inherent flaws in the Medium
Part of the remediation of the scroll to codex involved the recognition by the Romans in particular, as the last great cultural inheritors of the Scroll, of some of the difficulties inherent in the medium, even with all of the accommodations, [such as special tables and podiums] that had been made. These problems including that it was difficult to move forward or backward within the scroll itself. In fact, there were many cases where this difficulty resulted in mistakes by scribes [those responsible for copying texts] who either accidentally missed sections of text [fragmentation of texts] or who unnecessarily repeated sections of text [because the section already recorded was not easily viewed].
Storage and Transport of Scrolls:
Storage of scrolls was always challenging, as noted above, it was limited by the strength of the papyrus, which delineated the maximum length of the scroll. It was a fragile medium at best, even when it was reinforced. Sticks, rods, or rollers made of wood or of ivory were inserted within the scroll to try and reinforce and support them but scrolls were always in danger of collapsing altogether or of bending and cracking in the middle (Roberts, 1984).
Papyrus scrolls could be damaged quite easily by moisture and needed special containers for both storage and transport. Sheets of papyrus that were pounded together [known as rolls, within the larger scroll] taken together, could not exceed a specific size, the maximum length was about 15 feet. It was the parameters of the technology, in terms of the maximum length for the document itself and the size and quantity of the sheets or rolls of papyrus within the Scroll that determined both how long a document it could be, and determined how it could be divided into segments or sections.
Greekscroll3Early Greek Scroll showing wooden rolling sticks [8]
Sections or partitions of works contained within scrolls were very much defined by the medium, just as manuscripts at a later time were influenced by the format of books. These sections or partitions gradually transformed, eventually forming the familiar sections or chapters, of the codex or book. These parameters determined also the amount of viewing and writing “space” [known as the paginae, later to become the page] and the amount of text that could be communicated within the viewing area [estimated at between twenty and fifty lines] (Roberts, 1984). These characteristics became standardized features so that the work involved in unrolling and re-rolling the scroll was kept to a minimum. Even so, reading and writing using scrolls, was a fairly labour intensive activity and every time the scroll was manipulated it was at risk of being damaged.
Shelving with holes in it [like the cubbyholes of a post office] was used for the storage of scrolls, but when several scrolls collected together were required [like the chapters or sections of one book] a container called a book box was employed to store the work. Marking, labeling and storing of libraries filled with scrolls was very difficult and again the limitations of the medium itself determined how many scrolls could be contained together and how they were stored.
Scroll Library of Qumran:
Reconstruction of Qumran’s Library (illustration S. Pfann, Jr.) [9]
Pens filled with ink, were the mostly common implements used for writing on papyrus. Early pens were fashioned out of a variety of materials. Some pens were made from reeds, some were carved out of wood, and some were formed from bronze or of copper sheets that were shaped into vessels that were filled with ink. Ink was made from a variety of substances, such as ash or soot, the ink from cuttlefish or octopus, or from resin, sometimes the residue of wine [the proverbial dregs] was used for ink also (Lunsford, 2006).
A temporary alternative leads the way to a permanent solution: The Tabula Cerata
Although papyrus scrolls were expensive, difficult to edit and challenging to store and transport, fortunately, there was always, a less expensive alternative. In tandem with the advent of the scroll an auxiliary technology for short term and unofficial or casual and temporary, communication needs was used. Even during the time of the primacy of the scroll, the use of the Tabula Cerata [or the wooden writing tablet] was the medium of choice for many, such as students practicing their writing skills, for business people and merchants who had quick and frequently cryptic information to impart, and for unofficial internal government communications. These tablets usually had two leaves [two was the most common number of leaves but there could be as many as four to an upper limit of ten] which were thin pieces of birch or alder, treated with a surface of smoothed out wax that could be written or inscribed on, with a metal stylus or pen (Szirmai, 1990).
An example of the Tabula Cerata shown with stylus or wooden pen [10]
Roman Necessity as a Driver of Innovation:
As mentioned above the use of papyrus reigned supreme for a very long time, with the notable exception of the Hebrew tradition [and the production of the Torah in particular] that employed the use of parchment of made from animal skins. However, a set of circumstances caused a break in the flow of the distribution of papyrus and the resulting temporary shortage of the material in tandem with modifications to the wooden writing tablet, congealed to create an innovation, a shift, a remediation that laid the way for the final transformation of the Scroll into the Codex.
There is some controversy as to when and why there was a shortage of papyrus supplies, but there is consensus that it was the temporary inability of the Romans to import papyrus that forced a search for alternatives and resulted in the first real transition from the use of the scroll to that of the earliest forms of the Codex (Szirmai, 1990). The refinement of the early Tabula Cerata was among the many inventions and innovations of Roman culture. Parchment began to replace the more cumbersome wooden sheaves or leaves of the wooden tablet. Because of their pliability and because the leaves were so much thinner, the amount of sheets that could be contained, immediately increased, moving from [as above] the usual two, to as many as sixteen to pages within one tablet or book. It was the flexibility of the parchment that made the difference; it could be folded or bent without breaking or falling apart.
From Scroll to Tablet: From Tablet to Codex:
The early uses of these tablets remained chiefly for temporary or business communications that were brief and/or repetitive, so the early codex was used chiefly for records of business transactions and for brief official communications and letters. However, the scholars and writers of the first century soon adapted the technology, and over the first few centuries it became more and more common (Roberts, 1984). The traditional wooden tablet was transformed into a tablet with parchment leaves and then finally into a collection of leaves bound together [originally sewn together] which began to resemble the modern book.
Roman Mural: Keeping Track of the Harvest: early uses for the cerata [11]
The final remediation [which never completely eliminated the use of the scroll], was the result of more than just shortages of materials or even practical considerations of which medium would be easier to use and to store. As has been indicated in many works, (Lunsford 2006) (Roberts 1984) (Szirmai, 1990), it was the early Christian church that completed the remediation of the scroll into the Codex. Not only was the church interested in establishing the primacy of a specific work [what later became known as “The Bible”], they were also very concerned with distinguishing themselves from other religions and from those in power, specifically the Romans.
The practical aspects of the decision to adopt the codex was also relevant, that is, the entire work known as the Gospels, was more readily packaged in the form of the codex. At the dawn of the new millennia this format was critical to the early dissemination of the first versions of the bible at a time when the church was actively promoting itself across Europe and was not yet in a position of power.
Finally, it was not only important to the early church that they distinguish themselves from the Romans with their pagan traditions but it was also important to them to demonstrate that they were different from the Hebrew religion and its scroll based traditions [as noted above].

Gutenberg Bible: later version of the ever evolving Book [12]
To sum up, the remediation of the scroll to the codex, occurred in tandem with the growing dominance of the Christian faith, which had established itself as a major force by the end of the fourth century [Gibbons, 1877). Writing, as a mode of communication, has been a hallmark of human civilization since the beginning of what has become know as history. History as a compilation of Writing, tracks a series of social, cultural and political transitions, involving the rise and fall of human cultures and civilizations over time through the lens of the dominant political and historical power structures and institutions.
Many of the same forces that shaped these historical shifts also determined the shape of the transition from Scroll to Codex. However, as has been shown, the remediation of this format for communication, was not straight forward and in the end was pushed not just by practical, economic or political forces alone, but also and importantly, in this instance, by the perceived needs of an emerging religion, that was soon to become a dominant force in the history of western culture.

Bolter, J.D.(2001)Writing Space: Computers, hypertext, and the Remediation of Print
Lawrence, Erlbaum Associtates Inc. Mahwah, NJ, USA

Bottero, J., Herrenschmidt, C., & Vernant, J. P. (2000). Ancestor of the West: Writing, reasoning, and religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece.

Edney, M. H. (1992). Mapping the early modern state: The intellectual nexus of late Tudor and early Stuart cartography.

ETEC 540: Module 4:Literacy and the New Media
Digital Literacy and Multiliteracies

Habermas, J. (1986) Knowledge and Human Interests Cambridge, Polity Press

Lunsford, A. A. (2006). Writing Technologies and the Fifth Canon. Computers and Composition. 23, 169–177.

Mokyr, J. (2002). The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy.

Roberts, C.H. (1984) The Birth of the Codex
Oxford University Press, USA
Digital References:
Szirmai, J.A. (1990) Wooden Writing Tablets and the Birth of the Codex
Gazette du Livre Medevale, No. 17
Also: retrieved online October 2009

Classic Encyclopedia Online (2006) 11th Edition, Encyclopedia Britannica
Reference: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1877)

The British Museum Online: What is Writing?
Retrieved online: October 2009

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem: A Wandering Bible: The Aleppo codex
Retrieved online: October 2009

List of Digital Visual References: All images from Google Images
Retrieved: October 2009
[1] First Bible: one of the earliest versions of the Bible
[2] The Act of Writing: Artist’s conception
[3] Graffiti: Late twentieth century writing
[4] Ancient Greek Library: Artists rendition
[5] Early Egyptian Papyrus: {light type} Google Images
[6] Torah Scroll: one of the earliest parchment scrolls
[7] Trajan Library: A monument to Roman History: circa 53 – 177 a.d
[8] Early Greek Scroll: showing wooden rolling sticks
[9] Scroll Library of Qumran:
Reconstruction of Qumran’s Library (illustration S. Pfann, Jr.)
[10] Tabula Cerata: Example showing wooden stylus or pen
[11] Roman Mural fragment:
Keeping Track of the Harvest: early use of the Tabula Cervata
[12] Gutenberg Bible: example of the evolution of the Book

November 10, 2009   1 Comment


Altered Tales: Fairy Tales through Oral, Literary and Cinematographic Traditions

–Wiki research Project by Caroline Faber–

Follow the link below for a brief overview of the adaptations of fairy tales over time and in the face of  technologies of orality,  print, and cinema.

November 9, 2009   2 Comments

Yellow journalism

My brief look at how yellow journalism evolved during the penny press era in response to social, market/economic and technological developments in the late 19th Century is posted here at the wiki site.

November 7, 2009   1 Comment

Rise of Cinema

“Few people will deny that the cinema has become one of the most powerful of influences in modern society. It is necessary, first, to recognize the twofold aspect of the cinema as an educational force. On the one hand, it is an instrument, one among many others, for achieving certain definite results: for example, the vivid presentation of facts and ideas which it is desired to impress upon children’s minds; the giving of knowledge which could be only very inadequately depicted in words or by static presentation; the representation of growth and movement; the simplification of complicated processes. It has also a second aspect: it is a method by which the human mind can be affected and directed”.

When I was searching the UBC library, I found the above sentences from Barbara Low’s article in contemporary review journal. I really liked her ideas about cinema; they seems to be correct and clear. Meanwhile, she wrote them eighty four years ago! Yes, I was also shocked when I found her article published in 1925 on the old paper. And after 84 long years, what should I add to her thoughts for Cinema?

The power of cinema is indisputable. Since the beginning of cinema, a little over a hundred years ago, it has captivated audiences. We want, badly, to watch. And this power seems unique to film. As the philosopher Stanley Cavel remarks “the sheer power of film is unlike the powers of the other arts” (McGinn, 2005).

The arrival of cinema at the close of the nineteenth century immediately excited public imagination.  Cinema can be considered as the illusion of movement by the rapid projection of many still photographic pictures on a screen. In fact, no one person invented cinema. In 1878, under the sponsorship of Leland Stanford, Eadweard Muybridge successfully photographed a horse named “Sallie Gardner” in fast motion using a series of 24 stereoscopic cameras. The experiment took place on June 11 at the Palo Alto farm in California with the press present (Clegg, 2007).


picture of “Sallie Gardner”

In 1893, Thomas Edison and his chief engineer Dickson successfully demonstrated the Kinetoscope, a motion picture system that enabled one person at a time to view moving pictures. Two years later, Lumiere brothers used the cinematograph to project moving photographic pictures onto a screen to a paying audience for the first time in a Paris cafe. Their machine was light, neat and versatile, serving as printer as well as camera and projector.

scinemato9 Fratelli_Lumiere

The standard Cinématographe            Auguste and Louis Lumière

This was the beginning of a long journey. By 1914, several national film industries were established. Films got longer and story telling, or narrative, became the dominant form. As more people paid to see movies, the industry that grew around them was prepared to invest more money in their production, distribution and exhibition. Large studios were established and special theatres built (National Media Museum). In fact, the early histories of film lie in the rise of consumer culture.

Cinema has been an important means of shaping public opinion in its history. In England the Committee on Public Information produced such films as “The Kaiser: The Beast Of Berlin”, and Charlie Chaplin made several propaganda films, including one promoting British war loans. Cinema was also influential in wartime France. In 1917 Griffith filmed “Hearts of the World” in France, showing realistic battle scenes and the mistreatment of civilians by Germans, which reportedly boosted recruitment in the U.S. (Nebeker, 2009 ).

Lots of people thought that cinema could advance progress toward mass literacy. They believed that technologies such as cinema would radiate a utopian promise of ultimate democratic enlightenment. Edison, for instance, believed that cinema would bring about the perfection of education. He said that “I intend to do away with the books in the school….When we get the moving pictures in the school, the child will be so interested that he will hurry to get there before the bell rings, because it is the natural way to teach, through eyes” (Naremore, Brantlinger, 1991). In 1925, a headmaster of a school with 300 pupils, ranging from seven to fourteen years of age, stated that he has found the cinema of the highest value as an adjunct in imparting instruction in general science, geography and history (Low, 1925). He also reported “children remember what they see, though they forget what they hear.” However, the following years proofed that those initial ideas were very optimistic.

For instance, let’s consider movies’ effects in Hawaii education system. Since the 1930s, Hollywood has embraced Hawaii as a sultry paradise in film classics such as Bing Crosby’s “Waikiki Wedding”, Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” and classic World War II movies such as “From Here to Eternity”. Even today, more than 100 film and TV shows have been shot in Hawaii. Hawaii has two official state languages: English and Hawaiian. Throughout the last century as more and more Americans and British settled in the islands and developed movie industry and lots of jobs in this field were created, the everyday use of Hawaiian declined. Later, speaking Hawaiian was even seen as a deterrent to American assimilation, thus adult native speakers were strongly discouraged from teaching their children Hawaiian as the primary language in the home. This attitude remained until the early 1970s when the Hawaiian community began to experience a cultural renaissance (Grant, Bendure, 2007). It seems that, from time to time, cinema can affect process of reading/writing in an unexpected ways.

Effects of cinema on different classes of societies should not be ignored at all. Jacobs (1967) believed that the power of cinema has been a major problem of the social revolution it reflects; for one thing, to persistent pressure for restriction of content and presentation, not only for ideological purposes of control over forces of influence and persuasion, but on the part of religious, parental and educational groups concerned with effects upon the young.

In England, in the majority of 1950s war films, the role of middle class of society in winning the war was heavily emphasized. The main reason was due to fear that middle class of society had an alliance between upper class and worker class. The great Victorian invention, the middle class, had always affected to despise both these other classes, although remaining ready to allow the upper class to rule and the working class to work as long as its own class position as backbone of England, remained undisturbed. The promises made or implied by a people’s war seemed to offer consolidation of that position and to have improved along with improving the conditions of working class (Dixon, 1994).

According to Bolter’s (2001) concept of remediation, each technology claims to be superior to the one it sets out to remediate. This was also valid for cinema. In 1930s in Soviet Union, Stalin began to perfect the techniques used by Lenin in the civil war of deploying non literary modes of mass propaganda. Soon it followed more effectively by the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, learned how to use the inventions of new century to solve the problems of the old. The dark forests of oral communication, which 19th century governments had sought to open up with the written word, were now invaded by devices which bypassed print altogether. Later as some kind of peace was achieved, so the technological developments of the era, especially the cinema, were pressed into the service of the totalitarian state (Vincent, 2000).

According to Henderson (1992), cinema and its effect on the rise of a celebrity-based culture in this century can in part be attributed to America’s change-over from a producing to a consuming society.  It also has to do with the shift in our cultural perspective that occurred in the late nineteenth century. The essential power of the cinema lay in its specificity. Cinema is both the space of isolation and the space of shared experience and its presence in our culture is significant (Harvey, 1996).

Power of cinema can also affect cultural identities of youth and young adults in different societies. In the mid 1950s, the gradual relaxation of the Hollywood production code and the growth of independent filmmaking brought to the forefront a whole series of American movies which openly explored taboo breaking subjects about sexuality, crime, and the use of drugs. One series of movies causing a heated public controversy dealt with the social problem of juvenile delinquency. Films like The Wild One, with Marlon Brando in 1953, directly confronted the issue of postwar youngsters’ crime and gang life, initiating cycles of teenage exploitation films often called juvenile delinquency movies.

In the U.S., these successful film cycles about the misbehavior of rebellious post war baby boomers sparked a wider controversy about the increase in juvenile crime, the failing educational system, and the loss of family values in American society. The movies only increased the anxious inquiries from different parts of the society. What is so interesting about these 1950s juvenile delinquency movies is that they could stir up such a heated debate across various groups and organizations. Everyone from the average audience to the U.S. Senate, including leading journalists, intellectuals, politicians, and religious leaders, was moved to raise their voices about these movies’ effects on endangered core social values. This situation, where various moral guardians express their concern over key values, often signals a society wide moral panic. The controversy and moral panic were not restricted to the U.S. In the U.K. and other European countries, a wider public debate addressed juvenile delinquency and the influence of imported American movies (Biltereyst, 2007).

Despite a century of development cinema, with a huge industry, is still a young event. Cinema was not invented. Nor was it precisely a process of evolution. Rather it was the realization of a conception that had been clearly envisioned for centuries before. Edison, Dickson, Paul, the Lumieres merely chanced to be the ones privileged to add the last elements to the building that had been foreseen and in the making for many generations (Robinson, 1996). Perhaps, it is better to say that movies are not documents of their time; they are feelings of their time. Its effects on culture, reading/writing, mass literacy, politics of the societies can not be ignored. In general, emerge of cinema at the end of the nineteenth century initiated a movement from text culture to visual culture societies.

Let me finish what I started with some sentences from Barbara Low (again!) about cinema written eighty four years ago. “It is, therefore, very much worth while to consider to what extent this extremely powerful force of the cinema may help or intensify different attitudes”.

YouTube Preview Image


Biltereyst, Daniel. American juvenile delinquency movies and the european censors, in youth culture in global cinema, edited by Timothy Shary and Alexandra Seibel, University of Texas press, Austin, 2007.

Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Clegg, Brian (2007). The Man Who Stopped Time. Joseph Henry Press.

Dixon, W. Winston. Re-viewing British cinema, 1900-1992, State University of Newyork Press, Albany, 1994.

Grant, K. Bendure, G. Hawaii, Lonely Planet. 2007.

Harvey, Sylvia. (1996). What is cinema?, in Cinema: the Beginnings and the future, edited by Cristopher Williams, University of Westminster press. London.

Henderson, Amy, (1992). Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture. OAH Magazine of History, Spring 1992.

Jacobs, Lewis. The rise of the American film. Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, 1967.

Low, Barbara. (1925). The Cinema in Education: Some Psychological Considerations. Contemporary Review, November, 1925.

McGinn, Colin. The power of Movies. Pantheon Books, New York, 2005.

National Media Museum.

Naremore, James. Brantlinger, Patrick (1991). Modernity and mass culture, Indiana University Press, 1991.

Nebeker, Frederik. Dawn of the electronic Age: Electrical Technologies in the Shaping of the Modern World. John Wiley & Sons. Newjersy. 2009.

Robinson, David. (1996).  Realising the vision: 300 years of cinematography, in Cinema: the Beginnings and the future, edited by Cristopher Williams, University of Westminster press. London.

Vincent, David. (2000). The rise of mass literacy: reading and writing in modern Europe. Pility Press, UK.

November 5, 2009   No Comments

Language as Cultural Identity

Language as Cultural Identity

Russification of the Central Asian Languages


Pier Borbone asserts that “there is no obligatory relationship between language and writing: per se, every language can be represented with any graphic system, even systems originally created for other languages – if necessary with certain adaptations.”  (Borbone, 2007)  He further theorizes that “the decision to adopt a certain kind of script depends to a large degree on other considerations, not having to do with the language itself, and that the choices of script made by different peoples and nations are an interesting clue to cultural, political and religious aspects of their history.”  (Borbone, 2007)


The former Soviet Union provides an interesting case study when looking at cultural and political implications of using an already existent script for historically and culturally rich but very different languages which already had been using a different script.  Specifically looking at the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet to the Central Asian and Far Eastern languages, we can examine the Russification of these particular languages and cultures. 


With the creation of the new Soviet Union came many challenges.  One of the major challenges was to create an identity and somehow unify over 100 different ethnic groups.  A systematic policy of Russification was adopted by the early Soviet government but it was by no means a new development.  Russification dates back to the 16th century with the conquest of Khanate of Kazan and other Tatar areas.  At its early stages, Russification mostly involved Christianization and implementation of the Russian language as the sole administrative language.


The Cyrillic alphabet was created by St. Cyril and his brother St. Methodius, who were Byzantine missionaries and were sent to convert the Slavs to Christianity.  The original alphabet was known as Glagolitic from which modern day Cyrillic evolved.


Glagolitic alphabet

 The Glagolitic Alphabet was a precursor to modern Cyrillic


Cursive version of the Glagolitic alphabet


 1918 version


The names of the letters are in Russian.


Languages written with the Cyrillic alphabet


Abaza, Abkhaz, Adyghe, Archi, Avar, Azeri, Balkar, Bashkir, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Buryat, Chechen, Chukchi, Church Slavonic, Chuvash, Dargwa, Dungan, Erzya, Even, Evenki, Gagauz, Ingush, Kabardian, Kalmyk, Karakalpak, Kazakh, Komi, Koryak, Kumyk, Kurdish, Kyrghyz, Laz, Lak, Lezgi, Lingua Franca Nova, Macedonian, Mansi, Mari, Moksha, Moldovan, Mongolian, Nanai, Nenets, Nivkh, Old Church Slavonic, Ossetian, Russian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovio, Tabassaran, Tajik, Tatar, Turkmen, Tuvan, Tsez, Udmurt, Ukrainian, Uyghur, Uzbek, Votic, Yakut, Yukaghir, Yupik


In the early centuries, the Christian missionaries had difficulties in converting eastern Slavs to Christianity due to language barriers.  The western missionaries were using Latin and the eastern missionaries were using Greek but both were foreign to the Slavs.  St. Cyril (827-869 AD) developed the Glagolitic/Cyrillic script which made the conversion process much simpler.  The brothers modeled Glagolitic alphabet on a cursive form of Greek.  The Glagolitic alphabet evolved into Old Church Slavonic which “was used as the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church between the 9th and the 12the centuries.” (Blech, 2008)  Currently the Russian Orthodox Church uses Church Slavonic which appeared during the 14th century.  There are some speculations that the Old Church Slavonic may have been invented by St. Kliment of Ohrid based on the Glagolitic alphabet. 


The current form of the Cyrillic alphabet came into being in 1708 during Peter the Great’s westernization and secularization campaigns.  The newly modified alphabet was known as grazhdanka.


The 1917 Russian revolution paved the way for the inception of the Soviet Union in 1922 which united several republics under one umbrella. After 1922, the authorities decided to eradicate the use of the Arabic alphabet in Turkic and Persian languages in the Soviet-controlled Central Asia, in the Volga region, including Tatarstan, and in the Caucasus. 


This drastic change was well thought out because it detached the local population from the exposure to the language and writing system of the Koran.  This served a twofold purpose of curbing religious activities and further separating the local population from their ethnically closer groups in other Middle Eastern countries.  As well it prevented the “formation of alternative ethnically based political movements, including pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism.”   (Absoluteastronomy, 2009)


A very effective way of accomplishing this was to “promote what some regard as artificial distinctions between ethnic groups and languages rather than promoting amalgamation of these groups and a common set of languages based on Turkish or another regional language.”  (Absoluteastronomy, 2009)


The new alphabet was inspired by the Turkish alphabet and was based on the Latin alphabet.  However, in 1939-1940, the policy changed and it was decided to change Tatar, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Azeri and Bashkir languages and make them use variations of the Cyrillic alphabet.  It was claimed that the switch was made “by the demands of the working class.”  (Absoluteastronomy, 2009)


In the Soviet Union the Latin alphabet was first officially introduced in Soviet Azerbaijan in 1925 13, and a “Unified Turkic Latin Alphabet” for all the Turkic languages of Soviet Central Asia followed between 1927 and 1930. In the second half of the 1930s the policy was changed, and a campaign began to introduce, in place of the unified Latin alphabet, several Cyrillic alphabets somewhat different for each Turkic language. For instance, the Cyrillic alphabet for the Uighur language consisted of 41 letters – the Latin one being of 32. (Winner, 1952)


Since the Soviet government decided that a nation was defined by the existence of a language, a language had to be selected each time it was decided that there was to be a nation.  This activity produced considerable problems.  One of the major ones was the fact that dialectic differences had to be accentuated between the populations of a single linguistic area.  Each nation was constructed on the basis of difference. 


The most ludicrous case was the separation created between Tajik and Persian.  The Tajik used literary Persian as their written language.  There exists a perfect comprehensibility between the literary languages current in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.  However, in their daily lives the Persian speakers of Central Asia use dialects which vary considerably.  The relationship between Iranian and Tajik Persian is similar to the relationship between Persian French and Quebecois.  Russian linguists had to formalize and fix differences and to invent a modern literary Tajik language.  Instead of taking one of the existing Tajik dialects as their standard, they created an artificial language which combined characteristics from different regions.  They kept the phonological system of Old Persian, but adopted grammatical variations which highlighted the difference with Iran. 


Uzbek was also severely manipulated.  It was linked with Kazakh and Tatar which have the least similarities with Uzbek.  Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were quick to adopt Latin script, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan delayed the switchover, and both still use Cyrillic.


The situation is different for the Turkic-speaking peoples of the Soviet Union. The use of vari­ous modified Cyrillic alphabets, in this case with variations for the Azeri, Kazakh, Turkmen, Kyrgyz languages, was the norm at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Nowadays the vari­ous independent states each go their separate ways: in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan a modified Latin alphabet is used, while in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan the Cyrillic ones are still used. Obviously to some extent these choices reflect the political relationships that exist, or are desired, with Russia and Turkey.


The 20th century is one in which national languages have rapidly developed and increased in number. If we speak about European national languages, they have increased nearly threefold (from 16 to 50) in something more than 100 years. In Central Asia, if only the Turkic language writing systems are taken into consideration, the unified literary language (Chagatay Turkic) developed into 30 different literary languages.


Ong asserts that “more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.” (Ong, 2000, p.77)  He further states that “writing establishes what has been called ‘context-free’ language  …  or ‘autonomous ‘ discourse, discourse which cannot be directly questioned or contested as oral speech can be because written discourse has been detached from its author.” (Ong, 2000, p.77) 


The result of this manipulation of languages was loss of local languages and cultures.  The official policy of sending Russians to non-Russian speaking republics resulted in the local population adopting Russian language and culture while Russian people did not learn local languages or partake in the local cultures.  To do so was considered backward.  When non-Russian speakers moved to another non-Russian republic, they learned Russian instead of the local language.  For example 57% of Estonia’s Ukrainians and 70% of Estonia’s Belarusians claimed Russian to be their native language in the 1989 Soviet census.


Patterns of linguistic and ethnic assimilation (Russification) were complex and cannot be accounted for by any single factor such as educational policy. Also relevant were the traditional cultures and religions of the groups, their residence in urban or rural areas, their contact with and exposure to Russian language and to ethnic Russians, and other factors.


There is strong evidence to suggest that language was viewed as the first attack in the government’s Russification policy because it is very closely tied with who we are, individual identity and the identity of a group.  Changing a language eventually brings about changes in culture and thinking.  Changing a script in a particular language to another aligns that language and culture with the dominant culture.




Absolute Astromony: Exploring the Universe of Knowledge. (2009)  Russification.  Retrieved October 3, 2009, from


Allworth, A. Ed. (2002).  130 Years of Russian Dominance, A Historical Overview . Duke University Press. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from Google Books


Blech, A. (2008) The Russian Orthodox Church: History and Influences.  Retrieved October 23, 2009, from


Bodrogligeti, A. (1993). Dissolution of the Soviet Union: The Question of Alphabet Reform for the Turkic Republics.  Azerbaijan International, 1.3, 16-17.  Retrieved October 28, 2009 from


Borbone, G. P.(2007).  Choice of Script as a Mark of Cultural or/and National Identity. Retrieved October 18, 2009, from


Burghart, D. L., (?/) In the Tracks of Tamerlane: Central Asia’s Path to the 21st Century.  Retrieved October 5, 2009, from


Eurasia Insight. (2006)  President Ponders Alphabet Change in Kazakhstan.  Retrieved October 24, 2009, from


Omniglot: Writing Systems and Languages of the World. (2009). Retrieved October 27, 2009, from


Omniglot: Writing Systems and Languages of the World. (2009). Retrieved October 27, 2009, from


Ong, W. J., (2000). Orality and Literacy.  New York:  Routlage.


Winner, T. G.(1952).  Problems of Alphabetic Reform Among the Turkic Peoples of the Soviet Central Asia, 1920-1941. The Slavonic and East European Review, 76, pp. 133-147.

November 4, 2009   1 Comment

Research Assignment: The Codex and TV

Hello Everyone,

My  research paper comparing the codex with the development of TV can be found  in the course wiki here.  Feel free to leave comments.



November 2, 2009   1 Comment

Research paper on Punctuation by Dilip

Day of the dead

It's a special time here in Oaxaca

Hello my virtual friends.Please visit this link to read my research paper on punctuation

Take care


November 2, 2009   1 Comment

Icon to Symbol: Its Implications on Visual Literacy and Education

For a more visually appealing wiki post, please continue to the ETEC 540 wiki.


Early Pictographic Communication: Pictographic art from Minnesota shows how Native Americans communicated with one another (jacehgn, 2009).

Icons and symbols are everywhere. Throughout history, icons and symbols have a vital role as a communication tool. In their most simplified forms, they are recognizable and often, comprehensible images and visuals; in their most complex forms, they exist as a series of abstract lines to complex strokes that bear meaning in languages not understood by all. An examination of icons and symbols throughout history and through different cultures will reveal its implications for visual literacy and education.

Starting With Semiotics

In linguistic terms, the icon and the symbol are derived from three semiotic modes developed by philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, a key figure in semiotics (Chandler, 2009; Huening, 2004). According to Peirce (in Chandler, 2009), the symbol does not represent the object; therefore, one must learn and become familiar with the relationship to the object. Examples where symbols are found include the national flags of each country and the languages with alphabets, punctuation and words. Conversely, the icon resembles, imitates, or represents the object to which it bears similarity. Examples of icons include portraits, scale models, metaphors and sound effects. With semiotics, ‘pure’ icons do not exist and is influenced by an element of cultural convention. Historically, iconic forms have evolved towards symbolic forms (Chandler, 2009).


Early evidence of the communication and expression of human thought can be seen in graphical transcriptions such as those found in notched markings in bones during the time of Homo erectus, at least 412,000 years ago. Stone and bone markings from the era of Homo sapiens sapiens, about 100,000 years ago, convey more evidence of symbolic thinking. Cave art from southern France has also provided proof of pictorial communication displaying symbolic references (Fischer, 2001). The appearance of the horse in the cave art could provide one of the earliest representations of the icon in use.

Most early writing systems that once existed are currently extinct and its origins are not very clear; however, writing systems remain one of society’s most versatile means of communication (Fischer, 2001; British Museum, 2009). Symbolic writing is apparent in the Balkan region about as early as 6,500 years ago, where graphical marks and impressions were stored as information into clay tokens that could be easily baked and preserved (Fischer, 2001). By 4,000 B.C.,  small clay “envelopes” called bullae were used to potentially enclose the clay tokens. Markings and impressions on a bulla would enable one to decipher its contents without breaking it open (Fischer, 2001; Ong, 2002). An earlier known writing system was developed approximately 5,000 years ago in the Middle East, with other scripts invented in Egypt, India, China, and Central America. While each system was developed independently of the other (Ong, 2002), each performs the same basic function – to provide a visual means of recording language (British Museum, 2009).

Other symbolic and pictographic writing systems include the Chinese characters that are also used in Japanese writing. Although Chinese writing is considered logography, one must learn to recognize and learn the meaning of each character. Some more visual examples of recording language include Native American pictography, which conveys complex communication using drawings of specific objects that could be articulated by speech (Fischer, 2001; Ong, 2002). Fischer’s (2001) example of an Abnaki hunter in Maine explains how a birchbark scroll with a drawing could be left outside a wigwam, where the scroll depicts “a man in a canoe and a deer, with a man on foot pointing at a squiggle, and a snow-shoed man pulling a sled” with the translation: “I’m crossing the lake to hunt deer, turning off before the next lake, and won’t be back until spring” (Fischer, 2001, p. 19).


The history of the movement from icon to symbol conveys the human need to move from a simplified means of communication to one that is more complex, one that is understood by a deeper meaning. Ong (2002) asserts that writing is a deeply interiorized technology that can be understood by observing its past with orality. Coulmas (1991) further argues that “writing was not invented for literary purposes, but its invention made literature possible – certain kinds of literature, anyway – and it also made possible a whole range of other complex communicative activities not found in non-literate societies” (p. 4).

Queen Elizabeth as Icon and Symbol: Profile of the Queen on a Canadian coin (Devan_Not_Devil, 2009).

Queen Elizabeth as Icon and Symbol: Profile of the Queen on a Canadian coin (Devan_Not_Devil, 2009).

Icons, by their semiotic definition, generally have the characteristic of being universally understood, whereas symbols can become lost in translation. However, both icons and symbols do not necessarily need to possess meaning to those who are literate. For instance, the profile of Queen Elizabeth on Canadian coins holds both iconic and symbolic meaning. As an icon, her profiled portrait shows that she is indeed Queen Elizabeth; however, as a symbol, her appearance on the coin suggests a deeper meaning that can be conveyed by Canada’s political, economical and historical ties to the Commonwealth. To an individual who is new to Canada or does not live in the country, the profile would represent that of a woman who is seemingly important yet whose importance bears little to no meaning, with her relation to the image on the reverse side of the coin drawing confusion. Apart from this example, signs and languages composed of symbols can also challenge individual understanding of the object being represented.


The use of pictographic icons and symbols enabled individuals to decipher meaning visually and allegorically. If one could recognize the image being portrayed, there was a chance that the message could be understood (Fischer, 2001; Ong, 2002). Ong (2002) asserts that pictures serve as aide-memoires, or a means to help the memory. This suggests that to learn the code and meaning of a symbol, one must commit it to memory.

Throughout history, writing served as a way to remain organized and keep wealth and power. In ancient Mesopotamia, mostly boys learned how to make a tablet and use a stylus in order to write basic cuneiform and learn thousands of Sumerian words. With enough training, the students could become scribes and thus, members of a privileged social class. Before the advent of mass education in the nineteenth century, literacy was reserved for the wealthy and privileged (British Museum, 2009).

More recent and emerging applications of icons and symbols in education can be found in developments such as the semiotic web, gaming literacy and other applications in informal learning. Gee (2003) observes the prevalence and significance of visual literacy in textbooks today, where more images are part of the content, next to the words. He describes these texts as being multimodal – going beyond words to convey meaning (Gee, 2003). Furthermore, with the existence of multimodal content, students are introduced or led to discover new ways of reading and writing. Education has gone beyond print and moved to the realm of computing, where the output of the monitor consists of numerous symbols (or icons, in computing terms) laid out in a graphical user interface. Learners are often expected to understand the meaning of symbols and icons without context. One example is the Sugar user interface on the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) computer, which was specially designed to meet the needs of children and uses icons to represent the user and his or her collaborative environment (OLPC, 2009).

OLPC's Sugar Interface: Changes to the layout of the Sugar interface - how does this affect users? (curiouslee, 2008).

OLPC's Sugar Interface: Changes to the layout of the Sugar interface - how does this affect users? (curiouslee, 2008).

In today’s modern world, Gee (2003) argues, people need to be more active and literate in different semiotic domains. Marcus (2003) further outlines the existence of these domains as part of the user experience in computing and indicates that basic Chinese has about 3,000 signs that have developed over millennia while software developers have designed two to five times the number in a few years, with the downside to many of those signs being poorly designed and illegible. Icons and symbols are now found in a variety of platforms from desktop computers, mobile devices to vehicle systems. In 1974, the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), developed a system of 50 symbol signs for use in transportation hubs like airports and at large international events. AIGA’s development of the symbols shows the possibilities of education using the semiotic domain with application of what Gee (2003) refers to as “internal and external design grammars”, where principles and patterns are identified through observation of social practices. The purpose of developing such a system was to provide a system of signs that “communicated the required range of complex messages, addressed people of different ages and cultures, and were clearly legible at a distance” (AIGA, 2009).


Over time, icons and symbols have provided the literate and illiterate with visual representations to convey meaning.  Today, icons and symbols are used more widely for environmental uses like wayfinding, in user interfaces, and for communicating information to a more universal audience. Their existence in the semiotic domain demonstrates the need for a well-designed, standard of symbols and icons that can simultaneously address the requirements of the audience for more direct comprehension and learning.


AIGA. (2009). Symbol Signs. Retrieved from
Chandler, D. (2009). Semiotics for beginners. Aberystwyth University. Retrieved from
Coulmas, F. (1991). Writing Systems of the World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
curiouslee. (2008). OLPC Sugar User Interface 2007 – 2008. [Image]. Retrieved from the Flickr Creative Commons:
Devan_Not_Devil. (23 May 2009) Coins. [Image]. Retrieved from the Flickr Creative Commons:
Fischer, S. R. (2001). A History of Writing. London: Reaktion Books.
Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. In UBC ETEC 510 Custom Course Materials. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Huening, D. (2004). Symbol, index, icon. The Chicago School of Media Theory: University of Chicago. Retrieved from
Jacehgn. (2009, February 23). Hegman Lake Photograph. [Image] Retrieved from the Flickr Creative Commons:
Marcus, A. (2003). Icons, Symbols, and Signs: Visible Languages to Facilitate Communication. Interactions, May 2003. Retrieved from the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Portal.
One Laptop per Child. (2009). Laptop Interface. Retrieved from
Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.
The British Museum. (2009). Writing. Retrieved from

November 2, 2009   1 Comment

Mithila Art as a Communication Technology

Ram ScenesLong before there were computers in most of our homes, there was Mithila Art in homes of what is now India and Nepal. Originally, this folk art form mainly consisted of lively murals painted on the walls of homes in rural villages. But it was much more than simple art for art’s sake. “Mithila painting is part decoration, part social commentary, recording the lives of rural women in a society where reading and writing are reserved for high-caste men” (Arminton, Bindloss & Mayhew, 2006, p. 315). This was art that gave a voice to powerless rural women as a communication technology.

Historical and Cultural Context
This art form acquired its name from the kingdom of Mithila where it originated around the seventh century A.D. At that time, the region was a vast plane located primarily in what is now eastern India as well as in southern Nepal. However, the cultural center and capital of the region was in what is now the city of Janakpur, Nepal only 20 kilometers from the Indian boarder. Janakpur is of course the home of Janakpur painting while the town of Madubandi, India is home of paintings of the same name. Mithila art consists of both kinds of paintings of which Madubandi are more common.

It is said that Mithila art was born when King Janak commissioned artists to create paintings at the time of the marriage of his daughter, Sita, to the god Lord Ram. This might have to do with the fact that most Madubani paintings are created during festivals celebrating marriages and births, religious and social events and ceremonies of the Maithil community. Others say that, “Its original inspiration emerged out of the local women’s craving for religiousness and an intense desire to be one with god” (Janakpur Women’s Development Center, n.d.). However it actually began is not clear, but what it became after being passed down through many generations surly is.

“Mithila is a wonderful land where art and scholarship, laukika and Vedic traditions flourished together in complete harmony between the two” (Mishra, 2009, 4). This harmony was uncommon during this time in many other regions in southern Asia as well as the rest of the world. The general attitude toward artists in this region is one of utmost respect and they were even compared with gods. That could be a major reason why women in ancient Indian society, whom were traditionally regarded as much less significant than men, adopted Mithila art as well as other art forms as not only a communication technology, but as a means for empowerment as well.

“Picture writing is perhaps constructed culturally (even today) as closer to the reader, because it does not depend upon the intermediary of spoken language and seems to reproduce places and events directly” (Bolter, 2001, p. 59). The murals were originally painted during important community events as a kind of subjective snapshot as well as social commentary. This was a positive way for rural women to have a voice and to be heard.

Implications for Literacy and Education
In a communicative context, ‘literacy’ is commonly defined as “the ability to read and write” where to ‘write’ is defined as to “mark (letters, words, or other symbols) on a surface, with a pen, pencil, or similar implement” (Oxford University Press, 2009). So although most Mithila artists were not literate in phonetic writing, they were exceptionally literate in picture writing. As with oral communication, this type of literacy served to bring people together and strengthen their communities. “As we look back through thousands of years of phonetic literacy, the appeal of traditional picture writing is its promise of immediacy. By the standard of phonetic writing, however, picture writing lacks narrative power” (Bolter, 2001, p. 59). The “narrative power” of which Bolter refers to, is the ability of phonetic writing to convey detailed information from a first person perspective.  Unfortunately, this ability also has a tendency to actually distance those in communication rather than bring them together as in picture writing.

Bolter goes on to write that, “Sometimes, particularly when the picture text is a narrative, the elements seem to aim for the specificity of language.  Sometimes, these same elements move back into a world of pure form and become shapes that we admire for their visual economy” (2001, p. 63).  This explains the duality of this art form as both a communication technology and an aesthetic art form.  Another perspective of visual communication technologies is that, “Display is, in respect to its prominence and significance and ubiquity, the analogue of narrative” (Kress, 2005, p.14).  So while Mithila paintings perhaps lacked the ability to convey a first person narrative, they narrowed the gap between the composer and her audience in a beautiful visual mode of communication.

For the Maithil artists, the ability to express their desires, dreams, expectations, hopes and aspirations to their community in (picture) writing through their painting was most likely much more valuable than communicating detailed information to outsiders by means of phonetic writing.  “Unlike words, depictions are full of meaning: they are always specific.  So on the one hand there is a finite stock of words—vague, general, nearly empty of meaning; on the other hand there is a n infinitely large potential of depictions—precise, specific, and full of meaning” (Kress, 2005, pgs.15-16).  The meaning they conveyed through their art was unmistakable and accessible to all. In this case, picture writing literacy did not lead to phonetic or alphabetic writing literacy.  It did, however, require education.

As all writing is communication technology, Mithal art required education to master the particular tools, materials and techniques of this unique style of picture writing. Most of these artists were not formally educated and were illiterate in the ways of phonetic reading and writing. But they did have to learn about the range of natural hues that could be derived from preparations and combinations of clay, bark, flowers and berries as well as how to fashion brushes from bamboo twigs and small pieces of cloth (Mishra, 2009).

Although Mithila art did not directly lead ancient India to a conventional sense of literacy nor to formal education of the masses, it did give a voice to the voiceless. As a communication technology, it provided something for those artists that was and remains a critical element of their society: a heightened consciousness. As Ong writes, “Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word. Such transformations can be uplifting. Writing heightens consciousness” (2002, p. 81).

Mithila art still exists today, but unfortunately has been commercialized with the introduction of tourism.  Much of what this art form and communication technology was and did for these people has been lost.  Most pieces are painted on paper and many are of scenes made-to-order that have nothing to do with Maithil culture, although selling their artwork has proved an increasing source of income and has in turn improved their quality of live.  With the support and guidance development organizations, groups are now promoting the consumption of Vitamin A, voting, safe sex, and saying “no” to drugs to their communities (Janakpur Women’s Development Center, n.d.).  So although it has changed considerably over many generations, Mithila art is still a meaningful communication technology.

Armington, S., Bindloss, J., & Meyhew, B. (2006). Lonely Planet: Nepal. Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet

Bolter, D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Janakpur Women’s Development Center. (n.d.). Retrieved October 3, 2009, from

Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of text, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition, 22, 5-22. Retrieved from

Mishra, K. K. (2009). Mithila Paintings: Past, Present and Future. Retrieved October 4, 2009 from Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Web site:

Mithila Art – Madhubani Painting and Beyond. (n.d.). Retrieved October 3, 2009, from

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge

Oxford University Press. (2009). Ask Oxford. Retrieved October 10th, 2009 from

November 2, 2009   1 Comment

Telegraph – the old information super highway

The telegraph can actually be considered the grandfather of the data superhighway – the telegraph operated on a digital format (on/off mode).  (Lubrano, 1997, pg. xiv)

Ancient writings and pictograms of civilizations long gone are forms of communications that existed and provide clues to the intricate workings of a society.  As a rule, these forms of communications have long been abandoned by cultures which now fill history books.  These inscriptions, like most primitive dialects, were only effective in reaching those peoples that encountered and could interpret the material.  The ability to distribute knowledge was limited to the geographical location of the text.  Ancient writings, employed for knowledge transfer, have impacted all societies to some extent; if only as the result of cultures colliding in an increasingly smaller world.  As with most messages, these writings were created to transfer the thoughts and knowledge of a society.  It is this desire to “spread” the word is that is in essence the arching goal of communication; achieve a faster and more efficient means to transfer the message.  Amazingly, this desire to expand knowledge was not always embraced.  Much like the history of the Internet, prior desires to communicate across space and time are filled with progressive steps and changing literacy. 

 Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write.  Reading, as described by Ong is the conversion of a text “to sound, aloud or in the imagination, syllable-by-syllable”.  (Ong, 1982, pg.8)  Imagine if text could exist in the form of finite signals and codes that could be “read” by a viewer and transcribed or transmitted for others to see.  Imagine the origins of distance communication and the impact upon societies isolated by time and geography.  Thus begins the story of telegraphy.  

  Telegraphy, as detailed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica is “derived from the Greek words tele, meaning “distant,” and graphein, meaning “to write.”” (Encycopedia Britannica, 2009).  While we normally identify the telegraph to be an electromagnetic based system of transmitting dots and dashed (Morse code), this belief is flawed.  Telegraphy existed long before in the simplest forms of distance communications.  Early forms of telegraphy, describe in Iliad, included smoke and fire signals used to communicate during daylight and night times.  

 Fire signals were used extensively by watchers and scouts.  Unlike other signal types, they did not normally serve to transmit orders but were instead used to convey simple messages, and they were considered to be quite valuable in this role. (Russell, 1999,  pg. 146)

 The earliest forms of telegraphy employed a simplistic code as a means to articulate the message.  Often times, due to the geographical limitations and rudimentary technology (i.e. blanket, fire and fresh grasses) of the telegraphy, the message was pre-arranged to define only important events such as ‘danger’, ‘victory’ or a ‘summons’.


Without Sound. make Signals

Without Sound. make Signals


Image downloaded From Flickr 28 Oct 09

Another form of visual telegraphy that impacted society was signal flags used mainly by government and mariners worldwide.  The optical telegraphy or semaphore is “is an alphabet signalling system based on the waving of a pair of tower constructed or hand-held flags in a particular pattern.” (Croft, Unknown)  Used extensively by the French government during the French revolution, and by naval fleets (still employed by use of hand held flags), the semaphore system provided distance communications thru a series of sequential stations that conveyed the messages.   As the alphabet was the “code” of semaphore, the message could be as complex as required to effectively convey significance and importance.  Given these new advances in complexity of the transmitted message through the use of the alphabet, limitations did exist including the time to record the signal and retransmit to the next station and the requirement to have a constant vigil for incoming signals.   The semaphore system was eventually abandoned as a “law was enacted imposing jail sentences and stiff fines (up to 10,000 francs) on “anyone transmitting unauthorized signals from one place to another by means of the (Chappe) telegraph machine.” (Neuman, 1996).  Besides fears of rising public opinion, the semaphore system “required extensive manpower and was expensive to operate.  Stations were seldom more than eight miles apart and were subject to interruption due to adverse weather conditions.”  (Lubrano, pg. 10)   


Signal Flags


Semaphore flags in background.  Electrical Bolt symbolic of electric telegraphy.

Picture curtisy of

In addition to the prehistoric visual telegraphy, audio telegraphy was used to gap distances beyond line-of-sight.   In Africa, drums were (and still are) commonly used as a means to convey messages across distances to both humans and gods.  Among the Ashanti people of Ghana, two styles of drumming: signal and speech exist for communications purpose.   Communications by drumming employs of two drums, one high tone and one low tone, which is used to “to mimic the highs and lows of the local Twi language, a tonal language.” (Wilson, unknown)  

As society’s reliance on rapid communications grew, better technologies were developed.  The geographically limiting visual and audio telegraphy was remediated by the faster methods.  Research and trialing of electronic signaling was wide spread.  As Nonenmacher reports:   

The science behind the telegraph dates back at least as far as Roger Bacon’s (1220-1292) experiments in magnetism. Numerous small steps in the science of electricity and magnetism followed. Important inventions include those of Giambattista della Porta (1558), William Gilbert (1603), Stephen Gray (1729), William Watson (1747), Pieter van Musschenbroek (1754), Luigi Galvani (1786), Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1800), André-Marie Ampere (1820), William Sturgeon (1825), and Joseph Henry (1829).  (Nonnenmacher, 2001)

In 1884, Samual Morse, with his assistance Alfred Vail trialed a telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, transmitting the now famous message “What hath God wrought?”  (Today in History, 2007)   Morse and Vail had developed the technology to allow the required break in the electrical current; pauses in electrical current which provided the foundation for the code.   Remediation of visual by electronic telegraphy had begun, resulting in sweeping changes in communications methods. 

The electrical telegraph transformed society by achieving the goal of increased efficiency and effectiveness in communications.  Long distance communications within short timeframes reduced the size of a country and connected nations.  This increased speed was not the only change; the language of telegraphy was also transformed. “Morse Code”  was credited to Samuel Morse, but his assistant Alfred Vail is suspected of perfecting the code that exists still today.   This code is an alphabetic language created with the use of “dots and dashes [corresponding] to letters and punctuation in the English language. This cipher, which is still widely used today can be equated as to an early form of digitization, as all words, numbers and punctuation are comprised of two “dot” and “dash” symbols.” (Kanderovskis, 2007)

Electronic telegraphy influenced society in much the same way that the Internet influences society today.   From this birth of rapid, long distance communications, the foundation for standardization of journalistic style and mass communications began.  Information could be gathered, reviewed, transmitted and distributed across a nation with little effort.  Local papers began to focus more on national affairs and less on local opinion.  This flow of information affected all aspects of society; resulting in an increased awareness to national and international affairs, within shorter timeframes.  Even fiscal policies and practices were affected.  Yates argues:

the telegraph encouraged the growth and efficiency of markets by reducing communication time and costs and that it encouraged the growth and vertical integration of firms by forwarding the emergence of national market areas to absorb local and regional market areas.  (Unknown)

The telegraph linked businesses across a nation and across international boundaries.  Through the electronic telegraph, society was provided a venue to share and prosper; but like the Internet, the venue was not accepted by all.  “Russian Czar Nicholas I was likewise terrified by the telegraph’s potential to spread information. Fearing that the broad use of the telegraph would prove “subversive,”(Neuman, 1996) Nicholas refused to conduct business with Morse to create an effective communications system across Russia.  This fear of progress resulted in substandard communications for the military during World War I.    

Progress in communications, specifically electric telegraph affected all institutions: political, social and governmental.  “Embassies connected by telegraph to their home foreign ministries …long used to operating on their own, increasingly received instructions about pressing issues from their home office.”  (Papp, Alberts, Tuyahov, 2002)  Financial markets could deal in commodities and set prices at a national vice local market.  Distance and time melted away first with smoke, progressively advancing technology towards each dash and dot transmitted across the vast electrical lines; the earth successively reduced in size.  Access to national and international events resulted in the standardization of journalistic reporting and realization that ‘others’ existed outside or the local confines.  This path towards ‘globalization’ in communications, while benefiting many, resulted in some fears concerning the spread of knowledge and public opinion.    From an internet of electrical lines with dots and dashes, the desire to communicate to all people at all places would drive the next generation to find the internet of ones(1) and zeros (0) and remediate the electrical information highway.      


Croft, J.  Semaphore Flag Signalling System.  Retrieved online 21 Oct 2009 from the World Wide Web:

International Code of Signals.  (2009).  In Microsoft Encarta.  Retrieved 15 Oct 2009 from the World Wide Web:

Kanderovskis, K.  (2007).  Telegraph.  Retrieved 19 Oct 2009 from the World Wide Web:

Lubrano, Annteresa. (1997). The telegraph: how technology innovation caused social change. New York: Garland Pub.

Library of Congress, (2007).  Today in History.  May 24 What hath god wrought?  Retrieved Oct 18, 2009 from the World Wide Web:

 Neuman, J.  (1996).  The media’s impact on international affairs, than and now.  Retrieved 10 Oct 2009 from the World Wide Web:

 Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.   

 Papp, D.S., Alberts, D.S., & Tuyahov, A.  (2002).  Historical impacts of information technologies: An overview.  Retrieved 18 Oct 2009:

 Russell, F.S., (1999).  Information gathering in classical Greece.  Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press.  Retrieved 18 Oct, 2009:

 telegraph. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 24, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online 19 Oct 09 from the World Wide Web:

 Wilson, B.  (Unknown).  The drumming of traditional Ashanti Healing Cermonies.  Retrieved online 18 Oct 09 from the World Wide Web:

 Yates, JoAnne, (Unknown).  The Telegraph’s effect on nineteenth century markets and firms.   Retrieved Oct 16 from the World Wide Web:

November 1, 2009   No Comments

Perceptions: Pre- and Post- Gutenberg

Through equal parts careful examination and applied imagination, tracing the effects of codices’ change from manuscripts to printed text is possible. This reformation altered the very situation of codices in society. The explosion of access precipitated by the printing press also changed the very nature of consuming information.

According to Benjamin in his seminal work Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a “tremendous shattering of tradition” is one result of the m reproduction possible post-Gutenberg. The “aura” or uniqueness is lost (1936).  This abstract notion is difficult to grasp and could be considered too amorphous to define differences between manuscripts and printed text. However, further support comes from more concrete corners.  Pre-Gutenberg chirography details the numerous writing systems in simultaneous use by one society. Salen (2001) details these multiplicities. For example, Early Rome had three formal writing systems each meeting a specific textual need. Discerned through this research is, “the inscription of language by human hands involved practices in which value and meaning were assigned not to just what was written, but how it was written” (p. 134). Printed text cannot share in these characteristics; something is lost in translation from manuscripts to printed text. The move disconnects readers from the “discovery of that magical moment of creation” (Trachsler, 2006, p.7). The philologists use their own, distinct phrases to communicate their stand: “pretty books” and “ugly or dirty manuscripts”. But those same ugly manuscripts reveal the creative process, “those chartae and pages with all their cross-outs, deletions, erasures, marginalia, and insertions that reveal the author’s hand in the struggle of artistic creation” (Storey, 2006, p. 3). Whether you align with the philologists or the chirographers, something is lost when the flow of many hands writing is replaced by a single machine printing.

The move from manuscripts to printed books also re-located the reader. Ong in his chapter “Writing Restructures Consciousness” explores the effect of changing textualities. “Early writing provides the reader with conspicuous help for situating himself imaginatively” (2002, p.102). Eventually the reader must disengage with the printed book, as there is a shift in the senses. Pre-Gutenberg manuscripts contained residual orality – they stemmed from and recorded the spoken word. Added to this were the illuminations and very flow of the script immersing the reader into a multi-sensory experience. The reader seemed invited into a conversation through reading. Printed books were confined to the visual and the delivery of the text reflected this. [See Ong, Chapter 4]

Manuscripts were possessed by the few and the knowledge disseminated to the many. This closed system, where what was worth knowing and preserving, seemed clearly defined by the efforts of scribes, provided a sense of security (McLuhan, 1962). The flow of information was top down. Gutenberg’s printing press removed established means of selection and unlocked the flood gates – the first information overload. Readers no longer savoured the content of a manuscript; soon they were able to sip from many selections. Consuming text also became a solitary, independent exercise, independent of the usual sites of practice – universities, church, or crown. The force of these sites of practice to dictate what information was shared diminished. Rather than loyal scribes capturing the knowledge, the printing press became the new amanuensis and loyalty was scarce. “Multiplication was one of the main points in the praise of the new invention” (Widmann, 1972, p. 253), but the technology that had the capability to retain knowledge for everyone and for always did not fulfill its promise. The explosion of printed knowledge actually decreased the value of that knowledge. The written tradition soon fell prey to supply and demand. As the price and investment of print decreases, anyone can be an author; it is no longer an exalted position held by scholars and religious leaders. The marketplace floods (Mueller, 1994; Swierk, 1974). Rather than knowledge being preserved through this more stable medium, texts fell out of favour as quickly as they had achieved popularity. The printed book becomes a commodity, subject to the whims of society rather than a communication tool for knowledge.

“Setting type also emphasizes the importance of the letter as the basic unit of written forms, as an element in its own right with particular characteristics and not only as the representation of the patterns of spoken language” (Drucker, 1984, p. 11). The whole starts to separate and break down into many parts. Again, the flow is interrupted when codices change from manuscript to print. Once one begins to view something differently such as fragments rather than a whole, how one interacts with it is open to change as well. Engaging with the text no longer resembles a conversation; the text grows into an object to be acted upon. “Print suggests that words are things far more than writing ever did” (Ong, 2002, p. 116). Commoditization of text happens in another form.

One of the most striking examples of changing attitudes toward texts is the increased use of indexes. Pre-Gutenberg, indexing was inefficient and ineffective. “Two manuscripts of a given work, even if copied from the same dictation, almost never correspond page for page” (Ong, 2002, p. 122). The precision possible Post-Gutenberg provided a radical change. No longer did texts need to be digested whole or scanned closely. Indexing as way finding allowed a reader to jump in and jump out as s/he saw fit. Although this information architecture allowed the reader to zero in on items of most interest, it also fragmented the text. What once were global understandings and deep interactions with a text became analytical pieces and short exchanges.

The combination of the explosion of texts and the different means of access led to fundamental changes. Previously, a person would be exposed to a limited number of manuscripts, but most likely would continue to explore their meanings and apply the wisdom gained from close scrutiny. With the post-Gutenberg information overload merging with the growing popularity of organization through indexing, breadth overtook depth. The natural conclusion to this was that it became more likely a person would know a few things about a great many subjects rather than know a few subjects in great detail.

I’ve attempted to give you a glimpse into how changing the visual representation may affect a person. Please follow this link if you’re interested.


November 1, 2009   No Comments

The Photocopier

Hi everyone,

You can find my research paper about the invention of the photocopier in a wiki here. Comments are most welcome!



November 1, 2009   No Comments

See Jane Read: The rise of the basal reader in education

The basal reader has been seen an invaluable tool in reading to many teachers for over a century. The reader has undergone a few changes, but the basic premise remains the same. Students read leveled books that prepare them for grade level examinations and curriculum. Teachers are not to deviate from these readers when teaching reading comprehension, though this is not always the consensus in the education community. “Reading is seen as a flexible tool for learning rather than an inflexible set of skills to be acquired, stored, and brought out for use as the situation arises” (Harste, 2001, p.265). As Harste states, this is the viewpoint by most teachers on basal readers in education today. In this paper, I will first give a brief history of the introduction and usage of basal readers, followed by an overview of the changes to education as a result of this technology.

Basal readers were introduced to school children in the mid-to-late 19th century. It was during this time that students would congregate into one room schools, where the ages would range from 5 to 18, to be taught by one teacher. There were very little textbooks available during this time. One teacher, William McGuffey, was asked to create a series of books for primary students. Known as McGuffey Readers, they were filled with stories of strength, character, goodness and truth.  These primary books contained many pictures and followed a phonics based approach to teach reading. Over time, readers were then created for older students, which focused more on skills in oral reading and presentation. The readers for older students contained poems, stories, and bible passages. Another known basal reader is the Dick and Jane series, written by William S. Gray in the 1930s. These readers focused more on reading the whole word and with using repetition and did not follow the same phonics lessons the McGuffey readers did. The modern day basal reader used from about the 1950s onwards, has books for students, a guide for the teacher, as well as some predetermined activities (Hoffman, McCarthey, Elliott, Bayles, Price & Ferree, 1998). When working with basal readers, students are divided into groups “…according to their abilities to read accurately and to complete written assignments successfully” (Shannon, 2001, p.235). These skill based books/activities are taught in sequential order, with the teacher providing pre- and post- reading activities.

For much of the 20th century, teachers relied on basal readers to fulfill requirements for the reading comprehension curriculum. It was in the late 1970s that the pendulum shifted away from basal readers and workbooks to trade books and “experimental programs”. Goodman (2001) used both basals and trade books in her reading program and asked her students for feedback at the end of the year. She notes that her students “…were vehemently opposed to basals, almost all with the same reason: Basal readers are ‘boring’” (Goodman, p.277). Early basals, such as the Dick and Jane series, were criticized for their lack of diversity in the choice of characters and in storylines. “…The researchers suggest that the meaningless stories of beginning basal anthologies pose serious problems for young children. As as result, those students experience difficulty in learning to read” (Shannon, 2001, p. 237). In an infamous 1955 book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, author Rudolf Flesch criticizes the methodology of these readers. The whole word approach had students stumped when they came across a word they didn’t know when reading. The student was not versed in the phonics approach, since teachers were not supposed to deviate from the basal reading program, and overall literacy was declining. Flesch advocated for a return to the phonics approach, though it was many years after this book was published before schools began to do so.

At first, the basal reader was an excellent addition to education. It solved the dilemma of how to teach multiple ages and levels under one roof. As schools became bigger and there were more teachers, the lack of anything different kept the basal reader in circulation. The only change came with the readers of the 1930s, which had students reading whole words and not using a phonics approach. This resulted in many students scoring lower on literacy tests and a large number of students showing an overall disinterest in books and reading. Educational advocates went back to the phonics approach with great success, though it was not until quite recently that teachers started to try using trade books and activities other than basal ones.  Harste’s (2001) research shows that “…almost anything teachers do beyond a basal reading program significantly improves reading comprehension”  (p.265). Based on Flesch and Harste’s research, one might conclude that basal readers hindered progress in literacy for many years. “The basal sequence is so instruction-intensive that, by the end of the year, only one fourth grader had completed the fourth grade book. Instead of providing access to reading, the basal denies it” (Goodman, 2001, p.275-276). Teachers who had been taught with basals, continued to use them, unknowingly retarding reading skills for generations.

When speaking with fellow educational professionals, many share the sentiment that basal readers are outdated. “Advocates argue that basals have not lived up to their original promise to remain on the cutting edge of educational science in order to ensure that all students will learn to read” (Shannon, 2001, p.236). Many feel that using a varied approach will instead increase the literacy levels of their students.  “…Through daily writing and reading and sharing they begin to recognize and remember words and their speaking vocabulary increases their reading vocabulary daily at a much faster rate than any basal reader could ever do” ( Oxendine, 1989, p. 12). Using a basal reading program, children must make the “…transition from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’…” (Walsh, 2003, p.24). Walsh continues to argue that children are not gaining or extracting meaning from the text and the basal reader is merely a place where children learn to sound out words.

As an elementary school teacher, it is hard not to imagine a time without basal readers influencing reading comprehension lesson plans. Many generations of readers were the result of an implemented basal reading program. This program was not all bad, but it did not provide a variety in teaching methods, as many teachers did not deviate from the program manual. In the past 20 years, basal readers have seen a decline within the classroom. Teachers are choosing a varied approach when teaching reading skills, including a phonics component, using trade books, and having students create their own stories to read aloud. This approach has students more interested in reading, as well as using reading skills to learn new tasks in other subjects.


Flesch, R. Why Johnny Can’t Read–and what you can do about it. New York, Harper: 1955.

Harste, J. (1989, September). The Basalization of American Reading Instruction: One Researcher Responds. Theory Into Practice, 28(4), 265. Retrieved September 17, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

Hoffman, J., McCarthey, S., Elliott, B., Bayles, D., Price, D., Ferree, A., et al. (1998, April). The literature-based basals in first-grade classrooms: Savior, Satan, or same-old, same-old?. Reading Research Quarterly, 33(2), 168. Retrieved September 17, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.
Oxendine, L., & Appalachia Educational Lab., C. (1989). Dick and Jane Are Dead: Basal Reader Takes a Back Seat to Student Writings.

Shannon, P. (1989, September). Basal Readers: Three Perspectives. Theory Into Practice, 28(4), 235. Retrieved September 17, 2009, from Academic Search Complete database.

Walsh, K. (2003). Basal Readers: The Lost Opportunity To Build the Knowledge that Propels Comprehension. American Educator, 27(1), 24-27.

November 1, 2009   No Comments

Invention of the Telephone

My second commentary is located in this wiki too: Course:ETEC540/2009WT1/Assignments/ResearchProject/InventionTelephone


The telephone is an instrument used to transmit and receive sounds, most commonly the human voice. The word telephone comes from the Greek words tele meaning far and phone meaning voice. The telephone works by converting sound waves into electrical signals and by converting electrical signals into sound waves. The history of the telephone is controversial because although many inventors were involved in performing pioneering experiments in voice transmission over a wire, only Alexander Graham Bell obtained a patent for the telephone in March 1876. (

Alexander Graham Bell who was born in Scotland worked as a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. As a professor, he trained teachers in how to teach the deaf mutes how to speak and he performed research with speech and electricity. The first bi-directional transmission of speech was made by Bell to his assistant on March 10, 1876, which was followed by the first long distance phone call which was made by Bell to his assistant on August 10, 1876. Then, Bell created a primitive telephone and a patent was obtained for it on January 30, 1877. This telephone transmitted weak sounds and one needed to place one’s ear close to the earphone to be able to hear. Bell went on to produce commercial telephones, made many improvements to them, and laid the ground work for the development of the telephone industry(

The telephone was a very important invention of the nineteenth century which helped improve communications between people at a distance. The first telephone exchange that linked many people who had telephones together so that they could communicate by telephone was implemented in Hartford, Connecticut in 1877 and the first telephone exchange that linked two cities was implemented in 1883. This exchange connected the cities of New York and Boston. (


The telephone provided a big change to existing methods of conversation at the time of its invention because both parties involved in a conversation no longer needed to be in each other’s presence to communicate. Reciprocity, which is the back and forth communication between individuals having a conversation would be eliminated in general when machines were involved according to Franklin (1999, p.42) due to the distance between the individuals involved in the conversation. However, through the use of the telephone, reciprocity is preserved because the telephone allows for “genuine reciprocity” (Franklin, 1999, p.140) whereby the basic makeup of a conversation: people talking to each other and listening to each other and responding to each other is possible.

 Broadcasting Medium

Early in the twentieth century, the telephone was used in an innovative way as a real-time two-way broadcasting medium for broadcasting sporting events: “A reporter on a sports field could describe an important match and the phone brought back to him the cheering and booing of those who listened to the phone on this giant party line, connected just for the occasion” (Franklin, 1999, p.106). At this time, many thousands of people could partake in this type of sports broadcast. During this same period in France, the same telephone technology was used to broadcast operas (Franklin, 1999, p.107). Broadcasting over the phone today is a form of one-way communication whereby users listen to recorded messages, (for example: voice mail messages) but are unable to interact with these messages (Franklin, 1999, p.107).

Telephone Operators

Telephone Operators played an important role in the history of the telephone by providing the human connection between telephone electronics and the community: “the operator’s role was that of an operating and trouble-shooting engineer as well as that of a facilitator” (Franklin, 1990, p.107). As technological advances were made in the telephone industry, the need for the human point of contact of the telephone operator was significantly reduced as the industry became increasingly automated, making the role of the telephone operator increasingly redundant. Modern telephone technologies such as the ability to host a conference call and retrieve voice mail have enabled telephone users to be independent and not need to depend on a telephone operator for help executing these functions. Franklin (1990, p.110) states that technical designers were inconsiderate concerning operators’ needs because as their jobs became increasing automated, they were left with “fragmented and increasingly meaningless work.”


Ong (1982, p.3) describes the invention of electronic equipment including the telephone as the beginning of an age called Secondary Orality, “which depends on writing and print for its existence”. Secondary Orality combines the characteristics of both literate and oral societies whereby telephone technologies encourage relaxed, informal, immediate conversations and foster a sense of a close-knit community (Ong, 1982, p.133-134). Ong (1982, p.134) also states that telephone technologies are promoting literacy through the production of printed books because they “are essential for the manufacture and operation of equipment and for its use as well”.


From a teaching perspective, Bates and Poole (2003) describe the telephone as a two-way synchronous communication technology that provided equal opportunities for all students to participate in learning. The telephone is “good for clarification, diagnosis of learning difficulties, student feedback, discussion, and argument” (Bates and Poole, 2003, p.54). The telephone necessitates that students attend class at the same time, which fosters a “sense of community” (Bates and Poole, 2003, p.54). The use of the telephone was applied to education in the 1980s at many universities in the United States. These universities offered remote classroom teaching whereby a teacher at one campus taught in real-time to other campuses in other parts of the state. The motivation behind this initiative was to offer the same educational opportunities to all students in the state regardless of where they were located (Bates and Poole, 2003, p. 123). Although the use of the telephone in teaching allows for two-way synchronous communication among the professor and the students, “the remote classroom model generally is based heavily on the transmission of information, with limited opportunities for interaction and discussion unless the total number of students at all sites combined is relatively small” (Bates and Poole, 2003, p.125-126).


The invention of the telephone provided an important device for facilitating human communication. No longer did people need to be co-located beside each other to be able to converse. Through the use of the telephone, people could have equally meaningful conversations at a distance, all the while preserving reciprocity. The telephone early on was also be used as a broadcasting medium like the radio, but also allowed for the audience to respond to the commentator, which made it a two-way broadcasting medium. Today, the telephone is used as a one-way broadcasting medium for transmitting recorded messages. Telephone operators played an important role in directing telephone calls and performing troubleshooting activities as well. However, their work became increasingly redundant as the telephone became increasingly automated. Literacy was promoted through the use of the telephone due to the fact that people need to read and write in order to manufacture and operate telephone technologies. Although the telephone has been used to facilitate teaching, it is not the best medium for teaching due to the fact that discussions and interactions can be difficult to manage when classes contain a large number of students.


Bates, A.W. & Poole, G. (2003). Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education, Foundations for Success. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Driscoll, M.P. (2000). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Franklin, Ursula. (1990). The Real World of Technology. Toronto: Ananci Press Inc.

Ong, Walter (1982). Orality and literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.

November 1, 2009   No Comments

Public Literacy: Broadsides, Posters and the lithographic process

I started my journey examining fonts used in graphic design.  My search then led me to ask how had text in public changed with the introduction of the printing press? This question led me to the broadside and public ephemera and the poster.  Eventually I found the lithographic process and the ability to combine print and images in an economical and rapid fashion for public display and the eventual development of the poster.  It has been a journey.


November 1, 2009   No Comments

Research Project – From Rote to Note

Hi Folks, my research project that looks at the changes that occured with the move from slate use and rote learning to paper and notebooks can be found at the end of this link,  

Jim McDonald

November 1, 2009   No Comments

The Influence of Television and Radio on Education

Please follow Wiki link.

or read here

The Influence of Television and Radio on Education

By David Berljawsky

ETEC 540

November 1, 2009

There is little question that the transition from radio to television media affected both literacy and education. As educators, television was a powerful new technology to compete with. Although in theory this evolution may have made educating easier, it also caused a ripple in the influence that educators held. This power struggle between education and technology is not new and it continues to this very day. The programming found in television and radio was reflective of the times. How did the change from an aural based media to a visual based media affect education, literacy and social change? Imagination was no longer the driving force in produced media, and this created a culture where instant gratification and visual stimulation became the norm. In this paper I will explore the cultural and social differences between television and radio, the developing power struggle between teachers and television technology and the increasing influence of television compared to radio on young learners.

The age of television has led to a decline in the amount of time and effort that younger students devote to reading and literacy based activities. “Typically, television tended to displace other entertainment activities, including radio, movies, and comic books reading for school-age children (Neuman, 1991, p.21).”  It is uncertain that there is a strong correlation between literacy rates and television due to a few factors. There is an increase in television shows over the years that do promote literacy such as Sesame Street. Some children’s television programming does have high educational standards. As well, due to urbanization, there are also a higher percentage of students who are able to attend schools and receive a proper education in today’s day and age. The percentage of children in elementary schools in BC increased from 87 percent in 1930 to 92.5 percent in 1962 (Statistics Canada, 2009). Educators became more experienced as well, with the teacher qualification standards increasing. In 1952 22% of teachers had a university degree compared to 57% in 1973 (Statistics Canada, 2009).

A Lack of Imagination

When listening to radio one needed to be able to imagine programming without the aid of visuals. This created a world where visual imagery was seen as something more sacred. People were unable to view things that we take for granted today. There was an optimism and innocence associated with radio. Without visuals, it was imagination based and its entertainment value lay largely with the mind of the listener. “They miss what now seems like the simplicity of those times, the innocent optimism (even during the Depression and the War), the directness of the medium itself. But what they yearn for most is the way that radio invited them to participate actively in the production of the show at hand (Douglas, 1985, p4).”

There is an interactive element of radio that we seem to take for granted today. With television we are given everything, both visually and aurally. Very little is left to the imagination with this media, unless the programming directs us to think this way. We expect to be entertained at all times. According to Neuman “…television has fundamentally shifted basic societal values, from those which had previously been characterized by the willingness to defer gratification, to a new set of attitudes where the present is amplified all out of proportion (Neuman, 1991, p.92).” This greatly affects teaching practices. It is difficult to compete with hyper visual imagery and a sense of instant gratification.  Some educational subjects are difficult to make entertaining, which affects the interest of the student.

Social Impacts of the Change

Television and visual media helped to develop the beliefs and values of our culture. Media programming is produced as a response to society’s values and norms. “In their view, children around the age of six lose interest in quality educational programs when they enter the school system; the only way to bypass children’s resentment of instructional content is to focus on social aspects of the programs (Lemish, 2007, p.199).” This makes educating students more difficult because of the type of television programming they start to watch as they enter schooling age.  In the radio days, specifically in the 1930-50’s the types of programming that were popular were reflective of the times as well. Shows such as westerns, dramas and mysteries were commonplace. The content was light, especially compared to today’s standards and was reflective of the culture.

Radio’s cultural influence was very strong, without the constant bombardment of visuals and advertising the power that these spoken words held were stronger than ever. There was no competition with television or other media forms. Much like television, and other forms of entertainment it represented the views and values of the era.  In a sense, radio broadcasting (or narrating) was similar in some regards to oral cultures, where the word held much power. “Moreover, skilled oral narrators deliberately vary their traditional narratives because part of their skill is their ability to adjust to new audiences and new situations or simply to be coquettish (Ong, 1982, p.48).”

The transition from a radio based world to a television based world affected social interactions in school age children. It had a very strong effect at the onset of the television age. Many initial studies in the early 1950’s have been seen as biased, because of the lack of regular households with televisions. They were initially seen as a status symbol and were not found in abundance, thus results were skewered accordingly. The first respected major studies occurred in 1958 and 1961 in Britain, USA and Canada. These results all had very similar outcomes. The activities that were the most affected by the introduction of television were “the use of other media, including radio listening, cinema attendance… and to some extent, play time with other children (Neuman, 1991, p.29).”

Television and Education

Televisions has influenced education and teaching practices. Educators have had to adapt and provide lessons that not only educate but entertain the learner. It has been shown that attention spans have decreased since the prominence of television. Reading is not seen in the same esteem as in previous generations. “Reading was not regarded as an elitist activity, and printed matter was spread evenly among all kinds of people (Postman, 1985, p.34).” This is not a new phenomenon. Whenever a new technology is introduced there is often a change in educational philosophy to adapt to the cultural shift. We have seen it more recently with modern internet technologies. After all “The medium is the message (McLuhan as cited in Postman, 1992, p14).”

How can teachers compete with educational and regular television? “In contrast, commercial television stations disavow having any educational responsibilities. Above all else, “their raison d’etre” is to make a profit by attracting as wide an audience as possible in order to sell advertisers products (Lemish, 2007, p.148).” This affects society in many different ways. The influence of advertising is amplified. If the television production companies only care about profit (attracting sponsors) than they will likely create programs that appeal to these advertisers regardless of educational value. This will only make teachers jobs more difficult. The influence of television on children is huge, if they are watching shows designed simply to entertain and maximize profit, then this will have negative effects on reading and writing. Educational value will be ignored.  It is frightening to imagine this, especially in relation to the school systems influence.  “A great media metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense (Postman, 1985, p.16).”

How has writing evolved from the age of radio to television? “Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television. There they encounter the printed word (Postman, 1985, p.16).” Children are raised in the TV generation watching visual entertainment before learning to read and write in most cases. This makes teaching writing harder than before due to students having a different focus than before.  There is ample evidence to prove that television has affected student focus and made reading and writing seem less important. “Children of television will come to expect all of life to be entertaining; learning will be displaced in favour of the ready-made… this demand for entertainment will eventually lead children to be less enterprising and resourceful (Neuman, 1991, p.92).”

The impact that television has had on education is dramatic. It has helped to change the dynamics found between teachers and students. Children are being raised with the television turned on for a large portion of their lives. They enter school acclimatised to the views and beliefs that are found on television. Attention spans have been adjusted accordingly and this negatively affects the quality and type of education that is transmitted to the student. This is going to change. Technology is constantly in a state of evolution and the television movement is only a part of that evolution. Of course, with the upcoming generation engaged in hypertext and its issues, we may end up looking back nostalgically at the good old days of television.


Lemish, Dafna. (2007) Children and Television: A Global Perspective. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Neuman, Susan. (1991) Literacy in the Digital Age. Norwood, New Jersey. Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Douglas, Susan. Listening in: Radio and the American Imagination. Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

“Elementary and Secondary Schools.” Statistics Canada., Oct, 2009.

November 1, 2009   No Comments

Yatate: The Writing Technology of the Samurai

 Please follow my wiki here.  For a background and visual reference to my essay, I recommend you view my short yatate presentation:





Yatate: The Writing Technology of the Samurai



Erin Gillespie

ETEC 540

November 1, 2009

 The study of Japanese history often evokes images of samurai, yet samurai are not often associated with the study of writing technology. The use of ancient Chinese writing technology led to an invention by the samurai that revolutionized writing in Japan. Although documentation is difficult to come by, it is argued that the samurai greatly contributed to Japanese literacy through the use of a portable writing technology initially invented for the battle field.

 Trade with the Tang Dynasty of China in 784 AD introduced education through Chinese writing technology to Japan (Andressen, 2001; Bernard, 1999; Kato, 1997; Kwo, 1981). The writing technology was known as “the four precious things of the study” and consisted of a brush, ink, paper and an ink stone (Wang, 1930). The animal hair brush was 21 cm long with a bamboo or wooden handle (Kwo, 1981). Ink was a solid mixture of lampblack, animal fats and vegetable oils, which when rubbed on an ink stone (suzuri) with water, produced an even black ink (Wang, 1930). Directly related to this writing technology are Japan’s first literary achievements and the establishment of schools for the children of nobility in 712 (Kanzaki, 1996; Kato, 1997). During its initial development, Japanese literacy and writing technology was mainly the domain of courtiers and Buddhist priests (Andressen, 2001). There was no significant change in the technology of writing in Japan until the Kamakura period.

During Kamakura (1185-1333), the samurai emerged as warriors assigned to protect their generals (shogunate) and aristocratic families, indicating a shift to feudalism from imperialism (Andressen, 2001). However, the impact the samurai had on the spread of literacy and education is often overlooked. The displaced cultural elite spread court culture and literacy to shogunate and samurai warriors (Andressen, 2001). Political conflicts and civil wars led to literature that centered on military exploits, impermanence and transience (Jewel, 1998). Children of the samurai received formal schooling and lessons in literacy during this period (Yamazumi, 1987). The clan general, Yoritomo, was officially proclaimed shogun by the emperor in 1192 and, once legitimized, was able to learn cultural values from the former court elite (Andressen, 2001).

According to the The British Museum, literate Japanese used a personal calligraphy writing box consisting of the brush (fude), ink stick(sumi), ink stone (suzuri) and a water dropper until 1868 (The British Museum, 2009). This was not the only technology used, as corroborated by Mr. Tsuchida, curator of the Japan Stationary Museum (e-mail, October 25, 2009). During the first half of the Kamakura period a new writing technology was invented and used by the samurai and displaced the ancient writing box (Stutler, 2009; Tsuchida, e-mail, October 25, 2009).

 The new technology was portable, making it a more convenient option, and was called yatate, or “arrow stand” (Stutler, 2009). The name yatate is inherited from the samurai’s older form of carrying small suzuri or a calligraphy set inside their arrow stands (Stutler, 2009). The classic 1183 AD story Heike Monogatari describes the Genji samurai Kiso Yoshinaka as carrying a suzuri in his arrow stand and writing for his lord (Marshall, 2009). The yatate replaced the traditional writing set to become the first portable self-contained writing technology in Japan around 1185 (Marshall, 2009; Stutler, 2009). Although there is no documentation, the yatate is believed to be invented by the samurai and they were the only people allowed to carry and use yatate until the Edo period (Stutler, 2009).

It is possible samurai warriors played a large role in the spread of literacy with their yatate. It is well documented that they produced a great number of novels (Kato, 1997). The samurai supported the development of art and literature and continued to formally school their children (Andressen, 2001; Deal, 2007). Samurai warriors initially wrote using calligraphy sets to report details of battles, tax payments and land transactions to their lords and generals, known as shoguns (Marshall, 2009). It is logical that carrying a traditional calligraphy box set was cumbersome and time consuming to assemble in the field. It is highly likely that a warrior was inspired to create a more portable and efficient writing technology to efficiently carry out his duties. The documented respect for literacy by the samurai implies a love of writing which also may have inspired the portable yatate’s design.

The invention of the yatate by the samurai indicates that a desire and need for a writing technology more suited to mobility. The oldest type of yatate looked like a long block of wood, and folded out like a Japanese fan (Marshall, 2009; Stutler, 2009). When the lid slid to the side, a brush and ink retainer opened to reveal a piece of cotton or raw silk soaked in liquid ink (Marshall, 2009; Stutler, 2009). This was a revolutionary invention at the time as a dependable, efficient and portable writing instrument! The brush could be dipped in the saturated cloth without risk of ink spillage and the entire device was light weight and extremely portable. If the ink on the cloth dried out, moistening the cloth will refresh the ink.

A great battle in 1333 ushered in a civil war which ended in victory for the Tokugawa shoguns (Andressen, 2001). At this time, the yatate changed in design possibly due to the demand for a greater ink supply and a growth in popularity (Stutler, 2009).  The portability of the yatate may have increased the number of written records during conflict, which then led to the change in ink design. It is possible that the yatate may have been more powerful than the sword during war, as samurai could quickly record the transaction of territories. The unification of Japan under Tokugawa shoguns in 1600 ushered in the Edo period and marked a transition of the yatate from technology of the samurai to the civilian.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), the yatate resembled a dipper with had a larger ink retainer and a long, thin hollow handle where one could store a brush and in some models, a slim knife (Stutler, 2009). It is not well documented, but the samurai passed the yatate on to merchants and commoners during Edo which is evidenced in woodblock prints showing commoners carrying yatate. Only the samurai were allowed to carry swords and the slim knife in the yatate intended for scraping ink may have been a commoner’s weapon of self defence (Stutler, 2009).

Citizens of Edo period were only permitted to travel on religious pilgrimages and yatate were used to record a pilgrimage, spread word of Shintoism or to sketch images from the journey (Stutler, 2009). Documented proof in a print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) shows a traveller carrying yatate.  Edo civilization flourished and it is tempting to consider how the merchant class may have expanded their immediate territory through use of the portable yatate.

The yatate clearly transformed the way people dressed. Commoners fastened yatate to the kimono sash (obi) by a cord or decorative button (netsuke) or, more commonly, tucked the yatate under the sash (Stutler, 2009). Hokusai’s woodblock print shows the yatate tucked in at the back, indicating the yatate were removed from the sash when used. The change in dressing is a strong indication that the yatate was a popular writing technology used daily by men and women and one which made literacy accessible. There is little data to suggest children used yatate. However, formal education continued and the government established tens of thousands of schools for the children of samurai and of commoners (Deal, 2007; Yamazumi, 1987).

The yatate’s growth in popularity from the samurai to commoners may be directly related to the emergence of a formidable literary population who wrote novels, poetry and prose until late in the Tokugawa era. The Edo period saw the samurai and townspeople exercise a greater cultural influence through writing (Kato, 1997). Japan’s cultural center moved to Edo (modern day Tokyo) and a great number of “gesaku”, or frivolous written works, indicate the popularity of writing (Jewel, 1998).  Masterpieces of Edo literature were created with yatate, including sketches by travelling artists (Stutler, 2009). A portable writing technology may have been instrumental in the popularity and accessibility of literacy during this time. By the middle of the 18th century, most authors were samurai, merchants or peasants (Jewel, 1998; Kato, 1997). It is noted that two of these types of authors are documented as using yatate in art, implying the writing technology influenced the literary and artistic world.

During Meiji (1868-1912), the Tokugawa shogunate and the samurai were abolished and a constitutional monarchy established (Andressen, 2001). Japan’s literacy rate at this time is estimated at forty percent (Easterlin, 2000). This high rate may have been influenced by the formal schooling efforts of the samurai and possibly their yatate. Emperor Meiji opened Japan’s doors to international trade and rapid modernization (Andressen, 2001). The yatate, perhaps the samurai’s strongest and most secretive weapon was to be replaced by the Western fountain pen.


 Andressen, C. (2001). A short history of Japan: From Samurai to Sony. New South Wales, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Bernard, H. R. (1999). Languages and scripts in contact: Historical perspectives. In D.A. Wagner, R. L. Venezky & B.V. Street (Eds.), Literacy: An international handbook (pp. 22-28). Westview Press. Available Online 12, October, 2009, from

Deal, W. E. (2007). Handbook to life in medieval and early modern Japan. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Easterlin, R. A. (2000). The worldwide standard of living since 1800. The Journal of Economic Perspectives 14 (1), 7-26. Retrieved from

Jewel, M. (1998). Japanese literary history. Retrieved from

Kanzaki, M. (1996). History of Japan’s literature. Retrieved from

Kato, S. (1997). A history of Japanese literature: From the man’yoshu to modern times. Surrey, Richmond: Curzon Press Ltd.

Kwo, D.W. (1981). Chinese brushwork in calligraphy and painting: Its history, aesthetics and techniques. Mincola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.

Marshall, K. (2009). Tokohan: Antique Japanese yatate. Retrieved from

Stutler, R. (2009). Tokyo fountain pen scene: What is yatate? Retrieved from

The British Museum. (2009). Explore/Highlights: The writing box. Retrieved from

Wang, C. C. (1930). Notes on Chinese ink. Metropolitan Museum Studies, 3(1), 114-133. Retrieved from

Yamazumi, M. (1987). A brief history of Japanese education. Tokyo: Iwanami.

November 1, 2009   3 Comments

The implications for literacy and education with the development of free textbooks in Mexico’s grade schools.


The use and distribution of free textbooks in Mexico’s grade schools stimulated the development of literacy within the country and the outreach of information to the poorest and most isolated areas in the nation. The distribution of these textbooks helped promote national values as well as the democratization of information distribution.

            In this paper, we will briefly review the historical context in which Mexico’s free textbooks were introduced to this country’s educational system as well as analyze some of the implications textbooks had in the development of education and literacy within this country.

Context and development of free textbooks in Mexico

To be able to fully understand the implications of the introduction and use of free textbooks in Mexico’s educational system, we must first understand how this system was established and what were the first steps towards the development of nation-wide textbooks.

Mexico’s educational system as we know it today was formally established in September 1921 with José Vasconcelos as the first Secretary of Public Education. Initially, the Secretary’s tasks were to organize courses, open schools in the various states and municipalities, edit books and create public libraries. All of these actions supported the successful initiation of a nationwide educational system. 

Vasconcelos’ main goals were to strengthen the system and provide education within the various developing professions and occupations in Mexico, such as: railroads, the textile industry, construction professionals, teachers, graphic arts professionals and typewriter technicians. Although Vasconcelos’ efforts were evident in the years he headed the department, the presidential electoral rebellion in 1924 endangered the newly founded department and the entire educational project.

A couple of decades after the rebellion (1944), Jaime Torres Bodet, an apprentice of Vasconcelos and newly appointed Secretary of Education in Mexico, was worried about the high cost of textbooks used in elementary education in Mexico. Although free public education was guaranteed constitutionally, textbooks were very costly and of low quality, making them inaccessible to poor families and people in rural areas in the developing country, since initially they had to be purchased by the students at a relatively high cost.

When Adolfo Lopez Mateos became president in 1958, he was faced with a poor country with high levels of illiteracy and inequity regarding access to education and information. He stated that a school could do very little for the children, if the parent didn’t have enough economic resources to buy the basic textbooks (SEP, 2009). It was at this time that the Secretary of Education Torres Bodet pushed for a nationwide literacy campaign with the idea that every student within grade school age should assist school with a textbook paid for and provided by the federal government. This is how the National Commission for Free Textbooks (Comision Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos- CONALITEG for its initials in Spanish) was born and officially established in February, 1959. The idea of this commission was that the free textbook would be a social right, as well as a vehicle that facilitated dialogue and equity in school.

            Since the intention of the textbooks was to democratize information, facilitate knowledge and reach the entire country, the initial task of developing the books and deciding on their content was crucial. This titanic and critical process was designated to Martín Luis Guzmán: a member of the military, journalist and Nobel Prize winner in Literature whose efforts resulted in the creation and consolidation of CONALITEG’s mission and the production of books which supplied the nation’s educational and information demands. Several books on different topics and for different grade levels were produced and revised for students as well as for teachers.

            By 1972, CONALITEG produced 43 books for students and 24 for teachers (SEP, 2009), these books integrated the educational reforms presented by President Luis Echeverría and were constantly modified to integrate subsequent reforms and new educational content. In 1982, the CONALITEG elaborated books with specific information for each of the states which, in the early nineties were transformed into regional books with historical and geographical information for each of the 32 states.

In 1992, Mexico’s Public Educational System launched an integral reform named the Educational Modernization Program, which gave the free textbook an upgrade in content, presentation and delivery. The goal of this new program in relation to the textbooks was to reach most elementary schools before the school year began.


Socially, historically and education-wise, free national textbooks in Mexico were introduced at the right moment in time and with the necessary support from the federal government. Mexico’s citizens, especially those in rural areas or with low incomes immediately adopted the textbooks, as they considered them a potential solution to the growing problem of illiteracy, resulting in a reduced number of people with the necessary training in the various growing professions and occupations. Having being granted free textbooks, rural families found it much easier to take their children to school to continue their educational development. The educational system, on the other hand, found an opportunity to reinforce nationalism and distribute the same information (historical, scientific, etc.) to the entire grade school population.

            One of the historical events that helped drive the founding of CONALITEG and the elaboration and distribution of textbooks in Mexico, was the institution of the Department of Public Education as it was the ultimate effort to federalize and consolidate educational efforts nationwide. Along with the creation of this Department and the founding of CONALITEG, came the centralization of information to facilitate its distribution and access. Although it might be paradoxical, centralizing these efforts, allowed democratization of education and information in the country.

            With democratization of information the education system in Mexico faced, as it currently does, an extremely difficult challenge which is to integrate and contextualize the information appropriately for these textbooks. The main questions with this issue are: What should (and should not) be included and how should “the story” be told? For many Mexicans, the textbooks provided by the Public Educational System, are the only medium of information they’ll ever have access to (Corona, 1997).  According to Corona’s research on the integration of history textbooks in Mexico: “Mexico/EUA: “guerra de razas” en los libros de texto” (1997), the educational system has modified the textbooks according to the historical, social, economical and contextual needs; pointing out or focusing on different historical events depending on the era and social needs. A clear example is the way Mexico’s textbooks portray its relationship with the United States differently within each historical era: “The USA becomes the “good neighbor”” (Corona, 1997, pg. 12) vs “The relationship between Mexico and the USA are closer to barbaric and war-like of military dominance” (Corona, 1997, pg. 11).[1] Other examples of this “issue” are the science and sexual education or health books which have modified its content to adapt the new information and scientific theories now known and approved. The integration of new knowledge in the textbooks is a polemic issue because of the levels of illiteracy and inaccessibility to knowledge and educational opportunities in Mexico. An important issue to mention in this report is the fact that the Mexican government provides “official” versions (not necessarily historically correct) of the country’s history which mold students’ ideas and value systems. A clear example of this was the way history textbooks portrayed one of the political parties (PRI) that maintained power for over sixty years in the country, always mentioning the positive aspects of the party and of the government in turn.

            We now reflect on the great responsibility the federal government has with its population: to provide the means and information necessary to help them learn on their own. A “risky”, but necessary action is to teach Mexico’s population to think and question the government, its policies, etc.


Textbooks and the federal education system as a whole have faced many challenges throughout the years. First, the challenge was to cover the entire country with schools in every state and municipality; next was creating the adequate resources, and finally to update and renew these materials to adapt them to the historical and changing social needs of the country.

Currently, the challenge is to elaborate digital versions of the textbooks to be able to revise and renew its information constantly and at a low cost. Information is changing ever so rapidly such that Mexico cannot afford (economically and socially) the high costs of producing the textbooks with old or obsolete information. Another challenge that the educational system has to consider is the integration of new resources of information to the elaboration of textbooks- collaborative writing and production of knowledge.

The nation-wide free textbooks that Mexico’s educational system provides to its elementary level students has been an alternative to assure that everyone has access to at least the same “official” information, although the challenge to renew and question history, as well as other relevant subjects remains pending.


Corona Berkin, Sarah. (1997). MÉXICO/EUA: una “guerra de razas” en los libros de texto para niños mexicanos. Estudios Sobre las Culturas Contemporáneas, 3(6), 49-69. PDF File Retrieved on October 19, 2009 from EBSCO database, also available in:

 León, Felipe. (Abril, 2006) La liberación de los libros de texto gratuitos en México. Aprender la Libertad. Retrieved on October 20, 2009, from:

Secretaría de Educación Pública, SEP (2009) Historia De La CONALITEG (1944-1982). Retrieved on October 19, 2009, from:

Secretaría de Educación Pública, SEP (2009) Historia de la SEP. Retrieved on October 20, 2009, from: The webpage was last updated on October 5, 2009.

[1] All translations in references have been made by Ana Cecilia Tagliapietra

October 31, 2009   1 Comment

Printing a Changing Language

My research project entitled Printing a Changing Language: The Printing Press and the Standardisation of English can be found on the ETEC540 Wiki. The following video gives a great but short overview of the topic I attempted to tackle.


October 31, 2009   No Comments