On September 8, the DigitalCultureBooks imprint of the University of Michigan Library and University Michigan Press released the online edition of Hacking the Academy. Conceived of by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt at GMU’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Hacking the Academy is an experiment in publishing. It’s a crowdsourced book, in which contributors had merely one week (May 21-28, 2010) to come up with and submit material. It’s also heavily edited, with Dan and Tom shaping the mass—the mess?—of possible submissions into a cohesive, coherent work. Authors include professors, graduate students, journalists, archivists, and alternate academic career visionaries. (Full disclosure: I’m in there too.)
As Jason Jones notes on ProfHacker, the book has been coming out in stages. From the first, a unedited, raw collection of all the submissions was aggregated at Hacking the Academy. Now, the edited online volume has been released. In 2012, a print edition will be available as well.
Because the book is being published under a Creative Commons non-commercial license, anybody is free to share or remix the work, as long the original authors and editors are properly attributed. This license is another way the book is an experiment—a major academic publisher is giving free license to anyone to shape, circulate, or reimagine the book.
Here, then, is my initial contribution to the Hacking the Academy ecology: I’ve compiled and formatted the online edited volume into ebook form, suitable for reading on Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and so on. (Hat tip to my colleague Mills Kelly for giving me the idea.)
Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel House of Leaves (2000) presents a paradox to the literary scholar working within the digital humanities. On one hand the massive, labyrinthine novel offers so many ambiguities and playful metaleptic moments that it would seem to be a literary critic’s dream text, endlessly interpretable, boundlessly intertextual. On the other hand, with its layers of footnotes, metacommentary, and self-conscious invocation of literary theory, the novel seems to preemptively foreclose any and all possible interpretative moves.
Indeed, as Danielewski himself has said, “I have yet to hear an interpretation of House of Leaves that I had not anticipated”[1. McCaffery, Larry, and Sinda Gregory. “Haunted House—An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewksi.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 44.2 (2003) : 106.] While we should take Danielewski’s proclamation as a kind of reverse echo of Warhol’s disingenuous denial of any intention in his artwork, the fact remains that the novel’s hyperconscious awareness of itself, combined with the important scholarly criticism from the likes of Katherine Hayles and Mark Hansen, as well as the continuing exegetical flood generated by legions of fans online—take all this together and it seems impossible that there is anything new to say about House of Leaves.
What do you say about a book that attempts to say everything about itself?
How do you say something new about a text that has been discussed, dissected, and picked over by thousands of persistent and incisive minds?
And how might a digital humanities sensibility reinvigorate a thoroughly worked-over literary text?
Jessica Pressman has convincingly argued that House of Leaves is a “networked” novel in at least two senses: the novel is acutely aware of digital networks and the circulation of knowledge online; and ideal readers will adapt a “networked reading strategy” as they make sense of the book, encountering companion works such as the album Haunted by Poe (aka Danielewski’s sister) and Danielewski’s own The Whalestoe Letters.[2. Pressman, Jessica. “House of Leaves: Reading the Networked Novel.” Studies in American Fiction 34.1 (2006) : 107-128.] To these two forms of the networked novel, my ProfHacker colleague Brian Croxall recently suggested another: reading the novel as part of a network. That is, Brian wants his upcoming undergraduate class at Emory University to read House of Leaves alongside of other classes at other institutions.
After some wrangling of syllabi and schedules, Brian Croxall has gathered a group of us who are teaching House of Leaves at the same time toward the end of October: Paul Benzon (Temple University), Erin Templeton (Converse College), Zach Whalen (University of Mary Washington), and myself at George Mason. The context for each of our classes is different: Paul’s class is a capstone course on literature, media, and the archive; Erin’s is an honors course on the contemporary novel; Zach’s is a senior seminar; Brian’s is a digital humanities class; and my own course is post-print fiction. Because of the varied courses involved (not to mention diverse institutional contexts), we see great value in reading House of Leaves as a network.
Right now we are in the process of determining what kind of assignments our five classes can share. They range from the simple to the complex, including the following:
Blog Commenting. If we’re all using course blogs, we can have each class read and comment on the posts of the other classes. This is the easiest assignment to implement and has the benefit of being asynchronous.
A Group Blog/Tumble Log. All of our students (which will likely add up to 50-60 students) join one massive group blog or tumble log for the three weeks that we’re reading House of Leaves. There’s some flexibility in how dialogic this group effort would be. Students could use Tumblr simply to post quotes and images related to the book, or we could have a full-fledged blog, with layers of comments.
Constructive Class projects. I suggested converting my mapping House of Leaves assignment into a studio-type project, in which one class presents two or three group projects to the other classes, and those classes “critique” them. This assignment requires more overhead than the other options, and involves a greater commitment from the students (versus commenting on blogs, where the stakes are lower).
In addition to these fairly predictable shared assignments, I’ve been thinking about a more radical one, which tackles head-on the challenge any teacher of House of Leaves faces: the forum. The House of Leave forum is a massive discussion board of tens of thousands of posts, ranging from the puerile to the brilliant. And, since this is House of Leaves, sometimes both at once. Nearly every puzzle, every ambiguity, every nuance of House of Leaves has had a discussion thread devoted to it. The forum is so overwhelming that it can easily suck the air out of a literary reading of House of Leaves. And, as Rita Raley noted in a message to Richard Grusin and myself, the forum has an unassailable authority about it:[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/ritaraley/status/37364736030941184″]
Just as House of Leaves presents a paradox to the literary scholar, so too does the forum present a dilemma to the digital humanist. On one hand, the forum is a vast crowd-sourced literary interpretation, complete with user-generated concordances, digitizations, and transcriptions—all of the familiar tools of digital humanists. On the other hand, this work is produced by non-scholars. By fans. Amateurs. It’s not vetted in a way recognizable to most academics (though it’s foolish to believe that the forum does not have its own system of peer review and prestige ranking).
Different professors have different ways of dealing with the forum. Some ban their students from reading it outright. Others acknowledge the forum in an offhand way, hoping that their students never investigate for themselves the breadth and depth of the discussions. In either of these cases, I think the tiptoeing around the forum is due to pedagogical expediencies rather than a high-brow dismissal of low-brow work.
There is a third option, of course, which is to face the forum head-on and incorporate the discussion threads into the class (which certainly fits the networked reading strategy Pressman describes).
And now, I want to propose a fourth option.
Renetworking the Novel
Let’s bring the forum to the fore by starting it anew.
That is, I propose starting the forum from scratch. In our classes we’ll explicitly (and temporarily) forbid students from reading the House of Leave forum. Instead, we create an alternate forum of our own, seeded with a few initial threads that appeared in the original forum. The idea is to recreate the forum, and see how its trajectory would play out ten years later, in the context of a literature class. The 50-60 students from the five classes seems a manageable number to launch a new iteration of the forum; enough to generate a sense of “there” there, but not such an overwhelming number that keeping up with the forum becomes unmanageable (though that would in fact replicate the feel of the original forum).
After three weeks of intensive cross-class use of the renetworked forum, the final step would be to lift the ban on reading the official forum, giving students the opportunity to compare the alternate forum with the original, and draw some conclusions from that comparison.
The five of us haven’t decided yet what kind of shared assignment we’ll use. And my post here is not meant to sway anybody; it’s more of a thought experiment. What would happen if we truly renetworked an already networked novel? And do so using the same modes that made the novel networked in the first place? What would we learn? About House of Leaves? About networks? About crowdsourcing? About the blurry lines between academics and fans?
Each of these works offers a meditation upon the act of reading or writing, the power of stories, the role of storytellers, and the materiality of books themselves as physical objects. In addition to these printed and (mostly) bound texts, my English Honors Seminar students will encounter a range of other unconventional narrative forms, from Jonathan Blow’s Braid to Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Alice, from Christopher Strachey’s machine-generated love letters to Robert Coover’s deck of storytelling playing cards. Along the way we’ll also consider mash-ups, databased stories, role-playing games, interactive fiction, and a host of other narrative forms. We’ll also (a heads-up to my students) create some of our own post-print beasties…
• Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Harvest Books, ISBN 0156439611)
• Don DeLillo, Mao II (Penguin, ISBN 978-0140152746)
• Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (Pantheon, ISBN 978-0375703768)
• Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper (Mariner, ISBN 978-0156032117)
• Anne Carson, Nox (New Directions, ISBN 978-0811218702)
Often dismissed by its critics as low-brow pulp, science fiction is nonetheless a rich, dynamic literary genre which deserves our attention. In this class we will move beyond the stereotypes of science fiction in order to examine novels, stories, comics, films, and videogames that question the global commodification of culture, the fetishization of technology, and the dominant ideologies that structure race, gender, and class relations. Drawing upon works from North America, Europe, and Asia, we will ultimately challenge what counts as “human” in our increasingly inhuman world.
(Amplified Body Diagram courtesy of Stelarc, 1995)
Last week I was a guest of the Davidson College Teaching Discussion Group, where I was invited to talk about my pedagogical strategies for teaching large classes. I mostly focused on how I use technology to preserve what I value most about teaching smaller classes. But many of the technique I discussed are equally applicable to any class, of any size.
For participants in the discussion group (and anyone else who is interested), I’ve rounded up a few of my ProfHacker posts, in which I describe in greater detail how I incorporate technologies like blogging and Twitter into my courses.
I always find it difficult to select the texts for my graphic novel courses. Narrowing the choices for my Spring 2011 undergrad class bordered upon an existential crisis. Perhaps it’s because so much seems to be at stake when you’re likely introducing students for the first time in their lives to the critical study of a form that is mostly trivialized and occasionally demonized in our culture.
I feel enormous pressure to get the syllabus just right.
But what is just right? There’s the usual tension between coverage and depth—am I providing a historical overview of the form or am I exploring a thematic or aesthetic subset of that form? But there’s also the tension between the canons of graphic narrative. Yes, canons, plural. I’m thinking in particular of the literary canon of Graphic Novels That Are Taught (e.g. Persepolis) versus the popular canon of Graphic Novels That Every Fan Reads (e.g. Sandman). There’s some overlap between these canons, but not much. Inevitably I’ll have students in my class disappointed because I’ve not included a major work on the syllabus—some text they expected to be there either because it’s predictably literary or it’s a fan favorite. Likewise, I’ll usually hear from some other teacher or scholar disappointed that I didn’t include his or her pet graphic novel on the syllabus, which, I will be assured at that point, is to graphic narrative what Moby-Dick is to the American novel.
To hell with that.
This time around the only criteria for the texts I’m teaching is that they’re texts I want to teach. And I want to teach them because in one way or another I think they’re teachable. Even when—especially when—they might be difficult or off-putting, I think they’re teachable.
And so, for the upcoming semester I decided to avoid several giants of the form. It will be the first time, for example, that I’ve left Watchmen off a graphic novel syllabus, and I am less ambivalent about this than I would have thought. As much as I admire Moore and Gibbons’ work, I don’t find it as teachable as I’d like—or as it deserves to be. More than the other groundbreaking works from 1986, Watchmen has lost some of its verve. I have, however, included the other touchstones of 1986—The Dark Knight Returns and Maus. The former because it gives us entry into Batman and into the comics industry as a whole, the latter because it remains powerful and haunting, even with the fourth or fifth reading. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is the only other work I’m including that has already become part of the graphic narrative canon. It’s smart and literary, arguably too smart and too literary, but those elements make Fun Home great teaching material.
Most of the other graphic novels are gambles, texts even fans of graphic novels will probably not have encountered. These range from Lynd Ward’s bold, wordless novel, told entirely in woodcuts, to Mike Carey’s ongoing series Unwritten, whose literary ambition only slowly unfolds throughout the first dozen or so issues. I’ve never taught Ward or Carey, and I have no idea how they’ll turn out. In between these two bookends are a few works that I have taught (Asterios Polyp and Nat Turner) and a few others I haven’t (We3 and Swallow Me Whole).
Looking over my final list, I’m surprised at how non-historical it is. Heavily emphasizing works published within the last five years, this course is decidedly not an overview of the form. No, it’s an overview of something else. In every case, I selected these works because I think they have something to teach us. About storytelling, about visual artistry, about the dynamic between the two. About history, about memory, about suffering and reconciliation. And about loss, and desire, and reading, and making sense of the world.
Here then is my final list, arranged roughly in the order I envision teaching the texts:
Here’s the course description for my Fall 2010 graduate class on graphic novels (ENGL 685:003):
This course considers the storytelling potential of graphic novels, an often neglected form of artistic and narrative expression with a long and rich history. Boldly combining images and text, graphic novels of recent years have explored divisive issues often considered the domain of “serious” literature: immigration, racism, war and terrorism, dysfunctional families, and much more. Informed by literary theory and visual culture studies, we will analyze both mainstream and indie graphic novels. In particular, we will be especially attentive to the unique visual grammar of the medium, exploring graphic novels that challenge the conventions of genre, narrative, and high and low culture. While our focus will be on American graphic novelists, we will touch upon artistic traditions from across the globe. Works studied may include Nat Turner by Kyle Baker, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Black Hole by Charles Burns, Sand Man by Neil Gaiman, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan, Watchmen by Alan Moore, Uzumaki by Junji Ito, In My Hour of Darkness by Wilfred Santiago, Maus by Art Speigelman, and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware.
The folks at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) have posted an audio podcast of my recent Digital Dialogue presentation, “The Open Source Professor: Teaching, Research, and Transparency.”
As entertaining as it might be to hear me talk for thirty minutes, I thought it would be better to see the visuals that accompanied my presentation. So I’ve put together a screencast combining the audio and my slideshow. I shaved off the 30 minute Q&A session that followed, not because it wasn’t interesting (it truly was), but because I didn’t have a handy set of visual adds to go along with it. Perhaps I’ll create a screencast for the discussion part of the day, once I have time to put together some scenes that make sense.
In any case, here it is, “The Open Source Professor” as presented to MITH on October 27, 2009 (click the light green arrow under the slide to get started):
HNRS 353: Videogames in Critical Contexts T/R 1:30-2:45pm
In this Honors Seminar we will study the history and cultural impact of videogames from a number of critical perspectives. As products of a complicated network of social, economic, and technological forces, videogames are dense cultural texts, deeply layered with multiple meanings. Whether we consider early arcade games like Pac-Man or the latest blockbusters for next-gen consoles, we find that videogames reveal much about our cultural values, hopes and anxieties, and assumptions about the world. We will examine a range of genres (interaction fiction, first person shooters, simulations, role playing games, and so on) as we strive to understand both the narrative and formal aspects of videogames. At the same time we will map connections between videogames and their broader social contexts — how games are designed, who plays them and where, and in what ways videogames can be more than entertainment.
ENGL 610: Teaching the Reading of Literature
How do we as teachers read literature? How do our students read literature? What is the difference between the two? And how can we teach our students the process of interpretation — of transforming a naive reading of a literary work into a critical reading? This course addresses these questions by considering theoretical approaches to the teaching of literature as well as practical techniques and tools that teachers and students alike can use. Among these strategies we will emphasize the role of writing as a means to deepen students’ understanding of what they read. ENGL 610 is designed for current teachers, those considering careers in teaching, and anyone drawn to the experience of reading and analyzing literature. Most of our course readings are relevant to high school and college English classrooms, but many ideas we consider may be adapted for the teaching of younger readers.
Last week I described the intensive role of social networking in my teaching. Although I explained how I track and archive my students’ Twitter activity, I didn’t describe what they actually do on Twitter.
That’s because I wasn’t sure myself what they do.
I mean, of course I’ve reading their tweets and sending my own, but I hadn’t considered in a systematic way how my students use Twitter. That lack of reflection on my part echoes my initial guidelines to the students: my instructions were only that students should tweet several times a week at a minimum. I was deliberately vague about what they should tweet about. I didn’t want overly specific guidelines to constrain what might be possible with Twitter. I wanted my students’ Twitter use to evolve organically.
Now, six weeks into the semester, clear patterns are discernible and I can begin to analyze the value of Twitter as a pedagogical tool.
My most surprising find? Twitter is a snark valve.
Let me step back and explain.
I began with a Twitter Adoption Matrix, originally sketched out in late August by Rick Reo. Rick is an instructional designer at George Mason University, and he’d been keeping tabs on the different ways instructors have been using Twitter in their teaching. Rick sent a draft of this adoption matrix to the university’s Teaching with Technology listserv, and I soon began trying to situate my own Twitter use on the chart. In the process, I adapted Rick’s original matrix, re-imagining the vertical axis as a spectrum ranging from monologic to dialogic, and redefining the horizontal axis as a measurement of student activity, ranging from passive to active. After some other changes based on my experience with Twitter, I ended up with this revised Twitter Adoption Matrix (larger image):
Right now, I’m mostly thinking about the In-Class Back Channel and Outside of Class Discussion matrices. When I look closely at what my students write in and outside of class, I find that their tweets fall into one of three categories:
Posting news and sharing resources relevant to the class
Asking questions and responding with clarifications about the readings
Writing sarcastic, irreverent comments about the readings or my teaching
In other words, one of the most common uses of Twitter among my students is snark.
And that is a good, powerful thing.
I know critics like David Denby have come down hard on snark as a pervasive, degraded, unproductive form of discourse. I couldn’t disagree more. Snark is, I argue, a legitimate way to engage culture. It’s involved, it’s witty, and most importantly, it takes an oppositional stance — a welcome reprieve from the majority of student writing, which avoids taking any stance at all.
[pullquote align=”right”]Back-of-the-classroom tittering has turned into backchannel Twittering[/pullquote]Judging by the high level of discourse and analysis in my classes, Twitter is a snark valve. By having a systematic, constrained outlet for the snipe and snark and sarcasm that smart twenty-year-olds might otherwise direct towards more civil discourse, or unleash outside of the classroom, or worse, bottle up, the Twitter snark valve frees up both class and the class blog for more “serious” dialog. And I’m putting “serious” in scare quotes because I believe even sardonic comments provide insight — insight into the topic under discussion, but also insight into how it’s being received by students.
I allow — and even encourage — students to Twitter during class. One outcome of this freedom is that back-of-the-classroom tittering has turned into backchannel Twittering. Even more interesting, though unmeasurable without further analysis, is the performative aspect of the backchannel. The tweets are unfiltered, in effect, the same comment somebody might mutter under his or her breath, uncensored, no-holds-barred opining. Yet the students know classmates are following the course hashtag and at the very least that I am listening (and contributing) as well. The backchannel assumes a Bakhtinian double-voiced discourse — using sarcasm both to show a kind of too-cool-for-school attitude but also to demonstrate that the student is in fact earnestly engaged with the material.
As the semester goes on and tweets accumulate, I should have more data to work with. But even at this early stage, I am certain that I have stumbled upon a complicated rhetorical dynamic I never would have imagined going just from the Twitter Adoption Matrix, a dynamic that illustrates how students find their own uses for technology, racing far ahead of our pedagogical intentions.
I’m five weeks into the new semester, and it’s time to consider how my ambitious technology-heavy Graphic Novel course is going. And I’m serious when I say it’s technology-heavy: we’re doing a blog, a wiki, Twitter, and rigorous Pecha Kucha presentations. About the only thing we’re missing is a MMORPG.
I plotted out the major components of the class back in May, and the actual implementation is surprisingly close to my original vision. There were two reasons for all this technology:
I wanted to use technology to help me maintain the student-centered environment of a smaller class when I was in fact going to be teaching a much larger class (there are 40 students in the class instead of the usual 25). Let’s call this goal community-building.
I wanted to use a range of smaller, low-stakes writing assignments paced steadily throughout the semester instead of two or three major assignments. My intention was to keep students continually engaged throughout the semester rather than “checking in” once mid-semester and once at the end. Let’s call this goal focus-sustaining.
The chief mechanism of the class is The Group. My 40 students are evenly divided into five groups, and each week they rotate group roles. For example, last week students in Group 1 were responsible for the collaboratively-written class notes on the wiki, while this week they are the class’s Searchers, charged with blogging short evaluative reviews of relevant online resources. The group has next week off and the week after that, they are Respondents, commenting upon the work of another group (the First Readers) on the blog. And in the midst of all this activity, students are expected to post to Twitter using the class’s hashtag (#eng493) and prepare class presentations following the strictly defined Pecha Kucha format (20 slides at 20 seconds per slide, focused on a single page from the week’s graphic novel).
My inspiration for all these activities came from a number of sources, which I simply pulled together and stitched into a cohesive structure: the initial idea of groups came from my friend and longtime collaborator Randy Bass; the wikified class notes were based on something similar Brian Croxall does; the use of Twitter in the classroom was influenced by Dave Parry’s thoughts on the matter; and I’m indebted to my George Mason colleague Doug Eyman for introducing me to the idea of Pecha Kucha.
So how is it all working?
Preliminary evidence suggests it’s working, and working well. When it’s only the second week of the semester and a student hopes aloud that all our collaborative work will remain online after the semester’s over, that’s a good sign. When students in my other class spontaneously start their own Twitter hashtag after hearing about this class’s, that’s a good sign. When students are documenting the class discussion with photographs and adding them to the wiki, that’s a good sign. When I am seeing the most disciplined and focused undergraduate presentations of my career, that’s a good sign.
Any difficulties so far?
The primary challenge at the outset is the deluge of information I’m faced with every week. I’ve never had so many things to keep track of at once in a course. If it weren’t for a few tricks I’ve already learned, I’d be drowning in data. Here are some administrative and pedagogical hacks I couldn’t live without:
RSS is my friend. All of the online resources I use (the WordPress class blog, the PBWorks wiki, the Twitter hashtag) have RSS feeds, and I stream all of them into one monster-stream using Postbox, an enhanced version of Mozilla Thunderbird. You could also use Google Reader’s bundle feature or Yahoo Pipes to achieve the same all-in-one-space aggregated feed. I like Postbox because it archives my feeds on my hard drive, so they’re always there, whether I’m online or off, and they’ll continue to be there long after the semester is over. Here is what the master activity stream looks like in Yahoo Pipes:
RSS is my friend. Seriously. I can’t emphasize this enough. Being able to read blog posts, Twitter updates, and changes to the wiki pages all in one integrated stream is essential. Postbox is always open on my laptop and I can see at a glance how much activity there’s been with the students. Unread items are in bold, which helps me keep track of what I’ve read (and graded) and what I haven’t.
Grading doesn’t have to be hard. As I’ve written elsewhere, I use a simple 0-4 point scale to rate the critical value of each entry on the blog. As a matter of routine, I’ll let students know their grade on the blog if they are habitually getting less than 3 or 4 points per post. I also comment on several posts a week, to let everyone know that I am indeed reading their work. By the end of the semester I plan to have commented on every student’s work at least three times.
Let students evaluate each other. Though the students are divided into groups, the only time they work as a group is when they collaborate on the weekly class notes. PBWorks tracks every user’s edits, so it’s easy for me to see who’s done what (or who hasn’t done anything). But trusting in the power of peer pressure, I wanted to make the value of each member’s contributions more transparent to the rest of the group. So I ask the students to rate themselves and the other members of their group at the end of the week, with two questions about each student, one on the quantity of their contributions to the wiki and another question on the quality of their work. It’s a simple form on Google Docs, and the results are automatically feed into a Google Docs spreadsheet:
Redundancy is redundancy is redundancy is important when it comes to archiving. I am very aware of the ephemeral nature of online communication, especially with something like Twitter. Don’t trust the cloud. So in addition to preserving feeds in my offline reader, I use The Archivist to capture the #eng493 Twitter conversation and save it as an exportable XML file. Once the data is in XML format, you can manipulate it in all sorts of ways. The Archivist has a few inline data visualizations too. Here we can see when spikes in activity occur (usually the night before class, when students are reading and tweeting as they read):
So there you have it, some reflections on a technology-driven syllabus. These reflections are strictly from my own perspective, of course. Something I need more information about, then, is what my students think about the technology in the course. My sense is that it’s a daunting amount of activity for them to keep track of. I sometimes forget that students have three or four other courses besides mine, each with their own demands. I’m hoping that some activities, like Twitter, fit into their existing lifeflow, though I know others, like working with a wiki, can punctuate their daily lives in a disruptive way.
Then again, the kind of estrangement and readjustment such pedagogical tools precipitate can be valuable in their own right, if only they’re harnessed properly…something I’ll be writing about soon.
Julie Meloni over at Prof. Hacker has a good rundown of the kinds of questions a professor should think through when he or she integrates a blog into the classroom. I’ve been using blogs in my teaching for several years now, so I wanted to share a few ideas that have worked for me. I’m no expert and I’m still casting about for solutions to some of the more nagging problems, but after thirteen course blogs spread across seven semesters (I just counted!), I have obtained a small measure of experience. In other words, I keep making mistakes, but at least not the same ones over and over.
My university has bought into the Blackboard machine and does not offer any non-proprietary online platform. Since I refuse to restrict access to my content (and by extension, my students’ content), I host all of my class blogs right here, on samplereality.com, using WordPress. Of course not everyone is geeky enough to own their own domain name (although you should, you really, really should), but there are dozens of places where you can host a class blog for free — so don’t feel like you have to use whatever “online educational solution” your campus throws at you. One advantage of hosting everything myself is guaranteed permanency — I have a persistent archive of my online class conversation that I will never lose, because nobody else controls it. And in fact, former students have told me how valuable it is to be able to revisit half-forgotten blog posts long after they’ve finished the class.
I’ve always used group blogs in my classes: one central, collaborative blog where every students posts. I prefer this format over the hub model, in which an official class site links out to individual student blogs spread across the students’ own preferred blogging platforms. If nothing else, the group blog makes my job easier. I can read all the posts in one place. It also makes it more likely that students will read each other’s posts, generating a sense of momentum that is so important to the students’ buy-in of class blogging.
But what about that momentum? How do you get students to post?
How do you get students to do anything?
You grade it.
I don’t mean to sound cynical so much as realistic. It’s a fact: students need to know that what they’re spending their limited time doing is valued by us, their professors. And how do we show we value something in the classroom? At the most superficial level, by grades. So I typically make the blogging a substantial part of the semester grade. For example, in my most recent graduate class on postmodernism, I required once-a-week postings that would add up to 20 percent of the final grade:
Each student will contribute to the weekly class blog, posting an approximately 500-word response to the week’s readings. There are a number of ways to approach these open-ended posts: consider the reading in relation to its historical or theoretical context; write about an aspect of the day’s reading that you don’t understand, or something that jars you; formulate an insightful question or two about the reading and then attempt to answer your own questions; or respond to another student’s post, building upon it, disagreeing with it, or re-thinking it. In any case, strive for thoughtfulness and nuance. To ensure that everyone has a chance to read the blog before class, post your response by midnight the evening before class.
But how do you grade blog posts? Over time I devised a simple five-point rubric, ranging from 0 (no credit) to 4 (exceptional). It’s quick and in roughly 1-2 minutes I know what to rate any given blog post:
Exceptional. The journal entry is focused and coherently integrates examples with explanations or analysis. The entry demonstrates awareness of its own limitations or implications, and it considers multiple perspectives when appropriate. The entry reflects in-depth engagement with the topic.
Satisfactory. The journal entry is reasonably focused, and explanations or analysis are mostly based on examples or other evidence. Fewer connections are made between ideas, and though new insights are offered, they are not fully developed. The entry reflects moderate engagement with the topic.
Underdeveloped. The journal entry is mostly description or summary, without consideration of alternative perspectives, and few connections are made between ideas. The entry reflects passing engagement with the topic.
Limited. The journal entry is unfocused, or simply rehashes previous comments, and displays no evidence of student engagement with the topic.
No Credit. The journal entry is missing or consists of one or two disconnected sentences.
I strive for as much transparency as possible, so it’s essential that your expectations (i.e. the rubric) are explained to the students early on, and always available for them to review later. Once I have a few exemplary posts on the blog, I like to walk the class through what makes those posts exceptional (with the authors’ permission).
I mentioned that grades are a superficial way of showing students what we value. Direct and immediate descriptive feedback does more than a single letter or number can. So to deepen students’ understanding of their own work, I comment on every student’s blogging at least twice throughout the semester. These are public comments, posted below the blog post, again contributing to the collaborative and transparent ecosystem of the blog.
So we have grades, and we have comments, but these alone aren’t enough to make students realize the value of blogging for a class. What we need is some reflection upon the part of the student. To this end, about halfway through the semester I assign students a version of what Sheridan Blau in The Literature Workshop calls an “audit” of their own work. I go meta with this audit, making it a blog post on blogging:
Begin by printing and reading all of your posts and comments (you can access a list of your posts from the Archive menu at the top of the site). As you reread them, take notes, critically reading your entries as if they were written by somebody else (or at the very least, recognizing that they were written by a different you at a different time).
Compose a short analysis and reflection of your posts. This meta-post is open-ended and the exact content is up to you, although it should be thoughtful and directed. Feel free to quote briefly from your own posts or to refer to specific ideas from the readings we’ve studied so far.
Some questions to consider might include: What do you usually write about in your posts? Are there broad themes or specific concerns that reoccur in your writing? Has the nature of your posts changed in the past five or six weeks? What changes do you notice, and how might you account for those changes? What surprised you as you reread your work? What ideas or threads in your posts do you see as worth revisiting? What else do you notice? What aspects of the weekly blogging do you value most, and how does it show up in your posts?
This blogging about blogging invariably ends up being a pivotal moment in the students’ relationship to the class blog. It’s when they begin to have a sense of ownership over their ideas, a kind of accountability that carries over into their class discussion and other written work. It’s also when they truly realize that they’re engaged in a thoughtful, thought-provoking endeavor. It’s when the blog becomes more than a blog.
My previous post about making my teaching evaluations public generated some thoughtful commentary, both here and elsewhere. Brian Coxall’s post on Prof. Hacker and the ensuing comments raised some key questions, and I’ve briefly responded there, saying:
[Regarding who owns the rights to the evaluations] …in my case I think that answer is easy: it’s the Commonwealth of Virginia, who has already made the quantitative part of the evaluations public (but very hard to actually access). As I mentioned in my original post, many other aspects of my job (including my salary) are already public information, so it makes since that my evals, upon which my salary is somewhat based, are too. Also, because the anonymous written comments are given back to me with no further instructions, I consider it a kind of “fair use” to make them public.
The possibility of degrading comments gaining a wider audience is something I hadn’t considered. I’ve been lucky that most of the comments I receive actually do pertain to my teaching (I’ve received the more personal comments about looks or clothing on RateMyProfessor). Still, an occasional personal attack is something I can live with and I don’t believe the public airing of it would give any legitimacy to the offensive remark. On the contrary, I’d see it as something to address in the reflective scaffolding I aim to build up around the teaching evaluations.
Meanwhile Julie Meloni writes about making her own evals public, from the perspective of a graduate student (who doesn’t want to be remembered as “that grad student doing weird stuff with her evals”). I’d hazard to say that regardless of one’s position — graduate student, visiting professor, adjunct professor, assistant, associate or full professor — there’s some risk involved with making your evals public. If your evals are outstanding, you might look like a self-serving braggart. If they’re awful, then everyone will know. But regardless of the actual scores, some of your colleagues are likely to be, at best, bemused, and at worst, threatened. My only response is that I don’t teach for my colleagues, I teach for my students. I realize that not everyone is in a department where my seemingly cavalier attitude (coming from a junior faculty member no less) would be tolerated, but luckily, I am.
Finally, in response to my question of how teaching evaluations could be remixed, George Mason IT and English student Aram Zucker-Scharff proposes turning the evals into more graphical visual representations of data. It’s a great idea and one I’d like to pursue as my dataset grows deeper.
I recently wrote about why I’m making even the earliest scraps of my research public. It’s a move, in theory, that most academics would not object to. Nobody is going to give me funny looks for suggesting we share our research problems. After all, scholarly collaboration is something we’re almost all willing to profess a belief in.
So here’s something that may send a few strange looks my way. In addition to my research, I believe the other half of my job — teaching undergraduate and graduate students — should be as public as possible. Even if I weren’t an employee of the Commonwealth of Virginia, working in a publicly funded state university, I would still argue that virtually all aspects of my job — what I earn, what I teach, what my students think about my teaching — should be transparent.
One of these areas — what I teach — has long been public, as all my syllabi, reading lists, and assignments are online. In the latest version of my videogame studies course I even used the class wiki to document and explain any changes I made to the syllabus during the semester.
RateMyProfessor.com tells us what a few self-selected students think about a professor, not what they think about a professor’s teaching.
Finding out how effective a teacher I am proves to be more difficult. Many professors and most students know about the informal ratings out there. MTV’s RateMyProfessor.com (I bet you didn’t know MTV was so dedicated to pedagogy) is the most popular site, but there are others. More often than not, though, these ratings are based upon a professor’s charisma or workload, rather than any kind of systematic statistical data. (Is a chili pepper statistically significant?) These sites tell us what a few self-selected students think about a professor, not what they think about a professor’s teaching.
My university’s own course evaluation system — salmon-colored forms students fill out anonymously at the end of every semester — is rigorous, qualitative, archived, and — happily for many faculty — almost completely invisible. I get these evaluations back, of course, and I have to share them with my salary and reappointment committees. But after that? In theory, George Mason makes the numerical score sheet for each set of teaching evaluations available to a wider audience.
Good luck going to the university website and finding out information about the score sheets. Tracking down these evaluations reminds me of the scene early in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Arthur Dent discovers the plans to build a highway bypass through his property. Dent eventually uncovers the designs on public “display” in the cellar of the local planning office, “in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.'”
Here is George Mason’s own equivalent of the “Beware of Leopard” sign:
The above message is what any off-campus visitor sees when he or she attempts to access the database of teaching evaluations. On campus, the wiew [sic] isn’t much better:
To be fair, I’m hoping that the typo has been corrected since I captured this screen shot in May. But I wouldn’t know for sure. You see, it’s August and I’m off-campus right now, as are most faculty and students, and Ican’t even electronically access my own teaching evaluations, let alone those of other professors, unless I’m physically there.
In short, my teaching evaluations are all but hidden to the world. Off campus they are firewalled. On campus, you might be able to find them, but only if you know where to look (and have a Mason ID and password). And once you get past those hurdles, the university only provides the numerical scores — not the written comments students may have left.
So I’m moving beyond my professions of faith in scholarly transparency into clear, deliberate action. And this is where I start getting funny looks, if not totally horrified ones. I’m releasing all of my teaching evaluations, complete with every single enthusiastic or blistering or apathetic student comment, to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.
I’ve begun with the most recent set of evaluations I have, from Fall 2008, and as soon as I have the Spring 2009 batch, I will upload those as well. And I’ll begin working my way backwards in time, adding teaching evaluations from every semester I’ve been at George Mason University. You’ll find the evaluations online at Scribd (“The YouTube for Documents”), but since they are embeddable, I’ll post them here as well.
Below are the evaluations for ENGL 343, a new media class dear to me but which encounters resistance from students who discount electronic literature. By the end of the semester I have many stragglers, evidenced in the thirteen students missing from class the day I distributed the evaluations.
[scribd id=14082871 key=key-4usnb5zi533ttsszn7a]
And here are evaluations for ENGL 414, a small seminar for exemplary undergraduate majors that focused on American Postmodernism.
[scribd id=18105809 key=key-1v0xyubce27t7fphkerc]
I’ve discussed the lofty minded “why” I’m doing this, and I want to end with the more practical “what” — What can someone do with these evaluations?
There are obvious answers: prospective students may find them valuable, other teachers of similar material might learn what works and what doesn’t, and my own colleagues may gain a better sense of what goes on in my classroom. But I’m interested in the less obvious answers. For instance, I can use the evaluations as the basis for a teaching portfolio, in which I perform my own reflective analysis of the students’ feedback. Or, more experimentally, because the evaluations are under a Share Alike license, they can be remixed. I have no idea what remixed teaching evaluations might look like, but I would love to see what someone comes up with.
Such transparency can be intimidating at first, as I am surrendering control over what many professors dread reading themselves when the forms are returned in their sealed envelopes weeks after classes are over. But it is also liberating. Both the public and myself can only gain from the availability of my teaching evaluations. Think of it as open source teaching.