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”

Serial Concentration is Deep Concentration

A column in the Chronicle of Higher Education by former Idaho State University provost and official Stanley Fish biographer Gary Olson has been making waves this weekend. Entitled “How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship,” Olson’s column is really about scholarly publishing, not scholarship itself.

Or maybe not. I don’t know. Olson conflates so many issues and misrepresents so many points of view that it’s difficult to tease out a single coherent argument, other than a misplaced resistance to technological and institutional change. Nonetheless, I want to call attention to a troubling generalization that Olson is certainly not the first to make. Criticizing the call (by the MLA among others) to move away from single-authored print monographs, Olson writes that a group of anonymous deans and department chairs have expressed concern to him that “graduate students and young faculty members—all members of the fast-paced digital world—are losing their capacity to produce long, in-depth, sustained projects (such as monographs).”

Here is the greatest conflation in Olson’s piece: mistaking form for content. As if “long, in-depth” projects are only possible in monograph form. And the corollary assumption: that “long, in-depth” peer-reviewed monographs are automatically worthwhile.

Olson goes on to summarize the least interesting and most subjective aspect of Maryanne Wolf’s otherwise fascinating study of the science of reading, Proust and the Squid:

…one disadvantage of the digital age is that humans are rapidly losing their capacity for deep concentration—the type of cognitive absorption essential to close, meditative reading and to sustained, richly complex writing. That loss is especially deleterious to humanities scholars, whose entire occupation depends on that very level of cognitive concentration that now is so endangered.

Here again is that conflation of form and content. According to Olson, books encourage deep concentration for both their writers and readers, while digital media foster the opposite of deep concentration, what Nicholas Carr would call shallow concentration. I don’t need to spend time refuting this argument. See Matthew Battles’ excellent Reading Isn’t Just a Monkish Pursuit. Or read my GMU colleague Dan Cohen’s recent post on Reading and Believing and Alan Jacob’s post on Making Reading Hard. Cohen and Jacob both use Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which offers a considerably more nuanced take on reading, distraction, and understanding than Olson.

But Olson is mostly talking about writing, not reading. Writing a book, in Olson’s view, is all about “deep concentration”  and “richly complex writing.” But why should length have anything to do with concentration and complexity? There’s many a book-length monograph (i.e. a book) that is too long, too repetitive, and frankly, too complex—which is a euphemism for obscure and convoluted.

And why, too, should “cognitive concentration” correspond to duration? Recalling the now ancient Stephen Wright joke, “There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.” The act of writing is mostly standing on the shore like an idiot. And Olson is asking us to stand there even longer?

I am not saying that I don’t value concentration. In fact, I value concentration and difficult thinking above almost all else. But I want to suggest here—as I have elsewhere—that we stop idealizing the act of concentration. And to go further, I want to uncouple concentration from time. Whether we’re writing or reading, substantive concentration can come in small or large doses.

The act of writing is mostly standing on the shore like an idiot. And Olson is asking us to stand there even longer?
There’s a cultural prejudice against tweeting and blogging in the humanities, something Dan Cohen is writing about in his next book (posted in draft form, serially, on his blog). The bias against blogs is often attributed to issues of peer review and legitimacy, but as Kathleen Fitzpatrick observed in an address at the MLA (and posted on her blog), much of the bias is due to the length of a typical blog post—which is much shorter than a conventional journal article. Simply stated, time is used as a measure of worth. When you’re writing a blog post, there’s less time standing on the shore like an idiot. And for people like Olson, that’s a bad thing.

I want to build on something Fitzpatrick said in her address. She argues that a blog “provides an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with their peers.” It’s that concept of ongoing process that is particularly important to me. Olson thinks that nothing fosters deep concentration like writing a book. But writing a scholarly blog is an ongoing process, a series of posts, each one able to build on the previous post’s ideas and comments. Even if the posts are punctuated by months of silence, they can still be cumulative. Writing on a blog—or building other digital projects for that matter—can easily accommodate and even facilitate deep concentration. Let’s call it serial concentration: intense moments of speculation, inquiry, and explanation distributed over a period of time. This kind of serial concentration is particularly powerful because it happens in public. We are not huddled over a manuscript in private, waiting until the gatekeepers have approved our ideas before we share them, in a limited, almost circumspect way. We share our ideas before they’re ready. Because hand-in-hand with serial concentration comes serial revision. We write in public because we are willing to rewrite in public.

I can’t imagine a more rigorous way of working.

(Digital Typography Woodcut courtesy of Donald Knuth, provenance unknown)

Followup to the Ever-Expanding Classroom Discussion

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.

Blogging

Twitter

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

Twitter is a Happening, to which I am Returning

I quit Twitter.

White Noise and Static

Or, more accurately, I quit twittering. Nearly three weeks ago with no warning to myself or others, I stopped posting on Twitter. I stopped updating Facebook, stopped checking in on Gowalla, stopped being present. I went underground, as far underground as somebody whose whole life is online can go underground.

In three years I had racked up nearly 9,000 tweets. If Twitter were a drug, I’d be diagnosed as a heavy user, posting dozens of times a day. And then I stopped.

Most people probably didn’t notice. A few did. I know that they noticed because my break from social media wasn’t complete. I lurked, intently, in all of these virtual places, most intently on Twitter.

White Noise at 10 Percent

In the weeks I was silent on Twitter I read in my timeline about divorce, disease, death. I read hundreds of tweets about nothing at all. I read tweets about scholarship, about teaching, about grading, about sleeping and not sleeping. Tweets about eating. Tweets about me. Tweets with questions and tweets with answers. And I thought about how I use Twitter, what it means to me, what it means to share my triumphs and my frustrations, my snark and my occasional kindness, my experiments with Twitter itself.

White Noise Static at 20 Percent Opacity

For the longest time the mantra “Blog to reflect, Tweet to connect” was how I thought about Twitter. The origin of that slogan is blogger Barbara Ganley, who was quoted two years ago in a New York Times article on slow blogging. Ganley’s pithy analysis seemed to summarize the difference between blogging and Twitter, and it circulated widely among my friends in the digital humanities. I repeated the slogan myself, even arguing that Twitter was the back channel for the digital humanities, an informal network—the informal network—that connected the graduate students, researchers, teachers, programmers, journalists, librarians, and archivists who work where technology and the humanities meet.

White Noise Static at 30 Percent Opacity

My retreat from Twitter has convinced me, however, that Twitter is not about connections. Saying that you tweet in order to connect is like saying you fly on airplanes in order to get pat-down by the TSA. If you’re looking for connections on Twitter, then you’re in the wrong place. And any connections you do happen to form will be random, accidental, haunted by mixed signals and potential humiliations.

I’ve been mulling over a different slogan in my mind. One that captures the multiplicity of Twitter. One that acknowledges the dynamism of Twitter. One that better describes my own antagonistic use of the platform. And it’s this:

Blogging is working through. Twitter is acting out.

White Noise Static at 40 Percent Opacity

Twitter is not about connections. Twitter is about acting out.

I mean “working through” and “acting out” in several ways. There’s the obvious allusion to Freud: working through and acting out roughly correspond to Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholy. A mourner works through the past, absorbs it, integrates it. A mourner will think about the past, but live into the present. The melancholic meanwhile is prone to repetition, revisiting the same traumatic memory, replaying variations of it over and over. The melancholic lashes out, sometimes aggressively, sometimes defensively, often unknowingly.

It’s not difficult to see my use of Twitter as acting out, as rehashing my obsessions and dwelling upon my contentions. Even my break from Twitter is a kind of acting out, a passive-aggressive refusal to play.

But I also mean “acting out” in a more theatrical sense. Acting. Twitter is a performance. On my blog I have readers. But on Twitter I have an audience.

White Noise Static at 50 Percent Opacity

To be sure, it’s a participatory audience. Or at least possibly participatory. And this leads me to another realization about Twitter:

Twitter is a Happening.

I’m using Happening in the sixties New York City art scene sense of the word: an essentially spontaneous artistic event that stands outside—or explodes from within—the formal spaces where creativity is typically safely consumed. Galleries, stages, museums. As Allan Kaprow, one of the founders of the movement, put it in 1961,

[quote]Happenings are events that, put simply, happen. Though the best of them have a decided impact—that is, we feel, “here is something important”—they appear to go nowhere and do not make any particular literary point.[/quote]

Happenings lack any clear divide between the audience and the performers. Happenings are emergent, generated from the flimsiest of intentions. Happenings cannot be measured in terms of success, because even when they go wrong, they have gone right. Chance reigns supreme, and if a Happening can be reproduced, reenacted, it is no longer a happening. And if it’s not a Happening, then nothing happened.

White Noise Static at 60 Percent Opacity

Whether it’s a Twitter-only mock conference, ridiculous fake direct messages, or absurd tips making fun of our professional tendencies, I have insisted time and time again—though without consciously framing it this way—that Twitter ought to be a space for Happenings.

If you’re not involved somehow in a Twitter Happening—if you’re not inching toward participating in some spontaneous communal outburst of analysis or creativity—then you might as well switch to Facebook for making your connections.

Because Twitter is a Happening that thrives on participation, there’s something else I’ve realized about Twitter:

Twitter is better when I’m tweeting.

White Noise Static at 70 percent OpacityIf you are one of the nearly four hundred people I follow, don’t take this the wrong way, but Twitter is better when I’m around. I don’t mean to say that the rest of you are uninteresting. But until I or a few other like-minded people in my Twitter stream do something unexpected, Twitter feels flat, a polite conversation that may well be informative but is nothing that will leave me wondering at the end of the day, what the hell just happened?

I suppose this sounds arrogant. “Twitter is better when I’m around”?? I mean, who on earth made me judge of all of Twitterdom?? And indeed, this entire blog post likely seems self-indulgent. But I didn’t write it for you. I wrote it for me. I’m working through here. And besides, I’ve been criticized too many times by the people who know me best in real life, criticized for being too modest, too eager to downplay my own voice, that I’ll risk this one time sounding self-important.

There’s one final realization I’ve had about Twitter. For a while I had been wondering whether every word I wrote on Twitter was one less word I would write somewhere else. Was Twitter distracting me from what I really needed to write? Was Twitter making me less prolific? And so here it is, my most coherent articulation of what led me to break suddenly from social media: I quit Twitter because I wished to write deliberately, to type only the essential words of my research, and see if I could not learn what Twitterless life had to teach, and not, when I came up for tenure, discover that I had not written at all.

Or something like that.

It only took a few days before I knew the answer to my question about Twitter and writing. And it’s this: writing is not a zero sum game.

I write more when I tweet.

This is not as self-evident a truth as it sounds. Obviously every tweet means I’ve written everything I’ve ever written in my life, plus that one additional tweet. So yes, by tweeting I have written more. But in fact I write more of everything when I tweet. I have learned in the past few weeks that Twitter is a multiplier. Twitter is generative. Twitter is an engine of words, and when I tweet, all my writing, offline and on, private and public, benefits. There’s more of it, and it’s better.

And so I am returning to Twitter. While I had experimented with tweeterish postcards during my break from Twitter—what you might call slow tweeting—I am back on Twitter, and back for good. Twitter is a Happening. It’s not a space for connections, it’s a space for composition. I invite you to unfollow me if you think differently, for I can promise nothing about what I will or will not tweet and with what frequency these tweets will or will not come. I would also invite you to the Happening on Twitter, but that invitation is not mine to extend. It belongs to no one and to everyone. It belongs to the crowd.

White Noise and Static

One Week, One Tool, Many Anthologies

Many of you have already heard about Anthologize, the blog-to-book publishing tool created in one week by a crack team of twelve digital humanists, funded by the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, and shepherded by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. Until the moment of the tool’s unveiling on Tuesday, August 3, very few people knew what the tool was going to be. That would include me.

So, it was entirely coincidental that the night before Anthologize’s release, I tweeted:

I had no idea that the One Week Team was working on a WordPress plugin that could take our blogs and turn them into formats suitable for e-readers or publishers like Lulu.com (the exportable formats include ePub, PDF, RTF, and TEI…so far). When I got a sneak preview of Anthologize via the outreach team’s press kit, it was only natural that I revisit my previous night’s tweet, with this update:

I’m willing to stand behind this statement—Twitter and Blogs are the first drafts of scholarship. All they need are better binding—and I’m even more willing to argue that Anthologize can provide that binding.

But the genius of Anthologize isn’t that it lets you turn blog posts into PDFs. They are already many ways to do this. The genius of the tool is the way it lets you remix a blog into a bound object. A quick look at the manage project page (larger image) will show how this works:

All of your blog’s posts are listed in the left column, and you can filter them by tag or category. Then you drag-and-drop specific posts into the “Parts” column on the right side of the page. Think of each Part as a separate section or chapter of your final anthology. You can easily create new parts, and rearrange the parts and posts until you’ve found the order you’re looking for.

Using the “Import Content” tool that’s built into Anthologize, you aren’t even limited to your own blog postings. You can import anything that has an RSS feed, from Twitter updates to feeds from entirely different blogs and blogging platforms (such as Movable Type or Blogger). You can remix from a countless number of sources, and then compile it all together into one slick file. This remixing isn’t simply an afterthought of Anthologize. It defines the plugin and has enormous potential for scholars and teachers alike, ranging from organizing tenure material to building student portfolios.

Something else that’s neat about how Anthologize pulls in content is that draft (i.e. unpublished) posts show up alongside published posts in the left hand column. In other words, drafts can be published in your Anthologize project, even if they were never actually published on your blog. This feature makes it possible to create Anthologize projects without even making the content public first (though why would you want to?).

From Alpha to Beta to You

As excited as I am about the possibilities of Anthologize, don’t be misled into thinking that the tool is a ready-to-go, full-fledged publishing solution. Make no mistake about Anthologize: this is an extremely alpha version of the final plugin. If the Greeks had a letter that came before alpha, Anthologize would be it. There are several major known issues, and there are many features yet to add. But don’t forget: Anthologize was developed in under 200 hours. There were no months-long team meetings, no protracted management decisions, no obscene Gantt charts. The team behind Anthologize came and saw and coded, from brainstorm to repository in one week.
[pullquote align=”left”]The team behind Anthologize came and saw and coded, from brainstorm to repository in one week.[/pullquote] The week is over, and they’re still working, but now it’s your turn too. Try it out, and let the team know what works, what doesn’t, what you might use it for, and what you’d like to see in the next version. There’s an Anthologize Users Group you can join to share with other users and the official outreach team, and there’s also the Anthologize Development Group, where you can share your bugs and issues directly with the development team.

As for me, I’m already working on a wishlist of what I’d like to see in Anthologize. Here are just a few thoughts:

  • More use of metadata. I imagine future releases will allow user-selected metadata to be included in the Anthologized content. For example, it’d be great to have the option of including the original publication date.
  • Cover images. It’s already possible to include custom acknowledgments and dedications in the opening pages of the Anthologized project, but it’ll be crucial to be able to include a custom image as the anthology front cover.
  • Preservation of formatting. Right now quite a bit of formatting is stripped away when posts are anthologized. Block quotes, for example, become indistinguishable from the rest of the text, as do many headers and titles.
  • Fine-grained image control. A major bug prevents many blog post images from showing up in the Anthologize-generated book. Once this is fixed, it’d be wonderful to have even greater control of images (such as image resolution, alignment, and captions).
  • I haven’t experimented with Anthologize on WordPressMU or BuddyPress yet, but it’s a natural fit. Imagine each user being able to cull through tons of posts on a multi-user blog, and publishing a custom-made portfolio, comprised of posts that come from different users and different blogs.

As I play with Anthologize, talk with the developers, and share with other users, I’m sure I’ll come up with more suggestions for features, as well as more ways Anthologize can be used right now, as is. I encourage you to do the same. You’ll join a growing contingent of researchers, teachers, archivists, librarians, and students who are part of an open-source movement, but more importantly, part of a movement to change the very nature of how we construct and share knowledge in the 21st century.

Pedagogy and the Class Blog

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:

Rating Characteristics
4 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.
3 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.
2 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.
1 Limited. The journal entry is unfocused, or simply rehashes previous comments, and displays no evidence of student engagement with the topic.
0 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.

RSS is Forever

One of the interesting features of Twitter is that you can delete a “tweet” you’ve written and it will retroactively disappear from any of your followers’ lists of tweets. This is different from RSS, where, once an RSS reader has collected the post data from a feed, the excerpt (or entire post) in the RSS reader takes on a life of its own, independent of the original blog post. So if you make any revisions to your original post after various readers have been “pinged,” then chances are those changes will not be reflected in the RSS feeds.

Case in point, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, posted a link to and some comments about a “news report” on how Barack Obama spends hours practicing gazing into the future pose. The only trouble was, this story, which Cowen appears to have taken at face value, was originally from The Onion. I read Tyler’s post on Google Reader, and when I tried to follow the story back to the Marginal Revolution site, I discovered Tyler had deleted the post, presumably because he realized his mistake. Here, below, is the only evidence that the post ever existed, a screen shot of the Marginal Revolution feed in my Google Reader.

Marginal Revolution Screen Capture

This vanishing post brings up some interesting questions for the age of blogging. When is it necessary to delete a post entirely, versus tacking on an addendum? Why not let an erroneous post stay live, but let the follow-up comments sort through any corrections that need to be made, preserving the original post as a kind of historical document (much as Wikipedia archives every version of a Wiki entry as part of the entry’s “history”)?

The vanishing post also highlights the fact that in the digital age, nothing is ever “lost.” As numerous politicians have discovered, even something as seemingly ephemeral as a text message is preserved in some corporation’s database, subject to subpoena. Come to think of it, I’m sure even Twitter has a copy of those tweets I deleted…