Theory Carnivals–Now with Students!

Jenn and Dennis had both commented on what I thought was a throwaway comment in an earlier post—the fact that I planned to institute a blog carnival with my theory students.

I’m embarrassed to say that it didn’t strike me as all that ambitious or pioneering; more and more, I’m trying to model student work with blogs on the practices that bloggers themselves employ. It seems like cheating, somehow, to see the blog only as a tech version of what we previously did with pen and paper. Having said that, of course, I need to think more about how students view these assignments, because God knows I end up explaining them as tech versions of what we previously did with pen and paper…

Right. So onto the theory carnival. I’ve just passed out the assignment in my class, and we’re going to discuss it later in the week, so I’ll have more to report on the reactions and actual products later, but for now, here are the components of the carnival-cum-assignment. *Note*–this is for a literary theory course, and so you’ll see some additions here designed to address and develop students’ thinking about and beyond particular theoretical positions.

For our purposes, the carnival will have several component parts, all of which will work together to represent the collective intelligence of our class on a particular set of theories (sign/language/form, cultural critique, etc.). The end result will be one single post with several links to each of the following component parts:

  1. Traditional Carnival Fare is a set of links to individual writers’ blog posts on the class readings. Each writer will nominate his/her best post from the theory section. This part of the carnival will assemble links to those posts, and posit connections among them (e.g., “in Kellie and Keva’s posts, the question of a poet’s individuality is paramount, while Kim tries to connect that idea to the notion of tradition.”) Note: this is a big job. You might want to pair up on this part.
  2. Helpful overviews of schools of criticism relevant to your chosen set of theories (e.g. Marxism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, etc.). Here, you’ll want to explain the major ideas of the school in your own words (and using direct quotation from sources is fine), and include some helpful outside links. Note: Peter Barry is your friend. This is what Beginning Theory is for!!
  3. Practical applications, in which you locate 2-4 “texts” (the assigned literature, a pop culture text, an experience, a YouTube video—whatever works) and explain how one or two of the theoretical readings allow you to understand the text. Note: these may also function as drafts of your critical perspectives paper—think of them as a two-fer.
  4. Implications/blindspots, in which you explore what a particular theory may allow us to do or think (e.g., in society, as individuals, as global citizens, etc.), and conversely what significant concerns they seemingly ignore (e.g., human agency, aesthetics, ethics, the love of literature, etc.). Again, direct quotation will probably help you support your claims here, and outside links might help too. [All due credit to my colleague M. here, who suggested this excellent addition to the assignment.]

What do you think, blogosphere? Sound do-able?

I’ll have an updated report from the trenches. Stay tuned…

Location, Location, Location

Once the particular provenance of real estate agents, location is becoming one of the more troubled terms in technology.  The Chronicle of Higher Ed just posted a short “pros and cons” piece about mobile social networking, but it doesn’t quite do justice to the lived experience of this phenomenon.

I’ve just returned from a weekend trip to New York City (brrrr!), where I was privy to any number of conversations on the street.  I got an earful of tantalizing snippets, including: “but your hard drive is just, storage, man”;  “like, you said I could have it when I needed it”;  and “do you remember who we said created Captain America?”  (thankfully, this was a father to a son–and the answer is Jack Kirby, for those of you playing the at-home game).  The repeated refrain in the hetereglossia of city discourses, however, was “where are you?”—a refrain most often yelled into a cell phone.  From Union Square (a brief and non-debt inducing trip to the Strand) to the Jewish Museum (85 blocks or so from the Strand: I walked every one), the consistent theme was that of locating your interlocutor.

I’m not much of a cell phone user, and Albany is hardly the big city, so the ubiquity of the instantaneous location is a bit of a new phenomenon to me.  My friend Ginna, a 7 year denizen of NYC, informs me that this is standard practice.  “If  a restaurant is full, we relocate and need to tell people.  I get held up at work and tell J. to wait for me somewhere.  It happens all the time.”  Okay.  So in a city like Manhattan, in order to meet up with your friends who live and work all over the island and the boroughs, you have to be locatable and reachable.  This makes sense to me: it’s not like you’re going to take the train back to Brooklyn and check the messages on your apartment answering machine to find out where to meet.  Better yet, when you get a call, you can change directions in transit.  Headed downtown on the subway?  We’re actually going to go uptown instead.  You get out at the next stop and change platforms: voila!  Conservation of motion.

Just as  I thought I was really beginning to understand how this all worked, Ginna handed me one more tip: “actually, I don’t even bother to call people any more.  I just text them a location.”  [In the spirit of full disclosure, she told me this over the phone when I called to return her message.  She was shocked to speak with me.  Clearly, I was supposed to have texted her back.  Given the level of noise in the city, that was the best chance I had to understand what she was saying, anyway.]

It’s difficult for me to fully articulate what a different way of life this is from my own bumpkin ways.  It seems to me that at any given time in my day-to-day life, I’m infinitely locatable.  I’m at home, I’m at my office.  Occasionally, I’m out running errands, but then I’m back at home or office.  It’s a fairly staid existence, really [I can hear you snoring, you know!].  For city dwellers, however, life is increasingly mobile, as are the multiple connections within a city dweller’s life.  My intuition tells me that the experience of current education is similarly mobile: you’re somewhere on campus, you’re on your way to class, you’re at work, you’re at the gym, you’re out with friends, etc.

It’s a happy coincidence, then, that “location” and “interlocution” share a phoneme.  If my experience this weekend is any indication, then where you are is becoming a significant part of your discussion with someone.  It’s the first question you and your interlocutor must answer, and it determines the course of the conversation from there.  In GPS terms, it indicates how long it might be before you can make human contact with another, and whether it’s even worth the effort to get to each other.  In more social geographical terms, it delimits the field of appropriate conversation (consider the difference between “I’m at Carnegie Hall” and “I’m at Grand Central Station”), who else might be privy to the chat, and its approximate length.  If Ginna’s move to the text tells us anything, it’s that location is taking on a larger and larger signifying function, such that one need only tell the other where she is, and all will be understood.

Does this hold out necessary considerations of privacy, as mentioned in the Chronicle article?  Clearly.  Bugeja’s question about the “addictive” nature of technologies that place such an emphasis on location, however, seem beside the point.  I’d rather hear us asking what the cultural implications of the primacy of location are, and what other systems of meanings are now taking backseats to “where are you?”.

Reading Atavism

Earlier this evening, I was engaging in a nightly ritual/indulgence—watching E! News Daily (you say tomato, I say tomahto). One of the stories tonight covered the baby boom in Hollywood and the fact that toy companies are beginning to offer free products to stars who might give them good press. It’s only a matter of time, it seems, before the room of swag at the Sundance Film Festival places a Barbie table next to the Bulgari display. The E! story focused particularly on the LeapFrog company, which specializes in toys and game systems designed around learning objectives for infants, toddlers, elementary school kids, etc. Their representative spoke a good deal about the game system that “brings books alive.” My immediate reaction to this was a bit histrionic: “What’s going to happen when these kids grow up? How can ‘regular books’ compete when these play songs and have video and are interactive? Why would kids want to read print novels?”

These are the moments that I can’t help dwelling on. If someone had read me this LeapFrog tagline where they purport to “combine research-based curriculum with multisensory technology to advance student achievement” I would have immediately jumped on board. Yes! Isn’t this what we’re after in education, activating multiple senses to increase student interaction with content? It’s clear from my knee-jerk reaction above, however, that there remains in me some significant fears about the future of the book.  I’m certainly not alone in this, and the good people over at if:book (see sidebar) are doing yeoman’s work thinking about how narrative and books as we know them will look in the future.  I’m at least as interested in the psychology that subtends these contradictory impulses.  Trying to strip away my own professional investment in the continuation of paper novels—which, to be honest, is a significant part of my first reaction—I find myself returning to some of my most positive moments as a reader: discovering an idea that I wanted to explore in a text for the first time; understanding and articulating stylistic components that did or did not appeal to me; re-reading novels to re-live not just the plot, but the mood they could create.  The first two of these are certainly activities that can be replicated by other types of media, particularly games.  Stephen Johnson makes a compelling argument in his Everything Bad is Good for You that exploration of a digital world is a large part of the appeal of a game.

It’s the last, however, that English types might spend a bit more time thinking about as we engage and enthuse about new media and simultaneously mourn the possible death of the book.  Where is the space in interactive media for contemplation, for re-living?   We might explore the pleasures that accrue from repetition, as these seem distinctly underexplored in new media.  What makes the process invigorating, and when is it just boring?  What kind of text rewards a second visit, and which frustrate it?

As we bang the drum for interactivity, for multisensory experience, for collaboration and forecasting and all of the new means of learning and thinking that new media offer us, where does contemplation fit?

Pedagogical Schizophrenia

I’ve spent the better part of the day writing assignments for my classes this semester. Wheeee! [Says me; I’m sure the students are less than thrilled with the prospect of getting said assignments.] What’s been baking my noodle all day, however, are the ways in which I’m trying to embed blog community practices in these assignments.

When I first started using blogs for classes, I thought of them solely as online reading responses. The major benefit here would be that students would engage in the online world, and better yet, they couldn’t lose their reading responses. A blog was simply an online archive. As such, the reading of these blogs could be a bit, well, dry. Why shouldn’t it be? Why would writing in a digital space be, de facto, more exciting than writing on paper? The more I read non-class blogs and some of the reflections of Alex Reid and Will Richardson, however, the more I began to question my original implementation of blogs. In this model, the blog was nothing more than a trick pony doing an old routine–why bother? Over the past year, then, I’ve been trying to think about what I like to read, and what benefits me as a writer/thinker with a blog. How can those practices be put to use for students?

So, this semester, the students are blogging a bit more (as we all try to do when we first start a blog!). In addition, the assignment gives them some options about how they might produce knowledge for themselves and others in this form. I have to come to terms with the fact that not every student will do that with a close reading technique, so I’m trying to come up with ways to expand my notion (and the students’!) about the multiple ways that we begin to make sense of a text. As a grumpy old English professor, that’s a hard lesson to learn. But either the one holds true to the particularities of the form or one loses the whole point of the endeavor.

A source that has really helped me to concretize what these new avenues of knowledge production might look like is Dennis Jerz’ class. Here, he outlines a blog portfolio assignment for his class and details a series of categories they should strive to address. The most fascinating, and under-explored elsewhere, is that of what Jerz calls “xenoblogging.” He discusses the many ways that bloggers in a community work to make connections among their ideas, extend conversations, add to someone’s knowledge base, and give each other credit for original content and epiphanies. All of these are practices that I’ve consistently witnessed (and hopefully engaged in) in my own little communities, but would have had difficulty articulating to students. It’s not enough to say “write a comment that engages with someone’s ideas.” It helps to explain all of the different ways that can happen, and it helps even more to show someone the benefits these practices can accrue.

My second assignment experiment is in having students host “blog carnivals” as a form of group work. In my head, this seems like a perfect way for them to engage in collective intelligence and network behavior—they’ll read each others posts and arrange links so as to connect the ideas about a particular set of writings. Hopefully, these same carnivals can then serve as resources for the other students looking to get a handle on those same writings.

The “new media zealot” half of my brain thinks these are fabulous ideas. With the blogs and the carnivals, students are expressing their own ideas about class content, and engaging in a number of literacies simultaneously: reading, writing, communal, technological, research, etc. This is also the side that is convinced that these are the literacies that students are going to need in the work world, regardless of major. The “cranky English professor” half is very worried that I’m somehow shorting the students, that what they actually need to succeed in other courses is more work on traditional, single-authored, essays that utilize text-based, peer-reviewed journals. But how many of them will go on to write this kind of research essay with any kind of frequency after college?

While my two brain hemispheres battle it out, I’ve assigned both types of assignments–online and traditional essay–to the classes. No doubt they’re contemplating burning me in effigy as I write this.

Ah, Young Love…

The degree to which I am completely adoring Bloglines is indeed comparable to that of the first days of a new romance; I get excited and a bit flushed when I log in and see what’s waiting for me. Every time I do, I find that I think “wow, this thing is so great!” in a moony voice—thankfully only in my head.

My new discovery for the day? The New York Times has RSS feeds for almost all of its various sections. Back in the days when I used to have a Tuesday/Thursday teaching schedule, I had the utterly bourgeois habit of drinking coffee and lounging about with the Sunday Times. Now that I’m a Monday/ Wednesday teacher (with Tuesday, Thursday and now Friday meetings, alack), I’ve had to let my ritual fall by the wayside. Sunday morning I awake in full panic mode: what do I need to get prepared to teach on Monday? The sad, neglected issues of the Times would pile up in the corners in their rain bags until they took up too much room and were sent to recycling.

But no more! Using Bloglines as the aggregator, the important revelations of the Sunday Styles section can sit in their own little folder until Thursday when I finally have time to read it. And it won’t trip me on my way to the file cabinet.

Week One, in the Bag!

It’s true, and god bless Martin Luther King, Jr., not only for all of his good work but also for a federal holiday. For those of us who teach Monday/Wednesday, it means that we began a bit late in the week and finished early. Hooray! That extra respite from teaching has given me the chance to reflect a bit on the introduction of technology on the first day of classes.

The question I find myself pondering is this one: what is it that differentiates a student who takes new tech. and runs with it from the one who tentatively does the bare minimum? In both of my classes this semester, I’ll be using individual student blogs extensively, as a way for students to archive their thinking and interpretation of texts over the course of the semester, and perhaps more importantly, begin to engage in a practice that many literary scholars are using to express their nascent ideas to a community of readers and writers (oh, my poor theory class—I’m warming up my new media in academe lecture just for them!). In both classes, I had a series of students who looked utterly surprised that the courses would require extensive online work, despite the fact that they are listed this way in the registration materials (note to self: think about how one might “package” this more clearly for students…). Some were happily surprised, I think; others were more cautious, and some were downright petrified.

Since their first assignment was to set up a blog (here at WordPress) and write an introductory post and send me a link to the blog so that I could add it to the blogroll, I’ve been fielding a series of student emails. A few students are having some initial difficulties with posting, but not setting up the blog (which means that WordPress is seemingly more intuitive than the old Blogger system). I can imagine that if you’re not used to it, the posting window is a bit confusing, to the extent that you have to interpret the various icons and such. These difficulties, however, are few and far between. And in the meantime, I’ve received a note from a student saying that “she’s already having too much fun with her blog.” Hurrah! But what conditions this response? And more importantly, how do we spread that willingness to jump in?

In the coming days, I’ll be quizzing the student above as to her background with computers and new technologies. I will say, however, that I don’t necessarily expect that she considers herself a whiz. Anecdotally, my theory is that there’s not a one-t0-one correllation here between enthusiasm and prior experience. It’s not the case that student bloggers are all excited and hip to this, and neither is it the case that the less technologically savvy students are quaking. It may be that there are at least two other things at work here:

  1. A student’s particular willingness to try something–anything–new. Many teachers are noting that as we move toward a “school 2.0,” the classroom is going to begin to value very different skills and tendencies in students. We may be less invested in sitting and focusing on a single activity(e.g., reading quietly) than we will be in a racous, multi-tasking student activity (surfing the web for sites that will enhance their blog post, for example).
  2. Could it be that the early introduction of technologies that the students’ are less familiar with (than, say, the controlled evironment of Blackboard) signifies something to them about what the class might be?

I Just Burned Feeds, and Boy Are My Fingers Tired…

I just spent an hour opening up a bloglines account and subscribing to the blogs that I’ve had bookmarked for eons. It’s a bit of a tedious process, I have to say, although Bloglines has done yeoman’s work in making the process relatively simple. As a longtime Mac user, I absolutely adore drag-and-drop technology; I think I’ve come to expect it in many instances, and often get cranky when it’s not available. So the fact that BL has a “subscribe” button that you simply drag to the toolbar of Firefox, does, in my opinion, rock the free world and the developing nations.

From what I can tell thus far, it will indeed be a speedier process to read blogs in BL than to click through my voluminous blog folder as I usually do. In addition, BL offers a notification service that should appear in your browser corner (for me, it’s a separate little box that can be moved around the screen. what gives?). It’s difficult not to see this as a SERIOUS cure for procrastination: blog surfing edition. You know when there’s no new content. So get back to work!

In addition to using BL in order to make my reading more efficient, I’m also hoping to experiment with it as a teaching tool this spring. Rather than clicking through students blogs from a central page, I’ll be able to view their writing in a single folder once I’ve added the feeds to my BL account. We’ll see if it makes things simpler with class blogs–which, in the past, have become quite annoying in the number of clicks it takes to read and count the posts. Since the writing in them has really seemed to deepen and extend students’ thinking about course materials, however, I’ve been loathe to let the blogs go as a pedagogical tool. Let’s see if BL can make the assessment process better! [Note to self: one day, when I get really good at working with student blogs, I’ll find a way to explain how the intensification of RSS technology–like BL–means that blogging as a genre has specific conventions. For example, if the feed shows only the first paragraph of each blog, then the writer must use that first paragraph to grab the audience, yes? This is a bit different from how many students have been using the first paragraphs of posts to warm up to an idea…]

Meanwhile, over at Wesley Fryer’s Moving at the Speed of Creativity, he’s jettisoned BL for Google Reader. Sigh—the continuing saga of competing systems as we mediate the convergence culture. I have Google Reader as well, and it didn’t float my boat. It seemed awfully bulky to me—and a bit slow moving. Perhaps I should give it another look? Sadly, experimenting with all of these services takes time. Up next: working with social bookmarking, or “get on the damn train, already.” But shouldn’t I also try out Digg? Or the new Netscape service “stumbleupon”?

You see the problem…

***Edited to add:  HOLY MOLY!  It’s incredibly efficient!  I just checked my bloglines account as a brief break from building the blog site for my American Fiction class.  It took me all of 3 seconds to see who had posted, rather than the 20 minutes I could spend clicking from blog to blog.  I love you, RSS aggregator.