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The New Storytellers: Meet the (New) Press

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America’s media diet is rapidly changing. Online news sites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are ascendant, drawing millions of readers each month, while circulation at the Washington Post was down almost 9 percent in 2012. Printed magazines are still launching in record numbers, but venerable titles such as Newsweek go digital-only. ¶ Navigating this landscape in Washington, D.C., is a troupe of young, working journalists. Each has one foot in the traditional realm of their predecessors and the other foot . . . where, exactly? Recently, this cohort (featured at right) sat down with writer  Kevin Charles Redmon ’09, to discuss the modern media landscape, the technologies that shape it, and the changing role of reporters and editors.

Jaime Fuller I glanced at the channels on a small-town newspaper website the other day, and there were the usual departments, News, Politics, Opinion. And at the end it said, “Cars”—but what I read was, “Cats.” And I thought, That’s the difference between old media, which makes no money, and new media. We used to sell car ads. Now we sell cats.

Kevin Redmon Cat photos and Ryan Gosling memes seem to be the secrets to success for online news sites like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. It’s a little scary. Will our kids grow up in a world without the New York Times?

Ryan Kellett Please. The news of Old Media’s death has been greatly exaggerated . . . by the media.

Brian Fung To its credit, one thing BuzzFeed does really well—which no one had done before—is think about news in terms of the “nugget,” as opposed to the “article.” The idea that you take from a traditional article a quote or an interesting statistic and make that the thing you sell. You’re not selling the article. You’re selling the thing that people will remember and spread around.

Redmon Keeping it shorter, like a quick burst of trivia?

Fung Right. In a print article, you might have five bits of interesting information. Well, BuzzFeed turns that into five different posts, which each get individual attention.

Redmon That kills me. I don’t want to write Web “nuggets.” I want to write long, thoughtful magazine stories. I realize how callow that sounds.

Kellett Keep writing those long pieces. Don’t be surprised when that reporting gets repurposed into nuggets. It’s my job to think about the person who has five minutes waiting in line at the supermarket and how they can get something out of the three months of reporting you did on your story. Some are not ever going to read 3,000 words in a single setting. But can I serve them an interactive graphic or video that tells the same story differently? You bet.

Lois Parshley One of the best pieces of advice I got, starting out, was from my editor at the Atlantic. He said, “You know, it’s great that you want to do long-form stuff. You might be able to do that for part of your job. But we don’t live in an era when anyone gets to do that full time. If you can’t be happy in a middle place—writing some daily Web assignments—then you’re not going to like journalism.” That really struck me.

Redmon Brian, I know one thing you appreciate about the Atlantic is its cult of curiosity. For instance, most Web articles are born at the morning staff meeting, when an editor says, “Why is it that NASA doesn’t take photos of government black sites?” Then someone spends a couple hours researching that question and writing a post about it.

Fung The culture there is very much one of shared discovery. Most news organizations, especially traditional ones, take the stance, “Here’s what you need to know.” With the the Atlantic, it’s very much, “I was wondering about this, and you might be wondering too, so I called up this dude, and here’s what he said, and isn’t it awesome that we were able to find out all this stuff?” I think readers really value the respect that the Atlantic gives to its audience. Another great thing about working there was that everyone had a unique role to play. Everyone had different strengths and weaknesses, a different “game to play,” and the senior editors were great at cultivating those specific talents.

Angela Evancie Did they literally talk about it that way? Your editor would come to you with a story idea and say, “Brian, this is your game”?

Fung Yeah, literally.

Evancie When I started at a small-town newspaper in New Hampshire last year, I really struggled at first. The paper came out twice a week, and I had a five-town beat that I needed to cover in every possible way: local elections, education, crime. I had a hard time producing work that I felt comfortable with. I sometimes cranked out stories in less than a half an hour. I sat down with my editor and told her how I was feeling. She said, “Eventually you learn that only a few stories can be your babies.” You have to give yourself permission to produce work you deem lower quality. That’s as true at a small paper as it is on the Web.

Fung I totally identify with that. I’m not a fast writer, and I spend a lot of time editing as I go. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be not satisfied with the final product. At some point, you’ve just got to let it go.

Fuller The first print piece I wrote for American Prospect was a very daunting thing. I sat down at my computer thinking, Oh my gosh, this is going to be in print. It needs to be the most perfect, timeless writing ever. I turned in my first draft and my editor said, “You need to rewrite this and think way less about it. Pretend that you’re writing a Web piece.” It was a nice reality check. I stopped approaching it like it was War and Peace. I’ve learned that it’s important to stick to your personal voice.

Fung Do you feel like you’ve developed a strong voice?

Fuller I’d say I’m still cooking. But I try.

Fung Voice is something I struggle with every day. I’m doing a lot of policy reporting, which, by nature, is not that exciting. So a lot of translation has to come through in the voice. But to what extent is that a conscious process, honing your style?

Redmon I sometimes pretend I’m writing a radio script—I love NPR’s pull-up-a-chair approach to storytelling.

Evancie That’s exactly what radio writing is meant to be. Editors always tell you, just close your eyes and pretend that you’re sitting across a café table from your best friend, telling them a really interesting story. That needs to come through in your writing and in your delivery.

Fuller No William Faulkner on NPR.

Evancie Right. Ernest Hemingway would be a great radio writer, because he’s all short sentences. In radio it’s “show, don’t tell.” And you get the added bonus of being able to convey emotion with your tone. So you don’t need to say “a solemn ceremony,” because you can just say the word “ceremony” solemnly. You can cut out all your descriptors.

Redmon Speaking of short sentences, let’s talk about Twitter.

Fung Becoming a reporter at National Journal has really altered the extent to which I’m tapped into the national conversation. I’m actually much less hooked on social media than before. A lot of my reporter friends say, “Oh that’s a great thing. You’re spending time contributing to society, instead of making bland cat jokes or sending animated GIFs around.” And that’s true, I suppose. But as a Web journalist, many of the stories I wrote in the past were leads that came from Twitter! I feel like I’m missing out.

Evancie There’s a healthy neo-Luddite streak running through parts of journalism, because there’s something to be said for having a beat and getting to know the people on your beat—your sources, your subjects. I don’t see that happening on the Web. Instead, I see a lot of one-off stories. You don’t ever hear the words “shoe leather” and “blogger” in the same sentence. But those Luddites are battling against a new school that says, “Twitter is absolutely important. This is not only how we’re going to develop better stories, but it’s how everyone’s going to get their news.”  To what extent can we use Twitter effectively, but not be totally broken down by it? Or distracted to a point of paralysis?

Kellett There absolutely is such a thing as a Twitter beat. I call it a social media constellation: the digital connections you have with sources, other journalists, and increasingly readers themselves. Reporters must know that the only way to grow this digital beat is by participating in it, not just listening.

Redmon I think about the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, and how Twitter “covered” that story. Journalists were publishing their articles as works-in-progress; some were rife with rumors and bad facts. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Kellett I’m of the mind that you report the news as it happens with the same high journalistic standards as before. Just be transparent about how you report the story. Readers are smarter than journalists give them credit for.

Parshley There’s some really amazing technological innovation going on, too. Foreign Policy did a couple of e-books this past year, which we dressed up with slide shows and maps. You’re able to take the power of a digital platform—audio recordings, video, multimedia, embedded cartography, infographics—and invest the time and resources you’d put into a magazine piece. I think, I hope, that that’s where long-form is headed.

Redmon I hope so, too. But market forces seem to be working in the opposite direction. You had an experience the other day that I think, sadly, has become typical for freelancers. It was after Raúl Castro announced that he wasn’t going to run for a second term as president.

Parshley Yeah, the Atlantic’s international editor wanted me to do a quick Web hit about it—I’d written about Cuba before, and I’ve been there twice. It was Sunday night, but I wrote back and said, “Sure, I’ll have you a draft by mid-morning tomorrow.” New editor, someone I hadn’t worked with, but I’m comfortable with the subject matter. She responded right away to say, “Oh, and by the way, we can’t pay you.” And I had to write back, “Oh, and by the way, I can’t work for free.”

Redmon A lot of news sites assume that most writers are so excited about having their work published that they’ll give it away for free.

Fuller Most people are unwilling to pay for quality. It breaks my heart.

Parshley So you have to find people who have other jobs that pay the rent—academics or think-tank fellows—who are willing to take the clip instead of payment. Or, you have to find naïve young writers who will do it for free.

Redmon As the model changes, I guess the challenge is to change with it, gracefully. And, you know, still pay rent.

Fung Even if I lost my job tomorrow, I would stay in journalism. Not because I’m enamored with the idea of writing, or because I dream of being the next Seymour Hersh, but because I get a kick out of explaining things to people. I want to help them understand the world better.

The New Storytellers: My Story

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Microphone_Final_0243:10 Typically, the interviews last about an hour and once they are recorded they are transcribed and time-stamped, so we know precisely where everything is on the “tape.” It’s all digital, of course, so there is no actual tape.

47:24 This technique makes moving snippets of the conversation around pretty easy.  An hour interview has to be pared down to a five- or six-minute story. And that is not easy.


02:04 My name is Sue Halpern and I’m a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the director of the Fellowships in Narrative Journalism or, as it’s popularly known, the “How Did You Get Here?” (HDYGH) project.


10:15 I was at a College dinner about six years ago, and everyone was going around the table saying where they were from. “Tel Aviv. Berea. Kabul. Amman. Spokane. Kathmandu.” As they spoke, I found myself asking the same question over and over.

12:07 It was some variant of “How did you end up at this small college in rural Vermont?”

12:59 Three months later, I was talking with Matt Jennings, the editor of Middlebury Magazine, and he was saying that the magazine wanted to do more Web-based multimedia. As he was talking, I thought, “Why don’t we train students to make short audio portraits of their classmates that answer one simple question: How did you get here?”

15:37 I proposed “How Did You Get Here?” and Matt was game.


Check out the 2013 “How Did You Get Here?” stories

48:42 I’d never done any audio before this. I am a writer and magazine journalist. But I know how to get a story and how to tell a story, and I know that this is something that can be taught.

52:05 I dislike grades. I’ve seen how grades, not learning, can become the goal, and I’ve also seen how sometimes students try to see how much they can get away with not doing. Because I knew that HDYGH was going to be a tremendous amount of work, I only wanted students who were passionate and fully committed.

39:00 Matt and I called it the Narrative Journalism Fellowship, and we put out a call for applications.

55:32 Experience was not necessary but strong writing skills were.

7:19 You get a very good sense of the range and diversity and uniqueness of the students who attend Middlebury from our pieces and from the journeys students take to get here.

11:14 I don’t have a favorite profile since I honestly believe all the stories are incredible. There’s a young woman who was smuggled out of Tibet in a box;  a competitive goat roper; someone who went to a secret school for girls in Kabul during the Taliban; I could go on. You should listen.

20:16 One of the most gratifying parts of the program, aside from the opportunity to tell these amazing stories, is to have created a cadre of very accomplished journalists and storytellers. The skills and competence they acquire in the program serve them well, whatever they do.

62:19 In May of the first year, the fellows mounted an exhibit in the Davis Family Library and provided iPods with a soundtrack of all their stories. Hundreds of people came to the opening; there were not enough iPods. Finally, with the blessing of the library staff, one of the pieces was broadcast over a set of speakers. Students who had been studying stopped what they were doing, got up from their chairs, and lined the balcony. Everywhere I looked, people were standing stock-still, just listening. And when the piece ended, they clapped and asked for more.

(music to fade)

Sue Halpern is a journalist, an author, and a Middlebury scholar in residence.

The New Storytellers: Evolution of a Storyteller

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Typewriter_Final_01What is a story?  How do we experience stories in a world of increasing interconnectivity where traditional narrative lines are blurred, even nonexistent or redrawn according to a new set of rules that don’t yet make sense to us?

Stories have ancient roots. We’ve relied on this comforting fact. But if we look at the story’s transformation from Homer to Borges and Cortázar to Deena Larsen, Lev Manovich, and Peter Horvath we experience a monumental socio-cultural-technical shift that moves from the oral to the digital where we’re unsure what counts anymore.

We require new ways of making sense. “If we are entering a new world,” says David Weinberger in Small Pieces Loosely Joined, “then we are also becoming new people.”

New storytellers are engaged in remixing and translating, with great speed and compression, experiencing the story more as a gesture rather than a thick narrative with fully drawn characters navigating a linear plot line.  New storytellers appropriate from one another—and from the past and from other forms: painting, music, film, traditional texts, Web sites; they’re challenging boundaries and disciplines.

New storytellers are drawn to the freshness, the inventiveness that comes with “entering a new world” comprised of multiple selves—the public and the private, the digital and the physical, the psychological, emotional, and spiritual. The new storyteller is the translator of our complex—and subtle—novelty, working to obliterate distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, and our sense of space.

In 2011, half of Japan’s top ten best-selling novels were originally cell phone novels, typically love stories written in short, text message format.  Cell phone novels are the preferred medium of new age authors not out of preference, but out of necessity.

The new storyteller, like an apprentice, is always learning, morphing, adjusting to unstable conditions; this requires an extraordinary sense of audience, inviting the storyteller to sometimes incorporate the reader into the narrative—like receiving a short novel on your cell phone, a serial piece on Twitter, and a drama about how our brains work on RadioLab. All mediums count all the time, like instruments in a symphony orchestra.

In 2012, Margaret Atwood, who has written 13 novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale, went on Byliner, a web site that’s billed as a new platform for writers, and began a serial novel, Positron, where, for a few dollars, readers collaborated with her, commenting on scenes and episodes, and determining the direction of the narrative. Atwood compared her experience to improv comedy, to creating a story live before an audience.

In 1997, Janet Murray, in Hamlet on the Holodeck, predicted the coming of participatory television, the holodeck we, the audience, help create. I think we’ve arrived. Remember the science in Minority Report? Well, John Underkoffler is combining traditional tabular data with 3D and geospatial information manipulated through space, not via a keyboard. It’s here. Now.

We’ve changed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, himself once a new storyteller, asks, “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?” New storytellers are responding to Emerson, carrying on his legacy.  “The sun shines to-day also…There are new lands, new men, new thoughts,” he says. “Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”

In 1974, the Specification of Internet Transmission Control Program, a different sort of story written by three different kinds of storytellers, Vinton Cerf,  Yogen Dalal, and Carl Sunshine, used the term internet as shorthand for internetworking and our new storytellers were born. And here we are, moving, becoming something else by as early as tomorrow.

Hector Vila is an assistant professor of writing at Middlebury.

It All Adds Up

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Mathematics Professor John Schmitt and student Aden Forrow in Warner HallNearly 60 seconds of silence had elapsed since I mentioned to John Schmitt that he must be inordinately proud of the young man sitting to my left. The awkwardness for me began around the, oh, 20-second mark, so my discomfort surely must have been palpable at this point. Schmitt had seemed ready to answer a few times, but each time he stopped. Finally, he said, “Aden’s intellect isn’t my doing. His work ethic isn’t my doing. His thoughtful approach to problem solving isn’t my doing. I’m delighted that he has these opportunities [after graduation], but pride is not something I can claim. Delighted. That’s what I feel.” I exhaled. My fear that I had misspoken was replaced by the revelation that this mathematician wanted to make sure he was precisely understood.

Let’s back up a moment. I was in Schmitt’s Warner Hall office, chatting with him and the aforementioned Aden, full name being Aden Forrow ’13, an exceedingly quiet, very pleasant young man from the Boston area. In a recent talk, Schmitt had referred to Aden as likely “the most mathematically gifted student I have ever taught.” For the past year or so, the two have been investigating a problem within the area of mathematics known as combinatorics. Schmitt explained that in combinatorics “we are given a finite set of objects and a set of rules placed upon the objects, and our two most basic questions are 1) does there exist an arrangement of the objects that satisfies the rules, and 2) if so, how many?” A Sudoku puzzle is a trivial combinatorial problem, Schmitt said. “But what is more interesting,” he added “is discerning the minimum number of clues that can be given while still providing for a valid puzzle.” The conjecture is 17, and recently an Irish mathematician designed a procedure to prove that no 16-clue puzzle could exist. Tricky thing is, it would take a standard desktop computer 300,000 years to complete the computation.

So Schmitt and Aden are trying to solve the problem using a tool known as the Combinatorial Nullstellensatz . . . and that’s pretty much all I will say about this tool. I asked Schmitt to explain it to me, and another silence arose. Aden quietly chuckled. Then, as polite as he could be, Schmitt attempted to tell me about the Combinatorial Nullstellensatz. Let’s just say that we subsequently both agreed that C. N. is not meant to be understood by a general audience. And, frankly, it’s beside the point.

The point, really, of our discussion was not how Aden and Schmitt were attempting to solve this problem, nor was it about whether they would actually solve it at all. (“One never knows how long it will take to solve a math problem, if you can solve it in the first place,” Schmitt would later say.) No, the reason we were talking that afternoon was because it was so unlikely to be having this discussion in the first place.

Before he met Aden, Schmitt had never found the need to provide a student in an enrolled course with his or her own set of problems, problems that were not a part of the course syllabus. But just one or two days into Aden’s participation in Math 247, Graph Theory, Schmitt knew he had to do something different. “He wasn’t challenged by the class. He picked up on subtleties, special cases that I’ve never seen an undergraduate recognize. There have been times when I’ve noticed disparities between talented students and the whole of a class, but this generally happens in introductory courses. Aden was on an entirely different level.”

So Schmitt decided he would seek out a problem for which he and Aden could apply the Combinatorial Nullstellensatz technique. (Using Sudoku came to him at breakfast one morning while he was having his granola.) “And we have been having an ongoing mathematical conversation that each of us has wanted to have. These conversations have been entirely outside of any syllabus; Aden receives no course credit.”

I asked Aden if this matched his recollection.

He thought for about five seconds and then said, “More or less.”

“Aden is very understated,” Schmitt added.

Aden smiled. “One of the things I like about Middlebury is the amount of attention professors give to their teaching and to their students,” he said. Schmitt mentioned that I could very easily be writing a story about Aden’s collaboration with Noah Graham, in the physics department, “but then you would have missed out on capturing my good looks.”

At this, Aden let out a loud, sustained laugh. It was startling, given how quiet he had been. It was a laugh one shares with a peer.

Aden Forrow ’13 will enroll in the mathematics graduate program at MIT next year. If he has an idea for the Sudoku project, he knows who he will call first.   

Nordic Coach Andrew Gardner talks NCAAs

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Language, in Depth: Living with Dyslexia

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

bookmaze_WEBThe time that stands out to me, the time when I first realized that I was different, was when I was in the third grade.

At my school, all of the kids in the third grade were asked to read a children’s book to the first graders. This program instilled a very real sense of, I don’t know, superiority, I guess. The age difference between first and third grade isn’t great, but in third grade you can read; it was a differentiator. Reading was imbedded into that sense of identity as a third grader; we were the “big kids,” and we were going to demonstrate it by doing something the first graders couldn’t.

Up until this point, I don’t think I had a full understanding that I couldn’t read like my classmates. I just knew that it was hard, and that was the extent of it. I thought it was like that for everybody. But when it came time for us to choose our books, I remember kids choosing these chapter books, the Magic Tree House series, to show off their reading chops; or maybe they were picking more simple books they had been able to read for a while, books that the first-graders were just learning to read.

So I went that route, picking The Cat in the Hat—except I couldn’t read it. I knew what the story was about because my parents always read to me at bedtime, and I had a pretty good visual memory of the book. I knew how many words there were on a page. The pictures somewhat corresponded with the words, and I could remember the pictures. So up until “reading day” I would have my parents read me that book, and I would try and memorize the story. I would try to remember the words that they were saying.

And then it came time to read the book aloud to the first-graders. And it was right then, when I was sweating, my hands shaking, fumbling for words . . . that’s when I knew. These kids were correcting me. They could read it. And I couldn’t.

That’s when it dawned on me that there was this structure, this hierarchy in the educational world—third-graders should be able to do things that first-graders couldn’t—and I didn’t have a place in it.

I was given the diagnosis in the fourth grade, and it came with such a profound sense of relief. Up until that point, I just felt that I wasn’t smart enough; I couldn’t do what the teachers felt I could do. So getting the diagnosis—that was the ultimate clarification that I was different, but that was good. Suddenly, there was a category that I fit into; I wasn’t alone.

Being diagnosed as dyslexic immediately gave me a sense of what my strengths were and what my weaknesses were. To get these laid out for me was so important because it told me that, OK, there are things I’m going to struggle with, but there are also things that I won’t struggle with. Before, I had no confidence; I just assumed everything would be a struggle.

I was so lucky that my mom was a teacher, because she never had the belief that there were “normal” kids and there were kids who didn’t fit that definition. She sees each kid as an individual learner. The concept that there’s a standard student and there’s a student who needs accommodations is ridiculous because there is no “standard” student. She inherently understood that. Up until my diagnosis, I might have felt alone at school, but never at home.

In high school, I loved studio art, and I think it was expected that because I was dyslexic and because I was good at art, that I’d go to art school. But I saw this as a copout, I saw this as running away from my dyslexia, of conforming to others’ beliefs in what I could or couldn’t do. I had this deep drive to prove to people that I could do academics. I was going to go to a rigorous liberal arts school! And then I was going to be a history major!

When I got here, I felt like Middlebury had taken a risk with me; I was a risky investment. I mean, I knew what I could do, but how could they know for sure? I had bad SAT scores, and I probably spelled some stuff wrong on the application. So I put pressure on myself to prove that kids with learning disabilities, kids who don’t do well on the SATs, can contribute a lot to the community—they can be creators, innovators.

At first I thought that meant excelling in areas I wouldn’t normally excel in and limiting myself to one studio art course a semester—things like that. And I did well. But then I wondered, Why am I not doing what I really want to do? I remember being told that I was going to reach a point in my life when I’d be able to do the things that I wanted to do, that I wouldn’t always have to work so hard to overcome my learning difference.

But there’s no guy standing on the corner saying, “You know that point? It’s happening right now.” You have to come to that realization yourself, and I think this is especially difficult for people with learning differences. When do you shed off that stuff that you have to do?

I think I’ve spent a long time feeling not so great about myself; there are self-esteem issues deeply embedded in working within other people’s expectations. And if you are not doing what you really want to do, not playing to your strengths, then the validation you receive is completely external, and you never feel satisfied.

I’m still working through it. But I’m a studio art major now, though I might minor in history.

Living with dyslexia . . . it’s hard. But from my experience, you have to own it. It’s who I am. It’s always going to be me. Understanding this is essential in order to be happy as a human being.

Language, in Depth: What is the Meaning of “Meaning”?

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Middlebury_Prism-WEBWhat is the meaning of “meaning”?

This apparently recondite question, posed by the philosopher Hilary Putnam in a seminal 1975 paper, actually lies at the core of the branch of linguistics known as semantics. How we answer this question will have important implications for a variety of issues that are currently hotly debated in linguistics, such as whether some concepts are innate, whether different languages create different styles of thought or experience (linguistic determinism), how languages are learned, and so on.  In the second half of the 20th century, the prevalent commonsense view of meaning faced a number of serious challenges, but none was as potentially revolutionary as that raised by Putnam and other similarly minded philosophers of language.

I always begin my Philosophy of Language course by asking students what they take to be “the meaning of ‘meaning,’” and the most common initial response is, in short, that meaning is something in the head. The meaning of a sentence like “It’s six pm in Denver now” is a thought in the mind of the speaker, presumably the thought that right now the time in Denver is six pm; the meaning of a word, for instance “cauliflower,” is the speaker’s concept of that thing. This view is a very commonsensical one for us today, and also one with a long historical pedigree.

The 17th century philosopher John Locke held that a man’s words “stand as marks for the ideas in his own mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the thoughts of men’s minds be conveyed from one to another.”

But Putnam and other philosophers, such as Saul Kripke, raised deep-seated objections to the idea theory, objections whose implications philosophers and linguists are still trying to unravel. Putnam’s challenge takes the form of a thought experiment involving a make-believe planet called “Twin Earth.”  Imagine, he says, that somewhere in the universe there is a planet that is, with one exception, molecule for molecule identical with Earth. On Twin Earth there are twin trees and twin rocks. There are even doppelgangers of you and me, who speak something that sounds just like English. The only difference between the two planets is that on Twin Earth, the lakes and rivers don’t contain H2O, but a substance with a different chemical formula we can abbreviate XYZ. XYZ is, to the naked eye, indistinguishable from H2O, and Twin Earthians drink it, cook with it, and even call it by the same sound we use, “water.”

But, Putnam asks, what does the Twin Earthian word “water” mean? Clearly, it does not mean water. After all, water is H2O, not XYZ; a substance with a different chemical formula would not be called water. But—and here’s the rub—this difference of meaning would exist even if Person A on Earth and Twin Person A on Twin Earth were exactly identical in terms of what’s “in their heads.” Suppose that it’s the year 1750 (Earth time), and no one on either Earth or Twin Earth has any understanding of chemical composition. Person A and Twin Person A will then share all the same beliefs about their respective liquids:  that it’s clear, odorless, thirst-quenching on a summer’s day, and so on.  But even so, the meaning of Twin Person A’s term “water” cannot be water, for this term refers to XYZ, not H2O.  Person A’s and Twin Person A’s “concepts” of these substances are identical, and yet the meanings of their terms are different. So meanings cannot just be concepts. As Putnam puts it, “Cut the pie any way you like, ‘meaning’ just ain’t in the head!”

Or, at any rate, not wholly in the head. Putnam’s proposal is actually that the meaning of most words includes two components: one that is not in the head, the word’s extension, or the things to which it applies (in the case of water, H2O); and one that is in the head, the word’s “stereotype.” This may seem, to put it mildly, surprising. How could H2O itself be part of the meaning of “water” in 1750, before anyone knew that water was H2O? Putnam’s idea is that “water”, and indeed most words, are actually akin to indexical words like “this,” “that,” and “now,” whose meaning depends on context. What I mean when I say “that” depends on whether I’m pointing to my cat or my car, and if I’m pointing to my cat, what I mean is the cat itself. In a similar way, the meaning of “water” “reaches out” to encompass the actual stuff in the world to which the word refers, even if the speaker doesn’t fully know the nature of that stuff.

Putnam’s view of meaning has sparked a great deal of controversy since it was proposed, but it has had a tremendous influence. What are its implications? What it means for broader questions concerning, for instance, the innateness of language and linguistic determinism, is still very much a subject of debate. However these specific issues are decided, this new perspective has suggested to many a broad reorientation of our way of thinking about the relationship between the mind and the world. The idea theory of meaning, by picturing meaning as something wholly within the speaker’s head, in a sense separates the mind from the world. On Putnam’s view, the meanings we grasp with our minds encompass things outside the mind, which suggests we should think of the mind as fundamentally open to the world, rather than closed in on itself.

For those who accept Putnam’s argument, there is much work to be done in order to understand what exactly this means about the nature of human subjectivity and its relation to the world.

John Spackman is an associate professor of philosophy. He teaches a course at Middlebury titled “Philosophy of Language.”