Essential File Types for Understanding Digital Culture
A Roundup of Community Ideas

A few weeks ago I wrote about studying digital culture through the lens of specific file types. In the fall I’m teaching DIG 101 (Introduction to Digital Studies)—an amorphous course that is part new media studies, part digital humanities, part science and technology studies. I was imagining spending a week on, say, something like GIFs as way to understand Internet culture. My question is, what other file types could be similarly productive to explore?

That short post generated great ideas in the comments, on Facebook, and on Twitter. To make things easier to find again (for me and others), here are just some of the file type ideas that bubbled to the surface:

PDF

As commentator Sam Popowich put it, “love it or hate it” PDFs are everywhere. Ryan Cordell pointed out that Lisa Gitelman has a chapter devoted to PDFs in Paper Knowledge. Gitelman is exactly the kind of scholar I want undergraduates to read. Clear, perceptive, uncovering seemingly archaic history and showing why it matters.

WAD

Quite a few people suggested WADs, composite files made up sounds, sprites, graphics, level information, and other digital assets for PC games. Doom popularized WADs, but PC games continue to use similar composite files. You can use tools like GCFScape to unpack these files, and they lend themselves to digital forensic lab work in the classroom. Every time I teach Gone Home, for example, students explore unpacked sound and graphic files. It’s an alternative way of experiencing the game. My own research digging to WADS to find misogynistic game developer comments could come into play here too.

JPG

At first I thought studying JPGs would be redundant if GIFs are already on the table. Allison Parrish and Jeff Thompson make a strong case for JPGs though: they organize information differently, compress differently, and of course, are glitchable. Like PDFs, their very ubiquity renders them invisible as file types, especially to students who have grown up carrying a camera with them at all times.

EXIF

Vika Zafrin and Tim Owens recommended EXIF, one of the few file types I hadn’t already considered as a possibility. Technically I guess EXIF is a metadata standard, not a file type per se, but the relationship between metadata and data is crucial to understand, and EXIF can get us there. Plus, we can talk about privacy, tracking, and my colleague Owen Mundy’s fantastic I Know Where Your Cat Lives project.

Stigmatized File Types

@TopLeftBrick mentioned NFO files and Finn Arne Jørgensen brought up .torrent files, both of which belong to the world of pirated games, software, and media. Jason Mittell similarly suggested another what I call stigmatized file type:

Before the rise of HTML5, YouTube videos were Flash files (FLV = Flash Video), and there were (and are) tricks to downloading these videos to watch offline. But it was a format you weren’t supposed to encounter; YouTube strove to make streaming seamless, hiding the actual video file. I would love to spend some time in DIG 101 studying all of these stigmatized file types, not so much to understand the technical features of the file formats themselves, but to better understand the cultural rules that influence the circulation of knowledge.

The Big Picture

The above list is certainly incomplete. And leaves off the file types that originally inspired this idea (MP3s, GIFs, HTML, and JSON). But it’s a great start. It’s also important to zoom out and see the big picture. To this end, Amelia Acker pointed me toward this surprisingly philosophical technical report from Microsoft Research: “What is a File?”

Indeed, what is a file and what do they mean is something we’ll be asking in DIG 101.

Studying Digital Culture through File Types

I am revamping “Introduction to Digital Studies,” my program’s overview of digital culture, creativity, and methodology. One approach is to partially organize the class around file types, the idea being that a close reading of certain file types can help us better understand contemporary culture, both online and off.

It’s a bit like Raymond William’s Keywords, except with file types. A few of the file types that seem especially generative to consider:

  • MP3 (Jonathan Sterne’s work on MP3s is the gold standard to follow)
  • GIF (especially the rise and fall and rise of the animated GIF)
  • HTML (a gateway to understanding the early history and ethos of the web)
  • JSON (as a way to talk about data and APIs)

This list is just an initial start, of course. What other culturally significant file types would you have students consider? And what undergrad-friendly readings about those file types would you recommend?

Password Protecting PDFs on Course Blogs

This is a quick note to myself, so I remember the best way to protect PDFs behind a password on a course blog. Joe Ugoretz highlights the problems with most methods, and then proposes the solution I’m using here: Ben Balter’s WP Document Revisions plugin. There are a few tricks involved to get WP Document Revisions up and running on a WordPress multisite installation. Here’s what works for me: Continue reading “Password Protecting PDFs on Course Blogs”

DIG 210: Data Culture

A new course for the Digital Studies program at Davidson College. Influences for the syllabus abound: Lisa Gitelman, Lauren Klein, Ben Schmidt, Matt Wilkens, and many other folks in the digital humanities.

Course Description

“Data” is often considered to be the domain of scientists and statisticians. But with the proliferation of databases across nearly all aspects of modern life, data has become an everyday concern. Bank accounts, FaceTime records, Snapchat posts, Xbox leaderboards, CatCard purchases, your DNA—at the heart of all them is data. To live today is to breathe and exhale data, wherever you go, online and off. And at the same time data has become a function of daily life, it has also become the subject of—and vehicle for—literary and artistic critiques.

This course explores the role of data and databases in contemporary culture, with an eye toward understanding how data shapes the way we perceive—and misperceive—the world. After historicizing the origins of modern databases in 19th century industrialization and census efforts, we will survey our present-day data landscape, considering data mining, data visualization, and database art. We will encounter nearly evangelical enthusiasm for “Big Data” but also rigorous criticisms of what we might call naïve empiricism. The ethical considerations of data collection and analysis will be at the forefront of our conversation, as will be issues surrounding privacy and surveillance. Continue reading “DIG 210: Data Culture”

History and Future of the Book (Fall 2014 Digital Studies Course)

A tentative syllabus for DIG 350: History & Future of the Book, a course just approved for the Digital Studies program at my new academic home, Davidson College. Many thanks to Ryan Cordell, Lisa Gitelman, Kari Kraus, Jessica Pressman, Peter Stallybrass, and many others, whose research and classes inspired this one.

DIG 350: History & Future of the Book

Course Description

A book may only be made of paper, cardboard, ink, and glue, but it is nonetheless a remarkable piece of technology—about which we have mostly forgotten it is a piece of technology. This class is concerned with the long history, the varied present, and the uncertain future of the book in the digital age. Continue reading “History and Future of the Book (Fall 2014 Digital Studies Course)”

Intrusive Scaffolding, Obstructed Learning (and MOOCs)

My five-year-old son recently learned how to ride a bike. He mastered the essential components of cycling—balance, peddling, and steering—in roughly ten minutes. Without using training wheels, ever. That idyllic scene of a bent-over parent pushing an unsteady child on a bike, working up enough speed to let go? It never happened. At least not with him.

I’m not sentimental for that Norman Rockwell moment, because I had it several years earlier with my older son. I spent hours running behind him, steadying him, catching him. What made it so difficult for my older son to learn how to ride a bike? Precisely the thing that was supposed to teach him: training wheels.

The difference between the way my sons learned how to ride a bike was training wheels. My older son used them, and consequently learned how to ride only with difficulty. His younger brother used a balance bike (the Skuut in his case), a small light (often wooden) bike with two wheels and no pedals. As the child glides along, thrust forward by pushing off from the ground, he or she learns how to balance in a gradated way. A slight imbalance might be corrected by simply tipping a toe to the ground, or the child can put both feet on the ground to fully balance the bike. Or anything in between.

With a pedal-less bike you continually self-correct your balance, based on immediate feedback. I’m leaning too much to one side? Oooh, drag my foot a little there. Contrast this with training wheels. There’s no immediate feedback. In fact, there’s no need to balance at all. The training wheels do your balancing for you. Training wheels externalize the hardest part of riding a bike. If you’re a little kid and want to start riding a bike, training wheels are great. If you’re a little kid and want to start to learn how to ride a bike, training wheels will be your greatest obstacle.

If you think of riding a bike in terms of pedagogy, training wheels are what learning experts call scaffolding. Way back in 1991, Allan Collins, John Seely Brown, and Ann Holum wrote about a type of teaching called cognitive apprenticeship, and they used the term scaffolding to describe “the support the master gives apprentices in carrying out a task. This can range from doing almost the entire task for them to giving occasional hints as to what to do next.” As the student—the apprentice—becomes more competent, the teacher—the master—gradually backs away, in effect removing the scaffolding. It’s a process Collins, Brown, and Holum call “fading.” The problem with training wheels, then, is that fading is all but impossible. You either have training wheels, or you don’t.

Training wheels are a kind of scaffolding. But they are intrusive scaffolding, obstructive scaffolding. These bulky metal add-ons get in the way quite literally, but they also interfere pedagogically. Riding a bike with training wheels prepares a child for nothing more than riding a bike—with training wheels.

My oldest child, I said, learned how to ride a bike with training wheels. But that’s not exactly what happened. After weeks of struggle—and mounting frustration—he learned. But only because I removed the all-or-nothing training wheels and replaced them with his own body. I not only removed the training wheels from his bike, but I removed the pedals themselves. In essence, I made a balance bike out of a conventional bike. Only then did he learn to balance, the most fundamental aspect of bike-riding. I learned something too: when my younger son was ready to ride a bike we would skip the training wheels entirely.

scaffoldingMy kids’ differing experiences lead me to believe that we place too much value on scaffolding, or at least, on the wrong kind of scaffolding. And now I’m not talking simply about riding bikes. I’m thinking of my own university classroom—and beyond, to online learning. We insist upon intrusive scaffolding. We are so concerned about students not learning that we surround the learning problem with scaffolding. In the process we obscure what we had hoped to reveal. Like relying on training wheels, we create complicated interfaces to experiences rather than simplifying the experiences themselves. Just as the balance bike simplifies the experience of bike riding, stripping it down to its core processes, we need to winnow down overly complex learning activities.

We could call this removal of intrusive scaffolding something like “unscaffolding” or “descaffolding.” In either case, the idea is that we take away structure instead of adding to it. And perhaps more importantly, the descaffolding reinstates the body itself as the site—and means of—learning. Scaffolding not only obstructs learning, it turns learning into an abstraction, something that happens externally. The more scaffolding there is, the less embodied the learning will be. Take away the intrusive scaffolding, and like my son on his balance bike, the learner begins to use what he or she had all along, a physical body.

I’ve been thinking about embodied pedagogy lately in relation to MOOCs—massive open online courses. In the worse cases, MOOCs are essentially nothing but scaffolding. A typical Coursera course will include video lectures for each lesson, an online quiz, and a discussion board. All scaffolding. In a MOOC, where are the bodies? And what is the MOOC equivalent of a balance bike? I want to suggest that unless online teaching—and classroom teaching as well—begins to first, unscaffold learning problems and second, rediscover embodied pedagogy, we will obstruct learning rather than foster it. We will push students away from authentic learning experiences rather than draw them toward such experiences.

After all, remember the etymological root of pedagogy: paedo, as in child, and agogic, as in leading or guiding. Teachers guide learners. Scaffolding—the wrong kind—obstructs learning.

Sacred Heart Mission photograph courtesy of Fernando de Sousa / Creative Commons Licensed. Scaffolding photograph courtesy of Kevin Dooley / Creative Commons Licensed.

Remarks on Social Pedagogy at Mason’s Future of Higher Education Forum

Photograph of a CrowdOn November 2 and 3, George Mason University convened a forum on the Future of Higher Education. Alternating between plenary panels and keynote presentations, the forum brought together observers of higher education as well as faculty and administrators from Mason and beyond. I was invited to appear on a panel about student learning and technology. The majority of the session was dedicated to Q&A moderated by Steve Pearlstein, but I did speak briefly about social pedagogy. Below are my remarks.


This morning I’d to share a few of my experiences with what you could call social pedagogy—a term I’ve borrowed from Randy Bass at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. Think of social pedagogy as outward facing pedagogy, in which learners connect to each other and to the world, and not just the professor. Social Pedagogy is also a lean-forward pedagogy. At its best a lean-forward pedagogy generates engagement, attention, and anticipation. Students literally lean forward. The opposite of a lean-forward pedagogy is of course a lean-back pedagogy. Just picture a student leaning back in the chair, passive, slack, and even bored.

A lean-forward social pedagogy doesn’t have to involve technology at all, but this morning I want to describe two examples from my own teaching that use Twitter. Last fall I was teaching a science fiction class and we were preparing to watch Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Since I wasn’t screening the film in class, students would be watching it in all sorts of contexts: on Netflix in the residence hall, on a reserve DVD upstairs in the JC, rented from iTunes, a BluRay collector’s set at home, and so on. However, I still wanted to create a collective experience out of these disparate viewings. To this end, I asked students to “live tweet” their own viewing, posting to Twitter whatever came to mind as they watched the film.

In this way I turned movie watching—a lean-back activity—into a lean-forward practice. And because the students often directed their tweets as replies to each other, it was social, much more social than viewing the film in class together. Over a 5-day period I had hundreds of tweets coming in, and I used a tool called Storify to track rhetorical and interpretative moves students made during this assignment. In particular, I categorized the incoming tweets, bringing to the surface some underlying themes in my students’ tweets. And then we began the next class period by examining the tweets and the themes they pointed to.

My next example of a social pedagogy assignment comes from later in the semester in the same science fiction class. I had students write a “Twitter essay.” This is an idea I borrowed from Jesse Stommel at Georgia Tech. For this activity, students wrote an “essay” of exactly 140 characters defining the word “alien.” The 140-character constraint makes this essay into a kind of puzzle, one that requires lean-forward style of engagement. And of course, I posed the essay question in a 140-character tweet:

twitteressay

Again I used Storify to capture my students’ essays and cluster them around themes. I was also able to highlight a Twitter debate that broke out among my students about the differences between the words alien and foreign. This was a productive debate that I’m not sure would have occurred if I hadn’t forced the students into being so precise—because they were on Twitter—about their use of language.

And finally, I copied and pasted the text from all the Twitter essays into Wordle, which generated a word cloud—in which every word is sized according to its frequency.

alien_defn_word_cloud

The word cloud gave me an admittedly reductivist snapshot of all the definitions of alien my students came up with. But the image ended up driving our next class discussion, as we debated what made it onto the word cloud and why.

These are two fairly simple, low-stakes activities I did in class. But they highlight this blend of technology and a lean-forward social pedagogy that I have increasingly tried to integrate into my teaching—and to think critically about as a way of fostering inquiry and discovery with my students.

[Crowd photograph courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dornbierer / Creative Commons Licensed]