On Hacking and Unpacking My (Zotero) Library

Many of my readers in the humanities already know about Zotero, the free open-source citation manager that works within Firefox and scares the hell out of Endnote’s makers. If you are a student or professor and haven’t tried Zotero, then you are missing out on an essential tool. I use it daily, both for my research and in my teaching. [Full disclosure: I am not an entirely impartial evangelist for Zotero, as its developers are colleagues at George Mason University, in the incomparable Center for History and New Media.]

The latest version of Zotero allows you to “publish” your library, so that anybody can see your collection of sources (and your notes about those sources, if you choose). In my case, I’ve not only published my library on the zotero.org site, I’ve updated the main sidebar on this very blog with a news feed of my “Recently Zoteroed” books and articles. As I gather and annotate sources for my teaching and research, the newest additions will always appear here, with links back to the full bibliographic information in the online version of my library.

How did I do this?

Why did I do this?

What follows is an attempt to answer these two questions. Before I address the how-to, though, I’ll explain the why-to: why I’m making the sources I use for my teaching and research public in the first place.

Sharing my Library in theory

Like many scholars in the humanities (I imagine), I initially had qualms about sharing my library online — checking that little box in my Zotero privacy settings that would “make all items in your library viewable by anyone.” Emphasizing the gravity of the decision, zotero.org adds this warning: “Be very sure you want to do this.”

I do want to do this, I do, I do.

But why? We are accustomed, in the humanities, to being very secretive about our research. Oh sure, we go to conferences and share not-yet-published work. But these conference papers, even if they’re finished the morning of the presentation with penciled-in edits, they’re still addressed to an audience, meant to be shared. But imagine publishing your research notes and only the notes, shorn of context or rhetoric or (especially or) the sense of a conclusion we like to build into our papers. Imagine sharing only your Works Cited. Or, imagine sharing the loosest, most chaotic collection of sources, expanded way beyond the shallows of Works Cited, past the nebulous Works Consulted, deep into the fathomless Works Out There.

Proprietary software like Endnote reinforces the notion that the engine of scholarship is competition.
A paranoid academic (and most of us are paranoid) might worry that by sharing our pre-publication sources, whether they’re primary or secondary sources, we are exposing our research before its time. My sense is that we like to keep our collection of sources private as long as possible, holding them close to our chest as if we were gamblers in the great poker game of academia. And in this game, our colleagues are not colleagues, but opponents sitting across the table from us, bluffing perhaps, or maybe holding a royal flush. Proprietary software like Endnote, which by default encloses research libraries within a walled garden, reinforces this notion, that the engine of scholarship is competition rather than collaboration.

Or, to switch metaphors, sharing our sources in advance of the final product is like sharing the blueprints to a house we haven’t yet built — a house we may not even have the money to build, and meanwhile you just know there’s somebody out there, more clever or less scrupulous or just damn faster, who can take those blueprints and erect an edifice that should have been ours while we’re still at town hall getting zoning permits. We’ve all had that experience of reading a journal article or — damn it! — a mother effing blog in which the author tackles clearly, succinctly and without pause some deep research concern that we’ve been pondering for years, waiting for it to blossom into a Beautiful Idea in our writing before going public with it. And POOF! somebody else says it first, and says it better.

Keeping our sources private is the talisman against such deadly blows to our research, akin to some superstitious taboo against revealing first names. We academics are true believers in occult knowledge.

To put it in the starkest terms possible: before I published my library I was concerned that someone might take a look at my sources and somehow reverse engineer my research.

Let’s face it, I’m an English professor. It’s not as if I’m working on the Manhattan Project.
Are we in the humanities really that ridiculous and self-important? Let’s face it, I’m an English professor. It’s not as if I’m working on the Manhattan Project. My teaching and research adds only infinitesimally incrementally to the storehouse of human knowledge. I don’t mean to belittle what scholars in the humanities do à la Mark Bauerlein. On the contrary, I think that what we do — striving to understand human experience in a chaotic world — is so crucial that we need to share what we learn, every step along the way. Only then do all the lonely hours we spend tracing sources, reading, and writing make sense.

Looked at prosaically, public Zotero libraries may be the equivalent of a give-a-penny, take-a-penny bowl at a local store. This convenience alone would be useful, but the creators of Zotero are much more inspired than that. They know that sharing a library is crowdsourcing a library. The more people who know what we’re researching before we’re done with the research, the better. Better for the researchers, better for the research. Collaboration begins at the source, literally. And as more researchers share their libraries, we’re going to achieve what the visionaries in the Center for History and New Media call the Zotero Commons, a collective, networked repository of shareable, annotatable material that will facilitate collaboration and the discovery of hidden connections across disciplines, fields, genres, and periods.

And that is why I’m sharing my library.

Sharing my Library in Practice

Now, how am I sharing it? I’ve taken what seems to be an unnecessarily complicated route in order to incorporate my library into my blog. There is an easy way to do what I’ve done: Zotero has native RSS feeds for users’ collections, and all you need is to subscribe to that feed using a widget on your blog. In my case I could have used the default WordPress RSS sidebar widget. But I didn’t. I wound up working with both Dapper and Yahoo Pipes, and here’s why.

I didn’t like how the RSS feed built into zotero.org included everything I added, including duplicate citations, snapshots that I later categorized as something else, and PDFs unattached to metadata (even if I retrieved that metadata later). In short, the default RSS stream looked messy in WordPress (but it looks great in Google Reader). [UPDATE: Patrick Murray-John’s awesome Zotero WordPress plugin solves these problems and makes the Pipes solution below unnecessary—though still cool.]

The online mash-up tool Yahoo Pipes is perfect for combining and filtering RSS feeds and that’s what I wanted to use. I can’t program my way out of a paper bag, but Pipes is simple enough that even I can use it. So why did I also use Dapper, another online tool that lets you do fun things with RSS feeds? Because Pipes for some reason would not accept the Zotero RSS feed as valid. I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’m guessing it has something to do with Zotero’s API using a secure HTTPS rather than HTTP. Or maybe it’s because the Zotero feed is actually XML rather than RSS. Again, I’m not a programmer and I’m just fumbling my way around this hack. In any case I ran my Zotero feed through the Dapp Factory, which did accept it.

Next I dumped the Dapper feed into Yahoo Pipes, using several of Pipe’s operators to filter duplicates and attachment file names that were cluttering the RSS feed. Here’s is a map of my Pipe.

Using Yahoo Pipes to filter a Zotero library
Using Yahoo Pipes to filter a Zotero library

It’s quite simple, and with some experimentation I may improve my hack (for example, I’m toying with Feedburner as a substitute for Dapper, which may preserve more of the original XML, giving Pipes more raw data to manipulate and mash). But even right now in its kludged form, the result is exactly what I set out to do.

In addition to its simplicity, one of the advantages of Yahoo Pipes is the variety of output formats available. For my blog’s sidebar I have Pipes generate an RSS feed, but I could just as easily create an interactive Flash “badge” with it:

I find the possibilities of a portable, embeddable version of my Zotero library extremely evocative. It’s a kind of artifact from the future that our methodological and pedagogical approaches haven’t caught up with yet. Here is where the theory and practice of a collaborative library have yet to meet — and I want to end my manifesto/guide with a simple appeal: let’s begin thinking about the untapped power of this intersection and what we can do with it, for ourselves, our students, and our scholarship.

Electronic Literature is a Foreign Land

One of the more brilliant works of electronic literature I savor teaching is Brian Kim Stefan’s Star Wars, One Letter at a Time, which is exactly what it sounds like. Aside what’s going on in the piece itself (which deserves its own separate blog post), what I enjoy is the almost violent reaction it provokes in students.  Undergraduate and graduate students alike are incredibly resistant to SWOLAAT, in most cases flat-out denying any claims Stefan’s reworking of Star Wars might make toward literariness.

The dismissive response of my students to SWOLAAT is only the most extreme example of what happens with many pieces of electronic literature, both in my classroom and in the wider world. For example, I’ve been reading through Johanna Drucker’s review of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s groundbreaking Mechanisms, as well as the e-lit community’s reaction to her statement that no works have “appeared in digital media whose interest goes beyond novelty value.” A bit aghast at Drucker’s remark, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Scott Rettberg have both responded, and I was struck by Rettberg’s observation that

ELO [The Electronic Literature Organization] has submitted a number of very good digital humanities grant proposals to the NEH, and we have had the same response nearly every time — on a panel of three reviewers, two will find the proposal worth funding, and one of whom will state flatly that it has no merit, not on the basis of the proposal itself or its relevance to the call, but because they find electronic literature itself to be without merit.

It occurred to me recently that the denial of electronic literature’s literary merit — whether it’s coming from my students or a distinguished NEH panel — is not due to a misplaced desire to preserve the sanctity of what counts as literature as it is sheer xenophobia.

Electronic literature is a foreign land.

Electronic literature might as well be the national literature of Moldavia. To the uninitiated student or scholar, e-lit is at worst strange, incomprehensible, and inscrutable, and at best, simply silly.

So, I’m wondering, would the same process by which a stranger in a strange land grows accustomed to foreignness and even appreciates and incorporates cultural difference into his or her own life — could that process apply to e-lit?

Below (larger image) is a six stage model of intercultural sensitivity, designed by Milton J. Bennett in the late eighties and early nineties to describe the progress of individuals as they experience greater and more frequent cultural difference. And I think this model could help us introduce students to the foreign world of electronic literature.

Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity

In the early ethnocentric stages of Bennett’s model, individuals begin by first denying that cultural difference exists in the first place, either because of their own isolation or because of willful ignorance. Greater exposure to cultural difference next prompts a defensive posture, an us-versus-them mentality in which existing cognitive categories are reinforced and any comment directed toward one’s own culture is perceived as an attack. The last ethnocentric stage is characterized by a minimization of difference. Individuals tell themselves that “people are the same everywhere,” a superficially benign attitude that in fact masks uniqueness and still evaluates other cultures from a reference point within one’s own culture. The final three stages are marked by an understanding that behaviors, norms, beliefs and so on are all relative. The first ethnorelative stage is acceptance, genuinely acknowledging cultural difference and seeing that difference within its own cultural context. Next comes adaptation, when individuals change their own attitudes, behaviors, and even language to match their surroundings in an attempt to communicate and empathize. Finally, integration occurs when individuals move freely between cultures, practicing what Bennett calls “constructive marginality,” that is, seeing identity construction as an ongoing process that is always marginal to any specific social group.

If we think of electronic literature as a foreign land, then I propose we use this developmental model to accurately chart a stranger’s encounter with the genre. As my experience with Star Wars, One Letter at a Time illustrates, students first begin reading electronic literature in either the denial or defense stages (meaning they’ve either never experienced e-lit before or they have and they hate it). I can imagine an entire syllabus structured around the goal of moving students from denial to integration. Just as educators and sociologists have come up with practical strategies to facilitate the progress of study abroad students along Bennett’s continuum, so too can we design specific assignments that develop students’ competencies in each of these stages: from a total inability to read the differences between traditional literature and born digital literature to an integration of those very differences into their non-e-lit lives. And with each point in between, we target stage-appropriate skills and practices, meeting the students where they are, rather than expecting them to reflexively appreciate the virtues of something as alien as Reiner Strasser and M.D Coverley’s ii: in the white darkness or something as unsettling as Jason Nelson’s This Is How You Will Die. This type of approach to teaching electronic literature would be far more rewarding (to both the professor and the students) than the kind of sink-or-swim model in Katherine Hayle’s theoretically dense (and unteachable, as I’ve discovered) introduction to Electronic Literature.

Imagine too that we begin writing grant and publishing proposals with these stages in mind, understanding that committees and panels and editors are likely stuck in the ethnocentric stages, judging literature from what we might call the “Great Works” perspective. E-lit challenges this perspective, but not on grounds of literariness; it challenges existing notions of literature simply because it’s different. We can teach sensitivity to difference to our students, and we should model sensitivity in our own writings as well. Teachers and researchers of electronic literature are its ambassadors, and it is up to us to introduce strangers to the medium in a firm, but welcoming, guiding way.

Reading List for ENGL 459: Disaster Fiction (Fall 2009)

Here’s the official reading list for ENGL 459 on Disaster Fiction, along with a quick breakdown of the class’s organization:

Part I: The Disaster Novel

Part II: The Postmodern Disaster Novel

Part III: Apocalyptic Journeys

Part IV: The Disaster of History

You can find a more visual display of the reading list as well.

Reading List for ENGL 493: Graphic Novels (Fall 2009)

I’ve finalized the reading list for my Fall 2009 course on graphic novels. This is the same super-sized class that I’ll be teaching with technologies that may help me preserve my student-centered pedagogy. The syllabus was especially hard to settle on, as there are so many compelling graphic novels worthy of inclusion. I had to make some tough choices: Neil Gaiman didn’t make it on, nor did Kyle Baker, Jessica Abel, Charles Burns, Rutu Modan, and a host of other possibilities.  But what I’ve got is some great stuff, spanning genres, styles, and mood.

And here’s a more appropriately visual presentation of the same required texts, complete with pricing information.

Teaching Technologies for Large Classes

Faced with the prospect of teaching larger classes, I’ve been thinking about how technology might help me preserve what I value most about small class sizes—and perhaps even bring added value to those large classes. But first some background.

There’s probably not a humanities program in the country that hasn’t received a memo from its dean that begins something like Due to the ongoing economic downturn and ends with bad news. Friends at other universities have been put on furlough, have had their benefits frozen, and have even been banned from making photocopies. Things aren’t that apocalyptic at George Mason, but we have had to slash our department budget, including reducing the number of courses we teach by six percent. That figure may not sound like much, but in a department our size it means cutting 18 sections for Fall 2009 and 16 sections for Spring 2010. In other words, in the next academic year we have to teach the same number of students as before, but with 34 fewer classes.

In addition to eliminating under-enrolled sections (forcing students to fill remaining sections to their maximum capacity), our department’s solution to this mathematical problem is to increase the size of a few key classes that are sure to fill, no matter what the cap is. I am the lucky professor of one of these newly designated “extra-large” classes. My Fall 2009 upper-division graphic novel class, once capped at 27 students, is now fully enrolled at 40 students, an increase of 50 percent.

How should my pedagogy change to meet this new teaching context? Or should it?

My classes are student-centered and discussion-oriented, and I rarely hold forth in any kind of lecture mode. It’s unusual for me to talk more than five minutes at once (a legacy of Doc Fuller, my undergrad mentor at Miami University of Ohio, who promised me his ghost would piss down my neck if I ever lectured more than ten minutes).

Rather than looking at this shift from a smaller class to an oversized class as a hardship or an obstacle to my teaching philosophy, I see it as a challenge: How do I continue to engage students on a dialogic plane when they, my department, and institutional momentum all expect me to lecture as the most efficient means of delivering content?

There is no single answer, but I have begun thinking about tactics I might employ that allow me to maintain a student-centered classroom while taking into account the larger class size. Not surprisingly, some of these tactics exploit technology that my students are already familiar with, but in different contexts.

Here are four I’ve been thinking about, followed by more detailed explanations of each:

  1. Blogging
  2. Wiki
  3. Twitter
  4. Pecha Kucha


I routinely have my undergraduate and graduate students contribute to a class blog. The advantages are many: it’s a public space that requires students to consider questions of accountability and audience; students begin to see themselves as participating in an ongoing conversation about culture; and participation jump-starts class discussion so that I already have an idea of what students are thinking and wondering about before I even enter the classroom. In smaller classes I read and evaluate every post (according to this rubric) and generally comment throughout the semester on at least two posts by every student.

The problem with 40 students is that there is no way to read (much less comment upon) every post if every student is posting every week. I am toying then with a rotation model (inspired by Randy Bass),  in which students are divided into five groups of  eight students, cycling through these five roles:

  • Role 1 – Students are “first readers,” posting initial questions and insights about the reading to the class blog by Monday morning
  • Role 2 – Students are “respondents,” building upon, disagreeing with, or clarifying the first readers’ posts by class time on Tuesday
  • Role 3 – Students are “synthesizers,” mediating and synthesizing the dialogue between first readers and respondents by Thursday
  • Role 4 – Students are responsible for the week’s class notes (see next section on Wikis)
  • Role  5 – Students have this week “off” in terms of blogging and the wiki

I like the rotation model because each group of students is reading for and reacting to something different. The shifting positionality affords them greater traction, offers greater variety, and guarantees a dialogue without comments from myself.


Students in Role 4 will be responsible the week’s class notes, written collaboratively by the group on the class wiki. I am indebted to Brian Croxall’s Wiki Class Notes assignment for this idea. I haven’t thought through all of the specifics, but essentially these students will capture what happens in the classroom—synthesizing the discussion, referencing the visuals, highlighting moments of confusion and understanding—and then archive it and make it available for the entire class. I would even encourage students to document each session with their cell cameras and incorporate annotated versions of this “evidence” into the wiki. The notetaking students can also use the Twitter backchannel (see the next section) as another source for their notes.


A number of professors and instructors have begun using Twitter in their classrooms (see the Ultimate Twitter Teacher Resource for some ideas aggregated from across the web). I am most interested in Twitter as a backchannel, in which students use hashtags to create a stream of realtime on-task chatter about the class, which we can refer to at key moments during classtime. Outside of class, Twitter can be a microblogging-lite platform as well, for students to share quick notes and inquiries whenever they come across something in their daily lives relevant to the course material. This is the kind of use that David Parry writes about on Academhack.

Pecha Kucha

The most exotic sounding of all these tools, Pecha Kucha (pronounced “pe-chak-cha” ) is in fact the simplest idea: student presentations of 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, adding up to a total time of 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

This rigid format sounds like it might lead to manic presentations, but I see it as the perfect solution to the usual crop of undisciplined, unfocused student presentations, especially when we have 40 of them to get through in a semester. There is no way to do a timed presentation without practice, and no way a student can get through one of these presentations simply by reading aloud the text the audience can read for themselves on the screen. Think of pecha kucha as Ouilipo for PowerPoint. The formal constraints paradoxically unleash creativity.

A Note About Grading

Taken together, these four digital pedagogies will add up to quite a bit of writing for my students—writing that will replace several of the major assignments I’d normally require. Eventually such dialogic, community-based writing might encompass the entire grade for a class. (At Leheigh University, for example, Ed Gallagher has successfully experimented with online discussion comprising 100% of a student’s grade; read his thoughtful reflection at Academic Commons.) For now, though, I’ll still have at least one paper, and I’ll also require a meta-reflection two-thirds of the way into the semester (similar to my blogging about blogging assignment).

What Else?

My extra-large class is three months away, so I have plenty of time to rethink these strategies or add more to my arsenal. I welcome suggestions, both lofty untested ideas and proven, practical techniques. The class will be an experiment in pedagogy, and even if it fails it will have failed successfully.

Zen Scavenger Essay Writing

Lately I’ve been wondering how to use Jane McGonigal’s Zen Scavenger Hunt idea in my teaching. A Zen Scavenger Hunt is essentially a reversed-engineered scavenger hunt. The hunters go out and find ten or or so items and only afterward do they receive the list of the items they’re supposed to be scavenging for. The participants have to improvise a series of hacks and demonstrations to prove that their items perfectly match the list.

The most faithful pedagogical analog to a Zen Scavenger Hunt might be having students write about anything using any format or style, and then give them the question they were supposed to be answering. The students next have to persuade me (and their classmates) that their essays do indeed answer the question, perhaps via footnotes or annotations.

The bulk of creative and critical work on the students’ part comes in at the second, performative level, in the rhetorical act of proving by whatever means necessary that their essays match — and in fact have always matched — my question.

A less faithful, though perhaps more intriguing possibility for introducing the same kind of backwards-modding into student work might involve using Wordle. I can imagine students writing (though I am pedagogically opposed to overreliance on such writing) a typical essay, say an analysis of the failure of cognitive mapping in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange. They feed their essay into Wordle, and then other students must recreate the argument of the original student essay based on the Wordle-produced word cloud.

Or, in a variation of this assignment, the professor creates a Wordle cloud out of a scholarly essay, and the students work collaboratively to reconstruct the original publication. So, here’s a word cloud generated from Rachel Adam’s essay in Twentieth Century Literature 53.3 (2007) on Tropic of Orange, “The Ends of American, the Ends of Postmodernism” (larger version):

Rachel Adams on "Tropic of Orange"

Could a group of students reconstruct an essay out of this word cloud? And then persuade me and their classmates, through an overlay of textual and spoken improvisation, that their new essay is in fact a faithful recreation of the original?

We’re in Borges territory here, but it’s someplace I think students need to spend more time.

Electronic Literature Course Description

A few of my English department colleagues and myself are preparing to propose a new Electronic Literature course, to replace a more vaguely named “Textual Media” class in the university course catalog. Here is an incredibly first draft version of the course description, building in part on language from the Electronic Literature Organization’s own description of electronic literature:

Electronic Literature (3 credits) Electronic literature refers to expressive texts that are born digital and can only be read, interacted with, or otherwise experienced in a digital environment. Contemporary writers, artists, and designers are producing a wide range of electronic literature, including hypertext fiction, kinetic poetry, interactive fiction, computer-generated poetry and stories, digital mapping, and online collaborative writing projects via SMS, emails, and blogs. In all of these cases, electronic literature takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts of stand-alone or networked computers. Such literary texts often demand new reading and interpretative practices, which this class will develop in students.

I’m eager to hear any feedback about this purposefully generic description.

Fall 2009 Course Descriptions

I’ve got two fantastic advanced literature classes planned for Fall 2009:

ENGL 459 (Disaster Fiction)

This class explores what the influential critic and novelist Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster.” Sontag was speaking of Hollywood cinema of the fifties and sixties, arguing that end-of-the-world films of this era simultaneously aestheticize destruction and address a perversely utopian impulse for moral simplification. But what about disasters in contemporary fiction? While natural and unnatural disasters have provided Hollywood with predictable script material for decades, less familiar are the meditations on disasters that serious novelists have taken up in literary fiction. In this class we will consider how novelists imagine disaster. From uncontrollable natural disasters to planned nuclear annihilation, from swift destruction unleashed by human avarice to the slow death of a dying world, we will examine the ways fiction reaffirms, questions, or rewrites the modalities of disaster. Along the way we will consider the social, historical, and political contexts of disaster fiction, exploring what it means to “think the unthinkable” in different times and places. Among the writers we will study are Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Ursula Le Guin, Cormac McCarthy, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others.

ENGL 493 (The Graphic Novel)

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, sexual abuse, 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. Graphic novelists studied may include Kyle Baker, Alison Bechdel, Alan Moore, Wilfred Santiaga, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, and Gene Luen Yang.

Writing is a Concentrated Form of Thinking

One of my friends from grad school, Tim Carmody, blogged a nice response to my recent posts on critical thinking and writing, and it got me thinking that I need to clarify one thing: I am not anti-writing.

As I wrote in my comment on Tim’s blog (and am copying here), I want to emphasize that I don’t think I’m any less committed to writing than anybody else in the humanities. After all, I do study literature, and somebody had to write that literature.

In fact, I would argue that writing should take precedent over reading. Don DeLillo, who is a touchstone for me in most areas of culture, has said that he writes to “learn how to think.” DeLillo goes on to say that “writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them” (Paris Review 128, Fall 1993, p. 277).

Writing comes before reading, and it even comes before critical thinking.

Cognitively, developmentally, artistically, this is true: we learn to write before we learn to read. I want to recover that dynamic in my teaching. I’m simply advocating that we broaden what counts as “writing.”

What’s Wrong With Writing Essays

A few days ago I mentioned that as a professor invested in critical thinking — that is, in difficult thinking — I have become increasingly disillusioned with the traditional student paper. Just as the only thing a standardized test measures is how well you can take a standardized test, the only thing a student essay measures is how well a student can conform to the rigid thesis/defense model that (surprise!) eliminates complexity, ambiguity, and most traces of critical thinking.

I don’t believe that my mission as a professor is to turn my students into miniature versions of myself or of any other professor.  Yet that is the only function that the traditional student essay serves. And even if I did want to churn out little professors, the essay fails exceedingly well at this. Somehow the student essay has come to stand in for all the research, dialogue, revision, and work that professional scholars engage in.

It doesn’t.

The student essay is a twitch in a void. A compressed outpouring of energy (if we’re lucky) that means nothing to no one. My friend and occasional collaborator Randy Bass has said that nowhere but school would we ask somebody to write something that nobody will ever read.

This is the primary reason I’ve integrated more and more public writing into my classes. I strive to instill in my students the sense that what they think and what they say and what they write matters — to me, to them, to their classmates, and through open access blogs and wikis, to the world.

In addition to making student writing public, I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.

With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write toward asking them to weave. To build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product.

Sid Meier's Pirates Mapped in 3D
Sid Meier’s Pirates Mapped in 3D (Click image for a larger version)

In my next post I’ll describe in more detail some “writing” assignments that have very little to do with traditional writing. I’ll include some sample student work then, but I’ll conclude today’s post by highlighting one project here.

I asked students to design an abstract visualization of an NES videogame, a kind of model that would capture some of the game’s complexity and reveal underlying patterns to the way actions, space, and time unfold in the game. One student “mapped” Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1991) onto a piece of driftwood (larger image). This “captain’s log,” covered with screenshots and overlayed with axes measuring time and action, evokes the static nature of the game more than words ever can. Like Meier’s Civilization, much of Pirates! is given over to configurations, selecting from menus, and other non-diegetic actions. Pitched battles on the high seas, what would seem to be the highlight of any game about pirates, are rare, and though a flat photograph of the log doesn’t do justice to the actual object in all its physicality, you can see some of that absence of action here, where the top of the log is full of blank wood.

I will talk more about about this assignment and others — and where the critical thinking comes into play — in my next post.

What is Critical Thinking?

I’ve been a teacher of one sort or another for nearly 15 years, first as a high school teacher and now, after the grueling experience of graduate school, a university professor.

Should I admit that most of this time I had no philosophy guiding my teaching? It’s not that I thought that I didn’t need one. It’s that teaching came easy and the idea of a teaching philosophy simply hadn’t occurred to me. I was charismatic, demanding but fair, with outstanding student evaluations. If anybody asked, I said a few words about critical thinking and went on my way.

And then I had a problem. A crisis. One day I realized my university students were simply not picking up on key recurring images in The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel.

I was puzzled and frustrated. I had intelligent, articulate, sensitive students in my class. Why was I seeing these patterns and my students were not? And how long had this been going on?

I now know the reason was because my students, however bright, were novice learners of literature, whereas I was an expert. The gap between novice and expert learners is vast, but substantial research demonstrates there are several essential differences: expert learners notice meaningful information overlooked by novices; experts organize their knowledge associatively rather than sequentially; and experts recognize that the applicability of their skills and knowledge depends on circumstances, while novices bluntly apply their smaller skill set to every problem, even when profoundly inappropriate.

Of course, I didn’t know all of this back in the spring of 2000, when my crisis occurred. What I did know, though, was that I had to do something I had never done before: consciously design an assignment to address a particular problem in my students’ learning habits.

Since that day I have become much more reflective and intentional in my teaching — all with the goal of fostering that most talismanic of buzzwords, critical thinking.

I have read reams of studies about critical thinking, participated in research groups on the subject, and of course, feigned enough expertise to judge the critical thinking of others. But I have to admit that I still do not know exactly what counts as critical thinking.

I believe, however, that critical thinking stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty. And this is something else that separates the expert learner from the novice learner: experts are at ease with uncertainty, while novices are uncomfortable with what they don’t understand, and they struggle to come up with answers — and quickly come up with answers — that eliminate complexity and ambiguity. The historian and cognitive psychologist Samuel Wineburg calls this tendency to seek answers over questions “schoolish” behavior, because it is exactly the kind of behavior most schools reward.

I want my students to break out of this schoolish mode of behavior. Instead of thinking like students — like novices, I want them to think more like experts, and I must coach them to do so. It requires intellectual risk-taking on their part, and on my part, it requires mindfulness, patience, and risk-taking as well.

The next few posts to Sample Reality will elaborate upon these thoughts, and I will begin in a few days describing how, much to the chagrin of my English Department colleagues, I am moving increasingly away from the traditional student essay as a means for evaluating (much less fostering) critical thinking.

Fantastic writing in reviews of milk on amazon

Via Dennis Jerz via Boing Boing, word of hundreds of fake reviews for a real product on Amazon, a gallon of Tuscan whole milk.

Jerz imagines quite rightly that the novelty of ordering milk from an online bookstore is the impetus for these entertaining reviews, which range in style from poetic to surreal. Many of the reviews are laugh-out-loud funny. The astonishing thing is that not only are the reviews extremely clever, but that they are extraordinarily well-written. Most of them choose an approach to the review (say, a reworking of a William Carlos Williams poem, a snooty review for wine, or the persona of an RPG gamer) and stay true to that approach throughout the review. They do not tip their hand or let on that it is a fake review. In this way, the reviews are superbly confident.

This confidence, this sense of purpose is the opposite of what I find in most undergraduate writing. I wonder, then, is there some sort of writing exercise lurking here?

Instinct tells me that writing a fake review is low stakes and the reviewers probably feel less inhibited than they do when writing a real review. The writers allow themselves to be bolder, more daring, and more creative. And I imagine some of the fake reviews were written by people who would never have written a real review.

So, what if I have my students write fake reviews? Professors are so intent on having students write “formal” and “serious” papers because we believe that is how serious literary interpretation comes about. This format obviously stifles creativity, but I’m now realizing that it also hampers a student’s confidence. So, instead of a formal essay with a tidy thesis and satisfying conclusion and five to ten paragraphs in between (which, by the way, never happens), assign students a series of parody reviews, each one to be written in a different “voice” or persona.

For example, one review on Amazon treats the Tuscan whole milk as if it were a translation of an early Italian literary masterpiece. Why not reverse the equation, and have our students write about a book as if it were something else, maybe an iPod or a decoration? Here another review imagines that the milk is a piece of furniture:

Shipping was fine, and the product was not damaged in any way, but my husband and I (both of us have college degrees, mind you, his in Engineering) could not figure out how to assemble this. No instructions, no diagrams, not even a lousy cheap allen wrench. So basically, weeks after purchase, we’re using it as a one gallon paper weight. I haven’t gotten any response from Tuscan. It earns two stars simply because it is heavy and does do a fair job of holding down the stack of newspapers awaiting recycling.

Many of the reviewers demonstrate an acute awareness of how reviews typically work, and they incorporate these formal features into their reviews. Here is one that makes excellent use of the “Spoiler alert” warning often given in book and movie reviews:

Overall, the quality and freshness of this milk was outstanding. The only thing that I found unpleasant was the seemingly acidic nature of it when it came out of my nose.
This milk tends to spoil when left open in a warm place for too long.

As I say, in these and dozens of others of fake reviews, the writers are confident, attune to their context, and in a perverse way, showing a kind of mastery over the subject of their review. You couldn’t ask for more from a piece of writing.

The Cereal Box Wall

I used to eat a lot of cereal. A lot. Three or four bowls a morning, every morning at 6am just before I went off to teach the teeming hordes of America’s youth at an all boy’s Jesuit high school.

At one point I got sick of throwing out all those cereal boxes–this was 1995, long before curbside recycling became the norm. So I began collecting the boxes, and eventually I had enough to cover an entire 10×8′ section of an interior wall in my apartment.

I snapped a few pictures of this wall, with what camera I don’t even remember. At some point in the past twelve years, again, I don’t remember, I scanned the photos (larger image). And these are the only evidence that once, in Toledo, Ohio, there was a wall of cereal boxes.

Goodbye 2006, Goodbye US Airways

It’s been one long fall. And it’s finally come to a close. Late December is when everyone comes out with their “best of” or “worst of” lists, so I thought I’d throw together a few lists. There’s no best and no worst, simply a snapshot of some of the things that made life as a commuting professor so grueling these past five months (and which explains why I haven’t posted in weeks). Come to think of it, this is more like a Harper’s Index than a proper list…

Number of novels read and taught since the beginning of August: 13

Number of those novels featuring characters named Asa: 2

Estimated average length, in pages, of each novel: 400

Estimated number of student papers read, in pages: 1,950

Estimated time spent grading those papers, in hours: 975

Percentage of students who “stopped attending” (as the registrar puts it) but were still registered for my classes: 8

Frequent flier miles earned since August: 54,484

Number of peanut butter jars confiscated by TSA screeners under the “no liquid” ban: 1

Percentage of successful smuggling attempts of lip balm aboard aircraft: 100

Number of times the 9 volt battery, digital watch, stress ball, and random twist-tie in my carry on baggage were mistaken for bomb components: 1

GMU Course Blogs

I’ve been fed up with the standard issue university courseware options–namely Blackboard and WebCT–so I decided this semester to wing it with my own version of courseware (what I’m calling “of-courseware”) powered by WordPress.

Although Sample Reality runs on Movable Type, I’ve been hearing good things about WordPress, and I thought I’d give it a spin. So now my Fall 2005 courses at George Mason University run on the open-source WordPress platform. The syllabi, links to online readings, and most important as the semester develops, the collectively-written class blog, are online, open to the public, indexed by Google, and just generally out there. Which is something you cannot say for courses kept chained up, locked down, and closed up by Blackboard or WebCT.

Here are the courses. The sites are in their embryonic stages (the semester hasn’t even begun yet), but I expect them to turn into full-blown resources as time goes on:

I should add that the subject matter of both of these courses–postmodern culture and new media–could not be better suited for an networked environment. It would be absurd not to develop these courses in an open, linked way, connected to the rest of the web. It’s of-courseware!