Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to be Teaching)

These are my notes “Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to be Teaching,” a lightning talk I gave on Tuesday as part of CUNY’s Digital Humanities Initiative. Shannon Mattern (The New School) and I were on a panel called “DH in the Classroom.” Shannon’s enormously inspirational lightning talk was titled Beyond the Seminar Paper, and mine too focused on alternative assignments for students. Our two talks were followed by a long Q&A session, in which I probably learned more from the audience than they did from me. I’ll intersperse my notes with my slides, though you might also want to view the full Prezi (embedded at the end of this post).

I’d like to thank Matt for inviting me to talk tonight, and to all of you too, for coming out this gorgeous evening. I’m extremely flattered to be here—especially since I don’t think I have any earth-shattering  thoughts about the digital humanities in the classroom. There are dozens and dozens of people who could be up here speaking, and I know some of them are here in this room right now.

A lot of what I do in my classroom doesn’t necessary count as “digital humanities”—I certainly don’t frame it that way to my students. If anything, I simply say that we’ll be doing things in our classes they’ve never done before in college, let alone a literature class. And literature is mostly what I teach. Granted I teach literature classes that lend themselves to digital work—electronic literature classes, postmodern fiction, and media studies classes that likewise focus on close readings of texts, such as my videogame studies classes. But even in these classes, I think my students are surprised by how much our work focuses on building and sharing.

If I change point of view of the title of my talk to my students’ perspectives, it might look something like this:

Building and sharing when we’re supposed to be writing. And at the end of this sentence comes one of the greatest unspoken assumptions both students and faculty make regarding this writing:

It’s writing for an audience of one—usually me, the instructor, us, the instructors. This is what counts as an audience to my students. They rarely think of themselves as writing for an audience beyond me. They rarely think of their own classmates as an audience. They often don’t even think of themselves as their own audience. They write for us, their professors and instructors.

So the “sharing” part of my title comes from my ongoing effort—not always successful—to extend my students’ sense of audience. I’ll give some examples of this sharing in a few minutes, but before that I want to address the first part of my title: the idea of building.

Those of you who know me are probably surprised that I’m emphasizing “building” as a way to integrate the digital humanities in the classroom. One of the most popular things I’ve written in the past year is a blog post decrying the hack versus yack split that routinely crops in debates about the definition of digital humanities.

In this post, I argued that the various divides in the digital humanities, which often arise from institutional contexts and professional demands generally beyond our control—these divides are a distracting sideshow to the true power of the digital humanities, which has nothing to do with production of either tools or research. The heart of the digital humanities is not the production of knowledge; it’s the reproduction of knowledge.

The promise of the digital is not in the way it allows us to ask new questions because of digital tools or because of new methodologies made possible by those tools. The promise is in the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge.

And I truly believe that this transformative power of the digital humanities belongs in the classroom. Classrooms were made for sharing. So, where does the “building” part of my pedagogy come up? How can I suddenly turn around and claim that building is important when I just said, in a blog post that has shown up on the syllabus of at least three different undergraduate introduction to the digital humanities courses?

Well, let me explain what I mean by building. Building, for me, means to work. Let me explain that.

In an issue of the PMLA from 2007 there’s a fantastic series of short essays by Ed Folsom, Jerry McGann, Peter Stallybrass, Kate Hayles, and others about the role of databases in literary studies. Folsom’s essay leads, and in it he describes what he calls the “epic transformation” of the online Walt Whitman Archive, which Folsom co-edits, along with Ken Price, into a database (1571). All of the other essays in some way respond to either the particulars of the digital Walt Whitman Archive, or more generally, to the impact of archival databases on research and knowledge production. It’s a great batch of essays, pre-dating by several years the prevalence of the term “digital humanities”—but that’s not why I mentioning these essays right now.

I’m mentioning them because Peter Stallybrass’s essay has the provocative title “Against Thinking,” which helps to explain why I mean by working, which Stallybrass explicitly argues stands opposed to thinking.

Thinking, according to Stallybrass is hard and painful. It’s boring, repetitious, and I love this—it’s indolent (1583).

On the other hand, working is easy, exciting, a process of discovery. It’s challenging.

This distinction between thinking and working informs Stallybrass’s undergraduate pedagogy, the way he trains his students to work with archival materials and the STC. In Stallybrass’s mind, students—and in fact, all need to do less thinking and more working. “When you’re thinking,” Stallybrass writes, “you’re usually staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, hoping that something will emerge from your head and magically fill that space. Even if something ‘comes to you,’ there’s no reason to believe that it is of interest, however painful the process has been” (1584).

Stallybrass goes on to say that “the cure for the disease called thinking is work” (1584). In Stallybrass’s field of Renaissance and Early Modern literature, much of that work has to do with textual studies, discovering variants, paying attention to the material form of the book, and so on. In my own teaching, I’ve attempted to replace thinking with building—sometimes with words, sometimes without. And I want to run through a few examples right now.

In general, these examples fall into two categories:

[And here my planned comments dissolved into a brief tour of some of the ways I incorporate building and sharing into my classes. The collaborative construction category is more self-evident: group projects aimed at building exhibits or formulating knowledge, such as my Omeka-based Portal Exhibit and the current cross-campus Renetworking of House of Leaves. I described my creative analysis category as an antidote to critical thinking—a hazardous term with an all but meaningless definition. In this category I included mapping projects and game design projects that were alternatives to traditional papers. I concluded my lightning talk by noting that students who pursued these creative analysis projects spent far more time on their work than those who wrote papers, and while their end results were often modest, these students were far more engaged in their work than students who wrote papers.]

Full Prezi

Works Cited
  • Folsom, Ed. “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives.” PMLA 122.5 (2007): 1571-1579. Print.
  • Stallybrass, Peter. “Against Thinking.” PMLA 122.5 (2007): 1580-1587. Print.
  • Stroube, Sam. Radiohead Crowd. 2006. Flickr. Web. 20 Jan. 2009.

On Reading Aloud in the Classroom

One of the greatest mistakes we make in literary studies—and as teachers of literature—is privileging one form of literacy above all others. Namely, literacy as silent reading.

In our classrooms, we view reading aloud with disdain. Asking students to take turns reading a text aloud offends our sensibilities as literature professors. It’s remedial. Childish. Appropriate for an elementary school classroom, perhaps, but it has no place in our hallowed halls of higher learning.

How odd it is, then, that so many academic conferences in the humanities consist of nothing but rooms full of professors looking down at papers, reading them aloud. I can only imagine that this form of reading aloud is valid in our eyes while students reading aloud in our classes is not, because it is pedagogically and historically aligned with that realm of culture in which it is legitimate to read texts aloud—the realm of the sacred, the rite of the scripture, the ritual of someone we presume to be intellectually and spiritually superior exulting and professing before the masses. Which explains why we deem it acceptable for ourselves to read passages aloud in class, so long as it is done in a tremulous, dramatic voice.

Reading aloud is a right reserved for the professor.

And how wrong this is. How drearily, dreadfully, dismally wrong this is.

Sheridan Blau argues in The Literature Workshop that one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of readers is rereading. And reading aloud—reading out loud—is in turn one of the most powerful ways of rereading. It’s active, performative, and engaging, an incredibly rewarding strategy for understanding difficult texts. And it’s a technique too easily tossed aside in the undergraduate classroom—and in the graduate student classroom for that matter.

Not every professor has abandoned this seemingly elementary technique, of course; for example, my ProfHacker colleague Jason Jones has long defended the value of reading aloud. And last week in my Science Fiction course I was reminded of exactly how indispensable—and fun—reading aloud can be for students.

This course is an upper level class full of English majors. And I mean full. There are 53 students enrolled, just about double my usual size of 27 students. And yet I try to lead this class with as much discussion and participation as a graduate seminar. We’re only three weeks in, but I’m delighted so far that I’ve been able to involve so many students, and hear so many voices over the course of our 75-minute sessions.

Because my class last Thursday went particularly well, and because it highlights the value of students reading aloud, I want to walk through two activities we did. Both led to vigorous discussions that helped to illuminate some questions troubling my students about Volume I of Frankenstein, our first novel of the semester.

Victor Frankenstein robbing a grave.
Victor Frankenstein robbing a grave. Woodcut by Lynd Ward (1934)

Reading Frankenstein Aloud

I picked the following passage to read aloud in class, because it contains some of the most telling imagery concerning Frankenstein’s loss of humanity as he attempts to create life. It’s a rich paragraph, complicating the reductive and moralistic dictum that Frankenstein was “playing God.”

From Frankenstein (1818), Chapter 3, paragraph 9:

These thoughts supported my spirits, while I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement. Sometimes, on the very brink of certainty, I failed; yet still I clung to the hope which the next day or the next hour might realise. One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. It was indeed but a passing trance, that only made me feel with renewed acuteness so soon as, the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate, I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.
  1. We began by reading the passage aloud using what Blau calls the “jump-in” method. I’ve heard other people call it popcorn-style. We simply bounce around the room, with students voluntarily jumping in to read a few sentences to the class, after which somebody else jumps in, as if taking the baton from the previous reader. The professor doesn’t interrupt or call on anybody to read; the reading is totally student generated.
  2. After we finished reading the passage, we took nominations for the most important sentence or phrase from the paragraph—the sentence or phrase most pivotal or rich with interpretive potential. Peter Elbow would call it “the center of gravity” of the paragraph. The students shouted out these lines, and I typed them into this Google Doc, displayed live on the projection screen in the front of the lecture hall.
  3. With no debate of the nominees, we voted (by hand count) for the most significant of these ten lines.
  4. Finally, we had a class discussion, in which supporters of each line defended their vote. We didn’t discuss every line, especially since there was one clear “winner” and two runner-ups. But even limiting our debate to three lines of the paragraph gave us three entryways into the passage, three facets which, when angled just right, revealed something new about Frankenstein—or rather, Shelley’s indictment of Frankenstein.

I’m convinced that such a productive discussion wouldn’t have occurred if the students hadn’t first reread the passage aloud. I’m likewise convinced that merely asking students to reread the passage silently before the exercise wouldn’t have yielded such rich interpretive fruits. It’s the reading aloud that does it. The vocalization for the students who did the reading, the texture of the voices for the students who listened, the attentive anticipation of everyone as they awaited the next reader to jump in from the seat next to them or from across the room.

Hand of the Creator, Creature. Woodcut by Lynd Ward (1934)
Hand of the Creator, Creature. Woodcut by Lynd Ward (1934)

Reading Aloud and Touching Frankenstein

We read yet another passage aloud, again jump-in fashion, afterwards. My goal this time was to pinpoint the precise moment when Victor Frankenstein goes from praising his act of creation to being repulsed by it. I was motivated by a student’s blog post, in which she had wondered why Frankenstein suddenly became horrified by his creature, when he had worked so hard to create it. To answer this question of why, we need to know when he became afraid.

So our class read aloud, popcorn style, from the first three paragraphs of Chapter 4:

IT was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

After we finished reading this passage aloud—again, a fundamental kind of rereading—I asked students to point to the exact word when Frankenstein’s attitude toward his creation changes from delight to revulsion. Literally—I asked students to point with their finger to the spot on the page where this transformation occurs. They had to physically touch the page with their index finger, and leave it there, while we consider the class’s various answers.

I’ve borrowed this pointing method from Peter Elbow, who uses it in the context of teaching composition. In Elbow’s method, peer readers help their fellow writers by pointing to words that resonate with them. But pointing works just as well when reading literary works. There’s something about that tactile connection with the page that for a moment is far more meaningful to the student than anything he or she might have underlined or highlighted. And here, in this exercise, pointing forces students to make a choice, to take a stance with the text. There’s no hemming and hawing, no vague determination that the transformation in question happens somewhere on page 85 or wherever.

Of course, with Frankenstein there is no single correct answer of when his disgust takes shape. It is a contested question, minor perhaps, but yet our tentative answers, backed with literally physical evidence in the form of the finger on the page, opens up the text. Questions of tone and narrative perspective arise. Irony enters in. Even punctuation, as when a student convincingly argued that the reversal occurs in the em dash between “Beautiful!” and “Great God!”

None of these considerations would have been as easily accessible to us without, first, reading the passage, and then, rereading it. And more precisely, rereading it aloud. When students read aloud they become voices in the classroom, authorities in the classroom, empowered to speak both during the reading and even more critically, after the reading.

[Sky Spoke to Fairies photography courtesy of Georgia Brooke North / Creative Commons Licensed]

Reading List for Science Fiction Course (ENGL 451)

Prosthesis' Oświęcim/AuschwitzAfter much deliberation—and with your feedback, both here and twice on Twitter—I have finalized the reading list for my upcoming Science Fiction class. Actually, I finalized it months ago, but I haven’t had a chance to post it here until now.

This list isn’t everything we’re reading; there’ll be short stories, critical essays, other nonfiction works, as well as some experimental writing and film. But the novels below are the texts officially available at the university bookstore or Amazon.

Students: you need not buy the paper versions of these books. You can purchase e-book versions for your Kindle, Nook, or iWhatever. In the case of We3, you can purchase digital copies of the three issues that make up Morrison and Quitely’s graphic novel from Comixology.

I’m excited for the class, and I hope my students are too. All of these novels stick to my original goal of exploring and challenging what counts as “human” in our increasingly inhuman world. And all of them are excellent, provocative reads.

[ Creative Commons photo credit: CxOxS ]

Fall 2011 Course Description for ENGL 451: Science Fiction

Stelarc Third HandOften 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)

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]

Post-Print Fiction Course Description (for Fall 2011)

Typewriter Covered with VegetationHere is an early, tentative course description for my Fall 2011 senior seminar for the English Honors students. I welcome comments or reading recommendations!

Post-Print Fiction (ENGL 400 Honors Seminar)

For several centuries the novel has been associated with a single material form: the bound book, made of paper and printed with ink. But what happens when storytelling diverges from the book? What happens when writers weave stories that extend beyond the printed word? What happens when fiction appears in digital form, generated from a reader’s actions or embedded in a videogame? What happens when a novel has no novelist behind it, but a crowd of authors—or no human at all, just an algorithm? We will address these questions and many more in this English Honors Seminar dedicated to post-print fiction. We will begin with two “traditional” novels that nonetheless ponder the meaning of narrative, books, and technology, and move quickly into several novels that, depending upon one’s point of view, either represent that last dying gasp of the printed book or herald a renaissance of the form. Finally, we will devote the latter part of the semester exploring electronic literature, kinetic poetry, transmedia narratives, and paranovels that both challenge and enrich our understanding of fiction in the 21st century.

Possible works to be studied include Mao II by Don DeLillo, The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer, Personal Effects: Dark Arts by J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman, This Is Not a Book by Keri Smith, Braid by Jonathan Blow, The Baron by Victor Gijspers, as well as works by Deena Larsen, Nick Montfort, Mary Flanagan, Jason Nelson, Jonathan Harris, Shelley Jackson, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Stephanie Strickland, and many more.

[Typewriter photograph courtesy of Flickr user paulmorriss / Creative Commons License]

Graphic Novels and Narratives for Spring 2011

Daredevil CoverI 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:

David Mazzuccheli, Asterios Polyp, Pantheon, ISBN 978-0307377326

The Open Source Professor (Screencast)

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):

Spring 2010 Course Descriptions

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.

Required Texts for HNRS 353:

ENGL 610: Teaching the Reading of Literature
W 4:30-7:10pm

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.

Required Texts for ENGL 610:

My Talk for MITH: The Open Source Professor

I’m in the midst of preparing for my upcoming talk at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Technology in the Humanities. The talk is October 27 and my title is The Open Source Professor: Teaching, Research, and Transparency. Here’s the abstract, written by me, uncomfortably, in the 3rd person:

What happens when the scholarship of teaching meets Web 2.0? Professor Sample argues the ideal result is the open source professor, a teacher and scholar who applies the tenets of the open source software community to his or her own professional life. This means sharing, conversation, collaboration, and reflection at every step in the teaching and research process, not just with the final product. Technology plays a key role in making open source professing possible, and Professor Sample will discuss the philosophical and practical implications of such a transparent approach to pedagogy and scholarship, as well as possible pitfalls for untenured faculty.

Come out to the University of Maryland in two weeks to see me, or stay tuned for information about the podcast. If I sound smarter than I really am, that’s because the webcam adds 10 points to your IQ.

Twitter is a Snark Valve

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):

Twitter Adoption Matrix (click image for full size)
Twitter Adoption Matrix (click image for full size)

You can also find a downloadable version of my revised matrix on Scribd.

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:

  1. Posting news and sharing resources relevant to the class
  2. Asking questions and responding with clarifications about the readings
  3. 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.

Reflections on a Technology-Driven Syllabus

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

Oh, yes.

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):
  • #eng493 Twitter Timeline

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.

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.

Followup on Public Teaching Evaluations

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.

Transparency, Teaching, and Taking My Evaluations Public

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.

In theory.

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:

Off Campus Ratings Accessibility Message

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:

GMU's TypoTo 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 I can’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.