Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Tale of Two Sentences: Rhizo14 Auto-ethnography

I have to start somewhere with the actual prepositions in the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, so I will cherry pick a sentence from the accounts written by Maha Bali and Sarah Honeychurch.

A few months ago, I became aware of some online textual analysis tools from Voyant Tools, but this is the first chance I've had to use them. I am by no means competent with them yet, but they are already proving useful and promise to be even more useful. I recommend that you check them out if this sort of thing interests you. I will imbed some of the tools in this post to give you a sense of what Voyant has to offer. The tools are live, and should the written texts change, the results would change. That could be helpful.

Anyway, Voyant first gives me a summary of Maha Bali's text:

and a list of her word frequencies:

Then I get a summary of Sarah Honeychurch's text:

And a list of Sarah's word frequencies:

So Maha wrote 977 words, of which 398 were unique (59% duplicates, 41% unique). Her top 10 words include 2 prepositions: to (21/2.2%) and on (16/1.6%). However, at least 9 instances of to are infinitive markers (ex: to express, to echo); thus, on is the most common preposition for Maha.

Sarah wrote 532 words, of which 267 were unique (50% duplicates, 50% unique). Her top 10 words include 3 prepositions: to (15/2.8%), in (14/2.6%), and of (14/2.6%). Again, however, 8 instances of to are infinitive markers (ex: to miss, to talk); thus, in is the most common preposition for Sarah.

So Maha is on and Sarah is in. Let's see if this is meaningful; though of course, it first means that I will use on to choose and analyze a sentence from Maha and in to choose and analyze a sentence from Sarah. Let's consider Maha's first sentence with the prepositions highlighted:
Funny enough, even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here.
This 33 word sentence has 5 (15%) prepositions, including an on, so it seems a fine sentence to begin with. I mentioned in my last post that I've been thinking of prepositions as stage directors, placing the actors on the stage and indicating any movements in relation to each other and to the stage. The stage for this sentence might look something like this:
Maha Bali's First Sentence

The basic movement of the sentence/scene is simple and runs along the bottom line of the image above: Funny enough, I am having a lot of difficulty writing here. This core sentence places Maha center screen as the main actor not only of this sentence/scene but of the entire movie, as evidenced by the occurrence of the word I 45 times (4.6% of 977 words). After all, this is an auto-ethnographic piece, which almost by definition makes the writer the main actor. There is not much action here, as even the writing is more indicative of framing thoughts than of manipulating a keyboard. So the sentence/scene is more a mood piece, presenting the main actor in some perplexity (funny) at having difficulty with writing (though, the implied wry humor of the term funny should definitely not be ignored, as it hangs like quiet laughter just off camera). Finally, the one preposition in this part of the scene, of, is more conceptual than  active, denoting or pointing to a quality of the rather empty noun lot and, by extension, to writing. Here, of connects qualities to concepts rather than to any active times or spaces. Moreover, this preposition is not very functional given that it is unnecessary. Maha could have easily written: Funny enough, I am having great (or much) difficulty writing here, to replace the casual construction a lot of and eliminate the preposition. This core sentence, then, presents us with the main actor and a bit of emotional and mental atmosphere, but not much else.

All of the stage craft is done in the rather long, parenthetical subordinate clause: even though I have been thinking about this since #rhizo14 started and writing about it throughout on my blog, fb, twitter. This is the part where the prepositions arrange the movie set, defining the space and time in which Maha thinks and writes, connecting her to a setting, other entities, and other actions. The twin prepositions about function as references or pointers linking Maha's thinking and writing to the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, which is a major player in Maha's movie. The complementary prepositional elements since and throughout provide the temporal scope of Maha's movie: from the beginning of Rhizo14 proper through to the end. Finally, the preposition on provides the virtual space where Maha's writing takes place: her blog, Facebook, and Twitter. This is quite economical stage craft, placing Maha in a specific space and time and connecting her to the Rhizo14 MOOC and to the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, major entities in her movie.

Now, let's look at a sentence from Sarah's account:
I’m in the early stages of a part time PhD in collaborative learning and I got interested in MOOCs from that point of view, as well as because my Uni signed up with FutureLearn last year.
This 36 word sentence/scene has 7 prepositions (19.4%), including 3 instances of in. In addition, I could easily include the conjunctive phrase as well as (relation/additional) and the adverb up (process/completion), but I will arbitrarily limit this discussion to the 7 traditional prepositions. Sarah is also setting a stage for herself, but this is her second sentence, and the first sentence introduces Rhizo14, a major player in her movie: I can’t remember how I found out about rhizo14, probably from Dave’s blog. Her second sentence, the one I am using here, explains how she became interested in MOOCs such as Rhizo14.

Sarah Honeychurch's Second Sentence
Sarah is tracing the origin of her interest in MOOCs first to a PhD program in collaborative learning and then to her university's recent agreement with FutureLearn, a UK online learning group. As with Maha's sentence, Sarah's use of I 26 times (4.9%, about the same frequency as Maha) places her center screen in her movie. Again, she's writing an auto-ethnography. She is supposed to be the star of the movie. The scene begins by situating Sarah in the early stages of a PhD program in collaborative learning through the use of 3 successive prepositions: in with its spatial, temporal, and membership connotations, of with its thing > type relation, and in which has both thing > type relation and reference connotations (she could have easily used the preposition about here). For Sarah, then, Rhizo14 is occurring at the same time as her PhD program and is occupying some of the same intellectual space as collaborative learning. At its conclusion, the sentence extends this setting by adding Sarah's university and its partnership with FutureLearn with the conjunctive phrase as well as and the preposition with. The preposition in connects Sarah's interest in MOOCs to her PhD program and to her university activities. When first considered, the sentence has a rather odd structure: Sarah's interest in MOOCs is framed at the beginning of the sentence by her PhD program and at the end by her university activities, but given the use in 3 times and given the common connotation of enclosure for that preposition, it's easy to see how this structure, even if unconscious on Sarah's part, is appropriate: her interest in MOOCs is in, within, inside her PhD program and university activities.

It's also odd that not one of the uses of in in this sentence primarily implies enclosure; rather, they imply a thing/type relation, a reference relation, sequence, and membership. Still, the sense of enclosure is also there, humming behind the main thought, latent, potential, ready to hand if a reader wants to look closely enough, listen carefully enough. And this sense of enclosure enriches the entire scene, giving it more meaning for those who want it without imposing its meaning on more glib readings.

This captures for me a basic function of prepositions: to start in the center and to extend outward in space, time, and relational structures. This is defining from the inside out. This is defining in terms of relationships rather than in terms of identifiable qualities of the thing itself. This approach to prepositions in particular and to sentence structure in general implies that meaning is not an identifiable quality of a word but is an emergent property of how words relate to other words.

This will sustain more thinking and writing. I'm traveling on the road for the next two weeks, and my posting may be erratic, but I want to send this up before I become distracted. I have much more to say about meaning as an emergent property of many words rather than an irreducible quality of one word, but this is a decent start and gives me some concrete things to work with. And yes, even though I'm a southerner, I know that I'm not supposed to end sentences with a preposition, so: this is a decent start and gives me some concrete things to work with, ya'll.

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