The Importance of Context in Content
I’ve read two books in the past few weeks, and have been amazed at the difference they make in my understanding of two subjects: Grammar and Algebra. I wish I have had access to these two books while in school, as I know they would have made an impact on my learning and understanding of the subject matter.
I hate x
I used to be really good in Math, until I met Algebra. Then I learned to hate x with a passion. I never understood why endless equations were so important, or how it would affect my life – why are we learning all of this? If I want to find out how many cans of paint are necessary to paint a room, I’ll buy four cans and return one if I don’t use it. That’s what Home Depot is for.
Traditionally, algebra classes are simply about performing harder and more complex equations, and I remember my teachers getting frustrated with me, as I simply did not understand algebra. I think the main reason is that I didn’t understand “why.” Why are we doing this – what does it prove? What am I learning?
Learning the “Why”
Enter a friend’s recommendation of a book, “Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea.” And now I have to ask myself – why don’t we start math classes with history lessons? Why do we not learn about why these equations were done in the first place and what they were meant to prove? This book showed the history of zero as mathematicians, philosophers and scientists either embraced or refused it.
More than Math
The author showed how zero challenged all areas of life; mathematics, theology, science, philosophy – all affected by the principle of zero. And so was my conception of algebra. By learning the history and context of this amazing subject, and its influence throughout history in so many disciplines, I learned to appreciate what I once hated, the infamous x.
The second book was a fascinating romp into the formation of the English language – Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way.” Now, I love English and language studies to begin with, as that has aligned perfectly with understanding search marketing and semantics algorithms, but this book (again) showed the historical; changes and influences upon our modern language.
I learned to never split an infinitive.
I wish I had been armed with some of this knowledge as I defended my papers from the dreaded grammar errors that seemed to dominate my purpose. Knowing that the “rule” to never split infinitive was the result of an 18th century bishop who decided that English should be like Latin. Never mind that English is not a product of Latin, as are Spanish, French or Italian, and is it impossible to split an infinitive in Latin because the verb and infinitive are hopelessly joined together in the same word. (to speak = hablar. You can’t split the Spanish word “hablar” because the construction of the verb and infinitive are one and the same)
Yet, somehow, the romance of making the English language reflect the Latin language because of the love affair with the enlightened Greeks and Romans stuck, and now fourth graders have to beaten into submission to comply with random phrasing that is nothing like our normal verbal patterns of speech.
If you need an example, try rephrasing the heading of this section, “I learned to never split an infinitive.” In a way that sounds natural. You can’t do it without sounding like a pretentious grammar stickler.
If I had known these things in my youth, I could have argued up another letter grade – or at least befuddled the teacher to an extent that she may question the roots of grammar for the reminder of her life. At the very least I would have been satisfied to be an irritating pest to the teachers that constantly reinforced ancient writing rules that aren’t reflected in our natural speech patterns.
Bringing it together: Context Builds Understanding
In all areas, knowing the historical accomplishments and milestones always promotes understanding. Our modern educational system is not based on presenting this context. I would think that all classes should start with a history lesson of the factors that have shaped the modern understanding – how we got here. I do this in my marketing classes. It provides context as to why there is such crappy advice about search engine optimization on the internet.
Context determines everything. The same content can be presented on two different websites. However, the context of how that content is presented will cause two very distinct reactions. The readability and accessibility of one will usually trump the other, simply based on the context in which it was presented.
Understanding how information works online and how it is viewed by both humans and machines helps to create an understanding of the online marketing world. Understanding the history of online communications can help a marketer realize that social media will last much longer than any campaign, and that he had better be ready for the long-term investment, rather than a short term campaign.
Simply focusing on one part of marketing, say search engine optimization, (or in other words, the equations), without including other factors of usability, analytics, design, marketing and customer testing is neglecting a serious part of a successful campaign. Everything must be done in context in order to fully reach a targeted audience effectively and build a long-term association.