WRI 101: Monsters

The mob of angry townspeople in My Favorite Thing is Monsters

Every so often I have an opportunity to teach a section of Davidson College’s first year writing course, WRI 101. It’s the only required class that all Davidson students take, but each section is shaped around a different topic. In Fall 2018 topics will range from “Writing about Modern Physics and Technology” (Section A) to “Monsters” (Section Y). In between are classes devoted to democracy, medicine, Africa, and much more. In the past I’ve taught a WRI 101 course focused on graphic novels and another on toys and games. But this fall, I’m the guy behind Section Y, i.e. Monsters.

Why monsters? Because horror is the literary genre best-suited for our scary times. And to that end, I’ve decided to teach only 21st century works. This means I could leave behind the old standards like Frankenstein and Dracula that appear on almost every monster syllabus. I also decided that each of my works would somehow be reworking the genre. Here’s the list of major texts (which will be supplemented with key theoretical readings as well as short stories, games, and films like Get Out):

  • Tananarive Due’s The Good House (2003) reworks the haunted house;
  • Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) reworks the zombie apocalypse;
  • Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels (2016) reworks werewolves;
  • Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters (2017) reworks, wow, everything. This graphic novel is a powerful metatext about the role of monsters in social life, drawn from the point of view of a young girl who sees herself as a monster on the margins of society. The mob of angry townspeople in the drawing above appears early in the graphic novel.

You can see from the list that I also leave behind the usual suspects synonymous with horror. The Stephen Kings and the like. Now more than ever it is critical to read, watch, and play horror coming from perspectives that are not CIS white males. The powerful race and gender implications of monsters come into sharp focus with this approach. I’ll share the syllabus when it’s finalized, but for now, here’s the course description:

WRI 101: Monsters

Ghosts. Zombies. Vampires and werewolves. What is it about monsters? Why do they both terrify and delight us? Whether it’s the haunted house in Tananarive Due’s The Good House (2004), Kanye’s monster persona in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), the walking dead in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), Native American werewolves in Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels (2016), or even white suburbia in Get Out (2017), monsters are always about more than just spine-tingling horror. This writing class explores monstrosity in the 21st century, paying particular attention to intersections with race and gender. Through a sequence of writing projects we will explore a central question: what do monsters mean? Our first project asks students to reflect on the home as a space of monstrosity. Our second and third projects address the idea of the monstrous other. Our final project uses contemporary literary and media theory to understand how monsters expose the limits of what counts as human. Along the way, we’ll experiment with our own little Frankenstein-like compositional monsters.

Hacking Facebook’s Ad Network for Justice

In September 2017, a Davidson College alumna alerted the college via a tweet that the Davidson College Alumni Association was advertising on the alt-right website Breitbart.

A September 2017 ad for the Davidson College Alumni Association on Breitbart.com
A September 2017 ad for the Davidson College Alumni Association on Breitbart.com

The display of promotional material for Davidson College next to the ultra conservative and nativist rhetoric of Breitbart was not only a jarring juxtaposition, it was also completely inadvertent, an algorithmic outcome of Facebook’s advertising platform.

Journalists have recently exposed other disturbing elements of Facebook and Google’s ad networks, such as the explosive ProPublica report that advertisers on Facebook could deliberately reach anti-Semitic audiences using targeted keywords and demographic information from Facebook’s vast data mining operations. Buzzfeed similarly showed how racist advertisers could exploit Google’s ad network.

Clearly, online advertising intersects in compelling—but usually hidden—ways with concerns about justice, equality, and community. Justice, equality, and community (JEC)—these are concepts that define a new JEC graduation requirement at Davidson College. To satisfy this requirement, students must take at least one course that addresses “the manifestations of justice and equality in various communities, locales, nations or regions, and focus on methods and theories used to analyze, spotlight, or remedy instances of injustice and inequality.”

In Spring 2018 I am teaching one such JEC-designated course, Gender and Technology (DIG 340). This course counts toward both Digital Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies major and minor requirements. Thanks to funding from Davidson’s momentous Justice, Equality, and Community grant from the Mellon Foundation, I am developing an assignment for DIG 340 that allows students to explore, critique, and undermine social media ad platforms.

Quite simply, the assignment is to subvert social media advertising by placing justice, equality, and community-oriented materials in timelines and websites whose users would normally not encounter that material. Imagine, for example, a sponsored ad about Colson Whitehead, Davidson’s 2018 Reynolds speaker, appearing on a white supremacist website. Or #metoo promoted posts showing up on the timelines of so-called Men’s Rights activists.

Working in groups of 3-4, students will manage a JEC-focused ad campaign of their own design on either Facebook, Twitter, or Google’s ad platforms. As students explore the contours, possibilities, and limits of social media advertising, each group will manage a series of campaigns with progressively larger budgets as they fine-tune their message and promotional strategy. Groups will have a budget of only $5 for their first campaigns. But as their campaigns grow more sophisticated, budgets will increase. Groups will have $100 for their final campaigns. All the while students will critically examine the advertising apparatuses themselves, analyzing overt and implicit ideological assumptions built into the platforms. Students will be aided in this process by Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s important new book, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech (2017).

Our implementation of the assignment is a few months away, and I am eager to hear your ideas about it. Thoughts, comments, suggestions?

Essential File Types for Understanding Digital Culture

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

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

PDF

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

WAD

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

JPG

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

EXIF

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

Stigmatized File Types

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

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

The Big Picture

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

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

Studying Digital Culture through File Types

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

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

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

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

Assistant Professor of Art and Digital Studies

Digital Studies and Digital Art students at Davidson making cyborg interfaces with Makey Makeys and toys.

The Digital Studies program at Davidson College is growing! We now offer an interdisciplinary minor and, through our Center for Interdisciplinary Studies (CIS), an interdisciplinary major. Last year Digital Studies and the History Department partnered on a tenure-track search—leading to Dr. Jakub Kabala joining Davidson as a digital medievalist with a background in computational philology and digital spatial analysis.

I’m delighted to announce that Digital Studies is collaborating once again on a tenure line search, this time with the Art Department. Along with Jakub and myself, this position will form the core of the Digital Studies faculty. My vision for Digital Studies has always emphasized three areas: (1) the history, practice, and critique of digital methodologies; (2) the study of cultural texts, media, and practices made possible by modern technology; and (3) the design and creation of digital art and new media, which includes robotics, interactive installations, and physical computing. Roughly speaking, I think of these three areas in terms of methodology, culture, and creativity. This latest tenure track search addresses the last area, though of course the areas blur into each other in very interesting ways.

Here is the official search ad for the digital artist position. Please share widely!


Davidson College invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Art and Digital Studies, with a specialization in interactive installation, transmedia art, robotics, data art, physical computing, or a similar creative field. Artists must demonstrate a distinguished record of creative work and a commitment to undergraduate education. Preference will be given to artists with a broad understanding of contemporary trends in Digital and New Media Art, including its history, theory, and practice. MFA by August 1, 2016 is required.

This tenure-track position is shared between the Art Department and Digital Studies Program. Art and Digital Studies at Davidson explore the contemporary technologies that shape daily life, focusing on critical making and digital culture. The successful applicant will teach in both Studio Art and Digital Studies. The candidate’s letter of application should highlight experiences that speak to both roles. The teaching load is 5 courses per year (reduced to 4 courses the first year). Classes include introductory and advanced digital art studio courses, as well as classes that focus on digital theory and practice.

Apply online at http://jobs.davidson.edu/. A complete application includes a letter of application, CV, artist’s statement, teaching philosophy, and a list of three or more references. In addition, submit links for up to 20 still images or up to 7 minutes of video in lieu of a portfolio. The application deadline is December 1, 2015. Do not send letters of reference until requested.

Davidson is strongly committed to achieving excellence and cultural diversity and welcomes applications from women, members of minority groups, and others who would bring additional dimensions to the college’s mission. Consistently ranked among the nation’s top liberal arts colleges, Davidson College is a highly selective, independent liberal arts college located in Davidson, North Carolina, close to the city of Charlotte. Davidson faculty enjoy a low student-faculty ratio, emphasis on and appreciation of excellence in teaching, and a collegial, respectful atmosphere that honors academic achievement and integrity.

Electronic Literature Think Alouds

ELO 2015 PosterI’m at the Electronic Literature Organization’s annual conference in Bergen, Norway, where I hope to capture some “think aloud” readings of electronic literature (e-lit) by artists, writers, and scholars. I’ve mentioned this little project elsewhere, but it bears more explanation.

The think aloud protocol is an important pedagogical tool, famously used by Sam Wineburg to uncover the differences in interpretative strategies between novice historians and professional historians reading historical documents (see Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Temple University Press, 2001).

The essence of a think aloud is this: the reader articulates (“thinks aloud”) every stray, tangential, and possibly central thought that goes through their head as they encounter a new text for the first time. The idea is to capture the complicated thinking that goes on when we interpret an unfamiliar cultural artifact—to make visible (or audible) the usually invisible processes of interpretation and analysis.

Once the think aloud is recorded, it can itself be analyzed, so that others can see the interpretive moves people make as they negotiate understanding (or misunderstanding). The real pedagogical treasure of the think aloud is not any individual reading of a new text, but rather the recurring meaning-making strategies that become apparent across all of the think alouds.

By capturing these think alouds at the ELO conference, I’m building a set of models for engaging in electronic literature. This will be invaluable to undergraduate students, whose first reaction to experimental literature is most frequently befuddlement.

If you are attending ELO 2015 and wish to participate, please contact me (samplereality at gmail, @samplereality on Twitter, or just grab me at the conference). We’ll duck into a quiet space, and I’ll video you reading an unfamiliar piece of e-lit, maybe from either volume one or volume two of the Electronic Literature Collection, or possibly an iPad work of e-lit. It won’t take long: 5-7 minutes tops. I’ll be around through Saturday, and I hope to capture a half dozen or so of these think alouds. The more, the better.

Password Protecting PDFs on Course Blogs

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

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

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

DIG 350: History & Future of the Book

Course Description

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

From Fish to Print: My 2012 in Review

Like the pair of mice in Leo Lionni’s classic children’s book, I had a busy year in 2012. It was a great year, but an exhausting one.

The year began last January with a surprise: I was mentioned by Stanley Fish in an anti-digital humanities screed in the New York Times. That’s something I can check off my bucket list. (By the way, my response to Fish fit inside a tweet.) Ironically, had Fish read my chapter in Debates in the Digital Humanities, which was published the very same week, he might have seen some strange correspondences between his stance toward the digital humanities and my own. This chapter, “Unseen and Unremarked On: Don DeLillo and the Failure of the Digital Humanities,” has recently become open-access, along with the rest of the book. Hats off to Matt Gold, the Debates editor, as well as his crew at the Graduate Center at CUNY and the University of Minnesota Press for making the book possible in the first place, and open and online in the second place.

In January I also performed my first public reading of one of my creative works— Takei, George—during the off-site electronic literature reading at the 2012 MLA Convention in Seattle. There’s even grainy documentary footage of this reading, thanks to the efforts of the organizers Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inmans Berens. I also gave a well-received talk at the MLA about another work of electronic literature, Erik Loyer’s beautiful Strange Rain. And finally in January, I spent odd moments at the convention huddled in a coffee shop (this was Seattle, after all) working with my co-authors on the final revisions of a book manuscript. More about that book later in this post.

All of this happened in the first weeks of January. And the rest of the year was equally as busy. In addition to my regular commuting life, I traveled a great deal to conferences and other gatherings. As I mentioned, I presented at the MLA, but I also talked at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies convention (Boston in March), Computers and Writing (Raleigh in May), the Electronic Literature Organization (Morgantown in June), and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (Milwaukee in September). In May I was a co-organizer of THATCamp Piedmont, held on the campus of Davidson College. During the summer I was a guest at the annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summit (Redmond in July). In the fall I was an invited panelist for my own institution’s Forum on the Future of Higher Education (in October) and an invited speaker for the University of Kansas’s Digital Humanities seminar (in November).

If the year began the publication of a modest—and frankly, immensely fun to write—chapter in an edited book, then I have to point out that it ended with the publication of a much larger (and challenging and unwieldy) project, a co-authored book from MIT Press: 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1));: GOTO 10 (or 10 PRINT, as we call it). I’ve already written about the book, and I expect more posts will follow. I’ll simply say now that my co-authors and I are grateful for and astonished by its bestselling (as far as academic books go) status: within days of its release, the book was ranked #1,375 on Amazon, out of 8 million books. This figure is all the most astounding when you consider that we released a free PDF version of the book on the same day as its publication. More evidence that giving away things is the best way to also sell things.

I was busy with other scholarly projects throughout 2012 as well. I finished revisions of a critical code studies essay that will appear in the next issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly, and I wrapped up a chapter for an edited collection coming out from Routledge on mobile media narratives. I also continued to publish in unconventional but peer-reviewed venues. Most notably, Enculturation and the Journal of Digital Humanities, which has published two pieces of mine. On the flip side of peer-review, I read and wrote reader’s reports for several journals and publishers, including University of Minnesota Press, MIT Press, Routledge, and Digital Humanities Quarterly. (You see how the system works: once you publish with a press it’s not long until they ask you to review someone else’s work for them. Review it forward, I say.)

In addition to scholarly work, I’ve invested more time than ever this year in creative work. On the surface my creative work is a marginal activity—and often marginalized when it comes time to count in my annual faculty report. But I increasingly see my creativity and scholarship bound up in a virtuous circle. I’ve already mentioned my first fully-functional work of electronic literature, “Takei, George.” In June this piece appeared as a juried selection in Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints, a media art exhibit held in conjunction with the 2012 Electronic Literature Organization conference. A tip to other scholars who aim to do more creative work: submit your work to juried exhibitions or other curated shows; if your work is selected, it’s the equivalent of peer-review and your creative work suddenly passes the threshold needed to appear on CVs and faculty activity reports. Another creative project of mine, Postcard for Artisanal Tweeting, appeared in Rough Cuts: Media and Design in Process, an online exhibit curated by Kari Kraus on The New Everyday, a Media Commons Project.

My own blog is another site where I blend creativity and scholarship. My recent post on Intrusive Scaffolding is as much a creative nonfiction piece as it is scholarship (more so, in fact). And my favorite post of 2012 began as an inside joke about scholarly blogs. The background is this: during a department meeting discussion about how blogging should be recognized in our annual infrequent merit salary raises, a senior colleague expressed concern that one professor’s cupcake blog would count as much as another professor’s research-oriented blog. In response to this discussion, I wrote a blog post about cupcakes that blended critical theory and creativity. And cursing. The post struck a nerve, and it was my most widely read and retweeted blog post ever. About cupcakes.

Late in 2012 my creative work took me into new territory: Twitterbots, those autonomous “agents” on Twitter that are occasionally useful and often annoying. My bot Citizen Canned is in the process of tweeting every unique word from the script of Citizen Kane, by order of frequency (as opposed to, say, by order of significance, which would have a certain two syllable word appear first). With roughly 4,400 unique words to tweet, at a rate of once per hour, I estimate that Citizen Kane will tweet the least frequently used word in the movie sometime five months from now.Another of the Twitterbots I built in 2012 is 10print_ebooks. This bot mashes up the complete text of my 10 PRINT book and generates occasionally nonsensical but often genius Markov chain tweets from it. The bot also incorporates text from other tweets that use the #10print hashtag, meaning it “learns” from the community. The Citizen Cane bot runs in PHP while the 10 PRINT bot is built in Processing.

Alongside this constant scholarly and creative work (not to mention teaching) ran a parallel timeline, mostly invisible. This was me, waiting for my tenure decision to be handed down. In the summer of 2011 I submitted my materials and by December 2011, I learned that my department had voted unanimously in my favor. Next, in January 2012 the college RPT (Rank-Promotion-Tenure) committee voted 10-2 in my favor. It’s a bit crazy that the committee report echoes what I’ve heard about my work since grade school:

Mark Sample presents an unusual case. His work is at the edge of his discipline’s interaction with digital media technology. It blurs the lines between scholarship, teaching, and service in challenging ways. It also marks the point where traditional scholarly peer review meets the public interface of the internet. This makes for some difficulty in assessing his case.

In February my dean voted in favor of my case too. Next came the provost’s support at the end of March. In a surprise move, the provost recommended me for tenure on two counts: genuine excellence in teaching and genuine excellence in research. Professors usually earn tenure on the strength of their research alone. It’s uncommon to earn tenure at Mason on excellence in teaching, and an anomaly to earn tenure for both. By this point, approval from the president and the Board of Visitors (our equivalent of a Board of Trustees) might have seemed like rubber stamps, but I wasn’t celebrating tenure as a done deal. In fact, when I finally received the official notice—and contract—in June, I still didn’t feel like celebrating. And by the time my tenure and promotion went into effect in August 2012, I was too busy gearing up for the semester (and indexing 10 PRINT) to think much about it.

In other words, I reached the end of 2012 without celebrating some of its best moments. On the other hand, I feel that most of its “best moments” were actually single instances in ongoing processes, and those processes are never truly over. 10 PRINT may be out, but I’m already looking forward to future collaborations with some of my co-authors. I wrote a great deal in 2012, but much of that occurred serially in places like ProfHacker, Play the Past, and Media Commons, where I will continue to write in 2013 and beyond.

What else with 2013 bring? I am working on two new creative projects and I have begun sketching out a new book project as well. Next fall I will begin a year-long study leave (Fall 2013/Spring 2014), and I aim to make significant progress on my book during that time. Who knows what else 2013 will bring. Maybe sleep?

[Header image: A Busy Year by Leo Lionni]

Intrusive Scaffolding, Obstructed Learning (and MOOCs)

Sacred Heart Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

twitteressay

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

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

alien_defn_word_cloud

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

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

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

Reading List for 21st Century Literature (Fall 2012)

BookCoversThis fall at George Mason I’m teaching a special topics course called ENGLISH 442: 21st Century Literature. My department reserves the 442 course number for “American Literary Periods” and this usually means some recognizable—not to mention canonized—era of American literature, comprised of works that share certain stylistic and thematic characteristics. Nineteenth century naturalism. Twentieth century modernism. Post-war postmodernism. But what is 21st Century literature? What are its defining narrative modes and concerns?

The hell if I know.

I’m not going to answer these questions in ENGH 442. Beyond looking at publishing dates, it’s futile, I believe, to make any claims about the distinguishing features of 21st century literature. The simple fact is this: 21st century literature is whatever people are writing in the 21st century.

Yes, the first 12 years of the new millennium have been marked by September 11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and a crippling, never-ending recession. But the new millennium has also been marked by the rise of YouTube, Justin Bieber, and Minecraft. What 20 novels best reflect the spirit of the 21st century so far? What 10 novels? And, given that my goal is to teach for uncoverage rather than coverage, what 5 novels?

It’s an almost insurmountable challenge to come up with a representative reading list of 21st century literature.

So I didn’t.

Instead, to assemble my reading list I came up with a rather arbitrary criterion, which is no more arbitrary than any other criterion would have been. I’ve decided to focus my 21st century literature class on works that are somehow reworking or engaging with earlier works of literature and film. I’m not talking adaptations. I’m also not interested in classic works of literature, rewritten with vampires. And I don’t mean retellings from an existing minor character’s point of view.

I mean deep entanglements in a web of intertextuality.

I’m delighted with the list I came up with. It spans genres and formats, and ranges from the comedic to the elegiac. The reading list includes some of my favorite texts to teach as well as some I’ve long wanted to teach. And here it is:

In addition to these six works (which are not all works of fiction, though they certainly are all works of literature), I will have some short stories, as well as historical and theoretical pieces scattered throughout the semester. Plus, a few tricks it is not yet time to reveal.

All in all, ENGH 442 should be an excellent class, and I’m looking forward to kicking off the fall semester.

Scholarly Lies and the Deformative Humanities

imageI recently described a new mode of scholarship that I called the deformed humanities. The idea is simple: take apart the world, deform it, and make something new. Or, as Donna Lanclos summarized the deformed humanities in a tweet: “Break things, leave them broken, learn stuff.”

As an example of the deformed humanities I offered up my work Hacking the Accident. But what would the deformed humanities look like in other fields? It’s one thing to imagine a scholar who already studies fiction creatively destroying existing texts. But it’s quite another to imagine a scholar who owes a certain debt to facts working in the deformed humanities.

A course taught by my George Mason colleague Mills Kelly provides an illustrative case of the deformed humanities in the field of history. Mills’ class “Lying about the Past” explores the social role of hoaxes throughout history—the Piltdown man, Hitler’s diary, and so on. For the class’s final project, students design their own hoaxes and then unleash them upon an unsuspecting public. In 2008 students created a hoax about Edward Owens, the so-called last American pirate. Students created a Wikipedia page with false sources, a blog detailing a fictional student’s discovery of the last American pirate—which the class backdated to make it look like the blog had been written over a four-month period, and other faked primary and secondary sources. When Mills revealed the hoax at the end of the semester (and students copped to it on Wikipedia), his IP address was banned from Wikipedia and the page was marked for deletion.

Mills faced a barrage of criticism in 2008 for having his student “lie” about the past. With the most recent version of the class just finishing up, Mills has come under fire once again. As Mills notes, he’s been receiving a flood of hate email. He’s being called everything from irresponsible to “sociopathic pond scum.”

There’s no need for me to defend the ethics of creating a hoax as a class project—Mills himself has persuasively made that case. All I want to say is that this is an example of the deformed humanities. And with a purpose too. Mills has described his pedagogical intent using a riddle[note]Quoted with permission from Kelly, T. Mills. “True Facts or False Facts—Which Are More Authentic?” Playing with Technology in History. Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, 2010.[/note]:

Q: What happens when you teach students how to lie? A: They learn how to be historians.

Call him a cynic, but Mills is dead on. History is comprised of lies. And if not outright falsehoods, then half-truths, exaggerations, and omissions.

The Deformative is Political

When I first began to think of creative and critical work in terms of the deformed humanities I hadn’t focused on the political dimensions of the concept—aside from self-consciously reclaiming a potentially troubled term, deformity. But I’ve quickly come to believe that the deformed humanities is a political humanities, a politicized humanities.

As a number of scholars and public intellectuals have noted, the humanities are under attack. One particularly cogent response to the attacks comes from then-American Historical Association president Anthony Grafton. Writing in the January 2011 issue of Perspectives on History, Grafton argued that perhaps the most vital argument one can make in favor of the humanities is “the argument that scholarship matters.” Historians and other humanists model “honest, first-hand inquiry” and an “austere, principled quest for knowledge.” Such clear-headed and rational scholarship, Grafton believes, is especially needed to combat the misrepresentations of the past and present that pervade our mediated world.

Mills’ example—and the deformed humanities—suggests that while Grafton goal’s is noble, it is the wrong approach. Or at least not the only approach. Why fight lies with the truth when you can fight them with other lies? Lies that reveal the truth. Scholarship ought to be rooted in knowledge, not necessarily facts.

Looking beyond a few undergraduate hoaxes, such a strategy—outlying the liars—is a particularly potent response to attacks on the humanities. It’s one, however, that Progressives are likely to avoid.

One of the unfortunate lasting legacies of the Bush era is that Progressives automatically discount anyone who strays too far from objective perspectives or evidentiary reasoning. In the face of Bush’s dismissal of the “reality-based community,” Progressives have enshrouded themselves in facts and statistics and studies. This is what Grafton argues for as well. And it’s exactly the wrong way to fight narrow-minded, unjust, subjective and self-serving beliefs. Fight truthiness with truthiness, something Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert long ago figured out, but which the humanities have forgotten.

Truth is not relative, but it is overrated.

[“Lies image courtesy of Flickr user Simon Law. Creative Commons Licensed.]

Be Weird and Other Game Design Tips

image

Instead of writing papers at the end of the semester in my videogame studies class, my students are building videogames. After all, what better way to understand games than to make one, a notion Ian Bogost calls carpentry.

My students aren’t designing merely any kind of game. They are designing metagames, by which I mean a game that itself comments upon or thinks through some aspect of other videogames. The assignment is available for all to share or remix.

Only a few of my students are computer science or game design majors. They are are almost all nonprogrammers, non-designers. But in line with the central message of Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, I believe anyone can make a videogame. Maybe not Skyrim but certainly a modest game that uses the affordances of the medium to think about the medium. Because my students’ initial pitches were much more ambitious than what they could ever hope to achieve in the space of two weeks, I cribbed a list of design principles that are either explicitly mentioned or implied in Anthropy’s chapter “Making the Games.” Again, I share it here:

  • “Dumb little games” have value and can enrich our understanding of the form
  • Perfection isn’t a useful goal
  • Accidents and mistakes can be creative forces
  • Use what’s on hand
  • Be derivative
  • Be weird
[Image from Patrick LeMieux’s 99 Exercises in Play (Level 22).]