Author: Anthony Lyon

The Benefits of Plain Text

My academic experience is and always has been one laden with a great deal of English courses, most of which involve a similar sort of experience; a class discussion, some lecture, assigned reading, are typical statutes of nearly every English course. Though I certainly take no issue with any of these things – in fact, I tend mostly to enjoy them – English 340 is among the first to challenge this framework. Though we do often engage with this model, the manner with which we do is mostly different, typically involving the use of a few programs native to internet bloggers rather than English students. One such program is a plain text editor called Atom, an asset which perfectly embodies the mission of English 340 as a whole.

Atom is a program which takes the very basis of the study of English – text – and opens to it a back door, that which affords the user a greater degree of control and ease than a word processor might. As a plain text editor, Atom allows the user to type, edit, format, and save bodies of text without the clunkiness inherent in many other word processors. It removes the large task bar/button based system of editing and instead reduces the program to more basic forms, presenting on the home screen only a list of files and space in which those files can be opened. Every other function – bold, italics, bullet points, etc. – is accessible through in-text inputs.

For a new user, Atom is a bit intimidating. At the outset of this semester, I was skeptical that anything would become of our use of Atom. I, a devout user of Google Drive, remained adamant that Atom had little to offer that Google Docs did not, and that the seeming “inconvenience” of Atom would not outmatch the corporate code I’d clung to. I would soon realize, however, that Atom as a program is not designed to yield short term returns. Instead, it requires it’s user to play as much a role in the actual functions of text editing as the program does. Until you’ve gotten used to typing in Atom, it can seem like a bit of a chore: text functions can be difficult to remember, as well as certain file types and what they each denote, but these hiccups remain for only as long as it takes one to commit them to memory.

Now, writing this journal in plain text, I enjoy greater ease and creative freedom than I ever could have had otherwise in using Google Docs. Though I do miss spellcheck and auto-capitalization, the functions of Atom allow me to consider my document as a piece of information, separating aesthetics from content, which allows for each part of the process of creation to be considered as two separate functions. For example, I have typed down to this point on my page. If, at five hundred words, I decide to save my work and record the last time I edited it, I can perform the “ins” function in order to mark in plain text the date and time, a note that will appear in my plain text version of the document but will be omitted from the visual version. Likewise, if I want to bold, italicize, or underline, I can use the “strong” and “em” functions in order bold or access text decoration, respectively. In order to separate text based content from brass tacks instructional content, one can insert a horizontal line or a list, or even sequester that information to a separate page. Read more

Dissolving the Dichotomy

If someone had posed to me a year ago the question, “How do you view the relationship between technology and the humanities?” I likely would’ve given somewhat of an elitist answer. I would have said something along the lines of “The only valuable relationship between the two is through the dissemination of news media and things of that sort. Otherwise the humanities should remain outside of technology,” immediately praising physical media without any real consideration of the question. My theoretical response is one bolstered by years of English education that sought to remove the smartphone from the classroom. One granola crunching teacher after the next sprouted in me the belief that there was something inherently wrong about the intersection of technology and literature, that online forms of media (outside of news, of course) inhabited some lesser caste than what you’d find in a bookstore, and that technology in general is an entity entirely opposite to these other praiseworthy forms of “higher media.”

Membership in my generation, however, would not allow these views to coexist with my actual habits; I realized that, in spite of my vehement criticisms of online media and technology in general, much of, if not the majority of the media I consumed on a daily basis was online, completely outside news and STEM, on sites like McSweeny’s and The Poetry Foundation. In an attempt to negate what I suspected was a fallacious view of the actual application of technology in the humanities, I decided to register for a course – this course – concerning the “digital humanities.”

Nearly a decade engulfed in STEM had left me with a fairly advanced understanding of CAD and 3D printing, as well as some basic knowledge of coding that I’d picked up from my brother. My interest in creative writing had conversely amassed for me a good bit of knowledge concerning online publications, E-zines, and other such related systems. Coming into the spring semester, I had a few different understandings of computing, and figured that, while I’d likely employ knowledge of word processing and internet blogging, and the rest would be left by the wayside. Studying the digital humanities, however, would certainly serve to confuse the division between these two otherwise separate sects of knowledge.

My conversion into the realm of English literature and philosophy has been a fairly recent one and, up until my junior year of high school, my relationship to my devices had been rather…mechanical. The majority of my learning on computers has been through the lens of STEM education, beginning in fifth grade with programming Lego Mind-storms to perform basic functions. Throughout middle and high school, developed in me was a rather advanced understanding of most Autodesk design programs, as well as a decent proficiency in Google Sketch-up and a basic understanding of coding in general. Though, for most of my life, I hadn’t owned a computer of my own, my relationship to computers in general had been on the basis of performing functions related to STEM, so much so that it became a reflex to open Autodesk Inventor as soon as the computer booted and open a new sketch.

Strangely enough, however, my relationship to my devices changed most drastically when I began to read. During the summer before junior year, I discovered a passionate interest in books, and read more literature in that summer than I will likely be capable of doing ever again. Novels like In the Cafe of Lost Youth and Beautiful Losers inspired in me a great passion and respect for literature and, naturally, I wanted to be able to create something that I loved as much as my favorite books. I began to study poetry and through that developed a greater understanding of word processing – in formatting specifically – as well as an almost encyclopedic knowledge of all the best online magazines to send me rejection slips. Programs like Submittable furthered my understanding of the ways in which I could utilize my computer to contribute to the culture – or at least attempt to – and inspired in me a different view on technology than I’d previously held.

Now, as an English and Philosophy major, these realizations have risen to predominance, though CAD certainly remains as a hobby and a resume item. Employing my STEM computing knowledge has become something of a rarity these days, though I am glad to have learned the skills that I did as they provide a sort of duality of understanding of my computer as the multifaceted device that it is. Though still a bit of a media snob, my diverse background in computing has left me more open minded to new functions than I would otherwise be. Before registering for this course, I understood computing and the humanities as two entirely separate entities. However, I’ve begun to realize that I am beginning to draw on my STEM knowledge for the purpose of the creation of media and vice versa and, as a result, it has become increasingly more apparent that the dichotomy between the two is beginning to dissolve.