TITLE: Writing about Doing AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 15, 2007 4:55 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Elvis Costello Last week I ran across this quote by noted rocker Elvis Costello:
Writing about music is like dancing about architecture -- it's really a stupid thing to want to do.
My immediate reaction was an intense no. I'm not a dancer, so my reaction was almost exclusively to the idea of writing about music or, by extension, other creative activities. Writing is the residue of thinking, an outward manifestation of the mind exploring the world. It is also, we hope, occasionally a sign of the mind growing, and those who read can share in the growth. I don't imagine that dancing is at all like writing in this respect. Perhaps Costello meant specifically writing about music and other pure arts. But I did study architecture for a while, and so I know that architecture is not a pure art. It blends the artistic and purely creative with an unrelenting practical element: human livability. People have to be able to use the spaces that architects create. This duality means that there are two levels at which one can comment on architecture, the artistic and the functional. Costello might not think much of people writing about the former, but he may allow for the value in people writing about the latter. I may be overthinking this short quote, but I think it might have made more sense for Costello to have made this analogy: "Writing about music is like designing a house about dancing ...". But that doesn't have any of the zip of his original! I can think of one way in which Costello's original makes some sense. Perhaps it is taken out of context, and implicit in the context is the notion of only writing about music. When someone is only a critic of an art form, and not a doer of the art form, there is a real danger of becoming disconnected from what practitioners think, feel, and do. When the critic is disconnected from the reality of the domain, the writing loses some or all of its value. I still think it is possible for an especially able mind to write about without doing, but that is a rare mind indeed. What does all this have to do with a blog about software and teaching? I find great value in many people's writing about software and about teaching. I've learned a lot about how to build more expressive, more concise, and more powerful software from people who have shared their experiences writing such software. The whole software patterns movement is founded upon the idea that we should share our experiences of what works, when and why. The pedagogical patterns community and the SIGCSE community do the same for teachers. Patterns really do have to be founded in experience, so "only" writing patterns without practicing the craft turns out to be a hollow exercise for both the reader and the writer, but writing about the craft is an essential way for us to share knowledge. I think we can share knowledge both of the practical, functional parts of software and teaching and of the artistic element -- what it is to make software that people want to read and reuse, to make courses that people want to take. In these arts, beauty affects functionality in a way that we often forget. I don't yet have an appetite for dancing about software, but my mind is open on the subject. -----