The Computer as Medium
In this day and age the process of reading has become a highly complicated one indeed. Submerged in this world of multiple media; we read not only words, but graphics, animations, video, sound, movement, space, etc. Throw into this mix the personal computer, with its growing capacity to present a diverse array of media along with forms of interactivity, and you have potential information overload. With this paper, I want to explore the various aspects of how a person "reads" information on a computer. I am going to dig into this problem by addressing the computer as a medium itself and attempt to apply selected discourse theories to this medium. The computer has often been thought of as a tool; I think it is time to look at it as a medium (Laurel 126). I will look at this medium of the computer in terms of writing, text and reading. An issue I foresee coming into play often is that of interface. Computers overtly call our attention to interface more than most media; i.e. we take for granted how we interact with a book, whereas the variety of ways one can interact with a computer are being added to almost daily. My hope is to see where these discourse theories are useful in this discussion and where they are insufficient.
Writing on a computer takes place on several different levels. First of all there's the binary programmer who knows her/his 1's and 0's. These coders write the foundational programming that enables the computer's functioning capacities. Or, in other words, they are writing the software for your operating system (OS) like DOS, UNIX, Windows, Macintosh, Be, etc. The operating system plays a large part in determining how you interact with a computer via its interface. Questions of interface have three mentalities; enactive, iconic and symbolic (Kay 196). The writers are scripting to allow you to act, to see and to think with, and on, your computer. Layered on top of binary code are a variety of other text and numeric-based programming languages (C, C++, PERL, UNIX, SED, AWK) that your computer can "read" and act upon. You would use these languages to write applications to run on your computers, allowing your computer to run the application;
i.e. your computer reads Microsoft Word and thus allows you to word process to your hearts content. The two preceding categories of computer authors write to create software, which allows others to write with, or on, the computer via their programs (like MS Word).
This brings us to the level of the majority of computer users, those of us who use all this software to make documents, texts, graphics, movies, etc. Now, the majority of us are still using the computer as a fancy, and rather expensive, typewriter. We write papers, essays, letters; all composed with a word processing application and printed out in ink jet or even better, laser printed, for that extra sharp print. Now, also on this level of users are those who don't just type words per se, and whose output is not necessarily paper based, but instead, is often meant to remain digital. Desk top publishers use programs, like Adobe Pagemaker and Quark, to integrate text and graphics and lay them out in a method similar to a magazine spread. Multimedia authors use a variety of applications to create graphics, music, movies and interactive animation. HTML (hypertext markup language) writers use "tags" to mark up a document so that a computer will then display the information on its screen in the specified manner. So, when you are on the web, what you see is the displayed document that has been marked up in HTML.
Finally, there is the level of the computer itself writing. All of the data you input into a computer, like the words I'm typing and you are reading, are being rewritten by the computer into binary code. The computer stores all information as a long series of 1's and 0's. But then the programs you use display these 1's and 0's into words, graphics, etc., on the screen. So, what we see is not what the computer has written, but a graphical display of it in a language we can read. All of these varieties of writing come into play within the medium of computer.
From the point of view of discourse theory, Harold Bloom and Michel Foucault are two theorists that come to my mind when thinking about writing on a computer. Bloom, in his essay, "Poetry, Revisionism, Repression," discusses how a writer must rewrite, or write over, the one who preceded her/him (332). Bloom is focusing on poets, but I find his oedipal dichotomy to be somewhat applicable to the various levels of writing on a computer. On the binary level, there is always the drive to improve the systems of computers. The coder is literally rewriting the program. So, in a way, it is not just a person that is being written over, but the program itself. There is this drive to make smarter, more flexible computers, ones that are that much more capable of meeting and adapting to our needs. A coder is trying to improve and better what software is out there to offer us the new, hot technological software of the future.
A person and a program are also being written over by those authors who write programs. You are not only trying to one up the preceding person, but also to make a better version of the program; hence, we have Microsoft Word versions up to 6.1 as of now, each version an attempted improvement over the one before it. As I see it, Bloom's concept does not exactly fit here, or fits too well. With digital programming of software, there is an attempt to improve and write over, but in a way, a program is never considered finished. The coders actually take the code that is there and manipulate, improve it, and the new version will soon be built on again. The digital nature of computers, where a copy is as good as an original, allows for smooth and continuous additions to existing programs (although it's never smooth or continuous, one always has to wait forever and then the new version is full of bugs, or features as they call them). Nevertheless, another version is always coming out in the near future. The writers are constantly borrowing from, adding to, and manipulating the existing code. Another slippage with Bloom exists with the idea of the computer writing. The computer is making no attempt to write over a predecessor in the sense Bloom discusses, although basically what the computer does is write over all the information we write into binary code, transforming it into its language. So, some odd form of rewriting is occurring here, as of now though, I'm not sure how to tackle this idea.
Now, if we step up to levels of writing that include multimedia production, text based writing, HTML, etc., we can see how this fits more with the type of writing Bloom is discussing. The challenge is explicitly to write over your predecessor. A good example of this can be seen with the multimedia game/novel, MYST. MYST set a standard in terms of technology and aesthetics that all other multimedia games/novels since have been judged. You often see the phrases like, "it's a MYST style game that out MYSTs MYST." It is on these levels of writing that Bloom's concept best fits the idea of writing on computer. These authors have to write over those who came before.
Ideas of authorship are turned inside out in Michel Foucault's article, "What is an Author?," which has some interesting connotations when applied to writing on computer. With his idea of the author-function, one can look at the computer as writer in a similar light as that of us writing on our computers. For, as Foucault quotes Samuel Beckett, "What matters who's speaking, someone said, what matters who's speaking" (139). As I understand it, the author-function is a position within discourse itself. It is a function that is created in a discourse. So, in terms of writing, or discourse, on a computer, a computer can fulfill the author-function as well as not. In this binary discourse, I see the computer hovering in an author-function position. It is writing our inputted information, whether it be text or other, in binary code so that it can read it.
All the various levels of writing on computer can be seen to exist within this author-function. It seems most fitting when applied to those authors who crunch out binary code or some other sort of programming language that creates software. It does not matter who is speaking here, what matters is how the software works and what can I, the end user, do with it. The discourse of these codes exists within a matrix of application, what can be done with what has been written is of extreme importance. If we cannot use it, we replace it with an application that we can.
From here, we move up to the level of the majority of authors who write papers, create multimedia novels and manipulate graphical images. The modes of discourse change here and the author-function falls into such an ambiguous category that it seems to exist within Foucault's discussion of textual authors. These discourses are creating author-functions that can be positioned as almost non-existent. In this digital world connected via the internet, data can speed across modems and exist all over the world in multiple, equivalent copies. For, in digitalia, a copy is exactly the same as the original, in fact, the idea becomes somewhat moot and muddy. An email I send to a friend is forwarded on to another and another as it zips around the globe, and each new forward adds a new author to the script. Who actually wrote the original message can be impossible to track down as the message becomes an anonymous and pseudonymous. It is rather odd and absurd to try and make a distinction between two digital versions of a document or program (outside of a registration number which can be hacked, or borrowed), the 1's and 0's are the same to the computer, and the "true" author then can get lost, intentionally or not, in the multiple forwards and downloads. Within the digital discourse of writing on the computer, the author-function is more diffuse than ever before.
Moving on to thinking about the computer in terms of a text is again to address a problematic concept filled with many levels. For the present, I am going to sidestep the complicated issue of defining the term text and how it applies to computer. Instead, I will simply note that a text is some form of information that one "reads." Here is where I see interface questions coming to the fore in that the interface effects how one reads the computer. Again, the interface of a computer is a highly evolving phenomenon, constantly being "improved" (although some bemoan every "advance" and long for the good old days as it were). It starts with your basic hardware- keyboard, mouse, screen and hard drive -and can also include other components such as speakers, scanners, printers, modem, etc. The screen of a computer serves as a window into this medium (Leary 232). It is through this that you see it all so to speak. All of these components combined influence how you interact with and use the text of your computer. For example, the mouse allows a user to point and click your way across the iconic screen, and yet others may prefer to use key strokes to do the same work. In both cases, you are engaging an interface, but different textual interactions are occurring with your different actions.
Looking at your computer, the size and capabilities of your monitor and speaker will effect the text in terms the amount of colors displayed and the quality of the sound. Devices such a printer or a scanner enable you to use your computer in different ways that concurrently will effect how you view them as a text. A modem opens your computer up to the internet and the endless variety found there. The size of your hard drive and the amount of memory in your computer will determine the speed and efficacy of how the text is brought to you, a slower computer might even crash on you and we all know how annoying that can be.
Inside all of this hardware is the infamous software; your computer's OS and all of the various applications you've seen fit to install on your hard drive. These also raise questions of interface. For instance it is an entirely different experience to use a computer that is running DOS than it is to use Windows '95 or Macintosh. These operating systems in large part determine the look of the text. It is either a string of words with a command line waiting for your input, or it is a graphical environment that's kind of like a desk top metaphor with folders and files in which to drag and drop your documents via a mouse (Laurel 2). All of your programs also have interface qualities. Microsoft Word (5.1a, of course) has that little ruler bar up there with all kinds of buttons you can use to make text bold, underlined, italicized, or even display it in a different font.. A menu bar up there also lets you into all of the editing functions (with spell czech being the most misused). All of these options effect your interactions with the text of the computer, whether it be words or images or sounds, or all of the above. They give you an interface with this text, unigue to a computer.
The point I want to make here is that these interface choices are just that, choices, your computer and programs do not necessarily have to run the way they do, but these choices have been made for you, so the text of the computer is constructed for your reading pleasure. Vis-a-vis whatever system or program you are using, I have found it useful to think of texts in terms of a verb. In other words, to text, is a method by which you address a set of information. So, you text a book in a different manner than you would text a computer, but nevertheless you are treating each medium as a text, gleaning information from it as it were. I find this active idea of texting to be helpful when looking at the text of a computer; a text that is full of a variety of media that can be addressed separately or together. In this manner one would text the multimedic documents in a manner unique to the mixed media involved.
The idea of texts is addressed by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley and Susan Sontag in a couple of their articles, and I have found these articles interesting in terms of the text of a computer. In Wimsatt and Beardsley's articles, "The Intentional Fallacy" and "The Affective Fallacy," they discuss how one should address a text. For them it is a fallacy to both wonder about the intentions of the author and/or to wonder about the affect a text has on a reader. The meaning of text is to be found within the text itself. This has some interesting results when applied to the text of a computer.
First of all the hardware will differ from computer to computer, so your text will be different with each computer you use. And this is just addressing the idea of textual interface from a hardware standpoint. Factoring in the various interface potentials of different operating systems and individual programs adds a large amount of different texting into the mix. For instance, the text of a Microsoft Word document is entirely different from the text of a Story Space document (a program that lets you visually connect ideas together, kind of like having a whole bunch of notes written on post-it cards and being able to draw lines between each card).
The above are all issues of the form of a text on the computer and how it shapes the text, we have not even begun to get into content. One could write a paper, make a movie, put up a web page, gab in a chat room, exchange email, etc. All of these actions allow for issues of the content of the text -the issue I believe Wimsatt and Beardsley are focusing on in their articles- to finally come into play. Each of these different actions on your computer make for a variety of texts that will be texted differently. The text of a computer is a multi-headed beast in which you text your email differently than you do a quicktime movie than a hyptertextual web page.
Issues of texts are also focused on in Susan Sontag's article, "Against Interpretation." She raises an interesting point in terms of how "art has the capacity to make us nervous" (17). Now, she is referring to painting and such, but I find this quite applicable to the medium of a computer. Right now, the computer is a text that makes a lot of us nervous, we do not know what to do with it (and it's smarter than we are). So, as Sontag points out, we will try to interpret it to make it more manageable. This is presently occurring, but the computer as a text is still such a new phenomena, that a nervousness continues to pervade around it. Part of this is due to it having such vast potential, but I believe it also has a lot to do with textual born and bred readers being unfamiliar with multimedia interface of a computer. These textual readers' literacy is not as strong in the realm of images, sounds, mouseclicks, pull down menus and keystrokes. We all are dealing with this new computer medium in terms of our nervousness.
In any case, I do believe a nervousness surrounds the text of a computer. In terms of hardware, it can be this big box of plastic and wires that makes absolutely no sense and requires extremely thick manuals and repeated calls to the company's help line just to get the thing hooked up properly and turned on. Then there are the multitude of interface designs and choices that range across operating systems and applications offering a dizzying amount of difference, and it is the rare person who can engage a text in all of the potential interfaces available. In other words, we all don't know everything there is to know about all the potential programs that exist for DOS, Windows and Macintosh. This only adds to our intimidation of this text.
In following with Sontag, I think it might be more interesting to not look at what the computer means per se, but how it is what it is (Sontag 23). To borrow her term, we need an erotics of computers. We need to play with the art of this text; an art of the interplay between interface design and hardware components. The text of a computer is something that makes us nervous, instead of digging into it and interpreting it, maybe we should simply see how it is.
Now, to see how the computer is what it is, we need to read it. And reading the text of a computer further depends on these issues of interface. Again, depending on your OS, whether it be DOS, Windows, or Mac, these influence how you interact with the medium of the computer. Also, each program you use will also have interface qualities that effect your reading. So, your basic interaction is heavily mediated by the different hardware and software. Within this interaction with your computer, the idea of verbal literacy is no longer enough. A computer combines the multimedia of movies, animation, graphics, sounds, voice, music and text. To read a computer well assumes that one is visually, aurally and verbally literate with a computer interface. An audacious challenge for some of us who grew up without computers, but watch a kid who has had a computer around since s/he can remember and you will begin to get the idea of multi-literacy with a computer interface. Multi-literate readers can confidently interact with a computer and easily slide within images, words and sounds via their mouse and keyboard.
On top of these issues of reading multimedia are the hypertextual potentials of computers to allow for non-linearity and interactivity for the reader. The reader is more overtly empowered within the media of computers than any other media. Unlimited choices are becoming more and more a reality as can be seen on the world wide web. You point and click your way through graphics, movies and text, and are able to go a different way each time you experience this media. Computers allow for documents to exist in the form of a multitude of nodes, web pages for instance. Each web page is an individual node that is connected to a variety of other nodes (web pages).
So, when you surf the web you can go every which way but loose and then some. This experience has been coined as "non-linear" in that there is not necessary a set beginning and/or a set end. You are literally free to start and finish wherever your heart desires. Although it should be acknowledged that your phenomenological experience of web pages has a linearity, a beginning and an end; it's just that it does not ever have to have the same linearity twice. This variability of web pages is what many term "interactivity" in that one can have a varied, interactive experience with a document on a computer. This is a limited interactivity indeed, one in which there is a finite amount of choices that have been chosen for you to pursue at your desire. In other words, you may not truly interact with a computer, but you do act on it (Holmqvist 223).
Now, I do believe unpredictable interactivity can take place within the medium of a computer via chat rooms and MU*s. Here we can actually look into the window of the computer screen and meet and even see other people (Leary 233). Chat rooms are areas of the internet where one can go and log into a discussion with other people who are on line as well. The topics are basically limitless, if you have an interest, there will be a chat room out there with people talking. As we speak, the technology exists in which these chat rooms are no longer just textual based, but instead you are represented by a graphical avatar (say for instance, Bugs Bunny, or any other image you so choose) of your design and can talk to the others via a microphone. MU*s are multi-user domains that are the equivalent of contextualized chat rooms with atmosphere. Originally, MU*s were started up as a sort of online Dungeons and Dragons in which people could go and assume character roles and interact with other characters within the setting of that world (or database, it's all just 1's and 0's to the computer).
Chat rooms and MU*s are where you see the development of pseudonymity, or the construction of a character that represents you online. At first it was just a new name and a description of your character that people could read if they "looked" at you. But now, you can design avatars and synthesize your voice so that you have a look and sound that is unique to your online pseudonymous character. So, persona gets all skewed and reconstructed. This sort of wild, pseudonymous interactivity opens up the medium of computers to an almost endless array of potential readings.
Interactivity and multimedia are not the end of the reading experience of a computer though. One can make a copy of a transcript of their MU* experience and then print it out, or mark it up with HTML so that the experience can be displayed as desired. In fact, most of the digital data on a computer can be outputted onto other forms of media. You can construct a movie and then port it to VHS and watch it on your TV. The same can be done with audiotapes and compact discs. Also, you can print out graphics and text and read them on paper. The reading experience of a computer is not just multimedic, but can be extended into multiple media.
Reading the articles by Stanley Fish and Georges Poulet gave me some ideas in regards to reading on the computer. Fish, in "Interpreting the Variorum," discusses how readers make sense of a text in terms of interpretive communities (182). An interpretive community is essentially a group that agrees that a certain text has a certain meaning. When looking at the text of a computer, this gets very complicated. Communities can be found through the computer via chat rooms, MU*s and email. In a very metamedic manner, one can discuss the meaning of computers on computers. the potential is virtually limitless in terms of finding others who think similarly as you do.
And yet, with this limitless potential comes limitless communities. You can bop around the web and find someone who agrees with you about point A, but not point B, so, a little more surfing and you've found a soul who agrees about point B. The idea of community gets rather fragmented and dispersed over the internet. Combine this with the phenomenon of pseudonymity, or character creation, and community gets even further problematized. Just exactly who are you agreeing with out there? Statistically, it is more than likely a teenage boy. Even so, I would not deny that there is a sense of community in terms of interest areas. People flock to chat rooms and MU*s to interact with others, friendships form and so does an odd sense of community (for more, see Julian Dibbell's article, "A Rape in Cyberspace; or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society").
All of the above notwithstanding, we need to look at all the various levels of reading to be considered on a computer. With the potential of non-linearity and interactivity, there is the distinct possibility that you have not necessarily read the same thing as me, instead we've read different versions of a similar text. For example, what web are you talking about when you discuss the World Wide Web, it may be somewhat similar to my version of the web, but I can pretty much guarantee we have not been to and read the same web, page by page. It is simply too large and sprawling of a text to be considered as a whole, except maybe in the abstract. To get specific is to focus on one aspect from the many. And then we may be texting the web differently. You may be fascinated with the graphics of a page, while I've been focusing on the text, our readings themselves are different.
Then there's the issue of taking the media off the computer and reading it as such, in a different medium. How does this fit into the puzzle? I am not too sure. Is a video viewed on TV comparable to one viewed on the web? If not, then what kind of reading community can be formed, or is this impossible? Lots of questions that I do not have the answers to as of yet. The one thing for certain is that the experience of interactive multiple media on a computer makes it very difficult to pin down Fish's idea of a community as it were.
The experience of reading a computer full of multimedia and interactivity can be looked at through the lens of Georges Poulet article, "Criticism and the Experience of Interiority." Poulet begins with a discussion of how an un-opened book is merely an object, but once opened, a book becomes a world that subsumes him. He gets lost as the subject of the book becomes him or vice-versa. This notion is quite apt in terms of the computer. If you have yet to get hooked into a chat room, or a MU*, or a good game, you will hopefully someday have such an experience. I would describe the experience as addictive, it sucks you in and won't let go. You become the subject of the medium of the computer.
Now, to look at the computer as an object; you have the big plastic box with a multitude of wires. But turn that baby on (once you got it all hooked up correctly that is) and you've opened the door to various worlds. MYST is such a world, it a haunting, atmospheric game in which you slowly work you way through these lovingly detailed islands and a story unfolds as you explore. You are the subject of the story, allowing it to progress as you do through it. It definitely can give you an experience such as Poulet describes, but I see it as slightly different. Poulet is discussing getting subsumed by a book and losing a sense of self in the subjectivity of the story. In a game like MYST, there is a more active creation of self, you are the one who determines how the story progresses. This is true of a novel as well, it does not advance unless you read on, but in MYST there are multitudes of readings to be had, and you get to choose and can get stuck and can zip through it. You are in the story, but you are in control of the story as well.
This creation of subjectivity is even more apparent on the internet with chat rooms galore, MU*s and web pages ad infinitum. One can literally explore forever, and in chat rooms and MU*s, you create a pseudonym to represent yourself. You create your subjectivity and then can get lost in it. So you are losing yourself in your created sense of self that then gets wrapped up in the story of the MU* as you explore it. This goes beyond Poulet's ideas of a loss of self and into a realm where the self is constructed as desired.
The idea of being an active creator is strengthened via non-linearity and interactivity. And this pulls the reader into this world even more. You have the power, the control. You can go whither your heart desires at any moment. The sense of self becomes more empowered, more active. Poulet discusses falling into the book, in a computer, you fall in where you want to and can essentially do as you please (within the rules of conduct for the MU* or chat room of course). A MU* is basically only limited by the physical memory that has been allotted to it. In other words, you can build onto it and add to it as long as you do not exceed a certain amount of memory space. Talk about getting lost in reading experience.
These issues of reading and subjectivity only get more complicated by the potential to port the texts off the computer and read them in other media. You are now reading a different text, so you will get lost in it in different ways. And on a computer your reading is all mediated by the interface, if you are comfortable with the text of a MU* and know what you're doing, you can get lost in the story of that world. But if you've never been in a MU* before it can be more foreign than any land you've ever set foot in, thus denying you a chance to submerge yourself in the world. Even so, interactive, multiple medic experiences await you if you so choose to read them as such. What a way to get lost.
A computer as a medium is a place where one can lose yourself in. It can be written in, treated as a text, and read. In many ways it complicates the issues around these three processes (reading, writing, texting). In thinking about a way to further explore and employ these ideas, I am drawn in the direction of utilizing the medium of the computer to critique itself in what it can do. This drive has been picked up in part by having read articles by Arnold Berleant and Roger Shattuck. Berleant, in his article, "Surrogate Theories of Art," advocates studying one's experience with art, instead of reducing it to nonperceptual, nonaesthetic modes of experience. In other words, we should focus on the process, the event of our experience with a text, and not get bogged down in interpretation of the text itself. Although with a computer the experience and interpretation can be seen as somewhat synonymous. If we look at the binary coder as the creator of a message and then look at us using the OS as the receiver of the message, then the experience of interaction can be seen as an interpretation of the operating system's meaning (Holmqvist 223). So, to text a computer is to first interpret the interface and then get actively submerged in the stories therein.
This parallels Roger Shattuck's point, made in his article, "How to Rescue Literature." Shattuck is looking at how the performative oral readings of texts will help to better understand our experience with a text. We should perform the text to better experience it. This occurs naturally in a computer, where meaning is produced through "enactment (acting out instead of telling or describing)" (Holmqvist 225). We act on the computer as we create pseudonyms and surf the web and point and click our way through this medium.
As such, I am interested in created a interactive multimedia piece that is to be read in the medium of a computer. This piece will deal with issues of reading, writing and texting in the medium of a computer. I will be focusing on the end user's experience with this computer document that they point and click their way through. I believe it would be a performative experience, one in which the end user has the power to decide where to go and overtly performs the reading of the piece. The reader of the piece will actively create her/his subjectivity as s/he submerges into the story. The trick, as I see it, will be to create an interface that allows the reader to enact and engage this performative reading on a computer (and that is some trick).
As I stated at the start of this paper, the process of reading has become a highly complicated one. Computers as a medium overtly call our attention to this complexity. With its ability to present a diverse array of media along with forms of interactivity, a computer allows for a very active experience with multi- and multiple media. Words, graphics, animations, video, sound, movement, space, etc., all add up in the experience of a computer. Looking at the computer in terms of writing, text and reading is heavily mediated by concerns of interface and the variety of levels within this medium. It is in these regards that I found discourse theory to be most lacking. These theories I engaged did not directly address questions of interface and multiple potential readings, but I found them useful in helping me focus on the experience incurred when one engages a computer as a medium and looks at the text, the writing and the reading of a computer. Interface and levels of reading seem unique to computers if only because they are need to be so explicitly foregrounded in the discussion of the computer as medium.
I am interested to see and explore how dealing with these issues will differ/change with my efforts to create an interactive multimedia document. Based on my assumptions made here, one will have a completely different textual experience with that piece than they have with this paper. The best way to find out is to do it (Kay 206). And that, I believe is for the best. Computers have the "capacity to represent action in which humans [can] participate" (Laurel 1). So, looking at the computer in terms of a medium, we should focus on the action (134). Or in other words, it's time to act . . .
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---. "The Intentional Fallacy." Critical Theory since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
The Computer as Medium
This essay explores the computer as a medium that is read, somewhat analogous to the medium of print. With this analogy in mind, the operation of a computer is looked at in terms of selected discourse theories. Gaps and resonances between the theories and the object of study (the computer) occur through this process of applying the theories to the "reading" of a computer. It is through the similarities and differences of print and computer media that the author believes opens up a new and complementary space in which act and perform academic work.