Twitter as Scholia

scholiaLast month, during Jan Term, I had an interesting conversation at a lunch-gathering with my Pseudo-Dionysius professor, Dr. Paul Rorem and a few other students. We started off talking about the inauguration, and I mentioned that I would be watching and “twittering” it along with 50 or so of my closest twitter friends. This comment shifted the conversation instantly to the subject of twitter, and my twittering “habit.” What follows is more of an approximation of our conversation than a transcription:

ROREM: So do you also twitter during sermons at church?
ME: Yes, and sometimes during interesting class lectures, too.
ROREM: But don’t you find that to be a distraction from what you’re trying to focus on?
ME: Possibly some times, but I also think of it as an enhancement. It’s broadcasting the sermon/lecture/speech to a wider audience, and bringing more voices back into the discussion.
ROREM: So when you’re in the middle of a really interesting novel, do you stop to twitter that? Doesn’t it break the flow of the story?
ME: I do sometimes twitter when reading a novel. And I also use my cell phone to look up words or concepts I’m unfamiliar with. In that case, my focus has already been broken by my own ignorance, and looking something up instantaneously actually restores my focus.

I didn’t have a good response to the part about twittering while reading a novel, but in the days since that conversation, and especially today, I think I have one now — ironically drawing from a medieval tradition I’ve studied in at least two of Dr. Rorem’s classes over the course of the past semester: Scholia.

Scholia are basically marginal notes in an ancient manuscript. They were often corrections made by a copyist based on comparison with other manuscripts, but sometimes they also served as commentary on the content of the manuscript itself — expounding, elaborating, or even disputing a section of the manuscript. The scholia themselves were then copied along with the text by successive copyists, and sometimes played an important role in the acceptance or understanding of the original. For historical purposes, they also provide insight into how a text was received in a particular era or by a particular person.

Now, I write notes all the time in the margins of the books that I read for seminary AND for enjoyment — including novels. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the most marked up book I own. But those notes are primarily intended for me. Even if they were intended for others, I’d have to pass the book around to one person at a time. And if I want to know what someone else thinks about that particular book, the best I can hope for is an essay or a book review — not a play-by-play commentary on every page. Granted, my Bible does this, but sometimes I get frustrated that the footnotes (aka commentary) seem to represent one perspective, usually scholarly, and almost always Christian. I think that in many ways, the enriching, broadening, yet detail-oriented aspects of the practice of Scholia have been undervalued in the modern age.

Enter Twitter. If you don’t already know about twitter, watch this. If you’re already on Twitter – follow me! While twitter was intended as a way for people to answer the basic question “what are you doing” it has (in my opinion) evolved considerably. The first time I realized this was during last summer’s Presbyterian General Assembly. I couldn’t be there in person, but I watched the live video feed of the event, excited about Bruce Reyes-Chow standing for moderator of the PCUSA. I was also logged into twitter, as were most of my Presbyterian twitter-friends — some who were at the event, and others like me from afar. Not only were we witnessing denominational history, we were commenting on it. Not long, blog posts on the big picture, but little comments in response to certain specific sections of speeches and events. What’s more, we were sharing those comments with one another, and even commenting on comments. We were writing in the margins of an historical event!

Later, we all did the same with the U.S. Presidential debates, and just recently, with the inauguration. And of course, it wasn’t just Presbyterians commenting in the margins of Barack Obama’s historic inauguration — it was millions of twitterers across the world — kings, scholars, and peasants alike. Assuming that these “tweets” are somehow preserved in the ether (which I think is about as likely as the preservation of velum and papyrus over centuries) consider what an immense wealth of historical information and perspective they provide. Among the marginal comments can be found explanation, reaction, criticism, defense, and elaboration of just about every line of text, as well as comments pertaining to the visual, audio, and other perceptible aspects of the event — from those who witnessed it in person, to those who witnessed it a world away.

Today in my Systematic Theology class, my professor said something interesting, and I immediately pulled out my cell phone to twitter about it. I remembered Dr. Rorem’s question about being distracted from what would be said next. But I also saw several of my classmates taking notes on the lecture, and wondered if their note-taking distracted them from what would be said next. Perhaps. But unlike their paper notes (or even laptop-word processor notes) that will most likely be shelved after the final exam, or serve to benefit at most one person — I am filled with the hope that like the scholia of old, my comments in the margins of today’s lecture/novel/text/event will be shared in both community and in perpetuity. That seems worth a slight distraction.

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6 Responses to Twitter as Scholia

  1. Mark says:

    I see two basic differences:

    1. The medieval commenter was probably able to stop reading, focus on writing, and continue reading. As I told you when you mentioned your professorial encounter (or maybe I just thought it), you can lose attention from a continuing event – you can’t put a lecture or sermon on Pause in order to Twitter. I find note-taking to keep me engrossed, while switching to a cell phone to twitter takes me away from the moment.

    2. The medieval commenter probably had to think about the relative value of what they wrote, because paper was so precious. Electrons are cheap – Tweets are even cheaper. I have a hard time imagining medieval snarkiness in the borders of a book.

  2. Fritz Gutwein says:

    Excellent post. I twitter quite a bit and this is the best analysis of why I (and others) do that I have seen. Good work. Just followed you.

  3. Neal Locke says:

    @Fritz – Thanks, I just returned the favor!

    @Mark – Honestly, when you consider Tivo, and the proliferation of video, we pretty much have the capacity to “pause” events already. Won’t be long until that finds its way into classrooms too. And as far as note taking, that’s probably a preference thing — when I take notes, I can’t remember a thing that was said, and my notes end up being pretty bad, too.

    As far as the value of paper, you have a good point there. I’m sure it did make the commenter think carefully — but that in itself doesn’t change the merit of preserving tweets. In fact, one might argue that things spoken quickly without much thought are more revealing of true attitudes than carefully selected words — and thus equally deserving of attention and analysis. In any case, I tend to labor intensively over some comments before posting, and quickly spew others. It has more to do with what I’m commenting on, I think.

    One other interesting similarity between the two that I didn’t raise in the post is the limitations imposed by “real estate.” In scholia, the commenter must keep his or her comments brief because there’s only so much margin space. In twitter, one’s comments must be kept to 140 characters due to the limitations of the technology. There were and are ways around both, I’m sure, but it’s interesting to look at two “genres” of writing that were heavily shaped by the limited availability of space.

  4. Linda Randall says:

    “Hand. Hand. Fingers. Thumb.”
    Brain, mouth, body, thumbs.
    Grady, Abby: What’s to come?
    Generational musing. mum

  5. "Hey i am different" you don't twitter like me "why can't you be like me"… Hmmm… interesting polarity neal… It is like me believe'n in microsoft stuff.. eitherway… NONE of this should and will ever get in the way of me looknig forward to meeting you some day, in person, and having a beer and a talk 😉 Hmmm… maybe I'll just send ya a card someday until then 😉

  6. Katie Mulligan says:

    lolol, Ray Casey, it’s like Groundhog Day 🙂

    Mark: I bet there is snarky medieval scholia. I think we suffer from thinking that our humor has gotten more “sophisticated” or snarky. I bet we miss a lot of it because we don’t get the context. Well, anyway, if I was a medieval commentator I wouldn’t be able to contain myself. On second thought, probably the snarky ones got burnt at the stake 🙂

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