Wanting to check out “A Better Pencil,” though with some irony and a smidge of bitterness

I just heard via my colleague Linda AK and the WPA-L mailing list that Dennis Baron is interviewed here in the most recent Inside Higher Ed about his new book, A Better Pencil:  Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. I’m mostly interested in this because I’ve been teaching Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixels” for years, I’ve been teaching an assignment like the one Baron describes in the article where students have to write with something other than traditional tools, and I’ve done some scholarship on the general area of writing tools and pedagogy– an article on chalkboards, presentations on paper, pens, and a couple other things like this I’m forgetting now.

But I’m also interested in seeing this book to see what could have been.  Maybe.

Several years ago (maybe close to 10 years ago now), when I was working more earnestly on some of these articles and presentations about writing technologies, I put together a research leave proposal to work on a book.  Basically, I wanted to trace the connection between a rising awareness of writing instruction and the accompanying writing technologies.  So I went through the process of writing the proposal, outlining the various technologies I planned on writing and researching about, and I thought I had a pretty decent and compelling idea.  It was recommended by the department, and was ranked reasonably high in the college of arts and sciences process, too. But when it got to the final committee at the graduate college (or the university as a whole– I’m not sure which– but a committee which I believe had no one from my department on it), my proposal was ranked dead last.  I mean like out of like 40 proposals, number 40.

Now, there are a number of different reasons for this of course; the process here tends to weigh toward the sciences or projects tied to grants, and I am sure that my original proposal had any number of problems and limitations.  I’m sure I didn’t deserve the award and I’m not saying I was “cheated.”  But I do remember some of the comments that came back to me from the committee were rather dismissive of the whole idea.  Someone wondered what qualifications I had to research this kind of history; another said the idea of researching writing technology seemed more like an article in a place like Harper’s Magazine rather than a book-length project.

Obviously, I can’t blame this rejection for my lack of follow-through on this project; my not finishing pressing ahead with a book project on this is my own fault and my fault alone.  Still, it wasn’t exactly a confidence boost to be told that my scholarly interests seemed mostly fit for curious feature article in a genteel albeit liberal monthly magazine.  So I have moved on to other projects, projects where I’m also managing a lack of follow-through, but that is a slightly different story.

Anyway, I’m interested in seeing Dennis’ book and I’ll probably order it today.  There’s a part of me that is interested in seeing/imagining “what could have been,” but that’s a very small part since I realize that is a kind of dumb reaction to Baron’s book on my part, and, based on the Inside Higher Ed interview and a peek at the table of contents on the Oxford UP site, there’s probably room for the kind of book-length project on writing technology and pedagogy I have in mind.  I’m mostly interested in it because I am interested in the subject matter– like Baron, I’ve been fascinated with various communication technologies for a long time– and there may very well be elements of it that figure into my teaching sooner than later.

But I’ve got to say, I’m also interested in it for a bit of the “I told you so” aspect.  I have no way of knowing who on that university committee nearly a decade ago said the history of writing technology was just not worthy of a book, and it is water under the bridge at this point.  Still, I wouldn’t mind sending this person/these people a copy.  You know, just to point out that there was one press (and a pretty good one, too) that thought the general idea might be worth a book.

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