Blog Post

XML in the Writing Class

XML in the Writing Class

It has been a while since my last blog post, but I've been diligently plugging away at my section of first-year writing at Ohio State for which my students compose in <oXygen/> [] rather than in a word processor. It's a lot of work. I have to keep a pretty close eye on the version control repository to which all 24 of my studentscommit their changes to their individual sections of a single XML corpus file, and troubleshooting was almost a full time job during the first couple of weeks of class.

I recently gave a talk at the Writing Matters in a Changing World Conference here at Ohio State with the Director of Digital Media Studies, who also happens to be my HASTAC mentor. Our panel was called "Bathygraphy: The Depths and Surfaces of Electronic Texts." I thought that I'd include at least the parts of my talk that were prepared; about half of it was bullet pointed and a show-and-tell format regarding how my students compose their assignments in XML and what they can do with those assignments through XSLT transformations.


In “Hello Worlds: Why Humanities Students Should Learn to Program,” Matthew Kirschenbaum writes that  “programming is about choices and constraints, and about how you choose to model some select slice of the world around you in the formal environment of a computer.” I’d like to use this as an epigraph for my portion of this panel, during which I’ll discuss the depths and surfaces of electronic texts in relation to the experimental section of first-year writing I’m teaching here at Ohio State. While my evidence and experiences will at times wax anecdotal, my hope is that I’m looking at the tip of an iceberg when it comes to engaging electronic texts, though perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of composing electronic texts, in courses at all levels involving any kind of writing. Kirschenbaum points out that programming is about choices and constraints, and, following Evan Donahue’s response to Kirschenbaum, namely, that the computer sciences and the humanities simply use different languages to explore the same problems, I contend that composition also is about choices and constraints, whether we perceive them or not. Beyond this abstract and perhaps even commonsense notion, however, I’m specifically thinking about the choices and constraints of composition as tied to the affordances of a particular medium, and I have conceived of my section of first-year writing not as a shift from the composition of non-electronic texts to the composition of electronic texts, but rather as a shift in the composition of electronic texts, from one medium to another. Instead of composing their assignment in a word processor, my students use an extensible markup language, or XML editor synched with an online version control repository to compose their assignments. All in all, I believe that this modest adjustment in course design (and it is a modest adjustment once students overcome their unfamiliarity with new software and procedures) meets and exceeds the goals of the first-year writing program at Ohio State by merging composition and metacognition and practicing radical transparency in the classroom. Moreover, the surface of extensible markup language itself is transparent, allowing students to explore the depths of their texts through the transformation of—or copies from—their work to the standard HTML that any web browser can read.

To return to the notion of a shift in medium of electronic texts rather than a shift to electronic texts, consider that when students type a paper into a program such as Microsoft Word they already have produced an electronic, born-digital text, from which they then make copies from in the way of either hard copy print outs or digital file submission through an online course management system. Here at Ohio State the latter option seem to be the norm, and despite the cantankerous nature of our course management software, instructors can respond electronically with relative ease, adding marginal comments and an overall assessment, re-saving the file, and uploading it once again to the management system. Despite the copies made from copies, at no point in this process does the text assume a hard copy form. It is always electronic, yet the medium of composition in many ways remains tied to a particular physical form: the printed page. Words processors have become so widely and ubiquitously used as the standard for student composition (at least at the college level) that we have naturalized the medium’s affordances and constraints to the point that they seem to be the affordances and constraints of composition itself. Assignments typically carry a length criterion measured in pages of a word processor using a particular font style, size, and spacing. Academic organizations such as the APA and MLA maintain formatting guidelines with respect to the tools and options particular to the toolbox or formatting palette of word processors. We often and quite literally “eyeball” whether a paragraph looks too long. Assessing student work involves not only the application of assignment criteria, but also what sometimes feels like the detective work of intuiting what a student “means” to be doing at any given moment. Granularity beyond the assignment as a whole proves haphazard at best, and a sense of the class’s work as a corpus relies solely on the instructor’s recollections. In short, the surfaces of this sort of electronic text conceal more than reveal its depths, maintaining models of isolated authorship on the printed page when, realistically, most student who pass through the doors of first-year writing will compose under different conditions in their endeavors.

While at this point it may seem that I have some sort of vendetta against word processors, I simply mean to urge active consideration of how the medium in which we compose electronic texts enables, constrains, and in all other ways affects how we conceive of the very texts that we produce. The constraint of composing in XML, I argue, is what out Director of First-Year Writing calls an “enabling constraint.” Forcing composers to describe or make explicit their rhetorical and compositional choices, to define what they’re doing as they’re doing it, the XML editing software renders metacognition, or the reflection on one’s own thought processes, as one and the same with composition, the act of typing words on the computer screen. XML is a purely descriptive language: it does not tell the computer what to do with the information that it contains. It is, in Kirschenbaum’s terms, entirely “human readable.” Enclosing text in descriptive tags structured like Russian dolls, one inside the other inside the other, composers have the freedom to name any part of their text anything that they want, and they can name any part of their text as many different things as they want. Should they want to tag their thesis statements as hippopotamuses, they can. Should they want to tag their thesis statements fifty times over as fifty different kinds of animals, they can. Of course, this isn’t terribly useful, and the XML editor that my class is using, as another enabling constraint, requires descriptive markup complaint with the Text Encoding Initiative, or TEI, which seeks to standardize markup so that XML can be human readable not only to the one particular human who composed it, but also to other humans. XML markup can be broken down into three pieces: the element, the attribute, and the attribute value. Elements form the basic markup tags, such as “p” for paragraph or “title” for title. An element can have as many attributes as are TEI compliant with it. Attributes further describe elements. For example, the “xml:id” attribute allows the composer to assign a unique identifier to an element, and the “type” attribute allows the composer to categorize the element. The third part of XML, the attribute value, is simply the value assigned to the attribute. In this case the composer has the most freedom, and can assign essentially any useful value to attributes.

What’s important, though, is that the attribute values are uniform throughout the entire XML document. Beyond making explicit their rhetoric and compositional choices in the XML editor itself, students can then employ those tags to transform their compositions in many ways. This is where I come in. [At this point the show-and-tell portion of the talk began, during which I also covered the virtues of the radical precision that XML coding requires and the radical transparency of being able to see what everyone is doing every step of the way].

As a way of concluding, I'd like to offer the following: 

  1. Students already are composing electronic texts
  2. The range of media for composing electronic texts vary widely, and each carries with it unique constrains and affordances, surfaces and depths
  3. While I don’t mean to elevate XML, <oXygen/>, or the subversion repository as the media or method for first-year writing classes, I do mean to offer them here as ways of realizing and exceeding program expectations
         a. Because composers must make explicit their rhetorical and compositional choices as they make them,
         b. Because they must Embrace the idea of total precision,
         c. Because they Can make many different copies from their work to view it in different ways,
         d. Because their work is entirely transparent to both their colleagues and instructor, and
         e. Because they begin to approach the class as a collaborative, communal effort in which everyone is equally accountable to everyone else.
  4. At the very least, I’d conclude with the argument that composing electronic texts using different media and methods reveal new surfaces and depths for writers and composers to explore.


The version control repository for the class corpus file is currently hovering at around 400 unique "commits," and the corpus file itself at around 12,500 lines. We've only begun to work on the first major assignment, with three more to go, to say nothing of the smaller assignments that also will be included. I'm happy to report that most of the students are starting to realize and take advantage of the benefits of the course format, and I'm excited about where their projects are going!


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