Editing Modernism in Canada


June 3, 2014

The Art of Conversation: Learning the Language of XSLT

Today, both Chris and I are posting on our experience in XSLT: A Collaborative Approach taught by the father-son duo Zailig & Josh Pollock.  Since he will be touching on the structure and style of the class, I thought I’d comment a bit more extensively on one of the core concepts that inform the Pollocks’ approach to XSLT:  collaborative dialogue.  The goal of the class is familiarization, so that we can learn to ask the right questions and participate productively in conversations with programmers and other stakeholders in computing.  Because this class assumes that the DH-er will be working in collaborative settings, it is teaching us how to become stronger collaborative partners.  In order to turn our dream DH projects into reality, we need to be able to express what we need and why using the grammar, vocabulary and structure pertinent to rendering it into our desired form.  And that when I realized, it is really no different than what you learn in a first year writing class.

Last week, I finished teaching a summer class on writing and composition at the first year level for non-English majors.  For many of my students, this would be their one and only English class to check off the writing requirement component of their degree.  Ultimately, the goal of my class was to introduce my students to the academy as a variety of intersecting knowledge communities each of which uses its own genre, convention and style to contribute to the current state of knowledge in any given field.  I wasn’t trying to introduce them to the conventions of my own community (literature), but rather, to give them the tools that they need to identify and understand the conventions of whatever disciplines each student had individually chosen to pursue.   Throughout the last term, I constantly reinforced the idea of decoding:  identifying what elements of the message were structural and vocabulary requirements in order to assert that you belonged and could participate within a particular field of knowledge.  By the end of the term, they could competently produce a variety of writing in genres pertinent to fields that were not their own, even though they were not specialists.  The content wasn’t changing the course of the field, but the apprenticeship was giving them the ability to participate and collaborate in the generation of knowledge inside and outside of their own fields.

In this XSLT class, I am not learning how to be an expert in XSLT.  What I am learning instead is far more valuable:  I am learning the critical vocabulary I need to be able to communicate my needs as a digital humanist in collaboration with a programmer.  During the introductions yesterday, James Neufeld usefully suggested that his goal in the class was to become “conversant” in XSLT;  this was a  statement that was picked up by numerous others as we said our hellos and introduced our projects.  Becoming conversant in a new field of knowledge is about carefully learning genre conventions and appropriate vocabulary.  Like my students, I am learning to decode.  Instead of learning how to identify the structure and style appropriate to a book review or journal article, I am learning how to decode code.  I am engaged in critical acts of reading that are intended to inform critical acts of writing.  In the last two days, I have been learning the conventions and vocabulary of a new knowledge community in order to participate in it.  I am not looking to master this genre, but instead, I am looking to be able to understand and identify the central components that make up the genre.  I am learning the art, style, convention and parameters of communicating in XSLT.

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